Will We End Child Marriage By 2030?

In 2015, I attended the first ever Girls’ Summit on Ending Child Marriage in Africa. Soon after, I wrote about my experience for Girls’ Globe.

The event was inspiring and highlighted 4 key areas of action: education, economic empowerment, involving traditional leaders, and valuing the girl child. For this year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, I would like to reflect on lessons learned in 2015. How has advocacy surrounding child marriage progressed over the past 4 years?

Child marriage robs girls of their futures, violates their rights and impedes on the development of their countries. It is a form of gender-based violence rooted in inequality.

The number of child brides around the world is estimated at 650 million. This includes girls already married and women who were married in childhood. South Asia has the highest number of child brides, followed by sub-Saharan Africa. Although the practice of child marriage has declined around the world, no region is currently on track to eliminate child marriage by 2030 as outlined by Sustainable Development Goal 5.

However, through multi-sector partnerships, significant strides have been made. In 2016, UNICEF and UNFPA launched a global program to tackle child marriage in 12 countries. The Global Program to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage supports nations in providing life skills, education, community awareness, and national plans of action to prevent child marriage.

Reflecting on the lessons learned from the summit, it is clear that there are many contributing factors that influence child marriage. Education, economic empowerment, and community involvement remain key to ending the practice. But efforts cannot remain independent.

Single-sector interventions have proven insuccessful in the past. For instance, many countries have yet to outlaw child marriage by setting the legal age for marriage at 18 (or above) for both girls and boys. Even in countries that do have legislation, additional policies and interventions are required to enforce the law and ensure compliance.

Moving forward, in order to end child marriage by 2030, global progress needs to occur at a rate 12 times faster than that of the past decade.

To achieve this, countries must commit to increased financial and legislative support as well as prioritize strengthened partnerships across all sectors. Child marriage is a form of violence which disproportionally affects girls and puts them at huge risk of future violence throughout their lives. To eliminate gender-based violence, we have to end child marriage.

South Africa, Now is not the Time to Lose Momentum

On 2 September, South Africa exploded. She cried out in outrage. The bombardment of kidnap, rape and murder headlines in the last months escalated with the rape and death of Uyinene Mrwetyana. The news left our country both angry and heartbroken.

Since then, the heaviness in the hearts of many women (and men) has been tangible. The horrendous rape and murder of this young woman sparked a nationwide movement of solidarity and commitment to ending gender-based violence.

Uyinene had been missing for a number of days. On 2 September, it was discovered that she had been brutally raped and murdered while collecting a package from the post office in the middle of the afternoon in broad daylight. The story was reported alongside headlines filled with women and children who had been taken, killed, and raped. It sent a surge of sadness and anger throughout our beloved country. This is not okay.

Enough is enough.

It is not okay that a visit to the post office ends in the loss of an innocent life.

It’s not ok that women live in constant fear when going through the ordinary tasks of daily life.

It is not okay that this has been happening for so long without enough coverage because it has become so normalised.

It’s not okay that we are rendered powerless and voiceless.

I am angry. I am tired. But most of all, I am hurting.

I am hurting for all the women, and I am hurting for my country. I am hurting for the inherent hate and disregard for fellow humans.

Photo by Kyle Kingsley

We need change.

The rate of gender-based violence (which includes domestic violence) in South Africa is said to be one of the highest in the world. This alone should alert us to the necessity and urgency of action. Action by government, by men, by us; action by the people. I believe that policy change, stricter law enforcement, government reform and community intervention are all required. There is no question about this.

But in the same breath, I believe that it is ultimately up to us, the people of South Africa, to educate ourselves, change our behaviour and shift our mindsets. Then, and only then, will real lasting change be possible. Education, awareness and intervention need to be available and accessible for everyone. Privileged or not.

This is not a problem for any one class, gender or social group. This is a human problem.

Reform is needed. Change in behaviour backed up by actionable steps is needed. But for lasting change, minds and hearts need to be affected and moved. We should not lower ourselves to perpetuating the same shame cycle that is intended to bind us by staying silent. When we stand united and raise our voices, we are stronger.

Men need to be better. Men CAN be better. Overwhelmingly, men are the perpetrators of gender-based violence. It is time to put aside shaming and call men to join us in action. Justice needs to be served, and that means expecting more from the men of our country and holding them accountable.

