The Women I am Not

After spending a weekend in bed with flu and catching up on TV, I have an aching sensation (which incidentally doesn’t come from my infected sinuses).

Sex on screen continues to be misogynistic, violent and completely unrealistic.

As young girls we are told to be good. While the definition of good varies from society to society, there seem to be some common traits: if you were born a girl, you should wait for the right man, dress appropriately, not be easy.

But when it comes to sex, mainstream TV teaches us the exact opposite: we should always be ready, willing and, of course, we should never say no. On TV, sex is both the preferred weapon and ultimate punishment, and there seems to be very little in between.

Mainstream TV-makers tend to portray women who have sex in three ways: (1) as manipulators, using sex to advance their agenda; (2) as props, used by the male characters to express their masculinity or to say an intense goodbye before taking off to war (or some other kind of heroic activity); and (3) as a victim of violence.

Needless to say, in all these scenarios, the women involved are beautiful, slim and perfectly groomed – including, to my horror, the penniless sex workers in 19th century Paris.

Women are not the only ones whose sexual lives are gravely oversimplified on screen.

The unfair representations of masculinity – including sexual performance, needs and emotions – are undoubtedly hurting those who do not see themselves as ever-eager, macho sex machines who fear even the idea of monogamy. Not to mention other groups, such as the trans* community or people with disabilities, whose sexual lives are often altogether omitted in popular culture.

It is well established that the representation of social relations is a powerful tool in media, which can have a strong impact on normalisation of behaviour and norms. For instance, it has been argued that the increased presence of LGBTQ+ characters on TV is positively influencing the coming-out and self-realisation in the community.

Other studies show less positively, that media portrayals of rom-com relationships can normalise stalking. So, in absence of other portrayals of sexual encounters, are we doomed to learn our sexuality from what we see on TV screens?

I know, in theory, that the characters and scenes we see in films, ads or TV series are there only for entertainment and not to be taken too seriously. But in practice, I often feel conflicted.

I am angry to see that unrealistic stereotypes about such an important part of human lives continue to be reproduced on TV, and I refuse to replicate them in my own relationships. But, years of media influence had an impact on my idea of what constitutes perfect sex, and I often find it difficult to completely reject the influence of over-sexualised images of women that we all know so well from pop-culture.

I am neither the good girl  society wanted me to grow into, nor the women I see on TV. And I’m trying to find my way to be okay with that.

There is little we can do about the decades of unrealistic and misogynistic sex on TV reels, which has undoubtedly influenced generations of viewers. But we can inspire the future. Let’s talk about sex. Let’s talk about it openly, without fear or shame. Let’s talk about our contradictions, misunderstandings and repressed needs. Let’s laugh together at the endless imagination of TV makers coming up with ever-new ideas on how to reproduce old stereotypes.

Sex is a spectrum, full shades, and we should all be encouraged to find our own way in navigating our own sexuality. After all, reality is much more colourful than TV.

Women in Glasgow are Striking for Equal Pay

Thousands of people marched through Glasgow, Scotland this week in the largest equal pay strike the UK has seen since the seventies.

Around 8,000 city council workers – most of them women – walked out of jobs and picked up placards to demand equal pay for carers, cleaners, caterers and support workers.

The strike marked a culmination of a dispute that began more than a decade ago, in 2006, after a newly introduced pay scheme enforced existing inequalities within the system. Female–dominated roles within the council, such as cleaning and caring, were penalized through complicated methods of measuring a job’s value in ways that male-dominated roles, like gardening and refuse collection, were not. 

The Politics

Back in 2006, Glasgow City Council was run by the Labour Party. Over the ten years that followed, Labour reportedly spent £2.5 million on legal fees and staff costs so that they could challenge women who were claiming wage discrimination.

In 2017, The Scottish National Party (SNP) took control of the council, with a promise to “end Glasgow’s years of pay injustice”. However, in the months since, workers became increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress and voted to take strike action, despite the council’s claims that industrial action was unnecessary as progress had not stalled.

Photo by Public Services International

How We Value Women’s Work

Amanda Green, a care worker, explained that the women taking part in the strike carry out some of the city’s “toughest and most valuable jobs.” “The value of these jobs,” she continued, “is just not recognised – that’s the problem Glasgow has.”

But it’s not just Glasgow. The view that work carried out by women holds lower economic value than work carried out by men is a global problem. Our perception of jobs that have traditionally been more female-dominated – cleaning, cooking, looking after children and the elderly – is tightly interwoven with cultural norms of a woman’s ‘natural’ role in families, communities and wider society.

Ensuring everyone else is fed, watered, warm, safe, educated and comfortable – these are things we continue to expect women to bear responsibility for, and do for free, in their personal lives. It’s therefore not hugely surprising that we don’t take it seriously when women carry out similar roles in a professional capacity.

And yet, despite being undervalued, under-acknowledged and underpaid, society would grind to a halt if women stopped doing this work professionally. “We’re the ones that make this city come alive in the morning: we get children fed, we get elderly vulnerable people up and out of their beds so that other people can go to work. We go into schools at 5AM to clean them so that children can get an education,” says Shona Thompson, an at-home carer.

This week, after years of being dismissed and diminished, women across Glasgow withdrew their labour for 48 hours and suddenly, as if by magic, there was a newfound mass-recognition of their worth. “Schools and home care disrupted by Glasgow equal pay strike,” said BBC News. “Thousands of women bring city ‘to standstill’,” announced the Independent. Women spoke of the immense guilt they were being made to feel, as though “because of the job we do…we don’t really have the right to strike.”

Photo by Public Services International

Gender, Class & Equal Pay

Equal pay is rarely far from UK headlines at the moment. The BBC came under intense scrutiny over pay inequalities at the end of 2017, and over the summer the pay gap among professional tennis players received widespread media attention. We learnt that female actors earn thousands and sometimes millions of dollars less than their male co-stars, and Ryanair’s pay gap report led to intensely infuriating debates about whether men are perhaps just naturally more suited to being pilots than women are.

The salaries in the stories at the forefront of the equal pay conversation have tended to share two common threads – a disparity linked to gender, yes, but also a multi-figured nature. The equal pay debate seems to interest us a little less, and make fewer headlines, when discrimination affects women whose annual salary falls below the national average.

And so Glasgow’s working women haven’t, up until now, received the coverage or the solidarity I think they deserve. As one Scottish journalist commented: “Compared with the rightfully extensive coverage of Birmingham’s refuse strikers or Hollywood’s abuse scandal, is it that they are too female to be a proper workers’ rights story, and too working class to be a proper feminist one?”

If this week’s strike has proven anything, it’s that the jobs most of us want neither to do nor to talk about are the ones holding our communities and cities together. It’s that equality and fairness are for everyone, regardless of hourly wage. It’s that equal pay is a very present issue facing women in Scotland today. It’s that if a job is so essential that a city will cease to function without it, we should pay the person doing it fairly.

“Why should women have all the responsibility for family planning?” – Parmila’s Story

This is the second blog in a 4-part series sharing personal family planning stories from around the world – presented by CARE and Girls’ Globe in the lead up to the 2018 International Conference on Family Planning. Catch up on the whole series with stories from HawaOun Srey Leak, and Olive.

When it comes to family planning, women in India (and in the rest of the world) are expected to do the work. This reality is consistent across the various methods of contraception, but the disparity between the sexes is especially obvious when it comes to permanent contraception, or sterilization. For each man who opted for a vasectomy between 2016-2017 in India, 52 women got tubectomies.

The 1:52 ratio is striking, especially when you consider that vasectomies are cheaper, less invasive, carry a lower risk of infection, and have a quicker healing time than the female equivalent.

In recent decades, the procedure has been improved with the advent of the no-scalpel vasectomy (NSV), which boasts an even quicker healing time and lower risk of infection.

For couples who do not want to have any (or any more) children, the NSV can be a great option, and one frontline health worker in India has made it her personal mission to increase uptake in her community.

Photo by CARE

This is Parmila Devi with her husband, Bigan Sahni.

Parmila is an ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) in Bihar, one of the most populous states in India. She learned about NSVs as part of the ASHA family planning training, and she immediately decided it was the best option for her family.

“Why should women have all the responsibility for family planning?” she wondered.

“The first thing I did after becoming an ASHA worker was to convince my husband to undergo a vasectomy,” said Parmila. Bigan “thought she had lost her senses” at first, but eventually came around to the idea.

The procedure was a success, and Parmila began to tell her clients about her husband’s experience. She attempted to address concerns and correct myths and misconceptions prevalent in the community.

“Some men think [a vasectomy] would affect their sex drive or their ability to enjoy sex. Some also feel it would make them physically weak, which is not the case,” one state health official explained. Many women shared the same fears for their husbands.

ASHAs typically work most closely with women and children, but because Parmila wanted men in her community to understand the benefits of NSV, she talked to them as well.

“‘Ab ee mardo ken a chori!’ (She will not even leave the men alone!) the people in the households I visited in the early days would say.”

Bigan supports his wife’s efforts, and occasionally they make house calls together and he counsels the husband while Parmila talks to the wife. Gradually, people in her community have become more accepting of NSV as a viable method of permanent contraception.

Parmila received an award from the health minister of Bihar, Mangal Pandi, for motivating 43 men to get NSVs in 2017. Her goal for 2018 is to increase that number to 100, and so far, she’s over halfway there.

Given the volume of accurate information and quality family planning methods available now to individuals, we should be working to ensure this information and these services reach women and men.

There is no reason women should have to bear all of the burden for family planning and contraception in this day and age. Fortunately, there are activists like Parmila in this world to remind us of that, and to push us to be better.

Learn more about CARE’s work in Bihar here.

This case study was collected by Gaurav Masih, MPH candidate at Indian Institute of Public Health – Gandhinagar.

Can we Redefine the Definition of a Woman?

The emancipation of girls and women is a rallying cry, opposing the societal conservatism that impedes on the rights of women.

It is, however, still devastating to me that as a woman, I really can’t share my opinion truthfully and openly concerning the issues I feel are a bottleneck to my wellbeing.

It’s so hard to substantiate my case further without accusations levelled against me that I am being emotional, angry and inconsiderate.

