International Women's Day: when just existing is an unequal struggle

It may have been naive of me, but I wasn’t expecting this.

The question was relatively straightforward: can you tell me about one challenge still to be overcome by women in your country?

I was asking some of the outstanding editors from around the world, all of them women, who I have the enormous privilege of working with. With International Women’s Day approaching, and a blog to write, I thought it would provide some interesting material and a route out of my natural cynicism about a day that is all too frequently co-opted by politicians, conglomerates and brands as an opportunity to talk the talk when they are so evidently not walking the walk.

Initially my editor colleagues were aghast. "You’re asking us to pick only one?" was the general sentiment echoing through their emails. But professionals that they are, they followed the brief and one by one sent over what they saw as the most pressing issue for women in their country.

What was I expecting? Certainly issues around equal pay. Perhaps a stat or two about representation of women in politics or senior leadership or the media. I expected someone would focus on sexual harassment. But also the division of caring and household responsibilities. Easy enough to weave into a story aligned to this year’s IWD theme #eachforequal.

First to respond were Brazilian editors Fernanda Ravagnani and Carolina Schwartz:

"Carolina and I were talking about this and both of us thought of addressing the alarming levels of violence against women in Brazil," wrote Fernanda. "Domestic violence is a tragedy here."

"The situation is so grim that the challenge for women, many times, is simply being able to exist at all," added Carolina.

Their emails landed at almost the same time as another from Australian editor Megan Rive:

"Australia is grappling with a shocking level of family violence, with pregnant and Indigenous women at the highest risk. Some women escape with just the clothes on their back and their children in their arms. But, tragically, at least one woman a week dies at the hands of a person who is supposed to love her. Given our small population, this is a horrifying statistic."

"When I think of what women in India would consider a common challenge, crossing all ages and social backgrounds, there is one thing that stands out by far: their physical safety," wrote Diane Rai, from Delhi. "Sexual aggression has always existed, but it seems to be getting more violent and affecting younger girls."

"Sadly, many baby girls in India aren't safe even in their mother's womb," added her colleague Priya Solomon Bellani. "Selective abortion of female fetuses is still rampant, even though prenatal sex-detection is an illegal and punishable crime in India."

And so it went on.

"In Canada, Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or go missing than any other demographic group in Canada," wrote Canadian editor, Lynda Cranston. "It's an epidemic that has been labelled a race- and gender-based genocide."

From Germany, Cordula Zastera pointed to the grim roll call of women murdered in 2019 by their partners listed on a petition simply entitled Stoppt das Töten von Frauen (Stop killing women).  (When I mentioned this to a colleague here in the Thrive office she pointed me to Counting Dead Women, Karen Ingala Smith’s similarly chilling "Femicide Census" for the UK.)

"149 women were killed by their partners in France last year," wrote French editor Patricia Réveillaud. "It’s a huge problem but until recently it’s been mostly hidden."

And from the Middle East, Randa Ozair cited the UN estimate that 37% of Arab women have experienced some form of violence. "Though it’s thought the numbers could be higher. It scares me how vulnerable girls are to everyday violence in Arabic culture," she said.

The very next morning the Office for National Statistics reported a 27% increase in women in the UK who were killed by a partner or ex in the year to March 2019.

Oh.

It’s not that we don’t collectively know that there are women facing unimaginable cruelty and peril every day. But hearing these stories from around the world was a powerful reminder of how endemic violence against women is.

At this point, my IWD 2020 #eachforequal blog post was history. The theme is just too jaunty to accommodate this bleak picture of life and death. Having offered my colleagues an opportunity to shine a light into such a dark corner of women’s lives, there was no turning back. I could hardly go back to them and ask for something, I dunno, less depressing?

Oddly that’s what the organisers of IWD seem to have done. Between 1999 and 2013, violence against women formed the theme for four IWDs. But since then it hasn’t had a look in. Instead the themes have turned towards work, education and innovation. All important issues and critical to achieving gender equality. But they might feel a long stretch for women and girls who, as Carolina Schwartz said, "are struggling just to exist".

So I won’t apologise if you, like me, were not expecting quite such a bleak story. But I’m grateful to IWD for shaking me out of my cynicism and opening the door to these conversations with my colleagues which we just hadn’t had before. Priya Solomon Bellani puts it better than I can:

"As Women's Day is being celebrated around the world, for many, it will simply be another day with the same old challenges and struggles. Celebrations have also become more about consumerism and sales and less about serious issues. I hope the focus shifts back to the core issues and is not reduced to just another hashtag for a day."

My colleagues wrote more than I was given space for. I urge you to take 10 minutes to read the rest of their accounts.

I asked: can you tell me about one challenge still to be overcome by women in your country? Here's what my global colleagues told me.

Fernanda Ravagnani, Brasil:

"Violence against women is endemic in Brasil. In 2017, according to the most recent official data available, almost 5,000 women were killed in the country. Of those violent deaths, 40% happened inside the women's own house. And the killings are often the extreme result of a series of abuses and violence, which is almost impossible to quantify. Steps have been taken, though, to try to protect women.

In 2006, Brazil approved the Maria da Penha law, named after a woman who had to go to the UN to bring her husband and long-time attacker to justice. The legislation was acclaimed as one of the best in the world against domestic violence. The government created police stations exclusive for women. In 2015, a new law established the crime of femicide. Although positive, those measures were not nearly enough.

Now that there is a wave of conservatism in the world, with Brazil as one of its leaders, my fear is that even those small improvements will be lost. With the rise of ideals such as 'family matters above everything else' and 'women must be obedient and proud of their traditional role in society', coupled with efforts to make guns more readily accessible to all, the future looks grim for women in this country."

Carolina Schwartz, living in USA but originally from Brazil:

"My grandmother, born in Brazil in 1918, got married very much in love with my grandfather, but never saw him naked once during the whole course of their relationship, not even in their most intimate moments. My grandmother’s older sister was involved in an arranged engagement at the age of 13 and, at that time, was still such a child, that she would hide under the dining room table every time her fiancé showed up for a visit. Fortunately for her, the family must have noticed that she wasn’t ‘into the relationship’ and called off the engagement.

Looking back at these stories of my ancestors, I can see how, in two generations, women’s sexuality issues have evolved in Brazil, and how many of us are now able to express desires and expectations in ways that were forbidden for women in the past. Does this basic right extend to all Brazilians, though? Far from it. While homicides in general have been declining in the country, femicide has been on the rise. At every four minutes, one woman is a victim of domestic violence in cities across Brazil. Things might have changed a bit for some of us, who now advocate for equal pay, shared responsibilities with child/home care, and space in politics, but for millions of Brazilian women, of all ages, the fight continues to be just to have the right to exist."

Lynda Cranston, Canada

In Canada, Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or go missing than any other demographic group in Canada. It's an epidemic that has been labelled a race- and gender-based genocide. The exact number of murdered and missing victims is unknown. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) estimates it to be 1,200 between 1980 and 2012; Indigenous women's groups say it exceeds 4,000. This discrepancy has been blamed, in part, on the persistent failure of police to take these cases seriously.

After years of advocacy by victims' families and survivors, the Canadian government finally launched a national inquiry in 2015. Testimonies from family members and survivors of violence spoke about lives marred by trauma, about disproportionately high rates of poverty, insecure housing or homelessness, and about the very real barriers to health care, education and employment.

Historically indigenous women in Canada held wide influence in their societies. They, not their fathers, brothers or husbands, owned the land and crops. Within this system, their respect and safety were assured. The imposition of colonial policies and European patriarchal systems changed all that.  Women were displaced from their traditional roles in communities and their status was diminished, leaving them vulnerable to violence and human rights violations that occur every day.

Canadians must face up to these truths exposed by the national inquiry and think long and hard about how to address them. As a society, we need to figure out how to ensure that Indigenous women have the same rights as other women to security, health and justice, and the same opportunities to education, housing and employment.

Megan Rive, Australia:

"Australia is grappling with a shocking level of family violence, with pregnant and Indigenous women at the highest risk. Some women escape with just the clothes on their back and their children in their arms. But, tragically, at least one woman a week dies at the hands of a person who is supposed to love her. Given our small population, this is a horrifying statistic that will only be improved with significant cultural change, something that courageous survivors such as Rosie Batty are catalysing.

Just this morning I read an article this morning that adds an extra element of topicality to the family violence issue in Australia. Apparently, authorities, medical professionals and lawyers are bracing for a big uptick in family violence in the (many) regions affected by our recent devastating bushfires.

Research shows that after Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, and other big natural disasters that the enormous short- and long-term stress on survivors leads to an escalation of abuse in relationships already experiencing domestic violence, and it sparks abuse in relationships that were "peaceful and happy" before the disasters. Also, the emergency causes estranged families to be thrown together in evacuation centres, even if that means breaching legal orders.

But apparently women struggled to get support previously because people (including trauma therapists) would tell them to cut their abusers some slack, given the circumstances, and often the perpetrators were seen as heroes for their actions during and the immediate aftermath of the disaster. And men felt they couldn’t cry or show their grief at losing everything (sign of weakness in a culture of toxic masculinity), so the grief and stress finds a different and violent outlet.

