#16D17: Children depict Human Rights

On the last SSR_9133day of the 2017 Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence, we went to the Roshni Matriculation School in Guduvanchery where in partnership with the school, we had arranged a poster competition for children from schools in the area. 72 children from Class V to Class X participated, and the results were stunning. We selected six posters from two age categories for special recognition but all the posters spoke volumes for the awareness level of the children–and the efforts of teachers and parents!

We had identified eight themes from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all of which related to gender equality (and therefore, ending gender violence).

We present a digital exhibition of the posters herewith.

Theme 1: You are born free and equal in rights to every other human being.

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Theme 2: Everyone has human rights no matter what race, skin colour, sex, language, religion, opinions, family background, class or nationality.

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Theme 3: Nobody has the right to torture, harm or humiliate you.

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Theme 4: You have a right to be protected and treated equally by the law without discrimination of any kind.

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Theme 5: Each and every person who is legally old enough has the right to marry and have a family.

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Theme 6: Nobody should force you to get married.

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Theme 7: You have the right to have a healthy and comfortable life.

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Theme 8: Mothers and children should receive special care and help.

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Please respect the intellectual property of the children, although they have not signed their work, and do not copy the images.

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#VAWIP Blog Symposium: USA

USA: Because she was a woman

by Amy Shamroe

I remember huddling around my friend’s laptop with several friends on November 4, 2008. We were hopeful, but didn’t really believe a black man could become President of the United States. Not yet. When he did, we literally took to the streets of our small town singing “God Bless, America.” Hope had won.

When it became apparent in summer 2016 that Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee for President, I was conflicted. I had been wrong about America’s ability to elect a black man, but as a woman living in this country I knew in subtle and not so subtle forms that sexism and misogyny is alive and well here. Still, hope had one victory, so I allowed myself to get excited that a woman might finally lead America. We saw how that turned out.

So, how did a former Senator and Secretary of State lose to a bankrupt reality TV star? Hundreds, if not thousands, of think pieces have been written about this subject since last November. Many, especially those written by men, look at the campaign’s lack of ground game. Fair point, but Trump didn’t even have organizers in every state. When you strip it all away, it comes down to the fact she was a woman.

From the get-go, as a former Secretary of State, Senator, architect of a healthcare plan, and successful lawyer Hillary Clinton still wasn’t good enough. In comments and conversation, she was a “bitch” or worse for being involved in politics, for making the tough decisions men are supposed to make. Trump called for her to be locked up for doing her job as Secretary of State and made it a platform during the campaign, ignoring the long history in our country of peaceful transitions without abuse of power to punish challengers. His supporters latched on the “Lock her up!” battle cry, including soon to be National Security advisor Michael Flynn (now under investigation). Demeaning and undermining her accomplishments has always been par for the course, and American politics have not only allowed it, they have made it the status quo.

It pains me to start with this, but merely getting dressed has always been all the media and critics have needed to attack Hillary Clinton. When she was First Lady, a completely allowable attack was her headbands and scrunchies. Journalists of all stripes commented on the “trend” while she was working to try and reform health care during her husband’s first term. Senator Hillary Clinton’s “boring” pantsuit was a sign of her not being feminine enough. Well, until 2007 at least, when she wore a shirt under one suit was noted to show cleavage. “There wasn’t an unseemly amount of cleavage showing, but there it was. Undeniable.” The Washington Post, a newspaper of note, reported at the time. Numerous articles were written about the suits. Television talk shows spent hours discussing them. As women often do, Clinton eventually leaned into it and even went on David Letterman’s show and made jokes about them herself.

In 2015, when the 2016 Presidential election was already making headlines, pundits once again focused on her clothing. A secret Facebook group called Pantsuit Nation eventually sprang up to take ownership of the obsession with Clinton’s wardrobe. It is easy to downplay and minimize this behaviour, but it is a small but meaningful way women are demeaned and marginalized.

While pundits like to put blame for the vitriol, if they even see any, of the 2016 elections on Trump and his supporters, it is far more institutionalized. Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy released a study after last year’s elections that showed the media focused more on Clinton’s “controversies,” as the study referred to the negative events, than Trump’s in the election. While the percentage difference was only 4%, the coverage mattered. The narrative for Clinton almost solely focused on “the emails” while Trump’s multitude of controversies were briefly discussed until the next one came along to overshadow the last. From the study, “Clinton’s badgering had a laser-like focus. She was alleged to be scandal-prone. Clinton’s alleged scandals accounted for 16 percent of her coverage—four times the amount of press attention paid to Trump’s treatment of women and sixteen times the amount of news coverage given to Clinton’s most heavily covered policy position.” The media chose to report on an “the emails,” even after countless of GOP led hearings yielded nothing- all while Trump’s blatantly sexist comments and terrible treatment of women were passing stories and not viewed with the same intensity. This was the media as whole, including the allegedly liberal bias publications, giving a man who was caught on tape make lewd comments and had multiple accusers speak out about his actions a free pass.

Looking back a year later, seeing the havoc Trump is already wreaking, the narrative has sadly not changed. When Clinton dared to share her experiences as a woman in international politics the same media turned up to tear her apart again. Numerous Op-Eds questioning how she could dare to share her thoughts flooded social media and chat shows. Bernie Sanders released a book the week after the election and was met with no push-back. Clinton publishes a memoir a year later and she is branded as a sore loser and/or someone who should not even consider being part of the conversation anymore.

