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Supporting women around the world

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The United Nations declared 25th November as International Day to Protest Violence against Women and 10th December as International Human Rights Day. This period symbolises the link between violence against women and human rights.

 

When Emmeline Pankhurst, a leader of our suffragette movement, spoke about her time fighting for women’s political rights in the early 1900s she said "this was the beginning of a campaign the like of which was never known in England, or for that matter in any other country.....we interrupted a great many meetings......and we were violently thrown out and insulted. Often we were painfully bruised and hurt.”

 

We are the beneficiaries of the struggles that Emmeline, and the many unnamed women, undertook for the right to vote. Yet today women across the globe are still struggling for the most basic rights; rights we too easily take for granted.

 

Women continue to lag behind in political representation, suffer the economic consequences of failing to get paid at the same rate for the job as men and undergo violence when asserting their rights for freedom. We need to support their struggle to achieve change, doing what we can to help their situation become better.

 

I want to underline the importance of women’s participation in politics, by identifying some of the areas of the world where women face difficulties, but I also want to highlight some of the advances that have been made. It’s important we recognise advances when they occur.

 

Facing violence

In Burma women face violence, not only in their own home but at work and in other public places. They are unprotected by the law or the authorities. We may remember the large demonstrations of September 2007, and the sight of Buddhist nuns taking their part in challenging the military dictatorship. At least 96 female political prisoners are currently incarcerated for their political activity and leadership. The women face hardships such as physical and sexual violence, but also disease and dire sanitary conditions.

 

Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the national democratic movement, has been under house arrest for around 14 of the past 20 years. She continues to lead the democracy movement whilst under house arrest. Recently stories in the press suggest she may be released to play a role in next year’s elections. However the country’s new constitution includes provisions that would stop her from holding office and ensures continuation of the central role of the military in the country’s government.

 

In Pakistan in many of the tribal areas women face massive opposition to their participation in the political and civil life of the country. In the cities it’s easier, but often women in leadership positions face a campaign of harassment and worse. Benazir Bhutto returned to her home country in October 2007 to lead the PPP into the General Election. Just three months later she was assassinated after leaving a party rally in Rawalpindi.

 

Both Aung San Suu Kyi and Benazir Bhutto in their different ways struggled against the dominant culture of their respective countries. Cultures that make plain that a woman’s contribution should be limited to home and hearth, that politics is men’s business. They both suffered much for their belief that the country’s business was also women’s business.

 

Struggle for democracy continues

The struggle for democracy continues in Zimbabwe following the contested national elections in 2008. Women of all ages, targeted for their political affiliations, were beaten, raped and tortured. It has been estimated that over 2,000 women and girls were raped from May to July 2008 by state-sanctioned groups. Women’s pleas to local police for justice have largely been ignored, as have international calls for justice directed to the national leaders.

 

Earlier this year brutal attacks were committed by security forces in Guiana, during the suppression of a mass rally in Conakry. The violence was predominantly organized by the army, and eye witnesses have reported that several women were publicly raped by soldiers, including the “red berets”- The Presidents Guard.

 

We must acknowledge the women of Iran. They face the possibility of imprisonment by collecting a million signatures petitioning the Iranian parliament for a revision of the current laws which are highly discriminatory against women. Women may be able to vote and work in the country, but are lower class citizens with regard to divorce, legal affairs and child custody. These women are courageous, trying to change lives under their fundamentalist rulers.

 

Forced into marriage

Here in the UK women face exploitation by being forced into marrying someone against their will. This is often to enable the new husband to settle here. The Forced Marriage Unit was set up to provide support and information to those at those at risk of being forced into a marriage. It works both here and abroad, working closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office.

 

Overseas, the Forced Marriage Unit works with embassy staff to rescue victims who may have been held captive, raped, forced into a marriage or into having an abortion. With 39% of overseas cases involving a minor, and 14% being under 16 years of age, the work that the Unit does is important to help protect women around the globe.

 

These cases occur in the UK as well, with over 1600 reported in 2008. The Forced Marriage Unit helps actual and potential victims, as well as providing assistance to professionals working in the social, educational and health sectors.

 

Some advances for women  

As I mentioned earlier, I want to give some positive advances that have occurred. We need to acknowledge these as well as difficult situations.

 

In Afghanistan there is Farida Tarana, breaking social norms in speaking out. She competed on ‘Afghan Star’ (a version of Pop Idol), and was persecuted by conservatives for daring to break cultural taboos against women singing in public. Tarana has used this publicity and has now been elected to the 29-seat Kabul Provincial Council, winning the second highest number of votes in the country out of 524 candidates. In her late twenties, her election sends a powerful message to the clerics and tribal leaders, a message they do not want to hear.

 

In the same country RAWA (Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan) is the oldest political/social organisation of women which non-violently promotes women’s rights and secular democracy. In this fundamentalism-blighted Afghanistan RAWA, along with other women’s rights groups, strongly condemned a "Shia Family Code" in 2009 which is claimed to legalise spousal rape within Northern Afghan Shia Muslim communities, as well as endorsing child marriage and purdah (seclusion) for married women. Every year, on International Women’s Day, RAWA presents a certificate of honour to an Afghan citizen who has exhibited courage and sacrifice in the past three decades of conflict.

 

Women are achieving change in Morocco, albeit slowly, where the introduction of a 10% quota system in 2002 in the lower chamber, saw for the first time a significant number of women take part in the previously male-dominated parliament. In Rwanda by law at least a third of parliamentary representation must be female, and in the election of September 2008, 56% of seats were won by women. The parliament with the best representation of women anywhere in the world.

 

Since the decade of civil war ended in 2002 the women in Sierra Leone have increased their presence in the political and administrative process of the country. For instance, the current Chief Justice is Umu Hawa Tejan Jalloh, who took office in January 2008. The first woman in the history of Sierra Leone to hold such position.

 

There is Johanna Sigurdardottir, since February the Prime Minister of Iceland and the first openly gay head of government in Europe, if not the world. She is leader of the Social Democrat Alliance, our sister party. In the Icelandic Cabinet, for the first time in Icelandic history, there are an equal number of men and women. 

 

Conclusion

Despite a government’s obligation to protect its citizens, in many societies violence may not be perpetrated by the state but is allowed to continue. The failure of governments to empower women, to help develop societies that do not discriminate, remains a huge blot in our world. Consequences of this discrimination are seen through women’s unequal access to education, jobs, training and employment, often magnified by violence. 

 

Women suffer from this lack of equality, but there is also real positive change happening. We can use these examples of positive change in our effort to ensure that the contribution of women is recognised and welcomed.

 


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