Not That Bad: Review and reflection

The week after I watched Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony on television, I purchased an anthology of essays edited by Roxane Gay, Not That Bad (Harper 2018). The subtitle of this book is ‘Dispatches from Rape Culture,’ and I thought I would find more ideas, insights and words that I could then bring to the everyday work I get to do with Prajnya on gender-based violence.

It has taken me more than two months to make my way through this powerful book. In small part, this is a function of my life, but largely, it is because the essays are so powerful, so disturbing, so heart-breaking that you really cannot binge-read. They are also inspiring in their courage and exactly as I hoped, have left me with insights and words that I think will find their way to things I say and do in training sessions and workshops.

The essays–and I am using this word to describe what are mostly first-person testimonies, because they are written in the spectrum of styles that ‘essay’ covers–are almost all by survivors, of all genders, and include a couple of essays where the writers reflect on whether or not they gave consent. Through almost all the essays, the deeply internalised stigma attached to the experience of violence is expressed and sometimes rejected.

I am going to share some excerpts here, for several reasons. First, I don’t think I can summarise. Second, I want you to experience the power of the words, and maybe go read this book. Third, there are people out there who cannot afford this book and will not have a library from where they can borrow it. This is not meant to undermine copyright or sales, and I do hope lots of people will read this. Women should read this because it will resonate so strongly, as most of us live with the experience and all of us with the fear of sexual violence. Men should read it to know what that really means in our heads and in our days. And yes, the book is full of potential triggers, so if you think you will be sensitive to them, tread cautiously (these excerpts are for you too).

The idea that what happens to us, is not so bad, is so deeply ingrained that it stops survivors from seeking help. If you survived, that’s already not so bad, is it?

At least you weren’t killed. At least you have access to medical care. At least you have insurance. At least you have wonderful friends. Because the ones who tell me this are my friends and my teachers and the social worker and the doctor, I hold their words and outstretched hands even though my anger is mounting and I want not to be touched.

These days, I speak few words, and I certainly don’t have the vocabulary to dismantle what’s been forced on me by people called safe. I don’t have the breath to say: No, I will not be grateful for my rights. I will stand with two feet on this earth and I will always say thank you when somoene does something kind and sorrt when I’ve done something wrong and never outside of that. And, yes, I am furious that I am pulled between poles of gratitude and apology–both of which are violent erasures.

Thank goodness I wasn’t killed.

I’m sorry I’m so inarticulate.

I can’t name it then, but I feel the words at least eroding my voice. I sense that “at least” marks an end to the story I’m supposed to tell, that I’m supposed to say something gracious in response–“thank goodness”–or else nothing more at all. “At least” curbs my telling too much truth. It’s a blunt instrument wielded to club a reckless retelling into submission. The story ends here. But the truth is, I have no story–nothing I can corral into a coherent narrative.” (Claire Schwartz, pages 35-36)

I found this extremely powerful: “pulled between poles of gratitude and apology–both of which are violent erasures.” The week I bought this book and even when I picked it up to read in December 2018, in India we were witnessing a cascade of #MeToo revelations, that began with women in media and then spread to some other fields. Most of the women encountered the stock responses: Why now? Why not earlier? Why did you continue to work with this person? Many of the experience reported were not rape as traditionally defined (vaginal penetration without consent), so really, they should have been grateful, people seemed to be saying. Gratitude for that, and apology for upsetting the apple-cart.

Ally Sheedy in her essay mentions Hollywood’s #MeToo moment in 2017. She writes:

“This isn’t about naming names. I don’t have enough for a lawsuit, but I do have enough for a broken heart/ spirit. Nothing will change in Hollywood. Some men will get careful. Some men will pretend they never behaved like predators and wait this out. What’s so disheartening is knowing Harvey Weinstein’s sick actions will be addressed (finally) and yet the entire culture and context for his sick shit will remain in place.” (pages 112-113)

Just four months after India’s season of revelations, hardly anyone has been punished, and some are already being gently rehabilitated into public life. The defamation cases filed against the women who made the charges–those remain.

How commonplace sexual violence is, is something women at least know intuitively. This exchange in Stacey May Fowles’ essay underlines that, but also makes me wish we could so sensitize doctors, counsellors and nurses in India so that they would respond to survivors with sensitivity.

“When I finally managed to splutter out “something bad happened to me,” she just knew.

Without saying a word, she slipped a small square of yellow paper across the desk toward me. It was printed with information about the rape-counseling clinic.

