gender, girls rights, Human Rights, Women's rights

A Brave Space

At the recent Gender360 Summit I was introduced by my former boss and beloved colleague Feyi Rodway to the concept of creating ‘brave spaces’. This term seems to have surfaced during discussion groups and research she conducted in Ghana and indicated a move away from the notion of ‘safe spaces’ to a space that inspires one to speak out. This being a new term for me, which nonetheless resonated deeply, i decided to do some digging and figure out where this idea came from and what it sets out to accomplish.

As we know all great journeys begin with a google search, and I quickly found what appears to be a seminal 2013 piece titled ‘from safe spaces to brave spaces’ by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens. In this article they explore the notion of safe spaces which arose out of facilitating social justice discussions with students at NY University. they spend some time discussing what a safe space actually is which pretty much does what it says on the can, and through a series of agreed guidelines sets basic ‘rules of engagement’ that ensure people’s views won’t be attacked, belittled, ridiculed or dismissed. they quickly realized that their students were conflating ‘safety’ with ‘comfort’, and the moment a discussion moved from ‘political to provocative’ students invoked the rules of safe space to essentially shut down the conversation.

Democracy rests on the belief that freedom of speech, even when it is painful, difficult, aggravating or hurtful, is necessary for the protection of everyone’s rights.  as the famous saying goes “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Yet this notion of listening to and giving space to views that challenge our established beliefs, seems to have been undermined by the idea that a safe space means avoiding discomfort at all times. Arao and Clemens felt that students were not adequately prepared to deal with controversial or politicized issues since the expectation of being challenged was removed in the notion of creating ‘safety’ which led students to ‘discount, deflect and retreat’  the moment they felt ‘unsafe’, that is, uncomfortable.

Their solution, is to replace the unhelpful idea of safety with that of bravery, which would ‘help students rise to the challenges of genuine dialogue on diversity and social justice issues’. The article doesn’t go far enough to my mind as it stays in the realm of discussion guidelines for facilitators by setting out new common rules for creating a brave space. this assumes too much a level playing field of values and language, and background and geography. Their articulation of ‘brave spaces’ doesn’t travel well.

However, if we think of the basic tenet of the move from safety (comfort) to bravery (meeting challenges) this works very well in the context of effective advocacy. Much of the work that I’ve led to build young people’s capacity to be effective advocates, to speak truth to power, is about building their self efficacy and agency. The basic premise of this work rests on the assumption that the space these youth advocates are entering is not safe, that they will be a minority in an adult arena where their views are most likely to be dismissed due to their age, and where they will most likely meet with hostility by those in power who they are holding to account.

This means that creating a brave space becomes an act of conscious and deliberate actions that go beyond agreed behavior guidelines, to building the capacity of youth advocates to meet challenges, and in turn, work with those in power to become open to being challenged. In other words, creating a brave space requires working with those about to enter this space before they even get there and it requires an active intervention of facilitators that work against power imbalances in any way they can (this could include changing discussion format or even language).

for me the move from safe spaces to brave spaces can best be summed up as the move from ‘hearing’ to ‘listening’. and when we finally listen to those who we don’t usually hear from, a whole world of possibilities opens up.

 

Keshet BD

 

 

 

 

 

 

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gender, girls rights, human rights, ICT4D, SDGs

First, do no harm

As a gender and development practitioner who works specifically with girls and young women who are under 18 years of age, I get asked a lot about what i take into consideration when developing or advising others on the development of a program to empower girls in living poverty. My response? there are many things to take into account, but first and foremost, consider whether your intervention might put them at risk. if the answer is yes, and ofttimes it will be especially if the program is gender transformative, i.e. challenging existing power structures, then one must honestly consider whether the risk level is acceptable and what if anything can be put in place to mitigate this risk.

When we’re working on challenging gender norms and changing social behaviors, we are actively disrupting the status quo. and this can make some people resistant, uncomfortable, fearful or even violent. especially those who are in positions of power, and who might feel like this power is being directly or indirectly challenged. for instance,  a woman finding gainful employment or joining a savings groups which gives her control over her income might experience backlash from her spouse, children or the wider community.

Working with those who are under 18 requires that we consider their evolving capacity to handle such risks and the consequences to their lives. different age groups are at different cognitive and behavioral development stages and that’s a hugely important factor to consider. for instance, sex education curricula will not be the same for early adolescents (10/11-14) and late adolescents (14-18) who are most likely already sexually active.

Children and young people are also still considered legal wards of their families and care-takers, and so any intervention that involves them necessarily involves more than just one individual. this is an important point that often differentiates working with children and youth from working with adults. Any program that involves children and youth, also requires informed consent, which depending on the program can be a huge sticking point.

After establishing the unique parameters of working with under 18’s, we come to the issue of risk. how to define what’s too great a risk, and what can conceivably be seen in the context of our work to transform relations between the sexes, as the  acceptable cost of doing business?

To paraphrase from my favorite show – when it comes to risk in programming with girls, when is a risk too risky?

The first part of this answer is philosophical and ethical. From a child protection perspective you could say that ensuring every part of a program is ‘in the best interest of the child’ is paramount. From a social change perspective you could say that empowering children to speak out and affect change trumps an (ofttimes) paternalistic child protection approach which would deny the child a chance to exercise their agency. both of these need to be taken into consideration in terms of the goals of a program. for instance, if the goal is to change social norms by organizing a group of girl advocates who will speak out against early pregnancy in their communities, then one must weigh the risk of community backlash with the real possibility that this kind of work could save lives.

There’s no easy answer, and ‘doing no harm’ is above all our main objective, though we must weigh the likelihood and severity of risks in light of the potential transformative change our project could achieve. I would also add, again, that any intervention which seeks to challenge patriarchy in all its forms carries inherent risks. For me that is a given, however, there are clear ways in which these risks can be substantially reduced through effective programming, even if not eliminated altogether.

The second part of this answer is technical. Any self respecting organization will conduct risk analyses for programs, initiatives, events or engagements involving young people. this is the best space to evaluate the risk levels and agree on mitigation steps. an example of a risk assessment (for an event) will look something like this:

RA

Even visually, color coding a risk assessment can offer a good ‘at glance’ measure for deciding whether the risk levels are too high – if half the document is red, then you should go back to the drawing board.

Finally, I would also suggest that a good way of evaluating risk to young people or children can be done by including them in program design. working with children and young people is the best way to gain insights into their lived realities and ensure any intervention is tailored to address their experiences as they perceive them. this is especially relevant when working with adolescent girls, since they will experience different social pressures depending on cultural context and are best placed to gauge the reactions of their families, communities and peers to any actions they will take to challenge the patriarchal status quo.

Keshet Bachan

 

 

 

 

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day of the girl, development, girls rights, post 2015, SDGs

The rise and rise of girls

On a rainy November day in 2007, Plan UK launched a new campaign named after a report they had just published called ‘Because I am a Girl’. The launch was held at the offices of Marie Claire Magazine, and it featured Cherie Blaire as a guest speaker. At the time, global attention was firmly fixed elsewhere – it was hurricane season in the Pacific and the Dow Jones had just taken a 360 point dive, heralding an economic crisis the likes of which the world hadn’t known since The Great Depression. But in a small press reception, in the heart of London, change was afoot.

The next day a minor news story made it onto the back pages of a few papers – the UN sent home 108 of the 950 Sri Lankan peacekeepers stationed in Haiti, accusing them of sexual abuse, including with underage girls. This shocking event passed by mostly unnoticed and unremarked upon by those responsible for holding UN agencies to account. As usual, only the feminists cried in outrage, and the world kept spinning on its axis unperturbed. Girls were invisible, and so was their plight.

Around the same time the 2008 ‘Because I am a Girl’ report was published, focusing on girl’s rights in war zones. One of its main recommendations was to enforce the code of conduct for UN personnel serving in conflict and post conflict zones so that they protect, not exploit, girls and young women. Despite the topical nature of the issues discussed, the report’s call to action failed to gain significant traction with donors and policy makers. It would take yet a deeper plunge into the economic abyss in order to firmly place girls at the top of the development agenda.

In December 2009, the participants of the World Economic Forum in Davos – largely heads of billion dollar corporations – were invited to a session called ‘The Girl Effect on Development’. The Davos meetings that year were focusing exclusively on the global economic crisis that had hit these corporations hard. The idea of a session that sought to encourage large scale investments in adolescent girls living in some of the poorest communities in the world seemed at odds with the economic climate. Yet, the session had sold out almost immediately.

