Can I Ask You A Question?


Women are controlled (If you were any good you’d be thin)

Are mistrusted – (FGM)

Are to be feared (otherwise educate them – why not if they’re not up to much?)

Are to be objectified (child brides/super models)

And yet… They feel powerless.

Why?

Why when the establishment everywhere and every time seems to see women as so powerful they must be constantly controlled, why are women the only ones who can’t see this power?

Imagine what might happen if that power was unleashed?  Not power as we know it where women are ‘powerful’ if they are like men or liked by men.  But the real, thumping, all-encompassing, generative, protective power of real women.

Imagine what might happen?

Imagine – for example – in places where a girl who is raped must kill herself to restore her family’s honour, if the mothers in these places not only tried to protect their daughters but said to their sons – “Marry her son, she’s been raped but that is something that was done to her, not by her and so her honour is clearly intact – which is more than can be said of the men who raped her.  I am your mother and I am not just standing up for her, I am also really standing up for you.  I am trying to teach you that it’s always the perpetrators who are the guilty ones – not the victims.  Always.  I want you to understand this son because I want to make sure that your honour remains intact.  Because I love you.”

Imagine if that happened.

What’s stopping it?

Believing is Seeing


I’ve been thinking.  Why is it that on the one hand we are so terrified of change we’ll go to extreme lengths to avoid it, while on the other hand we are told – and tell ourselves – that real, sustainable change is impossible?

These are contradictory beliefs.

I believe all change – including change for the better – is totally possible.  But we have to want it and also really sincerely believe it can happen.

Have you ever misplaced a shoe at home?  You know it’s somewhere in the house.  Maybe the dog hid it under the sofa?  Maybe you accidentally kicked it under the bed.  Maybe one of the kids ran off with it.  But you know it’s there somewhere so you keep on looking until you find it.  You truly believe that all the frustration and searching is going to be worthwhile because it simply has to be in the house somewhere.

Social change is the same.  It is completely within our control, even if it doesn’t seem that way.

Traditions are man-made and not immutable, no matter what anybody tells us.  Traditions and practices can – and must – be changed if they are harming us.

Step one = we have to do whatever it takes to convince ourselves that this change is possible.

Try something.  The next time someone says to you – ‘Yeah, I know it’s terrible/wrong/unjust – but that’s just the way things are – you have to accept it.’  Instead of accepting this awful ‘truth’, try this for an answer –

‘No – if we all agree it’s wrong then we don’t have to accept it – we just need to change it.’

One of The Most Widespread of All Human Rights Abuses…


In 2008 a ten year old girl in Yemen, Nujood Ali, succeeded in obtaining a divorce from the husband who beat and raped her.  She has been allowed to divorce but has to pay more than $200 in compensation to her husband.

In 2009 a twelve year old girl, Fawziya Ammodi – also in Yemen – died after three days of excruciatingly painful childbirth.

Her baby also died.

Obviously legal protection is needed to shield girls like these against being traded and married and abused.  But the real key to the end of this suffering is education.

We need to become creative about how we might deliver education to the child brides that survive their awful experiences and then, at least, there will be a hope that their daughters will be spared the same fate.

If you are interested in this horrendous abuse of little girls then you may also be interested in  a study called – The Worst Places to Be a Woman – Mapping the places where the war on women is still being fought.  This study is by Valerie M. Hudson who is professor and George H.W. Bush chair in the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.  It makes interesting reading –
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http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/meast/08/26/yemen.divorce/index.html

http://articles.cnn.com/2009-09-14/health/yemen.childbirth.death_1_minimum-marriage-age-child-marriages-child-brides?_s=PM:HEALTH

Miss Guided


Recently I’ve been thinking – and talking – a lot about how women are portrayed in the media.  I’ve also been thinking about how women are seen in society – and in, particular, how they see themselves.

Yesterday I watched the aptly titled, MissRepresentation, a documentary that explores the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America in particular, and the role the media plays in this. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth watching.

There is no denying that women used to be seen as possessions for the convenience and entertainment of men.

There is no denying that that is possibly even more the case than ever.

Women are increasingly packaged as sex objects and everything is now sold to everybody, using women’s bodies.

I am not suggesting that women are to blame for this phenomenon.  I don’t think it’s caused by hormones or cattiness or any of the other rubbish accusations designed to disempower women.

But I am suggesting that women stop supporting it.

Stop believing the illusion that tells you that being thinner, younger-looking, compliant and presented like a sex-object will make you happier.  It won’t.  It can’t.  And when you aren’t happier even though you are complying it isn’t your fault – you’ve been sold a big, fat lie.  Even if you have to wrestle with yourself until you retrain your psyche – do it – that might actually make you happy.

