Be #Bold4Her: Erasing Gender Norms

During this Tuesday’s sessions at the Women Deliver Conference I attended a plenary called “Be #Bold4Her on gender norms: What are we so afraid of?” where a panel of distinguished speakers were discussing the issue of gender norms. This was an interesting session in many ways, highlighting the different difficulties gender norms pose on especially women and girls – but also demonstrating how difficult it can be just to discuss about this issue.

That the issue of gender norms is a challenging, much debated and problematic topic is nothing new. This was also something that was evident during the panel, as speaker Dorothy Muroki (FHI 360 Chief of Party and CB-HIPP, Kenya) noted that the global north is already complete according to gender norms if you compare to the global south and the African countries as a response to a comment from Lenita Toivakka (Minister for Foreign Trade and Development, Finland), who had said that Finland is one of the best countries in the world to be a mother. In response to Muroki, Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda (General Secretary, World YWCA) reminded the panel and audience of the fact that we actually need to learn from each other and not depend on just the developed countries.

So how come we so often discuss these topics in only the developing countries and not in the western world? As a young woman growing up in Sweden, I have faced daily struggles because of rigid and constraining gender norms. I am supposed to look in a certain way, wear certain clothes and act in certain forms – all in order to fulfill the norms about how a girl is expected to be.

Gumbonzvanda also said that a woman growing up and living in poverty is the most innovating woman that exists – because they have to be. I think this is an incredibly important thought. We often hear about projects in developing countries where women are able to flourish and broaden their skills and knowledge, and I think we all need to remind ourselves of the fact that all women and men around the world need to build bridges between  each other and work together on eliminating gender norms. Of course we have different problems in different parts of the world and some problems are worse than others, but that doesn’t mean we can’t inspire each other and learn from each other.

It is also important to encourage societies, individuals such as parents and educators, and also state actors to stand up against harmful gender norms – which can be a very challenging goal to achieve. Giving parents advice on how to raise their children is a difficult task, but we have to find ways to build dialogue and be able to discuss these challenging issues in a constructive manner – and help more people understand that breaking rigid and conservative gender norms is in the best interest of all of us.

I remember when a friend of my mother told me that she and her husband we’re always very cautious to not push traditional gender norms on their daughter. They let her wear whatever she felt comfortable with and wanted to prioritize that she could play and have fun rather than look nice. She came home from kindergarten one day when she was three years old and told her mom that the girls had started questioning why she wore pants and not dresses and why she was looking boyish. She told her mother that she didn’t felt pretty in her regular clothes anymore and that she instead felt like wearing a pink dress. While her mother felt that as long as the wish to wear a pink dress was coming from her daughter and not imposed by society on her, this is also an example of a situation where the society around her – namely her peers in kindergarten – were influenced by existing gender norms and had a preconceived notion of what girls and boys should or should not wear, only because of their gender. It might seem trivial – but it is not. It’s a symptom of a larger problem where we assign roles and expectations on girls and boys from a very young age that limit their opportunities not only in terms of what to wear and how to look, but in terms of what they want to study, what field of work they want to pursue, what skills they believe they possess or don’t have.

This is a typical example of how Sweden and all western countries also still have a long way to go to break rigid and harmful gender norms, both big and small. Society has a huge impact on how children perceive themselves, and it is our joint responsibility to strive to build societies where all children can strive and reach their full potential. As Gumbonzvanda said:

We need to empower each other and build bridges so that we together can eliminate gender norms.

We should not replace the existing gender norms with new ones, we should make sure to eliminate them and never look back. Every human being should be able to be, act and look however they want and feel comfortable with – despite what gender they identify with.

Girls’ Globe is present at the Women Deliver Conference, bringing you live content straight from the heart of the action. If you can’t be there in person, you can be a part of Women Deliver through the Virtual Conference, by hosting an event in your hometown, and by engaging online using #WDLive and #WD2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering America’s Lost Women

Growing up in Pakistan, I was a rule breaker. I got in trouble for speaking my mind and making my own choices, two things good Pakistani women were not supposed to do. Until I broke a rule that could not be fixed or overlooked, falling in love with a Shia man, though I came from a Sunni home. In Pakistan, our families were at war, so we went to Canada. North America was my safe haven, a place I could make my life choices without fearing shame and violence.

America afforded me an escape from the fear of honor violence, the abuse thousands of women around the world experience for bringing dishonor to their families. This violence can take the form of physical, emotional or sexual assault, female genital mutilation and forced marriage.

America was my safe haven, but, unbeknownst to many, it is not safe for everyone. Honor violence is not a problem relegated to countries like Pakistan; every year, thousands of girls in North America experience honor violence and even lose their lives to honor killings. Families – mothers, fathers and siblings – abuse, assault and even strangle, stab or shoot their daughters, wives and sisters for being too “Western” or “promiscuous,” refusing an arranged marriage or even just looking at a boy.