Photo by Kyle Kingsley

We can’t lose momentum.

I choose to believe in the restoration of our country. And we are our country. All of us, the people. Women and men. And that means I choose to believe in the restoration of the people of South Africa.

This will not be a battle easily won, yet to bring peace and relief to the women of South Africa who are hurting and dying, we will have to come together. Now is not the time to be divided. It is the time to stand in unity. Publicly, privately, in our homes, in our friendship circles, in our relationships.

We are still blaming and shaming. Yes, we are angry. I am furious. But we must take action. I intend to. This is mourning and grief, but breakthrough comes from laying down oppressive and hateful mindsets. It will be uncomfortable; growth always is.

We must choose to look forward and to see that men can be a restorative power instead of a problem.

The pain brought upon women by gender-based violence has had a devastating effect on South Africa. There is no excuse for this behaviour. I am appealing to us, my bruised self included, to take our hurt, anger and frustration and put it into action. Let us not grow weary; let us not forget.

Our anger at these injustices is only as good as the action birthed from it. Hate and animosity cannot fix the problems and injustices that are at the root of gender-based violence. But unrelentless hope and belief, along with intentional action, can.

Turning the Tide on Sexual Violence

In 2017, I wrote a Girls’ Globe blog on how we can change a culture that normalizes and accepts sexual violence. Two years later, has anything changed?

We still live in a society that acknowledges violence against women as wrong, and yet accepts it as inevitable and therefore normalOur patriarchal culture has created a tense and treacherous space where no girl and no woman is truly safe. And out-creating the patriarchy is no small task.

Violence against women and girls continues to be accepted at the highest levels of our institutions, with an insidious trickling down to every echelon of society.

Perpetrators are emboldened. Laws are loosened. Misogynists have heroes in the most prestigious global offices, like the White House and US Supreme Court. And women and girls suffer.  

When I began this work, I felt that I was part of global progress toward ending violence against women and girls. Recently, I have felt more like I am part of global pushback against a powerful, misogynistic force. I feel as though I am one of many feebly standing against a tide that keeps rising and rising and rising.  

The statistics make it seem as if that tide is about to destroy us:  

  • Globally, an estimated 35% of women have experienced intimate partner physical and/or sexual violence. Some national studies show that number up to 70%.
  • The global number of women murdered has increased since 2012. Globally, 47% of women victims of homicide were killed by partners or family members. 
  • 40-60% of women in the Middle East and North African experience street harassment. When I worked in Egypt, I encountered girls who stopped going to school because of the threats they faced on their way there. 
  • One in five women living in the United States will be raped in her lifetime. Nine out of ten rape survivors are female whereas as over nine out of ten perpetrators are male

Behind these statistics are women and girls – individuals who could be you or me. As I move forward in the fight for the health, rights and dignity of all of us, I collect more and more memories of my time with survivors. The more memories I gather, the more often they crawl out from the corners of my mind when I’m least expecting them.

Blue tights drying on a space heater in Jordan, chipped pink nail polish on a woman in the DR Congo, the sound of a girl’s voice cracking.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, these moments crystalized into isolated memories and became a part of me. More and more the memories came back, and behind the isolated moments the faces of human beings appear.  

And that must be our focus: the human beings. That is where I am putting my focus as I increase my efforts to hold back the tide and eventually outcreate the culture of violence.  

In May, I became an online hotline volunteer for RAINN, the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the US. RAINN created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE, online.rainn.org or in Spanish rain.org/es). Supporting this organization, with either time or financially, matters. 

I have vamped up Enhance Worldwide, a nonprofit organization I co-founded to protect, engage and empower adolescent girls in Ethiopia. Two girls recently joined our program. They are 11 years old and survivors of child marriage. Engaging in work with organizations like RAINN and Enhance Worldwide creates an impact.  

I continue to write for Girls’ Globe. I continue to find circles of women – and men – doing this work. We can all speak out in support of survivors and against violence. We can all unite in a desire for justice. 

I’ve come to terms with the fact that we live in a global society that normalizes violence against women. And I’ve come to terms with the fact that my ability to stop sexual violence is minimal. I know this. I do. But I also know that individual impact matters.

Together, we can keep pushing back the tide until we’re strong enough to turn it.   

Have we Forgotten what Feminism Really Means?

Feminism: a controversial word that still makes many people’s eyes roll.

There’s a misconception about feminism and so in my first blog post, I’d like to share my point of view. 

Feminism is NOT a movement aimed at destroying men, but at destroying the patriarchal ideas that are cemented in society. Feminism is NOT aimed at making men lesser than women, but at improving the status of being a woman so that it’s equal to that of being a man.

Feminism is NOT about treating men as trash, but rather pointing out the ‘trash’ things that some men do that increase the degradation of women. Feminism is NOT about reversing the status quo and oppressing men, but about challenging the status quo to stop oppressing women.

I’d like to talk about an important issue within feminism: gender-based violence. This is a sensitive topic all over the world, because the idea of rape, in particular, has been non-existent in the past. Rape was not rape. Rape was a woman who had ‘asked for it’. It was shameful and women were resented for being abused. Rape was not a topic up for discussion.

Recently, with movements like #MeToo, more and more people have been sharing their experiences of sexual abuse. It has become a more openly discussed topic now than ever before.

Many women have spoken up and made accusations, and in response (to no one’s surprise) came comments such as “she’s lying”, “why only come out now?”, “she’s trying to sabotage an innocent man”, “what was she wearing?”, “she was drunk yes, but she consented so it’s not rape”. The list goes on.

To anyone asking the question, if a woman was raped 30 years ago, why only come out now? I can give you an answer – rape was not up for discussion in the past. As soon as it became a topic that was no longer so much of a taboo, and as soon as more people were supporting women who sought justice for the offence committed against them, women decided it was time.

Time to stop holding back and to stop feeling guilty for someone else’s wrongs. Time to use their voices and turn the tables on the powerful men who thought they could get away with abuse because “she was asking for it” or “she consented” (even though she had been underaged or intoxicated), or “how could I have controlled myself with her looking like that?”.

Men who don’t rape, don’t abuse, don’t seek superiority, it’s also your job to stand up against those who do.

If you are a man who supports equality for all, doesn’t support patriarchal views on sexual abuse, doesn’t treat women as objects, doesn’t stereotype women as emotional and unfit to be in charge, then YOU ARE A FEMINIST.

Being a feminist is not just for women, but for all who support equality. 

If you are sexualizing a woman because of what she wears, and if you think that it gives you the right to sexually abuse her, the problem is with you, not with her.

If you see intoxicated consent as consent, you are mistaken.

If you think that an underage child’s consent gives you any rights over her, you are wrong.

And if you think that the patriarchal ideas of society will protect you from justice, then again, you are mistaken.

The movements will not stop, feminism will not stop and you will not beat them. So, educate yourself on equality for all, on the accurate statistics of rapes and sexual assaults, on the reality for women in the world. You might surprise yourself and find that feminism is not a tool to defeat the male species, but rather to empower all people in the world to enjoy equal rights and freedom of choice.

Who knows, whether male or female, you might just find that you are a feminist.

Gender-Based Violence in Pregnancy

It is well documented that gender-based violence cuts across all social, economic, religious and class boundaries.  Violence against women and girls is described by the UNFPA as “one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world”, affecting an estimated one in three women.

Gender-based violence expresses itself in a host of harmful behaviours directed at women and girls, including sexual assault, female genital mutilation, rape (including marital rape), forced prostitution, early marriage, trafficking and any other acts of physical or psychological violence.   It is thought that violence against a women from her male spouse or partner (so-called intimate partner violence) is the most pervasive form of violence. Gender-based violence, is also rife in conflict zones, affecting women and girls “by virtue of nothing but their gender.” Sadly, this violation of women and girls does not stop even when a woman is pregnant.

The consequences of gender-based violence on maternal health are devastating:

  • Pregnant women who are subject to gender-based violence are more likely to delay seeking antenatal care.
  • Terminations of pregnancy are doubled among women who become pregnant as a result of rape, many of which are conducted in a highly unsafe manner leading to severe complications or event death.
  • There are strong links between gender-based violence and sexually transmitted infections (including HIV) that can negatively impact on not only the mother’s health, but also the health and survival of her newborn.
  • Although the exact reasons why are not always clear, it is thought that violence during pregnancy can lead to increased risk of miscarriage, premature labour and stillbirth.
  • Pregnant women and new mothers who have been subject to gender-based violence are at greater risk of depression, which in turn can lead to increased risk of suicide, as well as affecting positive bonding with her newborn.
  • It is thought that more than one third of maternal deaths globally occur in crisis settings where health facilitates and basic infrastructures have been destroyed.
  • Even health facilities themselves can be a source of violence against pregnant women, and are therefore may not be attended by women.

