Session covered: Making zero tolerance a reality, Child, Early and Forced Marriage (CEFM).
Liz Dominey, Chair UK Programme Action Committee (UKPAC), SIGBI
Who would have thought last year that we would be saying “please all mute, “ and a room full of soroptimists would comply – and then get irritated a few minutes later when they couldn’t find the unmute button quickly? Well, today I attended a meeting at CSW65 about how to tackle the issue of child, early and forced marriage (CEFM), which took the webinar by zoom to a whole new level.
The speakers were four adolescent girls with lived experience. They came from Syria, Venezuela, Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso. There were ambassadors and high-level government officials from these countries with moderators in Canada, and New York. The speakers spoke Arabic, Spanish, French and English and so there were also translators in all the different languages translating at the same time in this virtual space. Oh – and someone apologised for being in the dark because of a power cut!
All this was interesting enough, but the stories of the girls were even more so. In the 21st century how can we live in a world where a 16 year old girl can articulate so very clearly that she had to marry young because her parents couldn’t afford to keep her, but unfortunately neither could her husband, and so she was divorced at 14 years? The girls had been unable to attend school and there was an increased vulnerability for CEFM. Pregnancy, other forms of child abuse and trafficking all increased while at the same time access to health services including sexual and reproductive health and mental health services became inaccessible. The girls were all champions of human rights and had been busy creating awareness of the situation, working to improve the rights of the child. All the speakers spoke of how the C-19 pandemic had worsened the situation and some had even been helping in public health infection control measures during the pandemic.
What was the one big ask? “To be able to go back to school and get ahead” one replied.
What are the solutions? These adolescent girls are the real agents of change. They are courageous, articulate and inspiring. They have the lived experience to know what works to solve problems in their communities and to shape policy. I believe their power should be unlocked with urgent action globally. If we do not act, we may witness the largest increase in child marriage in 20 years. The risk factors are known – increased poverty, less education, little access to health services – but we also need data to identify the detail of these root causes and put them in a humanitarian context. Funding to combat gender-based violence is woefully inadequate everywhere, but without the data the problem becomes invisible.
Without education girls will never be able to reach their full potential and are more likely to be subjected to harmful practices. Equally, without education men and boys will not realise how much damage they are causing. In a recent survey in the UK, 86% of women aged 15-25 had experienced sexual harassment but the men questioned did not know anyone who would do this. This is not just a problem “somewhere else” – it affects us all, everywhere.
As an organisation we tackle this sort of problem, but is this one too big? Only if we let it.
We must listen to these uncomfortable truths, but then act to change with compassion, integrity and kindness. The road to gender equality is long and we have a long way to go. By leaps and bounds and little steps we can make a difference. We may have accepted mute buttons on zoom but let the words “you need to unmute” bring new meaning to our programme action.
Denyse Ewe, SI Esperance, Trinidad and Tobago
Feminists. We all profess to be one. After all, we are Soroptimists, advocates of the best for women. It is who we are or at least who we ought to be. But what does it mean to be a feminist in 2021? What is the stance that we take? Are we liberal feminists? Or are we post-modern in our viewpoints and attitudes? How do we view discrimination? Diversity? Equity? Inclusion?
One of the most interesting side events I attended thus far has been, “Making zero tolerance a reality: peer to peer learning on prevention and elimination of sexual harassment.” Sounds interesting right? In truth, as we are besieged by the real and tangible covid-19 pandemic, there is one issue that keeps cropping up repeatedly in women’s forums and that has been the idea of a ‘shadow’ pandemic; an alternate disease invading societies all across the world. In this alternate pandemic, the reality is that many women have lost some of their freedoms and are now trapped at home with abusive men. If sexual harassment in the workplace is down in the last year, it has come at the expense of many women all over the world succumbing to gender based violence in the place they should feel the most safe- their homes.
It has been amazing to hear about the great strides women are making from the main speakers at CSW65 events. I have heard about all these wonderful inroads into careers that were previously dominated by men and that we are today in many instances are more educated than our male counterparts. But what is the use of all these accolades if violence against women and girls has actually increased over the last year? Will we just then accept that in our mission to achieve liberal goals of parity that we overlook the human rights element fallen victim? Of course, the resounding answer to that is NEVER!
So then, what are we as Soroptimists going to do about it? We can start by examining our own feminist stance. I challenge you all to remember that we live in a society of many layers in which women do not live single issue lives. Let us advocate for a victim centred approach which does not lay blame or discriminate. Let us adopt pragmatic, deliberate approaches to dealing with violence against women and girls. Let us above all shed our limiting liberal beliefs and adopt a post-modern feminist stance of inclusion, diversity, belonging and equity taking into account that we all don’t have the same opportunities and resources. Women are changing, systems must change too!
I hope that I have at least given you some food for thought and that you take up my challenge in your club’s programme action efforts. We Soroptimists have always made a positive difference in the world around us and I am sure we will continue to do so in a post-covid world.