Many decades may have passed since I made trouble in Pakistan, but I remain a woman known for speaking her mind. And in my mind, this situation is intolerable and it must be stopped. There is no place in the United States and Canada for shaming and abusing women into submission, forcing them to marry men they do not want and live lives they do not choose. In 2014, I stood up, with eight other women, and we made the world listen with the award-winning documentary Honor Diaries, drawing attention to issues of honor violence in western cultures. Other films and movements have joined us and we have made incredible gains in policy and awareness. Task forces have been formed, data is being collected and, most importantly, paid attention to.

Unfortunately, there is still much more work to do. Forcing a woman into marriage remains legal in 43 states. Women are beaten and even burned with acid, but the nature of what they are experiencing all too often goes unnoticed. Honor violence is a hidden crime that is overlooked more than is conscionable.

Honor Diaries was one stepping stone towards justice and what is right, but now, we need your help to lay the next brick. We want to wake up the US and create a national day of memory for the victims of honor – those who have lost their lives in the name of “honor.” We have teamed up with Jasvinder Sanghera CBE from Karma Nirvana UK, who has succeeded in creating a national day of memory in the UK. We hope to create a national day of memory in the US on the same date, July 14th, uniting women and men across the globe in solidarity.

We can stand up and declare that enough is enough, this will not go on in my backyard. Shame and abuse in the name of culture and religion are not condonable, and we will not sit idly while they are wielded as weapons to destroy the independence and fierce inner beauty of these young American women. Because when we do nothing, they lose more than their independence. They lose their lives. Join us in creating change. Click here and petition US policymakers to institute a national day of memory.

 

The author, Raheel Raza, is an author, diversity consultant and activist for cultural diversity and interfaith harmony. Her mandate is “there is unity in diversity.”

The Young Women of Tutorial High

Walterine, Principal of Tutorial High School; Image c/o Elisabeth Epstein
Walterine, Principal of Tutorial High School; Image c/o Elisabeth Epstein

I met Walterine during my Baltimore to Guyana layover in the Panama City airport. Seeing that I was reading a Guyana guidebook, Walterine, a proud Guyanese, excitedly sat down next to me and began asking about my trip and my plans while in Guyana.

​I explained to Walterine that I worked with Girls’ Globe and would be speaking with women and girls at Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC). Coincidentally (and serendipitously), Walterine worked as the principal of a local high school. Loving the Girls’ Globe mission, she invited me to visit her school and speak to her girls about women’s and girls’ empowerment.

Happily, I accepted.

Last week, I had the fantastic opportunity to work with 200 young women (aged 13-14) at Tutorial High School. Not only were students engaged and excited to share their ideas about gender equality, but they also were incredibly knowledgeable about gender-related issues.

FullSizeRenderAfter telling the girls a little bit about myself and about Girls’ Globe, I gave a brief introduction about why ensuring gender equality and empowering young girls is crucial for development – tackling topics like HIV/AIDS, family planning, economic security, maternal health, education, and more.

But I wasn’t there to talk. I was there to listen. I wanted to hear their perspectives on gender equality and empowerment.

At that point, I separated the class into several smaller discussion groups, giving each table a poster and a different question to answer.

A few of the questions included:

  • What is your favorite part about being a girl?
  • What are some of the challenges of being a girl?
  • Why is gender equality important to you?
  • What does empowerment mean to you?
  • What are some of the barriers to gender equality?
Classroom at Tutorial High School; Image c/o Elisabeth Epstein
Classroom at Tutorial High School; Image c/o Elisabeth Epstein

While the girls brainstormed their answers, I began to realize how daunting a task staying in school could be – not only due to outside factors, but to the school building’s infrastructure as well. The classroom was long and narrow, with only three dusty chalkboards, no erasers, and one piece of chalk. The room, when filled to capacity (as it was), didn’t allow for the vast majority of students to have a clear view of a chalkboard. Square holes dotted the walls, allowing a cool breeze to sweep across the room – a necessity for a school that lacks air conditioning in a tropical climate. However, as a consequence, outside noises easily distracted and students in the back struggled to hear. In such an environment, it would be easy for anyone to drift off, daydream, and fall behind, inevitably causing a snowball effect that could haunt the rest of your life.

Students share what empowerment means to them; Image c/o Elisabeth Epstein
Students share what empowerment means to them; Image c/o Elisabeth Epstein

When the groups finished brainstorming, each group presented their answers to the entire class. I was blown away by the honesty and creativity of these young women. Students took on difficult topics and responded in various and equally impressive ways. Although each group was powerful in its own right, I have to admit I had a few favorites.

When asked the question “What does empowerment mean to you?”, Shannae, 13, responded with a poem:

Give but don’t allow yourself

to be used.

Love but don’t allow your

Heart to be abused.

Trust but don’t be naive.

