equal rights amendment, gender, gender gaps, women in politics, Women's rights

equal means equal – right?

It’s been a good month for equality in the United States. The country celebrated transgender rights and threw Caitlyn Jenner the nicest coming out party ever. SCOTUS handed down a landmark decision to make gay marriage legal in all 50 states. And there’s a woman running for president.

Granted, transgender rights still have a long way to go – check out John Oliver’s segment on the issue. He really exposes the ways in which we currently view transgender people – most of us seem confused, and the rest want to ask them about their privates. Legally, they still have an uphill battle with many States viewing transgender identity as a lifestyle choice. and they still face higher rates of poverty, suicide and violence than the general public.

The gay movement is celebrating marriage equality and everyone is changing their Facebook profile photo. however, a moving piece by Darnell Moore exposes the ways in which the LGBTQ+ movement has failed to include him ‘under the rainbow’. he writes: ‘the “movement” might care about my queerness, but it certainly does not value my blackness’. this sentiment is one that the gay movement will have to address very soon if it wishes to stay true to its cause.

Historically, the feminist and gay movement have not always gotten on well. Feminists see the inclusion of gay women’s issues as a distraction from issues faced by all women regardless of their sexual orientation, and gay women see the feminist majority as trying to erase their experiences and unique challenges. The PBS documentary ‘Makers: Women Who Made America‘ takes a good look at the cost of this struggle. The schism has been so great that to this day you’ll find countries like Ireland, where gays can get married but women can’t get a legal abortion.

But here’s the thing –

Equality is for everybody. discrimination on the basis of sex or sexual orientation is unjust and it should be illegal. How those two have managed to be separated in the eyes of the public and of legislators is a question for another day. But for now I think the time is right for the feminist movement to reclaim this space and leverage the current public support for equal rights to fight for what we deserve.

rosie era

and thankfully – I’m not alone in my convictions.

On June 23rd, Meryl Streep sent five hundred and thirty-five letters to each and every Member of Congress urging them to support a constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women. Ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment stalled in 1982 as it was ratified by only 35 states, three states short of the 38 required to put it into the Constitution. The ERA has been introduced in Congress every year since, with little result. the ERA, together with much of the feminist movement, seemed stuck.

But the tide is turning. a new generation of feminists have taken up the call. a slew of girl’s empowerment campaigns have emerged, some led by civil society and some by large brands (#likeagirl, this girl can, Dove real beauty to name a few). they have both capitalized on the renewed feminist energy and also been instrumental in creating an added momentum. and with the wind of civil rights victories at our back, and a female presidential candidate with an outstanding record on advancing women’s rights at our lead, we might just make the ERA happen before I’m gray and old.

era

Jessica Neuwirth is the Founder and President of the ERA Coalition which is working to create a broad base of support for the ERA across America. ‘Equal Means Equal’ is a documentary produced by Patricia Arquette which takes a long hard look at the reality of women’s lives without the ERA and the personal cost to their freedom and civil liberties. Issues that have been getting more attention lately, from the pay gap and paid family leave, to domestic violence and trafficking, are all linked to the unequal treatment of women under the law and the continued discrimination they face in the United States in 2015.

I can only hope we have the courage to come together with the support of our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ+ community, and demand an end to discrimination against women with a constitutional guarantee.

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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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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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women in politics, Women's rights

The Old (Israeli) Boys’ Club

20C-120131201164521~1I recently had an Op-Ed published in the Jerusalem Post! Both in print and online. check it out!

http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-Ed-Contributors/The-old-Israeli-boys-club-332164

 

or read the full article here:

The Old (Israeli) Boys Club

 

When Tzipi Livni took the stage at last week’s conference marking the launch of a plan to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1325 in Israel, the audience, predominantly feminist activists, gave her a lukewarm reception which was swiftly followed by back-row heckling. The Justice Minister, and former Foreign Minister, who also head’s up the negotiating team currently involved in high level talks with the Palestinians, was there to deliver a speech on the importance of including women in peace and security processes, but was stopped a number of times by disgruntled comments. Feminists, it seemed, weren’t happy with Livni who has throughout her career  purposely distanced herself from women’s issues, claiming she was ‘man’ enough for the job of Prime Minister.

 

Next in line to share her thoughts was Zehava Galon, head of the left wing Meretz party, who took the stage with gusto and reminded the audience that mainstreaming gender equality in policy making is about more than just ensuring equal numbers of both sexes are present at a committee meeting. Rather, it is concerned with substantive participation in decision making which provides women with an opportunity to influence key political processes.