Amy Shamroe, publishing professional and Traverse City City Commissioner (elected), Michigian, USA. 

#VAWIP Blog Symposium: Colombia

Colombia: Institutional violence versus political equality

by Sofi Ospina

Sixty years ago, 41% of women voted for the first time on the first plebiscite for peace that gave legitimacy to the ‘National Front’, in which the liberal and the conservative parties agreed upon to share power, as an attempt to put an end to the fratricide bloodshed of the “Violence” period.  On 1st December Colombia will be commemorating the 60th anniversary of women’s vote but this relative long history of participation as voters has not yet translated into political equality. Elected women represents only 20% in the National Parliament, less than 10% as provincial governors and less than 15% as mayors in the municipalities and as city councillors.[i] This low representation contrasts with other Latin American countries for example Bolivia (47,2% in the Senate and 53% in the Low Chamber). Even though there exist some legislation to promote women’s political participation, as the quota law and the Law 1475/2011 that rules political parties, there remain many barriers that prevents their participation mostly nurtured by the sexism embedded in political parties male-dominated leadership: lack of training for female militants, lack of funding to their political campaigns, not access to media, etc.

A study released in March 2017, undertaken among elected women, showed that 63% of the respondents (N=166) were victims of political violence. The major reported form of political violence is psychological, mostly exerted by their male peers, even from their same political party. The acts reported were in the form of dismissal of their arguments, threats against their children or relatives, rumours of infidelity, physic and verbal abuse. The most frequent was to restrict their voices, including by turning off the microphones while they were addressing the floor. These acts of violence were considered by themselves as ‘the natural price they have to pay for being elected women. As result of these acts some of them resigned from office or abandoned politics for ever. [ii]

This year with the implementation of the peace agreement with the FARC insurgency, the level of political violence against human rights defenders, social activists and demobilized ex-combatants have increased as the territories formerly controlled by the FARC have been taken over by right-wing militias and the State is not yet ensuring security in those areas as has been agreed. Between 2016 to September 2017, 200 social leaders and human rights defenders have been killed in Colombia.[iii]   In our region, South-West Colombia, many social leaders (both women and men) have been killed in 2017 mostly among Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples. Last month, threats of political violence were reported by the Executive Director of the Union Patriotica, who received death threats by right-wing militias both to herself and the members of her party, if the UP were to contest the 2018 elections.[iv]  The second chapter of the peace agreement encompasses measures by the State to the protection of social activists, human rights defenders and opposition leaders and to neutralised right-wing militias.

This second chapter focuses on political participation and includes a political reform. It establishes 16 special circumscriptions for peace to represent the rural citizens of 170 municipalities (15 million people) that have been affected by the armed-conflict. This is a window of opportunity to political equality, as each list to contest these post-conflict seats should be composed by a man and a woman whose names should be put forward by mid-December. The chances for a woman to be elected in these constituencies will be slim due to the rampant machismo; however, as women political activists, we are vigilant and working hard to ensure there will be some rural women elected on 11 March 2017. For this political reform, women political activists proposed to the special electoral mission the adoption of the zipper system (50% women and 50% men alternately in party lists) for the forthcoming elections 2018 /2019. Unfortunately, the national parliament postponed this proposal to be enacted in 2026. This is another form of institutional violence against women politicians and activists working towards political equality in the electoral law just ad-portas of the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of women’s vote in Colombia.

Sofi Ospina, Red Nacional de Mujeres Valle del Cauca, Colectivo de Mujeres Pazíficas Cali, Comisión de Igualdad de Genero y Empoderamiento de las Mujeres Partido Alianza Verde.

[i] http://lasillavacia.com/silla-llena/red-de-las-mujeres/historia/y-de-la-paridad-que-63377

[ii] http://colombia.nimd.org/publications/mujeres-y-participacion-politica-en-colombia-el-fenomeno-de-la-violencia-contra-las-mujeres-en-politica/ and https://www.elespectador.com/noticias/politica/el-63-de-las-mujeres-que-hacen-politica-en-colombia-son-victimas-de-violencia-de-genero-articulo-684343

[iii] https://www.elespectador.com/noticias/investigacion/la-lista-roja-de-defensores-de-derechos-humanos-articulo-713488

[iv] During the late 80s and 90s about 3.500 leaders and militants of the UP, composed mainly by different ex-combatants of the insurgency, were killed by right-militias and the military.

 

#VAWIP Blog Symposium: Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico: Women in politics: New rules for equality

by Amárilis Pagán-Jiménez

Some people say that whoever pays for the bills, states the rules. And if we look at the political world of Puerto Rico and compare it with our economic statistics we know that it is almost impossible for women to be in a position of command today or in the next week. We are the group with the highest percentage of families under the poverty level. When it comes to have access to positions of power, it is also evident that not only the educational level that we reached is considered. Our biological sex determines social expectations around us, what stereotypes are used to judge us, what excuses are used to sexually assault us, and how likely is that our couple will abuse or murder us. Violence against women is much more than being hit, it is also a social platform apparatus that deprives us of opportunities for development and basic human rights.

When we lack basic human rights, like the right to the housing, to food, to education, health or work, our capacity for action is limited by a routine for survival that rarely leaves space for access to public and political spaces of the countries where we live. “What will give food to my family? Where will we live next week? How do I get to my work? What can I do with my children if schools are closed? How can I find a doctor to diagnose my symptoms? Where can I find a job that pays enough to cover the needs of my family?” These are just some of the questions that populate the heads of a high percentage of women in Puerto Rico.

