Wednesday 20 November 2013

"Every woman has basic human rights" The Circles empowering women for health, development, education and freedom from violence

Earlier this year I chaired a panel with Joan Smith, Baroness Helena Kennedy and the novelist Kishwar Desai. We were discussing male sexual violence in India, following the worldwide protests about the rape, torture and murder of a young woman in Delhi. The event, at The Nehru Centre in London, was held to launch Desai's latest novel Sea of Innocence, which tackles the same issue and also provides shocking details of the Delhi case which hadn't previously been revealed in the media. In its ability to combine a strong heroine with a thrilling plot and urgent contemporary issues, Sea of Innocence follows on from Desai's previous novel The Origins of Love, which looked at the Indian international surrogacy trade.

The conversation during the Sea of Innocence launch event was wideranging. We looked at all aspects of global rape culture, which transcends colour, religion, class, language, country, culture and hemisphere: the blaming of victims, the excusal of perpetrators, the prejudice against survivors of sexual violence, the silencing and abusing of survivors who speak out, extreme and perverse leniency towards perpetrators even when they are convicted. Male sexual violence, which is endemic, reflects, partially creates and also reinforces women's inequality, disempowerment and subjugation. This disempowerment is obvious in every area: in the discrimination against us in the workplace; in the exploitation of our labour, which is unpaid, under-paid, under-valued and over-consumed; in the denial of our rights over our own bodies; in the casual and constant judging, slandering, undermining and defamation which constitutes the majority of all comments made to and about women; in the way we are represented in mainstream culture, images, advertising and the media as silent pieces of nice-looking meat, pathetic and useless idiots or bitter, petty, malicious schemers; and in the strong resistance against female education, landholding, powerful visibility, money-making, public involvement, mobility in public spaces (which is delimited by harassment and threat), enfranchisement, leadership, influence, direction and presence. Writing specifically on rape culture, structural misogyny and gender inequality in India, there is a brilliant analysis by Tehelka Media which I urge everyone to read.

As UNIFEM states, "One woman in three will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime." Male violence against women is so common that it has been described by the World Health Organisation as being "of epidemic proportions." Read the major, multi-national WHO study into domestic violence and see why they identify it as "a major public health and human rights problem throughout the world."

After the Sea of Innocence panel discussion I was approached by an impressive woman, Santosh Bhanot, who told me that she was involved in a project called The Circle, in affiliation with Oxfam. The Circle aims to address some of the fundamental issues and abuses which keep women worldwide in a state of disempowerment and inhibit our equality and our access to justice, rights and autonomy. Another underlying goal is to lift women out of poverty through gender empowerment.

The issue of poverty, often spoken of in general terms, is starkly gendered. According to Oxfam,

Of the 1.3 billion people living in extreme poverty worldwide, more than two thirds are women and girls.

Women and girls are the most disadvantaged of the disadvantaged, the most abused of the abused and the most exploited of the exploited. This has not arisen by some kind of unfortunate, fated magic but directly through the actions of patriarchal systems and many individual but misogynistically and patriarchally like-minded perpetrators, users and exploiters. When we defy all silencing and stigma to speak about what we have undergone we suffer the further grotesque abuse of being blamed for men's abuse of us, told that we deserve it, told that we brought it on ourselves by our own behaviour or told that we are lying out of malice to hurt men. We are then punished further by being slandered, marginalised or ostracised.

As Everjoice Win from ActionAid International, South Africa, states in a report about how helping women and girls is the key to ending poverty,

We believe that women are vulnerable and more impoverished compared to men because they have been systematically made vulnerable by years of violence, patriarchal power and control, as well as decades of inequitable laws and policies deliberately designed to put them in this position.

The Circle was founded in 2008 by Annie Lennox with the aim of connecting high profile, culturally influential women of expertise in various areas. A network of Circles will raise consciousness and money (here's the catch: money for Oxfam) to spend on a range of grassroots projects tackling everything from poverty to education to maternal health. They will also work "to reduce all forms of violence towards women, by helping to change attitudes."

The idea is that the various Circles support specific projects of interest but are all part of the wider Circle ethos of women helping women to change the world for everyone. A group called The Lawyers' Circle supports women's legal rights in Africa; The Music Circle raises money to protect women in the Democratic Republic of Congo; The Oxford Circle is looking at improving health and education in Niger and hopes to engage Oxford University and local city businesses in supporting this aim.