 

The 1325 Action Plan claims that the inclusion of women in peace negotiations and in decision making bodies, committees and policies that deal with security issues, is a critical step in ensuring not only a more equal representation of the sexes in politics, but for guaranteeing these important decisions are not being made by former army generals alone. Only last week the Israeli Knesset approved 2.75 billion shekels to be added to the already monstrously large security budget, literally ignoring their election-time promises and the fact that each shekel given to security is one less shekel spent on education and health. One can’t help but wonder whether the inclusion of more women in this decision would have produced a vastly different outcome.

 

Those opposed to measures that seek to legislate equal representation claim women should not be seen as a unified category, and that being a woman doesn’t automatically qualify one to be a representative of women’s issues. Looking at examples such as Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher and even the current German Chancellor Angela Merkel, does raise ones doubts as to the ability of women to actively promote other women or bring a softer tone to politics in general. In fact, many believe once women enter the political arena they adopt ‘male’ traits in order to succeed, and upon reaching the top, tend to attribute their success to their own individual abilities rather than those stemming from being a woman.

 

However, looking at women’s entrance into other male dominated areas, such as the business sector, has been shown to bring significant advantages to both sexes. Last week the World Economic Forum, a Geneva based think tank, published its annual Gender Gap Index which seeks to rank countries according to levels of gender equality in four categories including health, education, politics and economics. The Index creators claim that  gender equality increases a country’s and a company’s competitiveness, leading to economic prosperity and growth.

 

Unfortunately, over the past 7 years since the Index was introduced, Israel has fallen almost twenty places, from 35th to 53rd place. This is mainly due to the gap in political participation, with Israeli women missing almost entirely from parliament and ministerial positions (ranking well below Angola, China and Georgia to name but a few). In fact, our neighboring countries who aren’t well known for their support of women’s rights, have taken more legislative and policy led actions to close gender gaps over the past half decade than Israel. In addition, Israel scored quite badly on wage equality, confirming that women’s contributions in both the political and the economic spheres were undervalued.

 

It seems that even in a country that was founded on socialist ideals, where women and men serve in the armed forces side by side, true equality is still a distant dream. When it comes to Israel’s peace and security, it’s still very much the same boys from the same old military club patting each other on the back.

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gender, girls rights, Women's rights

Herstory

My guest blog on UN Women NY, for women’s history month! Here is the link to Herstory and below is the full original text:

Herstory

A couple days ago I bought a magazine on women’s running as I was boarding a long haul flight and I enjoy reading about women who take charge of their life and their body. This edition had a distinctly feminist article on women runners who bravely fought oppressive forces that told them women can’t, shouldn’t and aren’t physically built to run any distance, certainly not a marathon, and did it anyway. It told the story of a series of amazing women, beginning in Greece in the 19th century, who decided for themselves that they are strong enough to run and went at it despite serious backlash.

One woman wasn’t allowed into the Athens marathon so she ran beside it the entire way and finished in just over 4 hours. The article told the famous story of K.W. Switzer who signed up to the Boston Marathon in 1967 when women were not allowed to enter. The officials later discovered that K stood for Katherine and tried to physically remove her from the race.

She was protected by her boyfriend and a number of male runners who eventually ran beside her the entire distance to ensure the Boston Marathon officials couldn’t catch her again. Finally, in 1972 women were allowed to compete and Switzer went on to win 1st place in the 1974 NY marathon.

The article told the story of Paula Radcliffe who resumed her training schedule 12 days after giving birth to her daughter and won the NY marathon 10 months later.  The list of female athletes who broke through barriers and stood fast against stereotypes, stigma and patriarchy goes on.

These stories are important ones and should be told and retold, lest we forget that what women have today, the right to vote, the right to run, the right to receive an education, have been hard won. It’s even more important in light of the fact that in many places in the world, women are still struggling to gain even the most basic rights, such as in Saudi Arabia where they aren’t allowed to drive. And that in some places women are still viewed as commodities, to be bought and sold at the whim of their male family members, such as in Afghanistan which boasts one of the highest levels of child marriage in the world.  And it’s important because in some places girls and young women are still struggling to protect their own bodies from an excision blade. And it’s important because of girls like Malala Yousefzai from Pakistan who stood up for her right to receive an education and was consequently brutally shot in the head. She is the youngest nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in history.

For these reasons and more, we choose to celebrate women’s history month. However, this should not be viewed as a walk down memory lane, but as a living breathing testament to the struggle we are still facing to gain our rightful place beside those who have power over our bodies and over our choices. This struggle for equality, respect and protection goes on all the time, everywhere in the world, and we would do well to learn from the stories of brave women and girls who wouldn’t’ take no for an answer.

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