When Women’s Rights Are Not Enough

Ninety-eight years ago, the women’s suffrage movement kicked off a century of progress for women’s rights in the United States. The 19th amendment. The Equal Pay Act. The Civil Rights Act. Title IX. The Gender Equity in Education Act. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The Violence Against Women Act. And many more pieces of legislation designed to thwart discrimination against women.

So when millions took the streets during the Women’s March, some people dismissed the event as a pointless political stunt. After all, the battle for women’s rights in our nation was fought and won already, right? Not quite.

For every women’s ‘right’ there is a shadow side of women’s ‘reality’. Lack of enforcement, power imbalances, social stigmas, and inequity – simply having so-called equal rights is not enough.

The reality is most women have – at some point – felt silenced, ignored, disrespected, or unsafe, just for being a woman.

Women in the workplace are undercompensated and overlooked, and their intelligence is routinely discounted. At home, women are saddled with the second shift of housekeeping and caregiving. Women are catcalled and harassed. Women are physically and sexually abused, trafficked, and murdered.

Women are more likely to live in poverty, overpay for everything from razors to mortgages, and carry student loan debt longer than men. Women’s choices about their bodies – how they care for them, dress them, use them – are judged and policed. Women are underrepresented in STEM, and told they can’t succeed in politics.

This list represents but a small sample of the dark side of #WomensReality.

Rights matter, of course, and many people – including men, women, and non-binary folks – still do not have them. We ought to continue to push for full rights for individuals of every gender identity, race, ethnicity, age, ability, class, income, religion, marital status, parental status, sexual orientation, or nationality. But we also must acknowledge that human rights do not guarantee equality if people and institutions continually fail to enforce them.

Ending violence against women, closing the wage gap, achieving fair representation in leadership and politics, deconstructing harmful stereotypes – these issues can’t be boiled down to a simple matter of human rights.

What we need is a culture shift to examine our reality. We need to wake up to the discrimination that’s happening on a daily basis, to our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, friends, and colleagues. The work of gender equality is global and local, too.

That’s why LiveYourDream.org has launched an awareness campaign called #WomensReality. In the spirit of similar social media movements, we want to expose the gap between stated rights and the harsh realities women face.

Our theory is that if all the women who have experienced hardship simply for being a woman could talk about their experiences, it might illuminate how big this problem truly is. The #WomensReality campaign is a rallying cry to acknowledge that gender inequality happens in complex and nuanced ways that the promise of ‘equal rights’ can’t and won’t solve. We have a long distance to go before we actualize full gender equality.

Join the conversation by sharing a time when you felt silenced, ignored, disrespected, or unsafe just because you’re a woman, and tag #WomensReality.

Together, we are a force for truth.

LiveYourDream.org is a movement – an online community of nearly 100,000 volunteers and activists addressing some of the most serious challenges women and girls face today, such as gender-based violence and lack of access to quality education. LiveYourDream.org is powered by Soroptimist, an international nonprofit of volunteers that economically improves the lives of women and girls through its Dream Programs. Learn more and join the community!

‘She’ by Kiirstin Marilyn: an Anthem for all Women

Since the release of her EP Ghosts with Spectra Music Group, Kiirstin Marilyn has embarked on a new independent musical journey with her latest single, She.

She, co-written and co-produced by Justin Ardolino, with additional instrumentation by Benny Reiner, expresses Kiirsten’s vulnerability as an artist as well as a citizen of the world.

While Ghosts began to expose Kiirstin’s true social and political beliefs, She considers not only the tenor of our current times, but also the history of nations as well as the personal history of generations of women.

She began as an homage to Kiirstin’s grandmother, Linda Liholm, who fled Soviet oppression and the occupation of Estonia in 1944, after Germany lost World War II. Boarding trains and boats that were beyond capacity, Linda, with her 4-month-old child, Ulo Kuhi, narrowly escaped a future in a Siberian concentration camp or death.

Through the process of writing this song, Kiirstin discovered a profound empathy for her grandmother and a deep connection to her that she had never felt before:

“I always knew my grandmother came here as a refugee of World War II, but her story was always more of an abstract idea without any real understanding of the history behind it.”

