By Ibukun Adepoju, Volunteer with Brown Button Foundation
In 1910, one woman, Clara Zektin proposed the annual International Women’s Day (IWD) to celebrate the achievements of women worldwide and create a global platform to voice out demands with respect to the advancement of the rights and opportunities of women globally.
Over a century later, the 8th of March 2013 marked another year to celebrate the progress that has been made in the most recent past, and to renew international and individual commitments to women worldwide.
Keeping in line with a themed celebration, this year’s official theme as proposed by the United Nations was: “A Promise is a Promise: Time for Action to end Violence Against Women.”
Violence perpetrated against women is a global health and socio-economic problem because it’s widespread and long-term effects cripple societal growth and capacity- building. It has taken many shapes and forms: in workplaces, farmlands and rural areas, classrooms, on the streets, in our homes, even under the shadow of religion.
It is brought on by strangers, women, men, lax governments and even those we love, trust, and expect protection from.
The UN defines violence against women as "any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life."
This includes but is not limited to rape and other forms of sexual harassment, gender discrimination in workplaces and organizations, female genital mutilation, human trafficking, breast ironing and other harmful traditional practices as well as the practice of child marriage. There have been many excuses and apologies on one hand and a resultant opposing action from concerned groups on the other.
International Women’s Day is not about feminism, but about a collective stand for humanity – that each person, irrespective of their gender, is as great and has as much of an equal potential as the next person.
It is about emphasizing the strides that have been made and stirring up more roundtable discussions that will ensure improvement on and empowerment for the life, health, safety, and security of every woman.
It is the day that inspires the younger girl child to look upon the future with hope of an unhindered opportunity to thrive wherever she deems fit – be it as an engineer, in the boardroom, as a homemaker, educator, politician, or simply enough, as a human being.
Over the past year, many aspects that depict the malignant nature of the violent crimes against women could not have been more emphasized as these issues became the talk of the world, with reports of cases flooding the media from different countries, developed and developing.
In the news, we were daily shocked by the statistics, the crimes, and the prevalence of oppressive cultural practices and beliefs. We were saddened by the failed justice system and the deaths of many women and girls. This year, the promise that the IWD plans to deliver is for even the unborn, for it is ludicrous of us to think that we can continue to sow anger, hate, and violence yet expect to gain wealth, smiles, joy, and a beautiful world.
As the UN’s ‘One Woman’ song was released, recently on International Women's Day, we can all stand- women and men alike to sing in unison and echo the promise of freedom, of empowerment, and of encouragement to every woman and girl child who needs it.
The most fertile place in the world at any given time is in the heart of a woman and borrowing from the words of Muktabai Pol, I will say that men are like chandeliers and women are more like candles because they can transfer their light from one lamp to another, and thus encircle the whole earth.
All forms of violence against women (VAW) have ripple-effect consequences on the social and economic growths of countries: it produces unbalanced children from homes where violence is the norm and goes unchecked, and also affects the health and psychological well-being of victims.
More incidences of rape buzzed headlines this past year, and if we relent to step up our efforts and intensify current projects, the future will be much worse.
Governments need to empower the justice system to prosecute offenders and keep them behind bars.
Medical institutions have to be educated and equipped as first responders.
This complex delivery must also involve psychological counselling and rehabilitation as specific cases warrant. Rape hotlines should be well advertised on the streets, in the papers, on public transportation systems, on social media.
Those very brave women who have survived the harsh aftermath of rape can speak up as advocates on the reality of its widespread nature.
Lawmakers who excuse rape based on grounds of a fault or oversight on the part of the woman should be pressured out of their positions – as they are deterrents to our progress in this regard.
Though many cases of rape go unreported, statistics from reported cases indicate that at least one woman is raped every two minutes around the world.
From the birthing chair to the boardroom, multiple research reports show that overall performance is improved in companies where women have top leadership positions and are part of the key decision-making process.
Imagine what this effect will have on the economic growth of a country that operates from a gender-balanced perspective and does not stifle women who work hard to reach the peak career-wise.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is the partial or total removal of the external genitalia and is usually carried out under unsterilized and dangerous settings.
Over three million girls in Africa are at risk of cutting- an act that is deeply rooted in a tradition that is failing to budge despite the obvious consequences, including complicated child births, recurrent urinary tract infections, and fistulas, to name a few. Surprisingly, a number of people assume that this practice has faded away in this global age of enlightenment, but this is untrue and increased awareness can assist in putting an end to it.