Even women who have attained a higher educational level and employment, have dilemmas that need to be resolved before aspiring to public office. In Puerto Rico we lack a structure of social or governmental support to facilitate the raising of our children through quality care centres or schools with schedules that recognize the reality of working mothers. We are still pretty far from having family structures where the fair division of household chores is a reality.

As a woman, you have to be in a very particular economic and social niche to say with confidence that you are ready and have the necessary conditions to make the leap from the domestic space to the political arena. Even from that space, which we see as one of privilege, it is not easy to overcome obstacles and violence that represents a constant menace for women in the public world. Our morale, intelligence, leadership and even our form of dressing is always questioned and criticized.

Although women are 50% of humanity, our presence is scarce in political bodies, governments and economic leadership of the planet. On average, we are no more than 25% of the legislative bodies of the planet. According to UN Women, only 7.2% of women are head of state in the world. In Puerto Rico, 14 of 80 legislators are women (17.5%).  If we look again and evaluate each of the fourteen women legislators we have today from a gender perspective and in the light of their history of working for other women, we would have to conclude that women in Puerto Rico do not have representation in the legislature. I say this because in assessing the participation of women in politics and the public sphere, it is not enough to look at their biological sex, we have to look at their commitment to equality and their understanding about what is gender perspective.

When we talk about women in the political field, there are two important elements that collide with each other. On the one hand, we are a group consistently studied by advertising agencies to learn how to sell us political parties and their candidates. On the other hand, beyond wanting to win our vote, for many of those political parties there is no real interest in advancing an agenda of equality for us. We are the most desirable voters and at the same time, the group most despised at the time of distributing rights.

It is necessary, however, to look beyond what has been considered “politics”. Feminism and the LGBT activism have given us some good lessons because they have been able to work beyond partisan politics tied to electoral processes and have worked politically influencing social processes to advance their own agendas. To the horror of conservative groups who hate to see the women gaining the space they deserve and LGBT people reclaiming their humanity against the discrimination, our work has been paying off.

In the case of women, to reach 2016 elections in Puerto Rico with candidates and parties which fully supported our rights was not coincidence. At the beginning of the 20th century, we had to fight for the mere right to vote. In the 70’s, we had to work a reform of the Civil Code to achieve equal rights in marriage. In the 80’s we achieved legislation to prohibit domestic violence and sexual assault in marriages. In the 2000’s, economic development began to acquire importance on our agenda: with poverty in the center of our lives, there is no way to have equality. We have also achieved important rights related to sexual orientation and gender identity. All that work was political and, in this new decade, we are now ready to cross the borders of the electoral world and go into the spaces of power where decisions that affect not only women, but their families and their communities are made. If we are 50% of the population, we must also be 50% of those who make the decisions.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, in the election of 2016, we only had a 20% nominations of women versus 80% of men. In the case of the LGBT communities, as in past elections, we had candidates who have been open about their sexual orientation and that it is a breakthrough.

If we take a closer look at this picture and study platforms, proposals and the history of some parties and candidates of 2016, we can conclude that there was a real opportunity to change numbers and alter the proportion of representation of women and LGBT communities in our Government. Unfortunately, candidates who have attacked our rights prevailed. In part, because they have big-budget campaigns and it was difficult to overcome gender stereotypes. Many people still think that women must be at home and not leading in public spaces. We are still subject to a harsher evaluation than men and it is a disadvantage in politics where double standards cost votes. In the case of LGBT candidates another challenge is the direct attack of anti LGBT groups and religious fundamentalisms.

Is the political world a space of violence for women? Definitely yes. Not only is there violence in the double standards used to evaluate us that I have just mentioned. There is evidence and we know cases in which the manifestations of violence directly affect women candidates or that occupy public spaces from government offices, social movements or media. This does not mean that we should give up to a reality that we can and we must transform.

In a discussion on this topic held by the Organization Proyecto Matria in 2015, activists, students and workers identified some of the forms of violence suffered by women in public spaces and proposed concrete actions to counteract this violence. Some of them have already been mentioned in this column, but worth noting how the attacks on reputation, the fear of losing economic spaces and threats from private individuals or Government officials represent major concerns for every woman that wants to aspire to public office in Puerto Rico. These fears are not unfounded. In the past years we have seen the publication of private photos of public officials, election campaigns that make reference to sexual orientation or morals of candidates, defamatory campaigns in social networks and the persecution of activists by Government officials who have been confronted because of their incompetence or human rights violations. Coping with these challenges which add to the ones we already have in our lives long before considering a political career is hard enough and a good reason to think it twice.

Some of the proposals made by discussion group of Matria, and others found in a research on the subject, give us some keys that can be considered for future actions aimed to change and improve the situation of women in the public and political world of Puerto Rico. These same recommendations are probably good for other countries. For example, using tactics of reframing was one recommendation. What is it? To alter the meaning of a fact or situation by changing or clarifying its context and proposing a reinterpretation. Other proposals include the work of a common agenda of rights for women in the country and promote it directly with women candidates so they take them beyond the borders of their parties and generate a discourse that strengthens its presence in public spaces. It is also recommended to have a communication strategy that allows the continuous monitoring of media and social networks to achieve coordinated responses beyond the immediate circle of the candidate or of women occupying public positions. It is important to send the message that they are not alone or an easy prey for the machinery that tries to put us again in domestic and apolitical spaces.