Social construction has been unfavourable to women over the years in such a way that we spend our girlhoods being fed with ideologies that glorify silence as the best option for us. If someone steps on your toes, society expects you not to respond because ‘good women don’t fight back’. This is a senseless dogma which perplexes me –  how long should women remain silent, allow themselves to be walked over and continue to be subjugated?

“Women are supposed to be feminine, soft and less aggressive,” people tell me! This is a fallacy, and doesn’t come anywhere near how I see the definition of a woman.

Melinda Gates has noted that “a woman with a voice is by definition a strong woman.” For me, this quote summarizes what it means to be a woman.

To be a woman does not mean that you are a doormat everyone can tread all over. Being a woman means you can be as aggressive as you want, speak as loudly as you want, fight for what is right, show all of the tendencies associated with masculinity – and still be a woman.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once stated: “of course I’m not worried about intimidating men. The type of man who will be intimidated by me is exactly the type of man I have no interest in.” As women, we need to build one another up so that we can navigate and eradicate powerful ideologies of male chauvinism.

If a woman stands for something and commits her mind to it, she has no time for negativity or what society will think about her actions. Today, in the 21st century, a woman can be a trend-setter and a policy maker. A woman doesn’t condone the ‘pull her down’ mentality, instead she pulls other women up. A woman assures other women that there’s room for them too at the top. That is the definition of a woman!

Are You at Risk of Burnout Syndrome?

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. It is a vital time to spread awareness and knowledge about mental health and the impact it has on many lives around the world. Run by UK charity Mental Health Foundation, the theme this year is stress.

Stress in itself is not a mental health diagnosis but it is an important factor that can lead to anxiety, depression, self-harm and even suicide. It also has physical health implications, such as an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Reading about stress made me recall my days as an intern medical doctor in a rural South African hospital, and the stress that I endured in the overwhelming hospital environment. In the beginning I could not recognise that the physical and mental symptoms I was experiencing were related to stress and burnout syndrome. I found myself exhibiting signs of:

• Physical and mental fatigue
• Forgetfulness
• Depressed mood
• Irritability
• Detachment from my work and patients
• Sense of failure

After talking to my peers and doing some of my own research, I realised that I had burnout syndrome. I had never been prepared or warned about it as young professional. I also learned that as a female doctor I had 60% greater chance of experiencing burnout stress than my male colleagues. This was is related to gender-based expectations and societal pressures that women experience on a regular basis.

Burnout syndrome is a form of chronic stress. It is an alarm clock to a more serious problem and needs to be addressed as early as possible. In my instance, I spoke to my senior doctors and supervisors about how I was feeling. They helped me reduce the levels of stress I’d been feeling by finding me additional assistance for my workload. I started to focus on lifestyle changes to alleviate the symptoms such as eating healthily, exercising, and talking to someone about the frustrations I was dealing with at work.

We need to have active dialogues about stress and burnout. Ask yourself if you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above. Involve others in that self-reflection. Start this week – discuss amongst your friends, your work peers and your family. Let’s engage in conversation so that we can recognise stress and allow ourselves to receive the help and treatment we need to handle it.

Invest in Opportunities for Women to Benefit Us All

The value of gender equality is priceless and it’s time that the gap be closed on a global scale. It starts with you. We can all make a difference by investing time, money and resources in providing more opportunities for women across the globe.

What continuously keeps women from thriving is oppressive cultural traditions, along with limited access to pertinent resources like education, job training and financial services. In some countries, it is easy for women to get stuck in the same stagnant unpaid domestic labor job from a very young age — and some are not even compensated.

Programs that provide girls and women in less privileged areas with opportunities like business training, life skills and a financial education act as tools to help move our world forward. Don’t believe me? Statistics show us that investing in opportunities for women to advance is in all of our best interests…

Women make an impact, especially in companies.

Research shows that companies with a female presence see better performance. In February 2016, the Peterson Institute surveyed approximately 22,000 firms from 91 different countries and concluded that a female executive presence will increase performance when measured by both gross and net margins.

Women stabilize society.

Give women an equal voice in the community and watch society grow into something more stable and peaceful. Overwhelming evidence proves that women’s empowerment and gender equality is tied to peace and stability in society. Adding women’s voices into the mix provides a better-rounded outlook on any issue, which has a positive effect on society as a whole.

Women add to the global economy.

It’s believed that women could potentially add approximately $17 trillion to our global economy if they were given the same access to the jobs and income men have.

What we can start to do is invest in programs that support global change for women. With the help of these programs and those who support them, more women will obtain the resources needed to advance.

For example, in Guatemala, two sisters began running a café for locals in a remote community. It offers fresh village-grown foods options — a luxury that wasn’t previously available. The majority of the population suffers from malnutrition and poverty, so their chances of starting their own business are slim. With the help of the Mercy Corps and Starbucks Foundation, the sisters were able to make their dreams a reality while greatly improving their community in the process.

The more investments that entities designed to help women receive, the more women all over the world will benefit. The future holds a lot of promise for women, and we can empower one another to grow and follow our dreams. Our future starts with these visions and dreams — a future of leadership, equality and change on the horizon.