The Girl Effect told a simple story: if you invest in adolescent girls, then fertility rates drop, children have better health outcomes, the workforce grows and becomes more productive ultimately leading to a stimulated economy. The crux of the argument was this – girls will one day be mothers, transferring their gains to their children, ensuring a multiplier and intergenerational effect will inevitably take place. This easy formula for stimulating the economy caught the attention of every business person and politician in the room and the Girl Effect video quickly went viral.

At the same time Plan’s third ‘Because I am a Girl’ report which analyzed the roles of girls and young women within the global economy, had finally hit a home run. Coming as it did on the heels of the economic crisis it offered duty bearers a clear route towards equitable distribution of wealth and assets – through an investment in girl’s education. History shows, the report argued, that when a girls are as educated as boys, economies prosper and governments remain stable.

The clarion call for girls had been made and it was echoing around the globe. Other organizations launched similar campaigns, and suddenly it seemed like everyone was talking at once. Investments increased, another Girl Effect video was released, the ‘Because I am a Girl’ campaign went global and the UN passed a resolution to make October 11th the International Day of the Girl.

Girls had become central to the development agenda. Yet, it became apparent as world nations geared up to begin the Post 2015 negotiations that the real challenge was still ahead. How can the success of the ‘girl movement’ be translated into hard-hitting policy wins? For a time it seemed like the girl-focused agencies would continue to work at cross purposes, clamoring all at once about different topics, and losing ground to other, less controversial global issues. In the fight to get girls on the development agenda, the hard nut of member-state support had yet to be fully cracked.

Over the past few months, a cross section of leading girl-focused agencies agreed that this historic moment was a time when we are bigger than the sum of our parts, and combining agendas was the only way to truly make a lasting historic impact on the UN negotiations.

Have we succeeded? I believe we have. At the Summit of the Sustainable Development Goals, Malala Yousafzai gave a key-note address, and standing by her side were adolescent girls from across the globe, including girls that were part of an innovative Plan International project to empower them to be part of this historic process. By working together we have for the first time created a space where girl’s voices are welcomed and listened to, and where the issues faced by adolescent girls the world over are accepted as central to the future prosperity of human kind.

but now the real test begins. will girls be invited to take part in SDG implementation? will their voices be heard as the commitments made at the UN are translated into policy plans and agendas? We’ve come so far from that rainy afternoon, and now the world is finally listening…it’s up to all of us to ensure global attention stays firmly fixed on the next generation of leaders and change makers – adolescent girls.

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Commission on the Status of Women, gender, girls rights, human rights, United Nations, Women's rights

How social media changed the women’s movement

Read my speech from last week’s panel discussion at the Commission on the Status of Women:

Dear colleagues, and feminist sisters and brothers – good morning!

We are here today to undertake an important task – bridging the gap between online and offline activism.

The Commission on the Status of Women has always been a place where these two tracks meet to galvanize action and translate policy into practice. It’s the two weeks of the year when the twittersphere is as full of gender discussions as the UN is full of feminists.

As someone who has been an activist for over 10 years, essentially ‘coming of age’ during the reign of the MDG framework, and in the shadow of the Beijing platform – which has taken on an almost mystic legendary quality for many of my generation – I would like to take a moment to reflect on the ways in which I believe social media has changed the face of the women’s movement.

When I first attended the CSW in 2009, my biggest concern was finding an electric socket. The conference rooms, including the General Assembly hall, were relics from a bygone era, and the most exciting event took place when I was forced to unplug a lamp in the hallway to charge my laptop – instantly plunging the entire area into complete darkness.

For me this experience really sums up the distance we have come in the way the UN views the importance of using technology to increase transparency, accountability and participation.

The MDG’s were decided in a small room filled UN technocrats. The Sustainable Development Goals on the other hand are the product of probably the widest consultation the United Nations has ever led. This could not have happened without social media platforms and forums for online discussion.

The Beijing platform Section J calls for the use of new forms of media to bridge gaps and ensure women’s voices are included in decisions that affect their lives.

We all know the challenges we face in making this a reality: the digital divide which prevents women and girls from accessing, using, controlling and designing tech tools; discrimination in all its forms which means women’s engagement with technology is often fraught with violence and abuse; girls shying away from studying computers or science, leaving this sector to be driven by a male-centred user experience.