This list is by no means exhaustive – gender-based violence has a domino effect on maternal health.

Women and ChildrenIt would be easy to feel helpless but what can be done?  The root causes of gender-based violence in pregnancy are complex and not easily solved.  There is little doubt that working with boys and men is critical and central to tackling gender-based violence.  But in addition, strengthening women’s resilience through education and community empowerment plays an important role.  The provision of respectful maternity services, with an educated and empathic workforce, asking the right questions and reassuring women that violence in pregnancy is never acceptable, can encourage women to seek care and support.  In one study, a client said, “Compassion is going to open up the door. And when we feel safe and are able to trust, that makes a lot of difference.”

This post is part of Girls’ Globe’s #16Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Post series. Learn more about the #16Days campaign here, and join the discussion on social media with #16Days.

Written by Esther Sharma, midwife and trustee at Women and Children First (UK)

 

A Men’s Issue

On Monday, December 7, Vital Voices hosted their annual Voices of Solidarity awards to honor five men “who have shown courage and compassion in advocating on behalf of women and girls in the United States and around the world.” The five honorees were Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, former peacekeeper and diplomat; Gary Barker, founder of Promundo and global leader in engaging men to prevent violence against women; Sadou Lemankreo, a police officer and human rights defender in Cameroon; John Prendergast, activist and author working to support women survivors of conflict in Africa; and Tom Wilson, chairman and CEO of The Allstate Corporation.

The five honorees have impressive experience working to empower women and engage men to change their attitudes and behaviors towards women. They are rightly honored for their work and should be held as models for how men should act worldwide. But my thoughts on the event, and the issue of violence against women in general, can be summed up with six words from Cindy Dyer early in the night:

“Violence against women is a men’s issue” Cindy Dyer, Vice President of Human Rights, Vital Voices

When I looked around the room on Monday night, it was filled with an overwhelming majority of women. This gender imbalance has been the norm in my experience of attending similar events and herein lays the problem; women, who are victims and allies to victims of male violence, bravely come together while the perpetrators are disengaged from the conversation. This needs to change.

Violence against women stems from a daunting web of social norms, patriarchy, power dynamics, greed and injustice. For example, rape is used as a weapon of war and justice systems around the world drastically vary in their efficiency. With these larger structural barriers in the mix, can one individual make a difference in these issues? The answer is yes.

Dyer and Barker acknowledged the many men who would never hurt a woman and are champions for equality in the workplace and the home. However, when these men remain silent or refrain from participating in gender equality conversations, their actions (or inactions) have an impact. Speaking on her experiences with female victims, Dyer said that the “silence of male leaders speaks louder than women’s actions.” Men can be tremendous activists in the fight to end violence against women by actively taking a stance against the injustice.

So, to the men who believe in gender equality and justice, but are possibly unsure about how to engage in this conversation, I’m here to say: speak up! As a woman I welcome your voice to this discussion! A few conversation starters are below based on my own experiences and reported successes from the Vital Voices event this week.

Men, how can you get involved?

  • Ask questions: do you feel safe walking down the street? What resources are available for women who have experienced violence? Speak with the women in your life and ask about their experience.
  • Share news articles. Use the news as a way to start the conversation, learn about the nuances of the issues and take a stance.
  • Be a mentor. Young boys who witness violence growing up are more likely to exhibit those behaviors as an adult. As a positive influence in a young boy’s life, you can have a lasting change.

Women, how can we engage the men in our life?

  • Speak openly with the men you trust. For example, if you experience harassment in the workplace, debrief with a trusted male friend.
  • Invite your male friends to any conferences or events you attend on issues related to violence against women. Let’s get more men at the table.

As the 16 days of activism to end gender based violence comes to a close, I challenge you to speak with the people closest to you about the atrocities committed against women every day. It is time to end the silence surrounding violence against women and hold men accountable for their actions.

This post is part of Girls’ Globe’s #16Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Post series. Learn more about the #16Days campaign here, and join the discussion on social media with #16Days.

Photo Credit: Holly Curtis