Listen to others but don’t 

Lose your own voice…

Another group with the same question drew a cartoon of a man and a woman talking. The man asks the woman if he could touch her private parts. The woman responds, “No, but you can touch your own.” (At which point in the presentation, the room erupted in laughter.)

When describing the challenges of being a girl, one group had each group member trace her hand on the poster and, within the lines of her own hand, write a challenge. A heartbreaking question, these young women answered with strength and courage, proudly presenting their poster to the class.  Challenges listed included bullying, low self-esteem, boys, peer pressure, puberty, and not being wanted.

As expected, the favorite and most exciting question to answer was “What is your favorite part about being a girl?” Answers included a wide range of activities such as manicures and pedicures, exercising, listening to music, going to school, and more.

I am honored to have had the opportunity to meet these incredible and smart young women. After feeling the class’ energy and hearing their ideas, I am confident these girls are already on the path to success. And as much as I hope the girls learned a lot both from me and each other, I am positive that I learned a lot more from them.

I’ll soon be returning to Tutorial High to repeat this lesson with a younger class – and I can’t wait to see what they’ll teach me.

 

 

Access to Justice: A Change is Going to Come

Now I am free. A female sex worker and child. Photo Credit: Laurenz Paas for Theatre for a Change
Now I am free. A female sex worker and child.
Photo Credit: Laurenz Paas for Theatre for a Change

Written by Catriona Cahill, Development Officer, Theatre for a Change

In 2012, the United Nations Population Fund revealed that around 34% of the 52,000 female sex workers living in Ghana have had an unprotected sexual encounter with the police against their will.

Just over one-third of all women in Ghana have experienced physical violence; the majority of women report that it is most often a sexual partner committing the crime. With sexual violence already prevalent throughout society, just imagine how it is intensified within the industry of sex work where women feel they must necessarily subordinate themselves to their clients.

Yet, with only 9% of female sex workers in Ghana reporting a non-discriminatory standard of treatment from the police, it is no wonder that only half of them would consider seeking justice after suffering any form of abuse. Statistics such as this make a strong case for advocating for the rights of these women: the right to report abuse, the right to access justice and the right to live a life free from fear.

The current project by Theatre for a Change working with female sex workers in Accra is titled Access to Justice.  Twenty women from two of the poorest communities, Old Fadama and Railways, are participating in the project which first focuses on behaviour change, then advocacy, then access to service provision. Everything about Theatre for a Change is rooted in participation; all projects take place in circles; performances are always in the round. This approach stems from the philosophy of Augusto Boal, author of Theatre of the Oppressed. Boal believes that, through theatre, ‘the oppressed’ can explore and identify solutions to their own problems; change comes from within.

When I first visited Accra in March, the Access to Justice Project was in its infancy. Within the four-walled security of Jamestown Community Theatre Centre, the women were just beginning to explore and show symbols of change: alterations in how they held themselves, a greater eagerness to speak. Together, through improvisation, role play and enormous trust, they began to identify their own risky behaviours and explore solutions.

The community gathers to listen to an interactive radio drama Photo Credit: Theatre for a Change
The community gathers to listen to an interactive radio drama
Photo Credit: Theatre for a Change

As the project has moved forward, the women have become empowered to enter into their communities and tell their stories to the people who need to hear them the most: the police service, the brothel owners, the clients, the men. They play out scenarios that their audience can identify with and invite them to step in and change the course of events.  Together they explore alternatives and discover solutions while attitudes are challenged and changed. Here we see further elements of Boal’s philosophy creep in: Theatre for a Change does not remove the actors from the spectators – dividing walls that Boal said were symbols of oppression – instead the audience is encouraged to participate. ‘The walls must be torn down’ Boal demands: the oppressed are making theatre their own.

Just a few weeks ago, the walls were torn down in spectacular fashion as the once closed doors of Jamestown Community Theatre Centre were flung open to welcome brothel owners, chiefs and members of the community for a radio listening club. Together the group sat in solidarity to listen to the women participate in an interactive radio drama, broadcast across Accra and the Central Region, highlighting the rights of sex workers.

The changes I witnessed back in March were just a part of this bigger process. I just hope these changes continue to grow and seep out into these women’s lives. I hope a change is going to come for them and their communities that means that they can live without penalty or fear. And I hope these words of one of our former participants will soon be echoed by them all:

‘My first strategy was to stay away from him…then he will lay ambush and attack me in town….one day I mustered courage and looked straight in his eyes like you taught us to have eye contact when we want to be assertive and shouted back at him for the first time and he just left me there without touching me. Previously I could not look him in the eyes or talk back at him…now I am free.’ – Program Participant

About the author:

Catriona Cahill lives in London and worked behind the scenes in commercial theatre for four years before joining Theatre for a Change in 2014. She was based in Ghana for four months before joining the UK team as Development Officer.

To find out more about Theatre for a Change’s work in Ghana or Malawi please visit their website or follow us them on twitter.