Emily Wilson-Smith, Chair at Irise International, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield, and Researcher at Kampala International University. Follow Emily on twitter via @emswsmith / @pandorasblog1
I believe that we live in exciting times. The world is finally recognising the intrinsic biases against women (and other groups) in a system built over the millennia largely by rich, white men. Men and women of my generation are taking a stand together against the gender stereotypes and the prejudices we have inherited in a move towards a world that doesn’t just allow women and girls, but is designed to enable them to succeed. The International Day of the Girl Child, celebrated last Saturday, is a testament to this movement. This year it coincides with the UN’s ‘He For She’ Campaign, a solidarity movement designed to mobilise one half of the world’s population in support of the other.
The most common negative response I hear when I start talking about gender equity is the acknowledgement that while it may be a problem in less economically developed countries, equality has now largely been achieved in the West and is therefore irrelevant. This Day of the Girl should be about child marriage and the 85 million girls who are out of school, but it should also be about the gender inequity in western societies, the slut shaming and the objectification of women by the media that is so normalised we almost don’t notice it. It should be about the tiny minority of women currently in the top jobs. It should be about the 1 in 5 women in the UK who report experiencing some form of sexual violence. If this is ‘equality’, it is not enough.
This Day of the Girl, I have come to realise that what I want for women and girls around the world is equity.
David Cain blogged on redefining Masculinity:
“At the root of it all is…the unfortunate biological reality that even a physically unremarkable man can knock out the average woman, if he thinks it will help him more than it will harm him.”
Equality is about allowing women to enter the fight. Equity, which I believe to be true equality, is about changing the rules so that both men and women can win.
In 2011, while I was a student at The University of Sheffield, I founded the charity and research group Irise International. Our work to develop a replicable and sustainable solution to Menstrual Hygiene Management offers an interesting case study into why gender equity is still a distant dream for so much of the world. Despite the fact that half the world menstruates, it is only in the last few years that the impact of menstruation on women and girls’ human rights in low income settings has come to the attention of the international community.
The impact of poor menstrual hygiene is not news for the women it affects. Irise adviser Joanne Nakakawa describes “a monthly prison: that time of the month” when girls “regret being young and healthy because they cannot afford basic needs (such as sanitary pads)].” Why has it taken so long for this to be recognised? The only conclusion to be drawn is that women’s voices are not being listened to and that women are not speaking loudly enough. It is not a surprise that women are not being heard, considering that globally only 12 out of 194 members of the United Nations have female leaders.
In the context of menstrual hygiene, a recent Irise report highlighted the almost absolute silence within reports produced by relevant Human Rights Bodies. A detailed analysis of the references and allusions that were made to menstrual hygiene betrayed a paradigm which focused on women’s health only when it had wider implications for society. This need to justify investment in women because it leads to healthier children and economic growth is symptomatic of a framework where women specific experiences are not valued. Why must a woman’s health only be worth the mortality rate of her children or the reduction in STIs on a population level?
If the world was run by women we would not have to justify investment in good menstrual hygiene in terms of long term educational and economic benefits. We would assume it as a right because it is part of the minimum requirements of enabling us to participate in society with dignity. Despite aspiring to work towards the realisation of universal human rights, these bodies betray an androcentric world view which they are likely not even aware of.
I do not doubt that international institutions genuinely wish to serve women, but how is it possible to form a view that is not male focussed if women’s voices are in the minority or absent? Until there are more women involved, it is impossible for the agenda not be distorted so that issues crucial to women’s health and wellbeing are missed. The concept of equity is so important at every stage. Equality says that it would be acceptable to have women at the table if they manage to make it there, equity says it is essential and must be facilitated.
Women also need to shout louder. Internationally, the UN and other organisations have created an environment where people want to listen and value disadvantaged women and girls, but creating a space is not enough. In the spirit of equity rather than just equality, the disadvantaged need to be enabled if they are to find their voices. In the context of menstrual hygiene, women are weighed down by a cultural legacy which articulates menstruation with shame, stigma and taboo. Both the Torah and the Koran state that a woman is unclean during her period, implying that the very essence of womanhood somehow makes her unfit for society.
Women will understandably not speak up about their menstrual needs until the perceptions which undermine their self-esteem are challenged. If those in power truly want to hear the voices of the disempowered and change the status quo, they will need to redefine what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man and in doing so dismantle the remains of a patriarchal system which is weighing humanity down. We need to aim higher than equality because equality is not enough.
Statement from Irise International:
Irise International works to develop a replicable and sustainable solution to menstrual hygiene management in East Africa. 74% of the girls we work with believe that period pain is a sign of illness and 50% report missing school during their period. Irise International works to empower girls with knowledge about their own bodies and develop local social enterprises producing reusable sanitary pads. 1 social enterprise provides employment for 15 women and produces pads for 9000 girls a year. 1 Menstrual Health Trainer trains 10 educators who teach 6000 girls a year
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