Human rights include the right to participate in the decisions that affect our lives and our families. That is politics. That is equality and development for us all.

Amárilis Pagán-Jiménez, Executive Director of Proyecto Matria

NB: Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States.

References:

Women in Politics, 2017; UN Women; http://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2017/femmesenpolitique_2017_english_web.pdf?la=en&vs=1123

Women’s leadership and political participation, UN Women; http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/leadership-and-political-participation

Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 19 December 2011 [on the report of the Third Committee (A/66/455 and Corr.1)] 66/130. Women and political participation; http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/66/130

Women in Politics: Why We Need More Women in Office; Soraya Chemaly, Huffpost 2012;https://www.huffingtonpost.com/soraya-chemaly/women-in-politics_b_1307586.html

#VAWIP Blog Symposium: Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: What’s stopping her?

by Lakmini Jayathilake

1931: Women gain the right to vote

1960:  The world’s first female Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, elected

1994:  The country’s first female president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, elected

Present:  Lowest female representation in politics in South Asia

Sri Lankan women gained the right to vote 17 years before the country gained independence from the British. The country elected the world’s first female Prime Minister and the fifth President of country was female. Women have made rapid advances in education, healthcare and their participation in the paid economy has been immense; however, little or no progress has been made with respect to their representation in the national legislature.

It is alarming how women go unrecognized in the most important decision making processes in the country. The Asian region has some of the lowest levels of women’s participation in national parliament, amongst them Sri Lanka is one of the lowest. Timor-Leste has 32.3% of women in parliament, Nepal 29.6% and Bangladesh 20.3% while Sri Lanka is at 5.3% and the nomination list has never increased beyond 6% for women.[i] Thus Civil Society Organizations (CSO) especially women’s rights activist from across the country have campaigned since the 1990s for a quota system for women in all political institutions.[ii] Although there wasn’t a backlash from the government or political parties towards these CSOs and women’s rights activist, quota system proposals consistently faced a dead-end.

The quota and what it entails

Following persistent lobbying and campaigning with every government, opposition party and political parties since the 1990s, the women’s movement in Sri Lanka marked a monumental milestone on 7th July 2017, when the Government of Sri Lanka gazetted the Provincial Councils Elections (Amendment) Bill to increase the number of female representatives in Provincial Councils. As the first step, the Government amended the Local Authorities Election Act to include 25% quota for women at the local government elections.[iii] Thus for the first time, a prospective 2000 women will contest in the upcoming local government election in January-February 2018 alongside their male counterparts. To influence local legislature, dismantled gender stereotypes and finally start seeing women as equals.

What’s stopping her?  

Sri Lankan women share many common barriers with women in other South Asian countries which prevent them from entering into their country’s formal political spheres. These include: cultural values, the perceptions of politics as a male domain and women’s double or triple burden of work, lack of family support and balancing responsibilities as a mother and wife all stand as obstacles. The most significant factor however restricting women from entering politics in Sri Lanka is Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV).

Sexism is so deeply rooted within the political structure and society making it almost impossible for women to break through glass ceiling and emerge as true leaders and furthermore be accepted as politicians. Upon entering politics women encounter harassment, intimidation, threats, financial pressure and in some cases sexual bribery to even include her name in the nomination list. Negative campaign material targeting women are commonly spread through various forms of mainstream and social media to undermine and sabotage her participation, of which character assassination and objectification of female candidates are the most common. This further disempowers and discourages grassroots level women leaders from entering politics as lack of funding and increase in care burdens becomes trivial compared to the SGBV she will face when getting into politics. Many female leaders fear they may lose their current social status within the community if they enter politics as it will create further space to target her and tarnish her reputation. The aforementioned ground level realities prevent female community leaders and activists from making an entrance to local political bodies.

The existing patriarchal social structure puts unfair pressure not just on prospective candidates but female politicians alike. They are constantly criticised and their political careers are always evaluated as a justification tool used to validate or dismiss the need for women in the political arena while their male counterparts face no such pressure. Apart from family commitments, lack of financial support and increase in women’s care responsibilities one of the key factors restricting female leaders from all socio-economic backgrounds is the SGBV they face upon entering politics which not only affects her but her entire family and social circle. This significantly hinders women’s participation and feeds into the stereotype that politics is a man’s domain.

The way forward

Sri Lanka currently stands at a pivotal juncture, taking one of the first steps towards encouraging the increase of women’s participation in the political arena. While making policies to promote women’s representation in politics is extremely important it would not be effective if an enabling environment wasn’t created in parallel. It will be ineffective if the country’s political climate, attitude of its citizens and the overall absence of an enabling environment are not favourable and safe for women to come to the political forefront.

Lakmini Jayathilake, development sector professional, Colombo, Sri Lanka

[i] Women in National Parliaments (1st September 2017), http://archive.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm

[ii] Swarna Sumanasekera, Women in Public life (2016), National Committee on Women.