Don’t buy the handbags or the magazines or perfume or clothes that are advertised by women portrayed as objects of sexual fantasies or with distorted, unnatural body-images.

Don’t watch the films or TV shows that reinforce the stereotypes.

Do watch the films and TV shows that don’t.  One of the interviewees in the movie (a man) makes the point that in the cinema of the 1940s and ’50s, women could get to play real people in movies – bitches, saints, moms, murderers, adventurers – not so nowadays, shockingly.

Stop believing that you have to be like a man – or be liked by a man – in order to make a success of your life.  Let’s face it, men are not any happier than women and have, largely, made a very unfriendly, unhelpful, unsafe and unsatisfying world for themselves as well as women.

Don’t get me wrong – men need to get on board with this boycott as well.

But women – come on – let’s stop waiting for the men to come along – maybe they’re not the early adopters they think they are?

How about we just stop supporting the system and stop accepting the stereotypes and stop conforming to the ‘way things are’ and try to create a new way for things to be – a way that is good for everyone, not just women (let’s not make the same mistakes as men).

Worst case scenario, if it all blows up in our pretty little botoxed faces we can always go back to what we have now…

Gender Neutrality


In 1993, the constitution of India was amended to stipulate that one third of positions as village chief were to be reserved for women. These positions were randomly allocated. The results were not always as positive as one might hope – often even the women complained about the female leaders.  However, there was one very significant outcome – follow-up research suggests that once a village has had one female leader the bias against female chiefs disappears and their candidacy and actions are judged by gender neutral standards. (1)

The same would seem to be true in Ireland – having had two consecutive female presidents – both of whom did a marvellous job – the electorate has moved into a very gender neutral place and we now have a male president. The expectation is that he will bring to the job many of the same characteristics of care, community development, human rights protection etc., that Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese made the trademark of their presidencies.  Michael D. Higgins was elected because he is who he is – nothing to do with his gender – and this is due at least in part to us being used to female presidents in Ireland.

If gender neutrality is achieved in political and public life by simply adding women (properly) to the mix – what other emergent advantages might equality – gender and racial and social – bring to all our societies?

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Photograph – 11th November 2011 – Inauguration of President Michael D Higgins at Dublin Castle. (The former Presidents Robinson and McAleese, are dressed in red)

(1) Nick Kristoff and Sheryl Woo Dunn, Half the Sky pp 217-18

Men Wanted


In spite of a robust GDP rate (8%-9%), almost half of all Indian children – 42% – are malnourished.  Seems that a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats.

In spite of a thriving economy, the malnutrition, low birthweight and maternal mortality rates in India rivals those of sub-Saharan Africa.

Which is not only tragic for those children and their families but for all of the people of India, as these underweight and malnourished children suffer from poor health and reduced mental capacity which results in problems that are estimated to cost the Indian government c. $28bn a year. (1)

So, why are the children in this growing economy continuing to suffer so badly?

It seems the main reason is the fact that women in India have a lower status than men and as a result don’t have enough power to see that their children’s needs are met. (2)

A study in Nepal found that children are less likely to be underweight if their mothers own land.  (3)

Another study in Nicaragua and Honduras demonstrated that families spend more money on food when the woman owns land.

In Ghana a study found that families allocate more of their household budget to food when women own a share of the family farmland. (4)

All around the world when women are educated and have secure rights, their families have better education, better nutrition and better health.

I know it is probably not news to you all that everybody in a society does better when women are treated equally. And I know I keep saying this same thing in different ways (sorry for the repetition) but I have now decided to say one thing I’ve never said before – where are the men in this?

Surely these children all have fathers?  Even if they don’t respect their wives as much as they should – why don’t they feel they have to care for their children?  Why don’t the women in their societies hold them to this sacred duty?  Why are these adult men not ashamed when they put their wants before their children’s needs?

I have a father, husband, three sons, two brothers and many male friends. I love and admire all of them and those amongst them who have children are honourable and dedicated fathers.  How are they so different to other men in the world?

Is it because they live in a society where women have (more or less) equal status? Where women have rights? Where women are educated?  If so, what factors in this have allowed some men (like the men in my life) to develop greater courage, selflessness and care than their counterparts in other parts of the world?

I’m not suggesting that all the men in western societies care for their children but many of them certainly do – many more than in other cultures.

My question is – why?