But we must also consider the ways in which social media has allowed young feminists and gender equality activists to make their voices heard, where once only the ‘specialist’ was allowed to speak.

I am part of a millennial generation that uses blogs to share our innermost thoughts; that relies on Facebook for breaking news; a generation that can say a lot in 120 characters; who views distances and borders as an insignificant detail.

The exchange of views, the proliferation of opinions, and what I believe to be the consciousness raising process that takes place any time there is a feminist debate online – is invaluable to the women’s movement.

Forums like the OECD’s Wikigender have opened up a new space where vital gender and development issues can be widely discussed, and more importantly, where these discussions can impact influencers including donors, the media and multilateral institutions.

In bridging online and offline activism, I have had the privilege of working directly with girls from all over the world.  As an expert with Plan International, my work involves training girls to be advocates and use social media tools to engage with decision makers both locally and globally.

Our focus on including girls in the post 2015 agenda has translated into real accomplishments in terms of policy outcomes, and it has, I believe, also fostered a new generation of girl-advocates and empowered citizens.

The goals on eliminating child marriage and FGM, on increasing educational achievements for girls with a focus on quality and safety, have all been hard fought for by many, including girls.

We have used social media as a tool for extending the reach of girl-led campaigns through youtube where they uploaded videos and vlogs; through Facebook, where girls shared inforgraphics, stories and links; through twitter, where their voices were heard by those in charge; through SMS messaging campaigns, online forums and digital news magazines.

Through offline advocacy, ensuring girls meet and talk directly with their own governments at capitol and mission level. And most importantly, capturing these meetings through video, photos and blogs, and using them to hold decision makers to account for the promises they make to girls behind closed doors.

In 2014, one girl advocate who stood up for her right to an education was awarded the Nobel peace prize. Malala Yousafzai remains an inspiration to every girl in the world who has been denied her rights, for her bravery in overcoming extreme violence to make her voice heard.

I believe that social media is and will continue to be an instrument and a platform for women and girls who will not be silent in face of discrimination and exclusion. My experience, and those of my fellow panellists, shows there is still a gap between online and offline activism, but it is narrowing rapidly.

It is now up to us to keep the decision making doors wide open so women and girls from all across the globe can use social media platforms to enter into these spaces, influence the powers that be, and in so doing become the next generation of feminists and activists.

Thank you.

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watch this speech online here: http://www.wikigender.org/index.php/Side_event:_Making_women%27s_voices_heard_from_Beijing_to_Post-2015_in_social_media

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development, gender, girls rights, human rights, ICT4D

Where dreams are made of…

There are only three female pilots in all of Kenya. Sharon’s mother is the one of them. She tells me about her life, and her family, in a very direct manner as we sit down for a short interview in Nairobi. I spent four days with Sharon, and a dozen other girls, as part of a workshop to build advocacy and campaigning skills. For the most part the girls came from low-income backgrounds, yet they were all part of national children’s assembly’s and had significant experience in speaking out on issues that are important for adolescent girls and boys. As is the case sometimes, the girls had the knowledge of the issues, and the passion to put them on the agenda, but lacked the tools to do so effectively.

the whole group

Sharon addresses the group

Sharon says she feels she has more opportunities than her mother had, despite her mother’s educational achievements and nontraditional job. Sharon insists things are getting better for girls, and there are more chances for her to ‘make it’ through education, especially higher education. I have heard these kinds of aspirations before from many girls all over the world; however, what took me by surprise is Sharon’s ambition (which was shared by a few other girls) to become a journalist. Her understanding of the role of the press in holding decision makers to account was a new (and very welcome) development from the usual ‘I want to be a teacher’ trope. I have no hard evidence of this, but I suspect new forms of media have brought the press closer to the people, and this has obviously been an inspiration to many. What more could a robust democracy hope for? still, girls expressed their concern in not knowing the best avenues to use for getting their voices heard by the right people.

The girls in the workshop knew that the main issue affecting girls in their community are concerned with personal safety and protection from violence. The sense was that girls were left unprotected by the authorities who are meant to ensure their safety, and despite legislation, weak implementation mechanisms, gender stereotypes and traditional norms, are conspiring against them. many felt that they know what the problem is – but not how to fix it.