[iii] Disna Mudalige, Bill to increase female representation in Provincial Councils gazetted, Daily News (11th July 2017), http://dailynews.lk/2017/07/11/local/121641/bill-increase-female-representation-provincial-councils-gazetted

 

#VAWIP Blog Symposium: Maldives

Maldives: Roughed up and Repressed

by Farah Faizal

I was arrested on 19th March 2012 while I was at the Maldivian Democratic Party Office by two police women. They just came and handcuffed me behind and the cuffs were very tight. They took me first to the police HQ and then they transferred me to Dhoonidhoo Island. I was handcuffed. They made me give a urine sample in front of them. They then took me to another room and made me take off my clothes and did a body check. I was kept in a police cell there at the detention centre and released the next day.” A. Muna

On 19th March 2012 I was near the MDP Office when the police came and grabbed me. I said, “Don’t hurt me please. If you want to handcuff me and I will go willing with you; please don’t hurt me.” And the police replied “We will do it.” One of the civilians there told the police that I had just had a small baby and not to take me. The police responded, “We will take her and we will kill her.” They then beat me and one of them grabbed my breasts. The police them sprayed by mouth and eyes with pepper spray.” I lost consciousness and when I regained it, I was inside the police jeep. …I told them don’t beat me. It wasn’t long ago I had a baby by Caesarian section. When I said that the police hit me on my stomach where I had my C-section with their fist. I cried out in pain.” – Y. Hussain

These are just a couple of extracts from the cases submitted to the UN in 2012 regarding what took place during an opposition protest in 2012.

The February coup of 2012 which led to the overthrow of the first democratically elected government led to a galvanising of female political activism in the country. Day after day women came out onto the streets of the capital to protest against the overthrow of the government as well as the diminishing of democratic political space. However, it also led to Maldivian women political activists facing the rough end of police brutality as they had never witnessed in the past.

Women protesters were repeatedly pepper sprayed, tear gassed, sprayed by water cannon and taken into custody. While this did not appear to stop women from participating in protests in the wake of the coup, since the elections of 2013, the government has repeatedly refused to allow protests and demonstrations from taking place at all. Those who have dared to participate have often been harshly punished. One such case is that of Nasira, a mother of two who threw an empty plastic bottle at a police cordon during one such protest and was jailed for five years. She was subsequently released after being in prison for over two years.

Women’s representation in politics and top government posts is very low in the Maldives with only five female MPs in the 85-member parliament and only three female cabinet ministers. A 2015 survey by the NGO, Transparency Maldives found that Maldivians believe that men make better political leaders than women. However, the survey also showed that compared to a survey in 2013, more people disagreed that men make better leaders, depicting a slight change in attitudes.

Despite low political participation, the survey showed that support for women in politics, especially as parliamentarians, cabinet ministers and councillors remained high. Of those surveyed, 84 percent supported women being parliamentarians, 79 % for cabinet ministers and 82 per cent for councillors. While attitudes for female political participation and activism appeared strong, the discrepancy between attitudes and actual participation indicates that there are other factors hindering women’s participation in politics. When asked why there were so few female MPs, 30 % stated that society does not want women as political leaders.

While political participation at the top level remains low, women continue to play a role in political parties mainly at grassroots level in the form of organizing campaign rallies, attending meetings and assisting in door-to-door activities. Women often explain their involvement at grassroots level as being easier for them as it is sporadic and does not demand full time involvement.

The change in attitudes, if any, and the level of women’s involvement in formal politics of Maldives will be evident in the next couple of years as Maldives faces a general election in 2018 and a parliamentary election in 2019. At the same time, there is also the risk of political repression and imprisonment of those who dare oppose the current regime, both that may result in once again women being pushed to the periphery of politics.

Dr. Farah Faizal, Former Ambassador, now Human Rights Defender, Maldives

#VAWIP Blog Symposium: India

India:  Strength—And Safety—In Numbers

by Vibhuti Patel

How safe are women activists in the public sphere?

In the public sphere, wherever and whenever, the women activists are backed by organisational strength and are a part of collective, they have been effect in their efforts and have a safety net. But if the women activist is isolated, there is threat of backlash, she is verbally abused, socially boycotted and physically-emotionally-psychologically harmed and faces continuous witch-hunting from the community. Women’s movement’s slogan, “Women United Will Never be defeated” and “There is Strength in Numbers”. Hence we must promote “cluster approach” in fighting for women’s rights.

How significant is the presence of women in formal politics in your country?

If women’s agenda has to be centre-stage, women’s presence is a MUST in formal politics. All important laws, government rulings, policies, programmes, schemes, translations of gender commitments into financial commitments is not possible without formal representations of women who have proved themselves by working for women’s causes. Activists of the women’s movement have just remained foot-soldiers of the formal politics and those with ornamental/token presence are projected as the figure-heads. This is harming women’s concerns. Moreover, one or two women in powerful position can be easily bypassed, silenced and marginalised. Hence we need “critical minimum” of at least 1/3 representation of women in the formal politics, though our goal must be 50: 50 in the long run.

Is the threat of violence against women candidates and voters significant enough to affect women’s participation?

It’s threat of money and muscle power that discourage committed women from participating in the mainstream politics. Historically, women’s voices have been suppressed, women have been confined to domesticity and women’s concerns have been neglected. Most of the women face tremendous opposition from family, community and the male political leaders if they decide to enter electoral politics or public life. The present political leadership of any hue, in spite of its populist rhetoric, wants to keep women out of the political arena. Indian women’s lower educational level, inferior social status and lack of autonomy are reflected in their lower participation in politics. Increasing criminalisation, corruption and compromises required to sustain one’s political career also deter women from entering mainstream politics. To provide level playing field to women against this historical neglect and adverse socio-political and cultural forces, reservation of seats for women in legislature and parliament is a MUST to ensure a more participate and inclusive, a more egalitarian and sensitive citizenship for all.

