With all the hype around the UN Millennium Development Goals Summit in September, I have been thinking about the work I do for an international development charity that runs formal and informal education programmes with girls and young women in countries such as Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and how this relates to work on women's rights and gender equality taking place here in the UK.
As an organisation, we at Children in Crisis have high expectations of our local partner organisations working on the ground to bring about change at the community and government levels, by undertaking tasks such as developing and running participatory theatre sessions to generate conversations and action about girls' education, or gaining government support and commitment to ensure that vocational training courses and the income-earning opportunities they present for young women are sustainable in the long term.
Over the past few weeks I have started to think that to achieve the goals we set with our local partners' in the most effective way, I need to appreciate the challenges involved in bringing about change at community and government levels by becoming more involved in UK activism and organising for gender equality.
I need to step up my current involvement, which is mainly limited to reading websites and blogs such as The F-Word and UK Feminista, to play my (small) part in achieving change here and on a wider international scale. But it doesn't stop there, because organisations and individuals working on these issues in the UK can also benefit from an insight into what's happening in other countries. Underpinning this is my belief that the violation of women's rights and achieving gender equality are global issues, and there are important lessons that can be learned and shared that have the potential to strengthen all of our work.
As a UK-based international development organisation, we work in partnership with local organisations in the majority of the countries we have programmes in. These partnerships are based on equality and collaboration, and recognition that each partner contributes a valuable set of skills. Still, the fact that it is our partners who deliver the day-to-day programme activities on the ground means that we have high expectations of the part they can play in awareness-raising and advocacy within communities, and with government bodies and representatives at the local and sometimes national levels.
At the community level, our partners challenge long-held and deeply entrenched beliefs, values and behaviours that are harmful to girls and women. In Liberia, where many women have missed out on education because of civil war and are often excluded from learning because they had children very young, we have built and are running a vocational training centre with crèche facilities to provide these young women with the chance to gain skills in tailoring, hairdressing, pastry-making and literacy, as well as to have the opportunity to earn a living for themselves and their families.
These are not easy goals to achieve and it can prove difficult to get high levels of attendance and participation. Bringing about longer-term attitude and behaviour change is even harder, yet it's one of the most crucial aspects of what we are trying to do. Our partners also aim to engage with and gain support from government officials at the local and national levels.
Most of the countries where we have programmes are either conflict-affected or post-conflict and it can be extremely hard, if not impossible, even to reach central government, let alone initiate meaningful discussion in some of them - such as in DRC, where we are based in an extremely remote part of the country. Even if governments do support the work, the inadequate resources many government departments have, has meant that translating that support into concrete commitments to scale up the programme, take it forward and embed it into government policy can be a huge challenge.
Given the considerable challenges our local partners face, it's important for those of us interested in and/or working on global feminism and gender equality to appreciate and understand what it takes to bring about change at the community and government levels, so that we can work alongside and support them in the best way possible.
One way of doing this is to engage more at the UK level. As a starting point, my first venture into a ‘doing more' phase was attending the UK Feminista Summer School in August, where it was really encouraging to see so many passionate women (and some men) giving up their weekends, and all wanting to make a difference and take action.
The more I read and research, the more I realise that there are a significant number of inspiring campaigns and organisations working tirelessly to achieve gender equality that offer strong examples to learn from and engage with.
Successful demands for change such as Object's Stripping the Illusion campaign, launched in April 2008, provide good practice examples of bringing about change (or substantial and concrete steps towards it). Just nine months after the campaign first called for the same licensing for lap dancing clubs as sex shops or sex cinemas rather than cafes, the government pledged to reform lap dance licensing and a bill was passed by Parliament. According to Object, “The campaign has been an incredible testimony to people power and the democratic process.”
Object recognises that this is not the end of the road and there will be ongoing efforts to ensure implementation and guard against the exploitation of any loopholes left. This demonstrates the struggle it takes to achieve gender equality; at the same time, the progress made is testament to the powerful force of collaborative and dedicated campaigning.
At the community level, one of the many things UK organising and activism seems to demonstrate is the value of joining together through events or as local feminist groups, for instance, and discussing issues and potential ways to tackle them, explaining to others who do not consider themselves feminists what the issues are, raising awareness as much as possible and challenging gender stereotypes in everyday life.