“My grandmother and I did not speak the same language. I was a very American kid, and growing up I just couldn’t connect with my immigrant grandmother. I wished she was ‘normal.’ I wished she spoke English. I wished she was everything other than who she was, and only as I’ve gotten older and educated myself beyond the American education system, have I realized how short-sighted that mentality was.”

“My grandmother endured so much hardship and heartache to allow for me to have what has been a fairly easy life here in the United States. I’ve never known war. I’ve never known hunger. I’ve never known true fear.”

As the song began to really take form, Kiirstin realized that She had morphed from a song just about Linda to a song for all women empowered by the generations before them who fought for equal rights. In our current political climate, just after electing a misogynistic ‘leader’ to the highest office in the land, Kiirstin felt she needed to raise her voice for women and use her music to encourage others to demand their voices also be heard.

The official video for She, shot and edited by V4V Productions, features images from the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D.C., which Kiirstin attended with her mother, Valerie Kuhi, along with a million other like-minded women. While being a song specifically inspired by and about Kiirstin’s grandmother, She aspires to be an anthem for all women who continue to fight for liberation and equality.

To End Violence, We Must Build #CitiesforWomen

In the fight to end violence against women and girls, no real progress can be made without considering the role of the urban environment. Dark streets, unprotected public toilets, parking lots and mass transit are breeding grounds for violence. A placard we saw at a protest against femicide in Latin America a few years ago sums it up: “Walking home, I want to feel free, not brave.”

Since last fall, women in the United States have been speaking up as never before on the subject of violence, harassment, and abuse – at home, at work, in daily life. If #TimesUp for gender-based, on-the-job abuse, #TimesUp too for cities that fail to consider the daily dangers faced by half of their community.

A Global Problem
  • 2014 Reuters survey of 16 major cities worldwide found that women in Latin American cities suffered the highest rates of harassment, with about 6 in 10 women experiencing physical harassment on public transport. Additionally, 64% of women in Mexico City said they’d been groped or physically harassed on public transport.
  • In a 2009 UN Women survey in Delhi, 95% of women said their mobility was limited by fear of harassment in public places.
  • In a Kenyan survey from Women’s Empowerment Link, more than half of the 381 women interviewed in 2017 said they’d experienced gender-based violence while using public transport.
  • According to the World Bank-led partnership, Sustainable Mobility For All, 53% of women in developed countries feel “unsafe” or “very unsafe” waiting on a railway platform after dark.

By 2030, more than 60% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. With women representing more than half the world’s population, cities need to improve their urban infrastructure to discourage harassment and abuse.

A great deal of danger could be eliminated with more inclusive city planning and the creation of infrastructure sensitive to the needs of women and girls – better street lighting and broader streets, fewer dead-end alleys, safer public toilets. Safer cities enable every individual to move through their day without fear and with unfettered access to social, economic, political, cultural, and educational opportunities.

Photo Credit: Sydney Rubin

We must all do whatever it takes to create cities where women and girls can lead healthy, prosperous, and fulfilling lives, in dignity and peace. It will take cooperation and commitment from government at every level, multi-lateral institutions of all kinds, and non-governmental groups such as WomenStrong International.

How WomenStrong Helps

Members of the WomenStrong Consortium are supporting women and girls in a number of effective ways as they seek to build lives free from violence.

  • With our partner DHAN Foundation in Madurai, India – a city with a population of 1.5 million – we have established a Micro-Justice Clinic to teach women their rights, arm them with the resources they need to fight injustice and stand up for themselves. These women, who also are members of micro-finance self-help groups, discover that economic empowerment gives them confidence and the ability to press local officials to address some of the root causes of gender-based violence, including unsafe infrastructure.
  • Women’s Health to Wealth (WHW) in Kumasi, Ghana – population well over 2 million – works with women who rent stalls in the Bantama Market and who had been pressing local officials for years to install lighting and pave market alleyways so they could safely transport their wares at dawn and dusk. With WomenStrong’s support, women working with WHW struck a bargain with a local official, agreeing to clean the market in exchange for the government paving and lighting the market. The paving was completed, but the lighting was not, so WHW continue to press the market manager. Their concerns have spurred construction of a new, safe, enclosed market structure where plenty of lighting is promised.
  • In the Manyatta slums of Kisumu, Kenya, Alice Visionary Foundation Project (AVFP) has run a multi-year program on Positive Discipline in schools to help create environments where girls can learn, prosper and grow. Schools should be places of safety for young girls but are often places of harassment, verbal and physical abuse, and rape, by male students and even teachers. AVFP works with school administrators, teachers, parents, public officials and communities to help keep girls in school and flourishing in the face of the massive challenges of poverty.
  • WomenStrong Member H.O.P.E. in Borgne, Haiti – located in a commune with a population of under 100,000 – supports the work of local women who have formed a group to confront domestic violence, helping victims and filling the gap left by a lack of law enforcement. H.O.P.E. also runs clubs for adolescent girls, similar to those at the other WomenStrong sites, teaching girls their rights, building confidence, and providing safe spaces where girls can build friendships, gain mentors, and create a network of support.

