With last week marking the opening of the 68th session of the United Nation’s General Assembly and the Social Good Summit happening alongside it, the international community has been abuzz about how we can make the world a better place. This has me reflecting on a collection of statements about ending global poverty that I read sometime ago. The gist of the article is that for decades the rhetoric has been that this can be the generation to end global poverty, yet it hasn’t been accomplished. I think about these statements, specifically in the context of women’s rights and the reasons that, although we have been talking about the oppression of women and girls for decades, gender-based discrimination persists. If we are to make real and lasting progress, we need to radically transform the way we position the oppression of women and girls, as well as our approach to addressing this oppression.
Let’s talk about the root causes of gender inequality
The root cause of women’s and girls’ oppression is a patriarchal value system that places men at the centre and women in the periphery, while ascribing rigid gender roles and privilege accordingly. It then works in tandem with systems like capitalism to devalue the work traditionally done by women – work deemed ‘women’s work’ by the same system of patriarchy. We cannot talk about women’s rights without talking about the systems that place us at a disadvantage politically, economically and socially; and we cannot empower women within systems designed to oppress them. As such, we need to…
Stop isolating certain women’s rights violations to specific countries or regions
News reports would have us believe that rape only happens in India. Latching on to the shock value and ease of separating ourselves from ‘those’ crimes that happen ‘over there’, it became trendy to report on rapes in India while ignoring rape in other parts of the world. By separating incidents of rape from each other, and from other manifestations of gender inequality, we allow patriarchy to go unchecked. Systems of oppression operate globally; they may manifest themselves differently – sexual violence, policing women’s bodies, wage gaps, restricted reproductive rights, and so on – but the root causes are the same. By focusing on the symptoms, we allow oppression to change forms but never put an end to it. We have to connect the dots and draw these parallels in order to dismantle the common perpetrators of sexual violence, poverty and all forms of inequality.
Put the women we claim to want to help at the centre
Within global movements for women’s rights, individuals and organizations in the Global North are positioned as authorities on issues impacting women and girls in the Global South. We consult, invite and include marginalized women and girls, but what all of this implies is that we are in control. Making space for participants from the Global South in our conversations about them sounds nice, but more effective would be having those whose lives are the topic of discussion driving the agenda. While many of us are in our comfortable spaces dialoguing, activists around the world are doing the real work of confronting injustice head on and we would do well to to take their lead.
Dialogue is important, awareness is important, but truly being allies to the communities we claim to advocate on behalf of means examining our relationships with those communities in ways that
may should make us uncomfortable. We need to question the amount of space we take up, the amount of power we hold and our role in maintaining unequal relationships – and then we need to work towards shifting the balance of power. We can start by re-directing large portions of the resources used to support dialogue in the Global North towards supporting activism in the Global South and then following instead of insisting on being in the lead.