^^International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women while calling for greater equality. The theme this year is Make It Happen. You can get involved by sharing your support on social media and wearing purple (the colour used by suffragette’s to symbolise justice and dignity)^^
I’d hoped to write a post about International Women’s Day before, erm, International Women’s Day. But life got in the way. An insomniac* baby, a poorly 4-year-old, and an insurmountable pile of work to do by tomorrow has left me a bit weary, and I considered not writing this. But then I remembered how much today matters, and how the voices of women are too often stifled by brute force, guilt, shame, and exhaustion.
* I jest. Kind of.
Women are still effectively being punished for being female, and in so many ways. One of the most significant and far-reaching issues is the objectification of our bodies. It’s a feature of most, if not all, cultures. In the best case scenario objectification riddles us with shame, in the worst instances it brutalises us. Every woman has, at some point, felt obliged to contort her mind or body into society’s vision of Girl and Woman. And all the while we have to carry on with the work that’s been designated to us by a world that defines femininity in the most rigid of ways.
Too often we are exhausted to our bones from spinning more plates than men, from working for less money than men, for employers who take little responsibility for challenging gender disparity. We tend to the financial, domestic and emotional needs of everyone around us, with little help, as if we were born to do nothing else, and it leaves us with no energy for the resistance needed to make our lives more manageable. Such is the nature of patriarchy – we become so tightly woven into its structure it becomes difficult to see an alternative.
So, when it comes to talking about girls and women and that epic list of inequalities we still suffer, those of us who can must make time to share our thoughts and experiences this International Women’s Day. Each time we tap away on WordPress, Twitter or Facebook, we should remember our words encapsulate the autonomy that many woman are still denied. I know I’m privileged to have a voice that I no longer have to hide. I know each blog I write is an opportunity to call out inequality. But I’ve not always been so vocal about my passion for feminism. It wasn’t until about 5 years ago that I realised my voice needn’t be an apologetic whisper and that I could contribute to the debate.
^^Jasvinder Sanghera (actual hero) ^^ (source)
In 2010 I was asked to attend a conference on forced marriage, honour based violence and FGM, on behalf of my employer. I jumped at the chance. Having been forced to convert to a strict form of Islam as a child I was all too familiar with the topics of forced marriage and izzat (the South Asian concept of honour that subjugates women and seeks to control their bodies), and I was desperate for a different perspective on what I’d heard and witnessed growing up. We listened to several brilliant speakers, but the person who shifted my world on its axis that day was Jasvinder Sanghera. As a British child Jasvinder faced the prospect of a forced marriage. She experienced abuse, ostracism and rejection because of a misogynistic culture that still prevails in many communities. Thankfully she fought her way out and as well as demanding autonomy for herself she established Karma Nirvana, a charity that supports women, men and couples trapped by abusive cultures that limit human rights.
The day was inspiring, motivating and hugely educational, but I hadn’t expected to feel so drained by the facts. Learning how many girls are subjected to honour based violence, FGM and forced marriage in the UK, about the lack of support they receive and the cack handed response by agencies that should be helping, was hard. I felt devastated for the women whose stories I heard. But it was also a deeply uncomfortable moment of realisation for me, I had to acknowledge that what I’d seen in my own community – the physical and emotional manipulation of women – was abhorrent. It was a sucker punch of a moment, and it changed me.
After that the word feminism, which I’d nervously toyed with for years, made complete sense. I was a feminist. I am a feminist. I don’t care about the men who are offended by the word, and I’ve no time for the apologetic term ‘egalitarianism’, because there is no compromise when demanding that women be free. So those of us who can must fight sexism and misogyny until we lose our voices and make our fingers numb from typing. And for those of you who feel like we’ve already made it because your lives are good: you’re wrong. This isn’t about you, or me, it’s about us. Women, not woman. So many of us still suffer because we were lucky enough to be born with a vagina. Take a look at this, read it, weep. Then, fight.
1. Approximately 85,000 women are raped on average in England and Wales, each year. Over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted each year. 1 in 5 women has experienced some sort of sexual violence since the age of 16
2. Nearly 30% of women in the UK have experienced domestic abuse
3. Women are massively under-represented in government, making up just 22% of our MP’s…
4. and in journalism. In a typical month, 78% of newspaper articles are written by men, 72% of Question Time contributors are men and 84% of reporters and guests on Radio 4’s Today show are men. Relatively few women are rising to senior jobs and the pay gap between male and female journalists remains a stubbornly wide one. And this is despite the fact that women substantially outnumber men in journalism training and enter the profession in (slightly) greater numbers. (source: Women and Journalism by Suzanne Franks)
Just take a moment to remember that these are professions that are key to shifting policy, influencing culture, and changing society. And that glass ceiling is still there.
5. The gender pay-gap is still very much present. In fact the UK is among Europe’s worst offenders, with a pay gap of 19.1 per cent13. This is despite the fact that females in the UK outperform males at all levels of the education system, and are more likely to be educated to degree level.
6. The top earners in all societies are men. Just 11% of all billionaires are women
7. The cost of childcare continues to keep women out of the workplace and limit their choices. In 2012 an Australian study found that a mother from a low-income family faces losing 69% of her income if she returns to work after having a child, partly as a result of the extortionate cost of childcare, the average cost of which has risen by 150% over the past decade
8. In 2012, the Forced Marriage Unit had to give advice or support related to possible forced marriages in 1,485 cases. But this figure is deceptive because it only factors in those who have been made known. Jasvinder Sanghera estimates that the actual figure of forced marriages in the UK is well above 100,000. This abuse remains underreported as victims are extremely isolated with multiple perpetrators.
9. There are approximately 12 reported ‘honour’ killings per year in the UK. This doesn’t take into account the many people who are taken abroad and don’t return. ‘Honour’ killings are murders in which predominantly women are killed for perceived immoral behaviour, which is deemed to have breached the honour code of a family or community causing shame
10. Over 20,000 girls under the age of 15 IN THIS COUNTRY have had their genitals mutilated* This figure rises exponentially when you add to it to the number of girls outside the UK who have also had to endure the practice
11. Rape continues to be used as a weapon of war, and it overwhelmingly affects women more than men. The Independent reported only a few months ago that Yazidi girls were killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants, and the problem isn’t isolated to Iraq. According to the Global Justice Center rape is being used more than any other prohibited weapon of war including starvation; attacks on cultural objects; and the use of herbicides, biological or chemical weapons, dum-dum bullets, white phosphorus or blinding lasers.
12. Worldwide, girls constitute over half of the children out of school. Only 30 percent of all girls are enrolled in secondary school. In many countries, less than one third of university students are women
13. Girls and women suffer disproportionately in countries that lack hygienic sanitation. The impacts are far-reaching, whether it be poor maternal and newborn health, inadequate facilities in schools for girls on their period (and the related stigma associated with menstruation), or being vulnerable to harassment or violence when travelling the long distances to use shared toilets, or practice open defecation. Just imagine if every time you went to the toilet it involved harassment, violence, and indignity
* the source I took this statistic from refers to FGM as ‘circumcision’. It’s not, it’s mutilation.