We need to educate the older aunts and mothers who continue this and show them that there is a better way. 90 million African women have been the victims of Female Genital Mutilation.
Honour killing is another practice in which women are murdered for being in relationships considered to be forbidden and abominable.
High rates are reported in India with an estimated 10,000 killings annually. This act is also gaining reputation in Asian populations in the United Kingdom.
Unfortunately, these killings are being supported and approved of by Caste Councils who ban members of the same caste inter-marrying and consider the killings a form of defense of the family’s honour in the society.
That a father or a brother would carry out such an act irrespective of their level of education or high social status is alarming and frightening.
This goes to show that violence against women cannot be stopped by focusing on women alone; the men have to get on board too.
The trafficking of women across international borders mostly for sexual exploitation or as domestic workers is as huge a threat today as it was over a decade ago.
Most of them are taken against their consent or a full awareness of the purpose of their travel (usually marketed as a better life) and are treated poorly, threatened, abused, and sworn to oaths of secrecy. Drug cartels also employ them as carriers.
Over 50 million girls under the age of 18 are at risk of being married off as child brides to men much older than them and of whom they have no love, choice, or power.
Breast Ironing is a cruel act most popular in Cameroon, West Africa, where hot stones are applied to the budding breasts of young girls in an attempt to suppress growth. The flawed premise is that they are ‘loose’ or are likely to grow up morally corrupt because their breasts attract boys.
The list goes on and on.
The priority theme of the ongoing 57th UN annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is: Elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.
On International Women's Day and every day following, we call on governments, communities, individuals and corporations to join in delivering this promise. To advance the role of women in societal growth and global development. To give women more seats at the table- to consider them helping hands and not threats.
We call on parents to teach their sons from an early age that every girl and woman deserves to be respected irrespective of age, color, social status, religion and culture.
That a woman is human and so much more.
We are connected by our pain, our voices, our struggles, our hard work, our children, and by the land.
On International Women's Day, we celebrate all the organizations, governments, individuals and groups toiling hard and employing different measures to put an end to gender-based violence and bring offenders to book.
This is another opportunity to renew the promises we have made as mothers, wives, young girls, husbands, brothers, families, governments and social groups, that we will respect, honor, protect, affirm and uphold the rights of every woman to work, till, yield, give life and be educated.
This new year is about the S(h)eroes- women such as Sojourner Truth (Isabella Baumfree), Malala Yousafzai (who was shot by the Taliban for speaking out on the rights of girls to a proper education and is now one of the 259 nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize), the late Dehli rape victim- Damini, and countless others whose names we do not know yet whose faces we see every day and who are hurting from the burden and pain of their experiences.
The United Nations, World Health Organization, UNESCO and civil society organizations – including the Brown Button Foundation amongst other bodies, are rising up to the challenge to step up efforts and increase the pace so we can go from promise to reality.
The web-based Virtual Knowledge Center to end violence against women and girls is a multilingual initiative of the UN Women that draws on expert knowledge, research, and recommendations to deliver tools to those who are involved in activities and projects to end VAW.
Some governments have signed commitments to end violence. Tanzania, Senegal, Namibia, Nigeria, Morocco, Liberia, Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire and Burkina Faso are some African countries who have committed themselves to achieve zero-violence.
The Brown Button Foundation calls on everyone to join the campaign; be a part of the social media voice and in your own individual way encourage a reform of the political, justice, educational and social systems in our countries to ensure a holistic multi-dimensional approach to ending violence.
The youth must be involved: men and boys alike must be engaged so that the statistics can take a turn for the better. Proven strategies include prevention via improving educational and economic status of women, legislation and policy development alongside continued advocacy, and collaboration with local and community leaders to uphold only healthy cultural practices.
Victims require rehabilitation, emotional and psychological counselling, and empowerment to find a sense of belonging and independence.
We must break down social barriers and stigmas within the community, criminalizing rape and not rape victims.
Let us de-stigmatize what it means to be a woman.
Let us not give up nor waver in the face of the huge challenges before us, let us keep our word so we can have one more dance on the day of victory.
For the women and girls who have been broken, denied, forced, violated and abused for varying reasons, you are the greater S(h)eroes and as we celebrate you, we light a candle of promise that we shall not fail in the future.
In her famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman”, Sojourner Truth said:
“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down, these women together ought to be able to turn it right again.”
Like her, we are asking to do this and we hope that the world would let us.
This is the demand that we place, because as the blind woman who balances the scales of justice symbolizes, we can deliver on our promises if only given the chance.