We spent quite a bit of time discussing the existing protective structures and laws, and then broke down the main influencers who could address this issue and raise it on a national agenda. We spent time developing good campaigning skills, including public speaking, media training, and thinking about how we deliver a message so it’s effective, and speaks to both hearts and minds.

everyone loves the flipcams

everyone loves the flipcams

All these skills will be put to the test later in the project for most girls. however, two girls were selected (through democratic elections) to represent the group in the upcoming Commission on the Status of Women in NY. As we head to the city where dreams are made of I wonder what impact the girls will have on the people they meet, and whether the strength of their influence will come from these newly acquired skills, or will it be the authenticity of being an adolescent girl growing up in poverty and facing discrimination firsthand which gives them greater clout?

To be continued….

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gender, gender based violence, girls rights, human rights, violence, violence against women, Women's rights

Killing in the name

A woman called Busaina Abu-Ganem was shot to death in Israel this week in an alleged “honor killing” case.  She’s the tenth woman in the horrible Abu-Ganem family to be murdered since the year 2000. The reason for this heinous act is yet unclear. what we do know is that she and her husband recently separated, leaving her with their six children. In an act of courage, Busaina decided to go back to school and get her diploma. a week after she completed her studies, she was murdered.

other women who have been brutally murdered by Abu-Ganem male family members include:

Rim Abu-Ganem who was murdered by her brothers for refusing to marry a man they were forcing her to wed. after they killed her they drowned her body.

Sherihan Abu-Ganem was 16 when her brother murdered her because of ‘jealousy’

Hamda Abu-Ganem was killed by her brothers who were indicted for the murder based on a female cousin’s testimony. this female cousin ‘disappeared’ after the trial, and it’s believed her body is buried in the West Bank, in an area outside the jurisdiction of Israeli authorities.

These women are victims twice over. first they were victims of a family that sees females as chattel with little value beyond that of a reproductive agent. secondly, they were victims of a discriminatory society that ‘others’  Muslim minorities and ultimately discourages the Jewish authorities from seeking justice.

gender based violence is pervasive. it’s important to remember that women are abused to the point of death everyday across the globe; that this isn’t tied to one religion, race of region. but regardless of location, violence against women and girls stems from very similar origins – unequal power relations. simply put – men use violence or the threat of violence to maintain their sense of power / control over women. this is not to say that all men are violent or oppose the equality of women. not at all. however, some men pick up on social and cultural cues that tell them women are not as valuable or as important as men, they can and should be hurt in order to maintain male authority, and that their existence is merely a reflection of a man’s achievement.

these are the kinds of messages that must be tackled through behavior change communications, awareness raising campaigns, legislative and policy reforms, community outreach and a strong coordinated and functional social protection system. in the absence of honest determination, leadership and political support, the root causes of ‘honor killings’ will never be fully addressed. and because this is seen so much as a ‘woman’s issue’ to be discussed about and exclaimed over by feminist organizations, but never to be acknowledged as a hard-line concern such as terrorism, security and border control, it will probably never rally enough interest and support to truly be eradicated. any progress we make, will always be incremental, and hard to measure. but the chance of stopping another senseless murder before it is carried out must motivate us to continue the good fight.

For more resources on gender based violence go to: http://www.endvawnow.org/

Support the International Violence Against Women Act (USA): http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/women-s-rights/violence-against-women/international-violence-against-women-act

Take action on Global Orange Day: http://www.un.org/en/women/endviolence/orangeday.shtml

Support the White Ribbon Campaign in your country: http://www.whiteribbon.org.au/international

Check out some of the leading global initiatives to end violence against women: http://www.endvawnow.org/en/leading-initiatives

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day of the girl, development, gender, girls rights, human rights, United Nations, Women's rights

It’s a feminist thing

There is wall to wall support and praise for awarding Malala Yousafzai the Nobel Peace Prize this year. And yet, it seems to me that her struggle for girl’s rights has not been linked in our collective consciousness, nor in public statements, with feminism. And that’s a huge fail on all accounts.

On the eve of the International Day of the Girl I would like to take a moment to reflect on the ways in which feminism has stayed a Western concept while the engine of development has given rise to a notion of women’s/girl’s rights that is entirely divorced from the ideas of gender justice.