I was struck by the ease with which she provided me with the contact, as if she’d done it hundreds of times before.” (page 279-280)

A counselor says to Fowles, “Every one believes there is suffering worse than her own, that they should be strong enough to cope without me.” It’s not that bad, why seek help? And if it were that bad, how come you are alive to seek help? How many Indian, Southasian girls can go to a doctor or a hospital and get help, leave alone expect sensitivity? We have tried in a small way to change this, but there is such a long way to go.

So Mayer writes about words, enjoyed and deployed as weapons of control (page 136). She titles her chapter Floccinaucinihilipilification and quotes the Oxford English Dictionary definition: “The action or habit of estimating something as worthless.” Gaslighting, sealioning, lollipopping, Cordelia-ing and mansplaining–she gathers all these words into this suitably long one (page 137).

So Mayer’s essay compares rape to colonialism, calls them “kin” (page 140). She writes:

“…I learned the blazing insight that rape was not an act between an individual and an individual, hidden in a dark room… Rape was and is a cultural and political act: it attempts to remove a person with agency, autonomy, and belonging from their community, to secrete them and separate them, to depoliticize their body by rendering it detachable, violable, nothing. (page 140)

…When we talk about sexual violnce as feminists, we are–we have to be–talking about its use to subjugate entire peoples and cultures, the annihilation that is its empty heart. Rape is that bad because it is an ideological weapon. Rape is that bad because it is a structure: not an excess, not monstrous, but the logical conclusion of heteropatriarchal capitalism. It is what that ugly polysyllabic euphemism for state power does.” (pages 140-141)

Michelle Chen also writes about the politics of sexual violence in her essay on the violence experienced by women who are displaced or in flight. “The place where sexual violence is most readily weaponized is the one where other social instruments have become unhinged: the interface between two societies. Sexual domination, a familiar pillar of every nation-state’s culture, fills the liminal spaces opened by mass displacement.” (page 191) As Warsan Shire wrote in her poem, Home: “and one prison guard/ in the night/ is better than a truckload/ of men who look like your father.”

In the final essay in the book, Elissa Bassist lists all the reasons why she stayed in a violent relationship and did not think of it as ‘violence.’ This is one of the most heart-breaking essays in the book.  She says, in more powerful words than I could summarise that she stayed because she and her boyfriend were both a product of their milieu, which is misogynistic and violent. She closes the book by saying:

“Because worst-case scenario is murder.

Oh, because it wasn’t that bad.” (page 339)

We become accustomed to the language of violence, the culture of rape. It is us, as we know ourselves. 

“Violence in a family comes down through generations: long before my father (finally) left my mother, her father left her mother, and her father’s father left my great-grandmother…

Sometimes by mother tells me stories about her father, or stories about my father. They are not mine to repeat. “I want you to know,” she tells me, as if she feels guilty for explaining our history to me. I am amazed at how much violence we can contain–internalize, suppress, hold on to, narrate. How much we can swallow and still survive.” (So Mayer, pages 132-133)

Women who speak about the violence they experience, who name their assailants or harassers and who express anger are accused of making trouble. Speaking about their experience of violence, several of the survivors writing in this book talk about how this feels.

“Forgive the abuser. The only solution for female anger is for her to stop being angry.

And yet, when Jesus flipped tables in the temple, his rage was lauded. King David railing to the heavens to rain fire on his enemies is lauded as a man after God’s own heart. An angry man in cinema is Batman. An angry male musician is a member of Metallica. An angry male writer is Chekhov. An angry male politician is passionate, a revolutionary. He is a Donald Trump or a Bernie Sanders. The anger of men is a powerful enough tide to swing an election. But the anger of women? That has no place in government, so it has to flood the streets.” (Lyz Lenz, page 164)

Amy Jo Burns writes: “The truth no one told you is that, in order for a good girl to survive, she must make some things disappear.” (page 167)

This includes the memory of violence, the name of your harasser, the resultant trauma and every one of those inconsequential details from that consequential moment–what you were wearing, the colour of that vase, the food on the table, the light in the room. As Dr. Ford said“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.” We never forget, but we must. It wasn’t that bad, after all.

(Cross-posted from here.) 

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Lessons learned on sexual harassment in 2018: Article

“We re-learned it is not only epidemic but endemic. This is so because gender is pervasive. Masculinity sexualizes hierarchy, and much of social life is hierarchically organized. Sexual harassment is a creature of hierarchy—gender combined with inequality based on race, age, class, disability, and sexuality. Anything that places a person in a less powerful or lower status position, an unequal position, heightens the risk of that person being sexually harassed.”

Catherine MacKinnon, Ask an activist: What are the most important lessons learned on sexual harassment in this last year of activism? UN Women,  Tuesday, December 11, 2018.

