“Women don’t have enough say in normal life”

Posted on Apr 27, 2015

One of the things I like most about ActionAid is that they are trying to put themselves out of a job.

If there was no more poverty, discrimination or inequality in the world everyone at ActionAid could take a permanent holiday. Unfortunately they may have to wait for a while yet. However by constantly fostering self-empowerment amongst the people they work with, enabling the poor to take control of their lives, the seeds of lasting change are sown.

Asking the poor and disenfranchised themselves what they need is the first step. Providing the resources that enable them to solve their own problems is the second.

This is not as simple as it sounds. Major financial donors quite reasonably want to know what their money will be spent on before they hand it over. Asking the poor what they need is essential. But simply asking the question raises the hope and expectation that much needed help will be provided. Sometimes it isn’t – because the donor has other priorities, the budget is exhausted or the policy climate has changed. Hopes are dashed.

Ramona Vijeyarasa, ActionAid International Project Manager for Women’s Rights, spoke to me about issues like this during her recent visit to London.

Women are bottom of the pile in many of the 45 countries where ActionAid work- in status, exploitation, discrimination and, ironically, in performing the roles that prop up much of the rest of society. For an organisation that wants to raise the bar across the board it is completely logical that Women’s Rights should be a core focus of their work. As though the moral imperative is not enough, the central role women play means that confronting the issues they face is key to improving society as a whole.

Ramona said the Women’s Rights strategy focuses on two core areas – the rights of women over their bodies, and their rights as workers.

The former tackles violence against women and girls, and includes support for the LGBTI communities. The latter covers every imaginable situation, from demanding recognition for the value of women’s work in the home and with children, to the millions working in the informal sector where the rules of the street are the only ones there are. When the only way to earn enough to feed a family is to sell goods in the market, and the only way to get a trading pitch is to have sex with the man who allocates the spaces, what choice does she have?

Ramona pointed to the significant reduction in domestic violence over the last 20 years as Governments have passed laws outlawing it. Over time attitudes are changing. But violence against women in public places remains a big problem. Indian women talk of being touched by men on the bus as an everyday experience. They remain vulnerable unless at home indoors. Publicity around the savage gang rape in Delhi in 2012 created demands for change, with the Government challenged to provide safe buses and adequate street lighting – things that we take for granted.

The provision of child care facilities was highlighted by Ramona as fundamental to women’s work. A programme in Rwanda and Ghana asked women to record how much time they spent on fetching water, collecting firewood, cleaning, looking after children, cooking and other responsibilities. The answer was 15 hours a day. After servicing their husbands they were often left with 5 hours to sleep and one hour for leisure.

ActionAid’s response is to pressure Governments to provide public child care and other facilities-such as central water collection points-which would reduce the burden on women’s time. And without needing to take a child with them on their back the quality of their work will improve.

I wanted to know how ActionAid assess the results of their work. Ramona said they ask a woman what positive change would look like to her, and to describe how a single change that has occurred impacts across her life.

ActionAid also judge results by indicators such as:

Number of women reporting violence
Number of community level structures set up to repel violence
Number of women who have joined groups against violence
Reduced number of hours of care work per week
Public services created to provide care

I was curious to know how Governments in various countries viewed ActionAid’s work with women. Are they pleased that an NGO is doing this work so they don’t have to do it themselves, or do they view ActionAid as troublemakers? Unsurprisingly the troublemaker badge is the winner. A core part of ActionAid’s work is advocacy, enabling groups to lobby Governments for recognition of the issues and work for change. By and large Governments represent the status quo and are peopled by men.

Of course, Ramona said, while ActionAid’s principles are global, they are customised to the specific situation in each country and culture. But at root:

”Everything comes down to patriarchy and male dominance in family and society. Women don’t have enough say in normal life, they are always subordinate to men, or sidelined into special women’s ghettos.”

And there lies the challenge for us men too.

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