Women and girls at all our sites demonstrate every day that they have the determination, smarts and willingness to stand up for their right to be free from violence. It is now up to the rest of us to provide the support they deserve and need by building #CitiesforWomen.

What Does an Abusive Relationship Look Like?

Recent research by Cosmopolitan and Women’s Aid has revealed disturbing new statistics on young women’s experiences of domestic violence in the UK.

In a survey of more than 122,000 people, more than a third of women (34.5%) revealed that they had been in an abusive relationship.

More shocking, though, is that many of the women surveyed didn’t actually recognise the signs of an abusive relationship in the first place. Almost two thirds (63.8%) of the women who answered that they had not been in an abusive relationship revealed elsewhere in the survey that they had in fact experienced behaviour or treatment from a partner that could be classed as abusive.

When it comes to domestic violence, the first image that comes to my mind is a frail, bloodied woman with black eyes and scratched arms, curled up in the corner of a dark room. She’s straight out of the anti-violence awareness campaigns I saw around me growing up in the UK.

In reality, abuse comes in many forms other than physical and doesn’t always leave easily-identifiable marks on bodies. Abuse includes a vast range of actions and behaviours, from emotional damage, financial manipulation, sexual intimidation, coercive control, social media invasion and much more. Of course, physical violence can and does occur, but a relationship can be abusive without it, or for a long time before it happens.

The frightening thing is that this survey suggests that young women in the UK today are unaware of what counts as abuse. Without being aware of what counts as abuse, and without being able to name certain behaviours as violent, it’s difficult to protect yourself or your friends and family from relationships that are toxic, damaging or even life-threatening. 

During an interview for BBC Woman’s Hour, 3 young women who had experienced abuse in their first ever relationships described some of the characteristics that made those relationships so unhealthy. Each of their experiences were different, but some of the things they spoke of included extreme jealousy, forced isolation, being forbidden from talking to other people, a constant undermining of self-esteem, excessive anger, sexual shaming – sometimes through social media, financial exploitation and derogatory language.

A common reflection among these young women, as well as others who have shared their experiences through Cosmopolitan, is that it’s difficult to know when something is wrong if you don’t know what’s ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ in the first place. Each of them described experiencing a large volume of small actions or behaviours that on their own might seem insignificant, but when added together created a toxic and frightening environment to find themselves in.

Speaking on the release of these new statistics, Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said:

“Our culture often portrays controlling behaviour as a sign of being desired or loved when in fact coercive and controlling behaviour is at the heart of domestic abuse. As the shocking findings from our research show, many younger women may not recognise that their partner is abusive if there isn’t physical violence and may even think that threatening, controlling and intimidating behaviour is normal in relationships. We know that younger women are most likely to experience domestic abuse but least likely to access vital support services. We want to change this.”

Surely we are failing young people if we aren’t teaching them what a healthy relationship looks like before they embark on one for themselves for the first time. Surely to recognise red flags for yourself or for the people you care about you need to have first been given some examples of what those red flags might look like. Relationship education needs to be prioritised in all schools, and it needs to encompass much more than the basics of sex and contraception. No young person should have to experience an abusive relationship – or watch a friend experience one – as a way to figure out what is and isn’t an acceptable way to be treated by another person.

If you’re in the UK, you can help shape the government’s approach to the issue by giving feedback on the consultation on the Domestic Abuse Bill. Click here to add your voice – it’s open until May 31 and doesn’t take very long!

For more information and support, visit Women’s Aid’s website or call the Freephone 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Women’s Aid in partnership with Refuge, on 0808 2000 247.