Gender Violence in India: 2018 Report

On Human Rights Day, we launched the 2018 Gender Violence in India Report, compiled this year by 2018 Rajaram Fellow, Jhuma Sen.

2018 was a year of landmark judgments, horrific reports of sexual violence especially targeting children and #MeToo revelations, and this report provides definitions, data, legal FAQ and a review of recent case law.

As the Introduction notes:

2018 has been a remarkable year in many ways. ‘Gender violence’ has been at the forefront of conversations with #MeToo taking shape in India. In September, several women from the entertainment industry and media publicly accused men in position of power of sexually harassing them; of abusing their positions of power. As testimonies emerged and entered the juridical realm from the social and the political, solidarities too were forged between women cutting across class, caste, gender and other axes of marginality. Significant developments took place in the legislative and the judicial arena as well. Several landmark judgments were delivered by the apex court, leading to decriminalisation of India’s colonial law, especially Indian Penal Code Section 377, which criminalised consensual sexual relationships between same sex adults; decriminalisation of yet another colonial relic, Section 497 or India’s adultery law, recognising that wives were not chattels, allowing entry of women of menstruating age to Sabarimala temple, to name a few. Patriarchy however did not give in without a fight, and as this report was being prepared, feminist movement also saw a tremendous backlash from men’s rights groups and conservative clerics, be it, in opposing women’s entry to temple, or to make the domestic violence law a toothless legislation.

Prajnya’s Gender Violence in India Report has been taking stock of the state of gender violence in India since 2009. This year, the Gender Violence Report has been prepared by R. Rajaram Gender Violence Research and Information Taskforce (GRIT) fellow Jhuma Sen. The Report is meant to be used as a ready reference for activists, journalists, students, lawyers and anyone with an interest in gender justice. The report in addition includes definitions of the various forms of violence, defined internationally as well as in national laws and policies. The data is primarily collected from the National Crime Records Bureau, but wherever possible, other relevant statistics by other state agencies, NGOs, international as well as domestic have been relied upon. Finally, the report also reviews the last year’s significant developments in law, policy as well as important judicial decisions.

We hope you will find this report useful.

Access the report here: http://prajnya.in/storage/app/media/gvr18final.pdf

#MeToo in Academia: A Panel Discussion Report

Alice Iannantuoni, a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, reports on a panel discussion held on campus on sexual harassment and violence in academia. 
#MeToo and Academia, and how to make campuses safer?
In October 2018, a groundbreaking New York Times article detailed sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Shortly thereafter, actress Alyssa Milano re-launched what became known as the #MeToo movement, with a phrase originally used by activist Tarana Burke over a decade prior to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual violence in society: me too. What followed has been a year in which many different societies, industries, and sectors around the world have had to wrestle with the widespread mistreatment, abuse, and sex-based discrimination of the least powerful individuals within their ranks––often, although not always, women.
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Yesterday, on October 17, 2018, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign held the first of a series of panel discussions on #MeToo in academia. Colleen Murphy, director of the university’s Women and Gender in Global Perspectives program and professor of law, philosophy, and political science, hosted the panel. The four panelists were professors Lesley Wexler and Suja Thomas from the College of Law; Andrea Miller from the Department of Psychology; and Ran Hao from the Institute of Legal Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Why is it important to think of the impact of the #MeToo movement specifically in the context of academia, both in the United States and abroad? Three relevant themes emerged from the very well-attended panel.
1. Power Dynamics on Campus 
The power dynamics on a university campus make it an environment that is uniquely prone to breeding discrimination and harassment. Professors and high-level university officials are often in the position to greatly affect their students’, junior colleagues’, or assistants’ lives: they are the ones who decide grades, write letters of recommendations, sit on tenure committees, and so on. Brining forth an allegation against somebody who has the power to jeopardize your school experience or your career is a particularly intimidating proposition, made worse by the close-knit nature of many departments and academic circles.
2. Individual Experiences, Systemic Problems 
Even when there is the will to hold an abuser accountable, systemic problems often get in the way. In the United States, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 are in place to protect employees against discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion; and against sex-based discrimination and harassment at educational institutions, respectively. However, professors Lesley Wexler and Suja Thomas highlighted the limitations of these protections: plaintiffs in these cases have to meet extremely high bars in terms of proving the severity and pervasiveness of the abusive conduct; and, in Title IX cases, universities must be shown to have “actual knowledge” of the incidents and to have been “deliberatively dismissive” of them. In addition, professor Thomas pointed out how universities seem to be more afraid of being sued by alleged abusers (and unfoundedly so) than they are concerned with protecting the abused. Similarly, professor Ran Hao offered an eye-opening overview of how the #MeToo movement has been playing out in China––a country in which the movement started and development first and foremost in academia, rather than the entertainment industry. Systemic, legal barriers have also been a issue in the Chinese context: closer to the civil law tradition, Chinese law requires perhaps even more precise definitions of what constitutes sexual misconduct, harassment, assault, and so on, as these cannot rely on precedent as in common law systems.
3. The Vicarious Experiences of Faculty Members
Lastly, professor Andrea Miller called attention to the vicarious experiences of faculty members who hear of their students’ experiences with harassment and assault. While there haven’t been large-scale studies of this phenomenon yet, anecdotal evidence suggests that women faculty (and specifically, women of color) are often among the first people whom students disclose the incident they have experienced first; they counsel affected students on how to proceed; gather resources for their students; and sometimes follow students throughout the process of reporting and resolving the incident. Data going back decades already supports the notion that women faculty and faculty of color tend to be stuck with more service work than their white male counterparts do; and not getting much recognition for it. In addition to this work being time-consuming, when it comes to dealing with students’ experiences with sexual harassment and assault it also becomes emotionally difficult and draining.
In recognizing these challenges, the panelists suggested some possible ways forward with the goal of making university campuses and the academic community safer for all of their members. First, universities should be mindful of their power structures, and think about how to spread power and responsibilities across individuals and units as opposed to concentrating them in the hands of a few. Second, systemic solutions should include creating a culture that does not tolerate lower-level incidents of harassing; moving beyond the current reliance on reporting and toward more training on how to recognize and react to inappropriate behaviors for faculty, students, and university employees; and moving the focus from protecting the reputation of universities and their most powerful members to protecting the most vulnerable students and employees on campus. Lastly, we cannot forget that incidents of sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault do not affect only the direct victims; rather, they take a toll on the victims’ loved ones, classmates, colleagues, and professors too, creating additional emotional labor that most often falls on the laps of fellow women and minorities.