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(1) http://www.hungamaforchange.org/HungamaBKDec11LR.pdf

(2) http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2012/jan/20/land-rights-india-women-ease-malnutrition?fb=optOut

(3) http://www.unicef.org/pon96/nuenigma.htm

(4) http://jae.oxfordjournals.org/content/15/1/149.abstract

Rwandan Women Build a Future


What most of us know about Rwanda – other than the fact that it is a small country in central Africa – is that in 1994 there was an horrific genocide where hundreds of thousands of people were murdered in 100 days.

Few of us know that since then Rwanda has more women in its parliament – 56% – than any other country in world.  Or that Rwanda is a leading force in peacemaking, agriculture, healthcare, education and communications.  Or even that nowadays, Rwanda has a fibre-optic network connecting its cities to its remote areas.

After the genocide, 70% of the population of Rwanda was female and many laws that discriminated against women had to be changed.  Laws were passed to address the discrimination against women and jobs previously the preserve of men became open to women.  Women also began to take a role in the judicial system and this had very profound effects.  Very important changes have been made in laws governing sexual violence, marital rape, labour, property, inheritance and education.

There are still problems in Rwanda.  There are many scars from the “War,” as it is known, many lives altered forever.  Most of the population is rural and life for rural women is not as significantly altered as for their urban sisters – but it is changing even there. Interestingly, Rwanda is not only a better place for women since the society has become more equal, it is a better place for everyone as it is also benefitting from steady economic development.

In the aftermath of the genocide, many women who had been imprisoned in rape camps were not only traumatised they were stigmatised because they had HIV and babies as a result of their rapes.  But they overcame even these obstacles because, as one woman describes it,  “Since all of us had suffered from this, we were able to support each other.  That is what saved us.” . . .(1)

For the most part, men have not had too much to say about the changes in the law but according to Evarist Kalish MP, a member of the Liberal party and the chair of parliament’s human rights committee, many men recognise that women may provide the best leadership.

“More than men, women are the victims of the war. They have different priorities to those of men. They have more concern about issues related to violence in general, and gender-based violence in particular. Women have faced discrimination so they want to put a stop to discrimination. All of this will contribute to preventing another genocide.” (2)

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(1) Rwanda: Defying History, by Anne-Christine d’Adesky, June, 14, 2011. http://worldpulse.com/magazine/articles/rwanda-defying-history

(2) Chris McGreal – The Guardian, 17/12/2008,  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/dec/17/rwanda-women-politics-human-rights

Little by Little One Walks Far*


UNFPA is the United Nations agency that deals with providing much needed family planning and reproductive health services in the developing world.  In 2002, the American government decided not to give a promised 34 million dollars to UNFPA.

In different parts of the country and without ever having met, two ordinary American women, Jane Roberts and Lois Abraham, asked the women of America to send $1 dollar each to UNFPA.

Nobody – not even UNFPA – thought it would work. But it did.  Soon a deluge of envelopes with single dollar bills began arriving at the UNFPA offices from women – and men – all over the United States.

From this an organisation called 34 Million Friends of UNFPA (www.34millionfriends.org) was formed and millions of dollars were raised to help families all over the world.

In 2009, the U.S. administration restored the funding to UNFPA but 34 Million Friends still continues to work to support this vital service.

And all from the efforts of two ordinary women – a social action butterfly effect if ever there was one.

(*Peruvian Proverb)

The Most Natural Thing In the World?


As the daughter of a nurse I had some vague idea of what a fistula might be (my mother always liked to tell us the ‘real’ name for everything.)  A fistula is a hole – usually a tear – between organs.  To be honest, I can’t say that I was all that aware of obstetric fistulas.

An obstetric fistula is a tear that develops between the rectum and/or bladder and vagina as a result of prolonged or severe childbirth.  The physical result of this tear is that woman – many of them teenagers too young to be physically capable of giving birth without medical intervention – leak urine and feces all the time.  The social result of this is that they are usually divorced and ostracised. Because they smell bad, they are forced to live in huts at the edge of their villages where they starve or die of infection.

“The woman with a fistula is the modern day leper,” as a healthcare worker describes the situation.(1)

Obstetric fistulas were not unknown in Europe and America – for example, the present day site of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, was once the site of the Women’s Hospital of New York, which specialised in fistula repair until it closed in 1928. (2)

Since the early twentieth century in the Western world, the condition of obstetric fistula has been relegated to obscurity by the availability of medical intervention in childbirth. Obscure enough that this nurse’s daughter was never warned about them by her mother.

This is not the case for thousands of other women around the world (regardless of who their mothers may be).  They know exactly what an obstetric fistula is and all about the devastation it wreaks on a life.

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(1) Half the Sky, Nick Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn, p. 109

(2) http://www.hipmama.com/node/25230