What about other forms of violence faced by women in the public sphere–for instance, journalists or writers?

Women in public spheres face three types of violence: First and the most prevalent form of psychological violence is character assassination through whisper campaign, blank calls, scary SMSes and MMSes, cyber-stalking and IT-based torture, morphed images used to tarnish her personality. Second type of violence is threatening her family members to pressurize her to withdraw her article, book, film and to stop her from her future work as a writer or journalist or film maker. Third is physical harm- killing or acid attack or maiming her set an example so that fear-psychosis prevents other journalists/writers/film makers not to speak out on sensitive/uncomfortable issues to the political vested interests.

What has been the experience of women human rights defenders in your country?

Women human rights defenders have been at the receiving end of the communities in case of “honour-related crimes”, accused rapists, accused dowry murderers, accused child sexual abusers and accused members of domestic violence in all parts of the country. Individual whistle blowers have been silence using the above mentioned 3 tactics. Women human rights defenders who are part of women’s groups, national and global networks have been able to save themselves as a result of safety nets provided by their colleagues locally and globally and also due to timely media coverage. They do not have to die an anonymous deaths or are not silenced. Hence, the need for women’s rights movement.

Dr. Vibhuti Patel, feminist economist, SNDT University, Mumbai, India, co-authored Political Feminism in India, 2016.

Violence against Women in Politics: A Blog Symposium #StopVAWIP #WHRD

Prajnya’s initial plans for its gender equality work were to document the work of women in the South Asian public sphere—as activists, politicians, bureaucrats, social workers and those who document this history as historians, writers, film-makers or journalists. We realised too that the biggest obstacle in women’s journeys towards the public spotlight was the threat of violence. This is why we began organising the 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence. With this blog symposium on Violence against Women in Politics, we come full-circle to where we started.

We posit women’s participation in the public sphere both as an intrinsic good and as a right. But what are the costs that women face in order to pursue political careers? Indeed, there are two dimensions of this work—there is work that women might do within the mainstream and there is the work that they do on the margins of a mainstream space where rights are violated with rising impunity. We are placing here on a single spectrum the two categories of ‘violence against women in politics’ and threats faced by Women Human Rights Defenders, because the roots of the problem (the will to exclude) and its expression (violence) seem to be similar.

The NDI guidebook, “Not the Cost,” identifies four roles in which women stepping into the public sphere face violence: as activists, as voters, as candidates and as parliamentarians. This study classifies threats as psychological, physical, sexual and economic, while a report by the Centre for Social Research and UN Women classifies them as structural, institutional and functional. There is a growing academic literature on this question, annotated last year as part of the 2016 Prajnya 16 Days Campaign.

This year’s blog symposium has a simpler objective—to simply be a window to the world in which political women work. What is it like from their point of view? Why is it so hard for women to enter and stay the course in politics? What is the relationship between the women’s movement and mainstream politics? And of course, what are the threats that women face when they take up human rights work or enter the mainstream?

We are fortunate to have perspectives from six countries: India, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Puerto Rico (which is an American-held territory), Colombia and the US itself. Each of these are written by people who care profoundly about their contexts. Through the six, what emerges is what women can achieve when they work together—anything, from a quota for women’s reservation to a peace pact.

  1. India
  2. Maldives
  3. Sri Lanka
  4. Puerto Rico
  5. Colombia
  6. USA

Reflections on a walk in the park

In December last year, I took a walk in the park.

Many hundreds of people traverse that path every day, a short stretch running through a quiet corner of the sleepy British city I live in. Yet, at the age of 28, this marked my very first attempt at moving through a public park at night, on foot, and completely alone. It was pitch-black and deserted, and I kept looking over my shoulder, my heart pounding in my ears as I scurried along, hoping to reach the bright lights of the main road at the other end without incident.

In my endless (and not always successful) quest for self-reflexivity, I must confront the unvarnished truth: that I have, no doubt, almost always had the luxury of a more comfortable alternative over the unlit and lonely path, and that the story I have recounted might, perhaps, say more about my own privilege, and far less about the frightening nature of deserted parks. Indeed, I have no intention of making any claim of the universality of my experience.

Yet, as my social media feeds were flooded with stories of gender violence a few weeks ago as part of the #metoo campaign, I was reminded of my brief, solitary expedition through the park last year; it became apparent that the magnitude of those revelations pointed to a deeper, more pervasive culture of violence. Our myriad experiences, in spite of being qualitatively different, collectively highlight the ubiquity of this culture of violence, which appears to transcend regional and socio-cultural boundaries.

In my university town, forceful reports and soft murmurs of sexual harassment and violent assault in college rooms, on the street, in the elevator of a university building, at the local grocery store, through Facebook messages, abound. Each of these instances of violence forces us to reassess what our potential ‘safe’ spaces are, until we are eventually painted into a very lonely corner. The culture of violence thus goes beyond single acts of physical assault, verbal harassment or emotional abuse, and imbues real and imagined threats of danger with a material force that inhabits our daily lived experience.

Every day, on my walk home from my office, I arrive at a tiny lane, sheltered by trees and covered with fallen leaves, sometimes wet and muddy underfoot, and dimly lit even on the brightest of days. During these autumnal evenings, when nightfall creeps up quickly and stealthily, this little track is shrouded in darkness well before my arrival.