So, why do we even celebrate a day for girls? there’s already a day for women, a day for children and a day for challenging violence against women. why girls? the answer is simple – because they are not women yet, but they are no longer children. for so many girls, childhood is cut short by puberty. As Helena Minchew from the International Women’s Health Coalition said yesterday at an event in the US House of Representatives: ‘what is a normal biological process, and even a joyous occasion, actually puts girls at risk, reduces their control of their bodies and their life choices’.

Of course, the fact that the UN in its infinite wisdom decided to call the 11th of October the International Day of the Girl Child (!) is precisely why this day is needed. the inaccuracy of the term ‘girl child’ when these girls are in fact no longer treated as children, is beyond ironic.

However, the intention to direct more attention, and hopefully funding and policy measures, at adolescent girls – is critical. and yet, it’s important to note that the narrative around girls who are subject to violations that occur at the onset of puberty such as child, early and forced marriage, FGM/C and others is tied to human rights, and universality, and humanism, but not to the most important term – power.

girls face increased risks and a reduced sense of agency when they hit puberty due to socio-cultural pressures, dictates, binaries, norms, stereotypes and structures. All over the world, societies function by reducing the power that women have over their bodies and their choices, submitting them to their male family members and eventually their husbands. If we don’t clearly link the struggle Malala Yousafzai led to be able to go to school, and earn an education, which in other words means knowledge and power, with the struggle of the feminist movement which has for decades demanded an equal share of the pie, then we are all going to lose out.

The development engine has worked hard to frame ‘gender equality’ in human rights terms, fearful of alienating communities that claim various forms of discrimination and abuse against females are part of their ‘culture’, but in so doing has taken much of the political sting out of the process of achieving gender equality.  In discussing the rights of girls to a life of equal opportunities, I believe we must also speak about this as a power struggle, we must couch this in terms of a movement for the liberation of women and girls from the shackles of oppression.  The objectifying representation of women in the media, our limited reproductive freedom, the pay gap – you name it – it all traces back to unequal power relations that have over the years been cemented into social, cultural and religious institutions that work 24/7 to keep women and girls in their inferior place.

Until the version of the story that is being propagated by Malala, and other human rights activists who refuse to acknowledge the feminist nature of their struggle, takes on a feminist political edge – we will never see girls freely attending school in Pakistan. because it’s not about changing a policy, or increasing investment in teacher training, it’s about shifting deeply rooted notions about the value of females.

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body image, gender, girls rights, Women's rights

Do ‘girl ads’ detract from girls’ empowerment?

This excellent blog post summarizing the discussion at the NY Technology Salon the past week really hits on a number of critical issues relating girls and/in the media.

I think that one of the issues not brought up directly, but alluded to in this discussion, is the co-opting of feminist ideas. The appeal of the feminist movement is predicated on the nagging sense all women have that something isn’t right, that boys and men are getting a better deal. on a very basic level, this is universal enough to appeal to a broad audience. Consumer product marketing mavericks took this notion, and they basically used it to make their product seem ‘feminist’. Of course, this is what we would call ‘lipstick feminism’ or  in other words, taking the feminist ideals of power with/to/within and removing the political sting, so all you’re left with are hallowed out terms that can easily be adopted by a campaign for a beauty product.

Not to get too deeply into the issues of cause marketing (which are vast), the very idea of linking the feminist notion of the commodification of female bodies which serves patriarchal systems to keep women subjugated, fractured and busy with what Naomi Wolf called ‘the third shift’, and adopting it to sell body lotion and deodorant, is nothing short of mind boggling. this paradox could only ever exist and succeed in a society that conflates political participation with purchasing products. and i think in the face of this consumer driven onslaught, feminism is going to lose.

Because selling a product is so much easier than explaining the heterosexual matrix. and because our attention spans are getting ever shorter, the odds of someone not enrolled in a women’s studies program ever taking the time to really understand these powerful concepts, is highly unlikely. and so you get things like this. because young women think feminism is unnecessary, but the same girls think the Dove campaign for ‘real beauty’ is powerful. and that Nicki Minaj is a role model.

Do ‘girl ads’ detract from girls’ empowerment?.

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development, gender, girls rights, human rights, post 2015, Women's rights

Women aren’t human

According to Wikipedia, human rights are amongst other things ‘the common moral language of public discourse’. Yet, the idea that there’s a universally agreed code of morality is still hugely contested. anyone working in this field has inevitably been confronted with a situation where ‘local cultural norms’ conflict with a human right tenet. I recently gave a webinar on adolescent girls and ICT4D to students at Tulane University in New Orleans. One of the first questions was about reconciling cultural practices with human rights and I suppose they expected to hear something that run along the lines of ‘human rights cannot be negotiated & anyone who disagrees can take a hike’. If you’ve ever wandered the halls of the Human Rights Council in Geneva you might come across firm believers in this approach, which relies heavily on legislative frameworks. By that I mean that any country that has ratified a human rights convention must abide by the commitments included in that framework and also translate them into national laws and policies. and it’s true that legislation does play an important role in protecting women from harm.

If we take an historical view of the feminist movement in the US, it becomes clear that many of the domestic legislative reforms they advanced were absolutely crucial in supporting gender equality. Last week I watched the ‘Makers: Women Who Make America‘ a TV series on PBS which is narrated by the fabulous Geena Davis. It tells the story of the successes and failures of the women’s movement in the US and really explains how legislative landmarks like ‘Title 9’ and ‘Roe vs. Wade’ changed American women’s lives. One of the most shocking moments on the show is a photo that was published in Ms. magazine in which a woman (named Gerri Santoro) lies dead on the floor after trying to self-abort her unwanted child. This was the horrifying reality for many women who were left with little choice regarding their own reproductive health. Legalizing abortions through a Supreme Court decision was an undeniable game changer which to date has probably saved millions of women’s lives.

There is no doubt legislation is an important first step in promoting human rights. However, most countries don’t have strong democratic traditions that uphold the rule of law, meaning legislation remains formal and fails to become substantive. And when legislation encounters social norms and traditions that contradict it, most of the time it will come out on the losing end. Without strong law enforcement forces and functioning judicial systems, with high levels of illiteracy and in many cases parallel legal systems (Customary Law), ensuring human rights laws are actually protecting people in a given country is an ongoing struggle. And no less importantly, when working in international development, the Rights Based Approach which provides the framework in which all programming is conducted, often fails to engage communities because of this basic mismatch between formal and substantive legislation. That is, the formal recognition of human rights has yet to be translated into norms, traditions and practices, and therefore doesn’t provide a productive basis for change.

Now let’s add a gender perspective to human rights and complicate this even further. Prominent feminists have argued that human rights are based on the masculine experience as the generic human norm. For instance, take the preamble of the UDHR: ‘Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled…to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law’. It’s not just the use of the term ‘man’ to denote all human forms, it’s also the masculine understanding of ‘protection’ that is solely the responsibility of ‘the law’ and therefore falls in the domain of ‘the state’.

This means that it is violations against men, such as torture and wrongful imprisonment, rather than violations against women, which are more often experienced in the private sphere, that remain the standard to which all rights are held. This also means that the protection of people from individuals and non-state actors is limited, since human rights are basically set up to protect folks from the government. Which means that ‘when abuse is sexual or intimate, especially when it’s sexual and inflicted by an intimate, it is gendered, hence not considered a human rights violation’ says Catherine Mackinnon. This androcentric premise of human rights inevitably casts the female body in the category of ‘other’ and implicitly define women as not human. This ensures that violations against women most often perpetrated by individuals, intimate partners and family members, in the private sphere (at home) cannot be effectively addressed through human rights frameworks. Even CEDAW does not collapse this classic dichotomy, and some would even argue, portrays women as victims and exceptions to the norm, which further eradicates their agency.

From a development perspective, all this means human rights don’t have the political sting needed to really advance gender justice. So our work becomes piecemeal. we spend a lot of time focusing on the means and there is a danger that we will forget the role of women and girl’s agency in translating our good intentions into real outcomes.

Keeping in mind that equality between the sexes is a political process helps put the role of human rights frameworks in perspective. It’s about power – who has it, who doesn’t – and the redistribution of power, which will make a lot of people unhappy. This means that where tradition, culture, norms and practices suddenly meet resistance by women, for women, on behalf of women, in the protection of women, there will be push back from those who have power and are really averse to giving any of it up. Where it looks like it’s human rights vs. culture, i suggest looking a little bit closer. More often than not, it will be patriarchal institutions and their representatives, resisting the more equal divide of resources, assets and choices.

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