15 January 2013

What does progress look like for today's global female community?

Guest blog by Vivien Cohen, 28 Too Many Volunteer. 

In the fight for global female equality, it often seems that women have been doomed from the start. Blamed for original sin, we were responsible for all the ills in the world. In most religions in fact, women do not come across particularly favourably and, considering that for millennia it is organised religion which has arguably ruled the world, this has not tended to work to our advantage. The cultural and social norms set up within many societies – religious and secular – were created centuries ago by men who thankfully bear little resemblance to today’s modern man in terms of prejudice and misogyny, at least for the most part. Yet in many countries the societal constructs that were created so long ago have proved painfully hard to dissolve.

Growing up as a woman in the UK I have never particularly felt discriminated against due to my gender. I have certainly never felt that I was not equally capable as any man when it came to education and the world of work – and no man has ever made me feel as such. It feels pertinent to mention that whilst my generation has grown up in a society in which gender boundaries continue to be broken down, there are of course some areas where this country has been lacking with regard to gender equality. It has been, for example, only eighty four years since women in England received the vote on the same terms as men. It has shockingly been only twenty one years since rape inside of marriage was criminalised in this country. We have come far, but we still have a way to go with regard to bringing more women into industries generally dominated by men –such as engineering and banking – and also in ensuring that in future, pay is universally based on one’s ability rather than one’s gender.

However, women in this country are of course lucky. As I write this, millions of girls and women all over the world are being denied their basic human rights and dignities based simply on their misfortune in having been born female. As British women weare free to exercise our right to protest and campaign against discrimination as and when we find it. The world of women and work in this country is not perfect when it comes to gender equality – but we can and do challenge any discrepancies. Many women in countries around the world are simply denied the right to work at all. Young girls are denied the right to an education, thus perpetuating the cycle of uneducated young women who are not given the necessary tools to lift themselves out of their gender roles as domesticated and subservient. Worse still, young girls and women worldwide continue to be the victims of horrific human rights abuses including rape, physical abuse, honour killings, child marriage and FGM.

Female Genital Mutilation (often referred to as Female Circumcision) is still widely practised in twenty eight countries within Africa, as well as in isolated parts of the Middle East, Asia and India. It is a practice which in one fell swoop takes away a girl’s right to choose and to be in charge of her own physicality and sexuality. It is physically, emotionally and mentally damaging and serves no other purpose than to curtail a woman’s sexual pleasure and to keep her under the control of a patriarchal society. Similarly to the other human rights abuses I have mentioned above, in particular child marriage and honour killings, FGM is a culturally institutionalised practice which is deeply ingrained in many societies.

28 Too Many was founded by Ann-Marie Wilson after she witnessed firsthand the devastating effects FGM can have on women’s lives. Today, 28 Too Many strives to promote awareness about FGM by increasing knowledge and education on the subject, whilst at the same time supporting invaluable groundwork which is undertaken in countries where FGM is still practised. Through their tireless campaigning and their work with at-risk women, 28 Too Many hopes to bring the issue of FGM to the forefront of the political arena and eventually put a stop to it completely. In order to do this, 28 Too Many relies on the generosity of volunteers, donors and those like-minded people who feel that they can help spread awareness of FGM in their own communities.

The 28 Too Many website is able to suggest various activities you can undertake within your own community – for example a film screening – and are able to provide the resources for you to do this. Another helpful course of action is lobbying your MP which will in turn send the message to the government that greater importance needs to be placed on the issue of FGM. It is only through the spread of knowledge and understanding that we will one day be able to eradicate not only FGM, but violence against women in its entirety. There is no place in a modern, equal society for practices such as these – that serve to instil fear and submissiveness into women from a young age – and we must now ask ourselves how we can eradicate harmful practices against women for good, in order that future generations should not have to suffer.

One of the most powerful tools at our disposal is education. A hugely disproportionate number of girls worldwide are being denied a basic education – something which would empower them and enable them in many cases to fight back against those who would subjugate them. In some areas of the world schoolgirls risk being beaten or worse simply for trying to seek an education – although this has not stopped many of them from claiming their right to knowledge. In the case of practices such as FGM, girls must be educated as to their rights; their right to live free from fear of abuse and their right to educate themselves to the same standard as men. In 1874 Thomas Hardy in his novel ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ wrote “it is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” It would seem that in many countries men and women now thankfully speak a shared language; we express ourselves in a tongue which is based on our shared humanity rather than our separate genders. Yet as long as women are made to live within communities where societal norms are dictated by a patriarchal system rather than a system based on gender equality, women are doomed to be foreigners in their own lands.