The number of calculations that subconsciously filter through my brain as I near this path include: should I take the longer route along the main road instead? Would my handbag and umbrella be sufficient as defensive weapons if I have to protect myself? The lights are on in the houses near the front of the lane, so perhaps someone will hear me if I need to scream? The soles of my boots seem to be wearing down – will I be able to run without falling?

While grappling with this thick, suffocating fog of confusion, I sometimes have a single moment of clarity, when I think to myself, what would it feel like to walk down this path, without thinking about this path? Will I ever experience the freedom of thinking about something, anything, besides the potential for bodily violation? When, if ever, will I cease to be haunted by this spectre of violence, and simply enjoy the singular pleasure of meandering through the city at any and all hours of the day?

That night last December, when I finally arrived at the other end of the park, the sense of relief that followed did not wash over me all at once, but seeped out slowly and deliberately, until I eventually realised I was smiling to myself.

Because, of course, #metoo.

Do no harm: 8 don’ts for the fight against gender violence

(This article first appeared on the DNA website on November 25, 2016, on the first day of the 2016 Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence. It is reposted here as an option for those who find the original image-heavy page hard to access.)

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Do no harm: 8 don’ts for the fight against gender violence

Swarna Rajagopalan

We appear to be on the cusp of an age where it is not acceptable to endorse gender-based violence in public. This is not our destination—the elimination of gender-based violence—but it is a few steps down the path from a few decades ago when a column on the subject may have used genteel euphemisms and lamented the loss of virtue of our sisters and daughters. This unprecedented promise of a consensus must be celebrated and International Day for the Elimination of All Forms of Violence against Women (November 25) presents a great opportunity.

This year, I would like to offer a list of “Don’ts” (or rather, “Let’s nots”) in the struggle to end sexual and gender-based violence.

1. Let’s not protect women

“How can we keep women safe?” or “Can you give some tips to women to stay safe?” may be the most common questions we get asked in the course of our gender violence awareness work in Chennai. Fair enough, we are all concerned about the safety of those we love. However, the protectionist approach is problematic. First, it robs women of their own agency— that is, their ability to think and decide for themselves what they want to do. Second, it equates them (us) with other things we want to keep safe— our keys, our papers, our money or our address books! Third, it ends up limiting their freedom in ways that have terrible consequences for their lives. From being draped in so much cloth that you cannot run or swim to safety to not being able to go to school or to work, all because you may not be safe, thinking that something might happen along the way— the impulse to protect is experienced as the will to stifle. Fourth, protection presumes there are safe places in the world. A girl is safe because she is home. A woman is safe because she only sees the men of her family. In an age when even the womb is not a safe place for female offspring, this is a dangerous illusion. Finally, protectionism is a form of denial. The problem is not with those who are vulnerable to violence—regardless of gender—but with those inclined to use violence as a means of demonstrating control or even a normal language of human interaction. The problem is social inequality, in this case caused by patriarchy. By focusing on protection, we choose not to address the real problem at all.

2. Let’s not talk about women being our mothers, sisters and daughters

Women are human beings.When an incident of violence happens, well-meaning individuals speak up against it, and one of the most common responses in India relates the victim to family: “She was someone’s daughter” or “We all have mothers, sisters and daughters at home” or “The government needs to explain why our sisters and daughters are not safe.” Family is very important to most Indians. However, violence is something to condemn regardless of who experiences violence and whether or not she is a mother, daughter or sister. Sometimes, people say of a rape victim, “She should have addressed him/them as ‘brother,’ he/they would have left her alone.” What we know about child abuse and incestuous rape belies that hope. An attack on a family member—anyone’s family member—is read as an attack on their honour. This view makes sexual violence during conflict situations (including communal violence) seem perfectly logical—attack a woman’s body and you actually attack the collective honour of a community. The point is that an incident of violence is not unequivocally wrong because it hurts somebody’s relative or someone’s notion of their honour but because it hurts a human being.

3. Let’s not talk about hanging and shooting people

Something in us hankers for the old ways of justice. “An eye for an eye,” as the Bible phrases it, suggests that reciprocity is justice. It sounds immediate, decisive and punitive in a way that Indian courts have not been. Filing a complaint takes a long time and justice sometimes remains a dream. In such a context, we vacillate between wanting instant, summary and harsh justice and a frightening indulgence, especially when the accused is powerful. The indulgence is unconscionable because we know that if a person is able to get away with sexual harassment or violence once, they are likely to try it again. Silence and indulgence create a trail of victim/survivors where there should be none. On the other hand, calls for castration, public execution or a shooting gallery are also red flags. When I was very young and attending one of India’s first feminist conferences with older cousins, I remember hearing this argument against mandating very harsh punishments— that judges would hesitate to convict someone. There was, we were told, a better chance of getting a conviction with a moderate sentence. A greater likelihood of conviction might serve as a better deterrent than a rare conviction with a very harsh sentence. After all, summary and violent justice in centuries past has not cured us of our will to dominate through violence.

4. Let’s not underestimate men

Patriarchy gives men very little credit, molly-coddling them in a million ways. All the advantages they are meant to enjoy also end up limiting their potential as human beings. Time and again, in conversations about legal protections against gender violence, women worry about how they will make men vulnerable to false accusations. We tend to respond by explaining that the percentage of false cases is relatively low. The argument we should be making is this: Men can and should be trusted to think that gender-based violence or sexual harassment are serious enough violations to create redressal processes and guarantees of justice. We should give them credit, as thinking and caring human beings, for understanding that every law or regulation comes with the potential for misuse but that is not an argument against trying to deliver justice. Traffic and taxation are classic examples, and yet we have not abandoned traffic regulations or tax.