In Solidarity, October 16, 2018

We, the Prajnya community, express our solidarity with the women who have spoken out across professions to share their experience of sexual harassment in the workplace, acknowledging the courage it takes and the pain that this involves.

We acknowledge too that this is the beginning and that countless others are still silent or unheard; that many workplaces remain unexamined; and moreover, that violence pervades our lives well beyond the workplace. The sexual harassment and sexual violence revelations of the last week have once more illustrated what we have always known—that violence and misogyny are deeply embedded in our society.

There is a role for each of us, wherever we are located, to play in the road ahead.

As human beings, we must bring empathy and compassion to our listening and as citizens, prioritise justice and fairness in our response. One in three women are said to experience violent abuse in their lifetime and only one in four of these women speak about it. To raise questions about the delay in reporting and the timing of these testimonials is to lie to ourselves that the world has always been a sympathetic and supportive place and that our institutions are committed to equality. Let us accept our complicity in silencing survivors, now, as then.

Both the Vishaka Guidelines and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, identify workplace sexual harassment as a violation of the fundamental right to equality. Non-compliance is thus tantamount to a violation of an employee’s fundamental right. We therefore urge organisations that have yet to comply with the 2013 law to put in place zero-tolerance policies, set up Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs) and conduct sensitisation programmes for their entire team, including ICC members.

For its part, the government too has been a laggard in setting up the mechanisms required to support compliance with the law. In most districts, the administration has not set up Local Complaints Committees (LCCs) and in their absence, women working in the informal and unorganised sector, women working in shops and small organisations and self-employed women, including professionals, have nowhere to turn for justice. State governments must ensure that district administrations immediately set up LCCs; ensure their competence through training; and make known to the public how they can be reached.

Further, the enforcement infrastructure required by the law must also be a priority for the government. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013, requires annual reporting but the government has neither set up nor announced to which office these reports must be sent and who will monitor and penalise non-compliance. We hope this tidal wave of revelations will move all levels of a lackadaisical Indian state to seriously create and provide resources for this infrastructure.

Political parties and their leaders must make a simple commitment that will have a lasting impact on gender inequality in India. They must promise never to nominate or endorse those who make misogynistic statements and those who have been charge-sheeted for sexual and gender-based violence, including street sexual harassment.

The government and political class have so far ignored our collective anguish and anger in the hope that they will pass. They will not. We will stand our ground.    

At Prajnya, we reiterate our commitment to facilitate conversations around gender-based violence including workplace sexual harassment and to encourage and support organisations in their journey, beginning with legal compliance but going beyond it towards equal, inclusive and safe workplaces.

The Prajnya Community
October 16, 2018

#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.

#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