It is often hard to go against the grain, to challenge beliefs that are seen as the norm and to carry out work that means you are frequently on the receiving end of a barrage of insults. Yet there is a great deal happening here to draw inspiration from, including the Lash Campaign and the work of Object, to name just a couple, which directly address issues around discrimination against women and gender inequality that provoke strong reactions and are very much taken for granted as normal and acceptable and therefore hard to change.
So, what about the lessons we can take from other countries, and the potential for coming together to strengthen our collective goals? Whilst acknowledging the hurdles, I believe that change is possible, that things can be better than they are now, that the status quo is not all there is, and that there can be gender equality and a world free from violence against women. But this can't be achieved unless we understand and approach work on gender equality as a global issue.
Attacks on girls on their way to or at school in Afghanistan, sexual abuse of girls at school in Liberia and Sierra Leone, unacceptably high maternal mortality rates - all of these issues are all of our concerns. They are part of the global patriarchal order, which values masculinity and the male and devalues femininity and the female.
Issues of gender equality and women's rights need to be placed at the forefront of local, national, regional and international agendas, and tackled in an integrated way across all these levels. It's important to open up spaces not just locally and nationally but also internationally, so that women can come together and share experiences of working in diverse contexts and exchange learning; to enable us to examine good practice, what works and what doesn't, and new and innovative ways to tackle gender inequality and discrimination against women. Women's rights are universal and we need to address them as such. As a way of contributing to this discussion, I want to share a few experiences from my work:
Dialogue and collective action
An important element of work to change attitudes and behaviour is facilitating dialogue in safe spaces that enables and encourages discussions that challenge long-held and deeply entrenched beliefs and values. Alongside this is the importance of collaboration; whilst individual activism is important, collective action often means you can do much more than you can do alone. One of the most striking images for me of our work in DRC (see right) is a photograph of a group of women who had walked the almost eight hour trip from their village to the site where we and our organisation partner were building a school that their children could attend, carrying materials for the construction on their heads, because they want their children, especially the girls, to be educated so much. Taking the lead, together with the rest of their community they were able to transport all the necessary materials to the site, highlighting the impact of collaboration as well as the determination of the women in that community.
Another important part of what we do is ensuring that those who are not usually considered important or listened to have a voice on issues and decisions that affect them.
One of our main aims is to work with some of the most remote, marginalised and hard to reach communities, which have been largely forgotten. We need to make sure that those who do not usually have a voice are heard. This is important, for example, when setting up and delivering training projects that aim to give women opportunities and skills.
We must make sure that projects like this actually reach the women who would benefit from them the most; it might be that some of these women can't access training because they can't afford to stop working and spend the time training instead. There are big differences between women and their needs so it's important to operate on the basis of inclusiveness and to value and take account of diversity.
Involving men and boys is fundamental because achieving gender equality is not just about women and girls and changing attitudes towards them (and sometimes among them); it's about society as a whole and investigating the very structures and processes that hold it together - the values, norms and institutions that privilege men and masculinity over women and femininity.
This means working with everyone to raise awareness of the issues and develop dialogue and discussion that challenge beliefs that create and perpetuate gender equality.
For some of our partners the best way to do this has been to hold awareness-raising sessions for separate groups of men, women and children to address topics most relevant to that group in the most appropriate way, such as workshops for women in areas with high maternal and infant mortality to provide them with support and information on pregnancy and childbirth, and sessions for men looking at traditional roles of men and women, encouraging respect for women and increasing understanding of the importance of safe sex practices. Alongside this, they engage in whole-community activities like participatory theatre, where all members come together to explore issues such as the importance of girls education and violence against women, and come up with community led solutions
Whilst it might sound obvious, empowering girls and women is also crucial. But ‘empowering' can be something of a buzz-word so what exactly do we mean by it?
From my perspective, there is no one universal definition, as it will mean different things for different women in different contexts, yet in all instances it is about developing opportunities for women to realise their rights and potential, transforming often very male-dominated processes.
In Afghanistan, our community education programme has been valuable to women in terms of enabling them not only to receive literacy training and be part of small-scale income generating schemes, but also - in a context where women rarely leave the house and when they do they are overwhelmingly accompanied by a male relative - to simply have the chance to spend time with other women. They are able to discuss issues that are important to them and taking those first steps towards collaboration is extremely powerful for them.
We can't assume to know what is empowering for women in different contexts and in different countries, but perhaps our common goal of achieving gender equality is something that can bring us together. If we can find ways of sharing our experiences and engaging across borders, we can strengthen our work towards achieving gender equality. For my (small) part, right now I'm getting more involved here in the UK.