Patriarchy trains us to have unrealistic expectations of each other, regardless of gender. Thus it happens that the resistance to transforming gender relations comes as much from women as it does from men. The resistance comes from the habit of protecting men and it also comes from women’s own comfort level with patriarchy, having grown up in its shade. This sometimes leads us to invite men into our struggles not as partners but to lend it the authority patriarchy invests in them. Men can be partners and apprentices too; their commitment to change need not be contingent on leadership roles.

5. Let’s not be limited by patriarchy in the solutions we seek

We are all products of a patriarchal society, even when we reject it. It shapes our self-images, our relationships and our ways of being more than we would like to admit. Nowhere is the stranglehold of this iniquitous system greater than in the way we imagine justice. For many of us, the most outrageous instance is the idea that when a rapist marries his survivor, justice has been done. There is a rationale for this judgement—which is that the survivor has to go back to live in a society for which the damage to family honour and her marriage prospects outweigh her own trauma. The hardship caused by stigma is assessed as being greater than the trauma caused by violence. This is admittedly a realistic understanding of the world, but do we want to understand such a world so well that we are unable to change it? Instead, if people in positions of authority could speak up against such views and if judges would temper a different judgement with a reasoned argument, perhaps we would inch towards different social outcomes. In short, if patriarchy is going to dictate to us what is right and what is feasible, we will never be able to escape its clutches. We need to be able to ignore its very loud ‘voice of reason’ that booms at us with great conviction and free our imagination of justice.

6. Let’s not forget that gender violence is part of a larger social complex of injustice

The fight against gender violence is one part of the campaign for gender equality which in turn is a part of our on-going quest for social justice— so that all our iniquities are implicated in perpetuating each other. Moreover, all of us have more than one identity at a time— among other things, I am a woman, a Bombayite, a person who enjoys great class and caste privilege, presently resident in Chennai, an academic, a Tamil-speaker, an Elphinstonian, an NGO person, a South Asian, an Indian, a middle-aged person, and, of course, a human being. All my identities intersect as much as all forms of injustice reinforce each other. This is what younger feminists call intersectionality, a new word for an old idea. Previous generations learnt this idea as a key Marxist contribution to thinking about society. Look at structures, we learned; they impact each other and transform how people live and work and interact across their various identities. Fix the structures, we were told, to fix the injustice. Therefore, while concern about women may be immediate and most important to someone, women’s rights cannot be won in isolation of other people’s rights, and gender justice is incomplete without other forms of social justice. It’s just arithmetic: no one is equal unless everyone is.

7. Let’s not adjust to violence for any reason

Indians love the word ‘adjust;’ we urge each other to adjust to anything— no change, wrong size, less salt, bad toilets, no water, abusive speech, demonetization and interpersonal violence, to name a few things to which we are best advised to adjust. We teach young girls to adjust their personalities so that they do not outshine the men in the room. We adjust to discrimination because that is just our karma. We have proverbs that justify anger in men— an angry man is a just man, for instance. “If she took better care of her house, he would not beat her.” “You should understand that men face frustrations at work.” “It must be so hard for him to have to ask for help all the time.” Understand. Adjust. “Things will be alright once you have children.” Adjust, until then. If we are serious about ending gender violence, we should stop adjusting to it. There is no justification—absolutely no justification—for violent behaviour. Violence is not an acceptable language in human (or any) relationships.

8. Let’s not delegate responsibility for eliminating gender violence

“If we had better laws, we would not have so much violence.” Or, “laws are the problem; we have lousy laws.”

“On the other hand, our laws are excellent, but they are not implemented.”

“Law enforcement in India is terrible.”

“The police are corrupt, the police are insensitive, the police are brutal, the police are hand-in-glove with politicians, the police are retrogressive.”

“Don’t blame policemen, they are paid so badly. What about our courts?”

“Such a backlog, such delay— justice delayed, justice denied. What do lawyers care?”

“And those politicians! The statements they make!”

“Media, my god, the media are so irresponsible!”

“What are you NGOs doing? You should be out there fighting for all the poor victims!”

There may be more than a kernel of truth in all these statements but there is one truth that never gets listed— we are the problem. We have laws and rights but we do not bother to learn about them. We do not educate ourselves to recognise or understand the problem. When faced with the reality of gender violence, we pick platitudes and denial. We do not want to know too much about bystander intervention because, my god, would you actually want to get involved? If we do not recognise that we have a problem, we cannot invoke the laws that will get us justice. So where we sit, we are still far from the police, the lawyers and the courts we dismiss. We do not care enough to learn about support services nor to volunteer with them or raise funds for them. Content to adjust to and ignore a problem, we are complicit every time someone suffers physical, emotional or any other kind of abuse. And this makes US a problem without a solution. And so I will end with my first ‘do’ in this article: Let’s take responsibility.

If we are aware of these ‘don’ts’ as we commit to this important cause, we make a constructive beginning. Let’s take responsibility and let’s do this right!

Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist by training. She founded Prajnya which organises the Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence, a public education initiative on sexual and gender-based violence, from November 25-December 10 every year.