So far, significant money has been raised for a broad range of change-making initiatives. In Zambia the Circle project, working with Oxfam, is helping community schools. These are volunteer-run initiatives which provide vital education for one million Zambian children. However, those involved require more training and resources; the Circle's work in this area benefits 18,000 students in 25 schools and strongly supports the education of girls.

In Pakistan the We Can project is a grassroots initiative aiming to reach 800,000 people in combating "endemic" male violence against women, advocating for it to be reported and investigated and for a social shift which recognises male violence against women as abuse rather than normalising it and blaming victims rather than perpetrators.

The Circle has been working on improving maternal healthcare in Ghana, where 75 women a week die due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth. The focus here is on the provision of free healthcare to reduce maternal mortality. This is an achievable goal: other, non-Oxfam projects worldwide have shown the marked success of dedicated maternal mortality, pre- and ante-natal and newborn health projects. Please see my reports on Sierra Leone and Burundi and India for more details.

Two women's co-ops in Liberia have been helped to provide women with tools and training and empower them to bargain for better terms in a country in which, says Oxfam, "80% of ...women are unemployed." One little note to make here to correct that subtle patriarchal diss: these women, I can bet you, are employed. They are totally employed, to the point of exhaustion. They are employed in the never-ending, repetitive, back-breaking, all-consuming drudge labour of looking after the children, serving the men, running a household, cooking, cleaning and everything else - and these are all separate jobs - and their work is used and taken and exploited for free. They are paid nothing for their 24-hours, 7-day-a-week employment and it is callous and disrespectful to say that these same women are "unemployed." It is more accurate to say that they are exploited in an unjust situation. Despite the work they do, they are economically dependent on men and marginalised by them from economic power, political status, public influence and social clout. This exploitation and depletion of energy, financial and legal marginalisation and political discrimination mean that it is difficult for women to fight together for equality, rights and freedom from violence.

The latest addition to the Circle network is The Asian Circle, which works alongside Oxfam in helping South Asian women. It was founded and is chaired by Santosh Bhanot, the woman I met at the Kishwar Desai event. The focus is wide: The Asian Circle will be pulling together high profile women to support projects in agriculture, education, disaster relief and management, poverty reduction and sustainable development.

The Asian Circle was launched at the Houses of Parliament on 7th November 2013 in an event chaired by BBC reporter Ayshea Buksh and featuring speeches by Southall Black Sisters activist and journalist Rahila Gupta (read some of her human rights focused pieces here) and Kishwar Desai.

Santosh Bhanot spoke at the launch of The Asian Circle:

This week she told me,

Our focus is to work towards change with the skills and talents of ...[the] women who are part of the Asian Circle, a group of passionate and highly influential women from all walks of life. I wanted to help women who have an unfair chance in life and I particularly have passion and energy to work with women in South Asia because of my roots [as a South Asian woman]. Every woman has basic human rights.

On my recent visit to India I saw the positive impact of programs by Oxfam working with vulnerable women. For instance, building support centres for women subject to domestic violence and providing mediation and legal support. More programs are needed, especially in the poorer states.
The first programme The Asian Circle is supporting is called "Promoting Violence Free Lives." According to the Indian National Family Health Survey Round III report of 2005-2006 and the Oxfam India 2010 Baseline Survey, the statistics are damning, as are the social values which have been revealed:

  • 35% of women suffer sexual or non-sexual violence in India
  • 72% of men believe male violence against women is justified
  • 68% of women believe that husbands are justified in beating wives

Rahila Gupta welcomes the connection between the feminism, profile and zeal of The Asian Circle and the structural support Oxfam can provide:
This is the launch of a very important initiative. If my last 24 years with Southall Black Sisters has taught me anything, it is this: funding, funding, funding. The time that we would like to spend delivering frontline services is spent instead on raising funds without which we'd have no money to deliver anything. So it's great that the Asian Circle aims to help Violence Against Women projects in India escape that vicious cycle.

The Asian Circle is focusing on the poorest states with a multi-tiered, thorough strategy: to build support centres in police stations for women who have suffered gendered violence; to engage community elders, young men and boys through educational initiatives to change their attitudes and their behaviour; and to develop networks of women working at a state level to make sure that domestic violence laws are implemented rather than ignored.

Kishwar Desai told me,
As someone who has been trying to raise awareness about some very disturbing gender issues in India for a while now, I am sincerely grateful to see the formation of The Asian Circle. My personal hope? That they will be the catalyst, eventually, for providing an international platform for Asian women, perhaps leading to a women's liberation movement in Asia.

Bidisha is a 2013 International Reporting Project fellow, covering global health and development.