There’s a feeling this time, thankfully, that even frontline firefighters are more comfortable expressing their emotions publicly, and support services and authorities accept that there’s an increase in risk and are actually preparing for it.

As if these people haven’t suffered enough already."

Cordula Zastera, Germany:

"In Germany women are equal by law but in fact they are not:

  • They don’t earn the same money for the same job. The gender pay gap is still 21%.

  • Violence against women is also a huge issue. In 2017 we had 189 women killed by a partner, the highest number in Europe. And there is a lot more violence…

  • The recent murders in Hanau show another problem: The hatred of women is a connecting element in the minds of right-wing extremists. They don’t hate only Jews and Moslems, but women too.

  • Breastfeeding in public is allowed but not a right in Germany. So often young mothers are attacked if they breastfeed in a park or restaurant.

Sorry, I know you wanted to have only one topic…"

Patricia Réveillaud, France

"149 women were killed by their partners in France last year. It’s a huge problem but until recently it’s been mostly hidden. But since August 2019, a collective of French women "Les Colleuses," have been denouncing gender-based violence and femicides by sticking slogans on the walls, especially in Paris but we can see them everywhere in France now. With these messages, written in large, black letters on a white background, the women who were killed regain a place in society. They become visible again."

Diane Rai, India

"Yes, it is hard to think of only one challenge women face but when I look at the big picture and think of what women in India would consider a common challenge, crossing all ages and social backgrounds, there is one thing that stands out by far and that’s their physical safety.

Whether it’s domestic violence, acid attacks or sexual violence, women in India are repeatedly targeted, and because of the slow justice system, social stigma and the lack of organisations to help victims, often the attack (as horrible as it may be) is just the beginning of a life-long struggle to cope with the aftermath.

Sexual aggression has always existed, but it seems to be getting more violent and affecting younger girls (even toddlers). The violence of the crimes has attracted a lot of media attention and, with internet penetration and the use of social media on the rise, news about these crimes reaches all corners of the country at a pace and level never seen before. This has triggered protests, demands for change, and harsher punishments for the criminals involved, which is forcing the government to take some action. But there is still a lot that needs to change for women in India to feel safe.

Violence against women is forcing some previously never considered, but much needed, discussions around parenting to the forefront. Increasingly, the public discussion is moving from ‘it’s her fault’ to ‘raise your sons better’. But even in the second instance, part of the blame is again falling on a woman – the mother.

So, while discussions around better parenting are required to remove some of the deep-routed gender biases and male entitlement that are still prevalent, they are just one part of a complex, multi-faceted solution that is needed to tackle the problem. The problem itself boils down to a very simple concept – a woman’s body is not something anyone has a right to but herself. And this is a concept every country around the world is struggling with, and in many cases, women themselves as well."

Priya Solomon Bellani, India

"There are many challenges, and several are interconnected, but I'll put safety right on top. Diane has covered most of what's happening in India; I'll add one more point.

Sadly, many baby girls aren't safe even in their even mother's womb and are denied the basic 'right to live' before they are born.

The child sex ratio in India is skewed as a large section of Indian society (irrespective of socio-economic status) still prefers a male child. Selective abortion of female fetuses is still rampant, even though prenatal sex-detection is an illegal and punishable crime in India. Female infanticide, another heinous crime is also common in many parts of the country. If that's not all, unwanted baby girls who manage to survive are simply abandoned.

There are government policies and laws in place to combat female foeticide and infanticide, but people still find their way around. What we need is a system that works, well-implemented policies, laws that are enforced and justice that's delivered in time. Only then will we see an attitudinal change and a safer world for women.

On another note, while technology offers a safety net in many ways, we also see a spike in online abuse, violence and harassment. So apart from unsafe private and public places, women also need to protect themselves from the perils that stem from cyberspace -- it can be as dangerous as the real world!

Lastly, as Women's day is being celebrated around the world, for many, it will simply be another day with the same old challenges and struggles. Celebrations have also become more about consumerism and sales and less about serious issues. I hope the focus shifts back to the core issues and is not reduced to just another hashtag for a day."

Randa Ozair, Arabic editor, originally from Lebanon but now based in Canada:

"While we’re celebrating International Women’s Day to reiterate the crucial importance of bumping up girls’ and women’s issues to the top of the world leaders’ agendas. The numbers are showing a surge of aggression towards the female population. According to the UN, 37% of Arab women have been subject to some form of violence during their lifetime. I, personally, hope to see the everyday violence towards every woman totally eradicated. It scares me to think how girls are still vulnerable and viewed in the Arabic culture."



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