Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Violence against women and girls on IWD

A version of this article appeared on Liberal Conspiracy

For those who dare to tell us that feminism is dead, no longer necessary, no longer vital, you need to open your eyes to see that the inequalities women face are still very real, very pertinent and very damaging.

Last year, Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn published their game changing book, Half the Sky. In it, they talk about the 107 million missing women. These women are missing because of femicide, because of lack of healthcare, because of domestic violence and because of trafficking. They write:

“in normal circumstances women live longer than men, and so there are more females than males in the world. Even poor regions like most of Latin America and Africa have more women than men. Yet in places where girls have deeply unequal status, they vanish...Every year at least another 2 million girls worldwide disappear because of gender discrimination.”

These are the women who we don't hear about on the news. These are the women whose stories are too terrible for our 'compassion fatigue' society to deal with. These are the women who are forgotten, whilst bored commentators dismiss feminism as a lost cause because, after all, we have equality now don't we.

It is estimated that three million girls across the world will be affected by female genital mutilation this year alone, according to the UN. For those of you who don't know, FGM involves cutting a woman's clitoris and sometimes sewing up a woman's vaginal opening until marriage – this is also called infibulation. FGM can cause infection, issues with menstruation, pain during sexual intercourse, and, at worst, death through infection. But fundamentally it is about control. A few weeks ago I spoke to Nimko Ali, one of the founders of Daughters of Eve, a charity that supports girls in the FGM community. She believes that FGM is about a disgust of women's organs, a desire to control women, that all starts with a fear and disgust of women's sexuality. She argues that the same issues arise with the increase of western women seeking labiaplasty to get the perfect vagina. Ali argues that:

“The women I speak to in the FGM practising community use the same language of disgust to describe un-cut women, as women outside of the community talk about their own, 'un-perfect' bodies that need surgery to fit into an ideal of beauty. The result is the suppression of women’s sexuality to the benefit of men who start these myths in order to get women to want to alter their bodies.”

FGM happens to a girl every ten seconds. Every ten seconds a woman's sexuality, ability to experience sexual pleasure and potentially her reproductive health are compromised. Although FGM is a crime in the UK, no-one has ever been prosecuted.

It is tempting to think this is a problem for 'over there'. But this is completely wrong. This is a problem for all women, and it is something we should all be involved in the fight against. This disgust, this fear of women, women's bodies and women's power affects every woman across the world. The oppression of women across the world is a fight for all of us.

But, of course, we have equality now, don't we. The battle has been won.

According to the UN, an estimated 2 million women are trafficked over international borders every year. When you add the numbers of women who are trafficked internally, the number is even higher, around 4 million. These women are trafficked into the sex and domestic service trade. They are repeatedly raped every day, for money that they don't see, or work as slaves for privileged women and men. They lose their lives, their health, their identity. They may lose any children they have to the brothels or homes they work in. Some escape, as described in Half the Sky. But many don't. In the UK, teenage girls are internally trafficked in to the sex industry. Whatever your view on the sex industry, and I am sure some of you who have read my articles before will know mine, surely there is something very damning and disturbing about a society that will pay money to rape a woman. And yet, it happens every day, all over the world, to millions and millions of women.

Across the world, 70 million girls are deprived of an education. And yet, study after economic study has found that educating girls improves the economy. By educating girls, you empower them for future generations, who will also benefit from the education of their mothers. Improved literacy has a positive effect on empowering women to have control of their families and their reproductive health. Educating girls not only makes good moral sense, but it makes economic and political sense too. What's stopping us? Inequality and sexism.

Still not convinced? Here's some more numbers that might change your mind.

Across the world, sixty million girls will be sexually assaulted on their way to school. A girl in South Africa is more likely to be raped than finish her education. One in three women in the world will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. One in four women in the UK will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Two women a week will be murdered in the UK by a current or former partner. About six women who work as prostitutes will be murdered in the UK every year (British Journal of Nurses). Three million women across the world are left incontinent with fistulas that are caused by rape, or lack of care during pregnancy and labour. Women with fistulas often find themselves treated as outcasts, unable to get or access the healthcare they need. And they are the women who survive childbirth. The maternal mortality rate is actually getting worse in some parts of the developing world; the number of African women who die in childbirth has risen from 205,000 in 1990 to 261,000 in 2005.

These are all big problems. And this is the tip of the iceberg in a world where women do two thirds of the world's work, earn 10% of the world's income and own 1% of the world's property.

If you think that International Women's Day is a waste of time, that feminism no longer has any battles to fight, then please, I beg you, think again. Think of the women in the Congo, who's stories have been silenced. Think of the girl who is being held down as her clitoris is cut to be made a 'real woman'. Think of the teenage girl who thinks the only way to success and self esteem is to have her breasts cut open and stuffed with silicon. Think of the women who don't go to school, who are kidnapped and forced into sex or domestic slavery. Think of the women who have died this year in the UK already as a result of domestic violence. Think of the women who are raped every day for profit. Think of this and tell me that we don't need International Women's Day. Hear these women's voices and tell me that we don't need feminism.

For stats and references please check:
Living Dolls by Natasha Walter
Half the Sky by Kristof and Wudann

No comments: