Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Women Still Face Oppression

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday,  May 4 / 08

Zack Gross

Mother’s Day is coming up in a week.  Although we often celebrate, in official and commercial ways, our love for our mothers and spouses, women remain generally underpaid, overworked, underrepresented and physically abused in our world today.  Most men assume that they are in charge – in the workplace and at home.  Mother’s Day, even in our modern world, is charity rather than justice: “May 11th this year is your day, but the rest of the year will be dominated by the desires of men.”

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened a recent session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women by pointing out that one out of every three women is likely to be beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime.  He called this fact an issue that “cannot wait”, and said that violence against women impedes economic and social growth.  Mr. Ban declared that without improvements to the status of women in our world, it would be almost impossible for African nations to reach the Millennium Development Goals set for 2015.

Asha-Rose Migiro, Deputy Secretary-General, in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, recently said: “women and girls form the majority of the world’s poor and hungry, are dropping out of primary school at rates far greater than boys, and are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS.” 

Added another UN official: Ending violence against women is a missing indicator in the MDGs and without new funding, not just words, to invest in the health and welfare of women, global social and economic development will continue to lag behind the lofty goals set by international institutions.  Even the recent world food crisis, brought on by food-growing lands being converted to biofuels, has affected women more than men, as they are most responsible for providing food to the household and most vulnerable when there is a shortage.

An area of heightened concern is violence upon women perpetrated by peacekeeping forces in Africa.  A conference last month in Rwanda, between representatives of armed forces and UN agencies, called for more women to be involved as peacekeepers around the world.  Over the past generation, UN peacekeepers have been sent to over a dozen conflict zones in Africa.  Italians, Pakistanis, Belgians and other international forces, while doing their duty, have been implicated in acts of torture, rape and murder, as well as in participating in and supporting prostitution. 

Save the Children and the UN High Commission on Refugees have reported on recent child and female sexual abuse by both military and aid personnel.  A common site for this kind of behaviour is refugee camps, where victims are often forced to barter access to their bodies for handouts of food.  Offending soldiers may be sent home but not prosecuted and, as it has been difficult for the UN to recruit member states to make peacekeepers available, these instances of violence are often not followed up.

In many African countries, men have “traditional” power of sexual dominance.  Women walking to a well or to gather firewood, for instance, may find themselves vulnerable to men’s advances with no recourse.  As well, marital rape is not an offence, but rather the right of the husband. 

Women’s organizations and governments in some African countries have tried to stand up to and change these practices. 

In Nigeria, prosecuting marital rape has been stalled in Parliamentary debate for the past five years with opponents saying that it is “western” and “against the culture” of the country. 

In Kenya, it has been argued that harsher penalties for sexual offences would criminalize men’s advances toward women.  Outraged protesters, facing armed policemen when the vote took place (204 of 222 legislators were male), chanted “Kill us today so that we do not get raped tomorrow!”

In Uganda, a domestic relations bill was tabled before Parliament to deal with discriminatory laws on marriage, divorce, inheritance, property ownership, and violence and equality in the family.  The bill was attacked by opponents as a “coup against family decency”, was shelved and declared by President Museveni as “not urgently needed” and needing “more extensive consultations

Ghana’s experience was similar.  Opponents, mostly men but often conservative women, accused such bills of being designed to “destroy families
,” and the attitude prevailed that women have an inferior status in social life and marriage and that women are to blame for provoking acts of violence upon themselves.

This is but a snapshot of challenges still facing women, focusing on one continent.  Mother’s Day is a time to celebrate all that women do in our lives, our families and our communities, and a time to learn about and respond to the difficulties they face. 

Statistics show that women still have a long way to go to achieve not just equality, but security and respect.  In this case, the person who coined the phrase “Ninety percent of statistics lie” was probably a man!

Zack Gross is program coordinator at the Manitoba Council for International Cooperation (MCIC), a coalition of 36 international development organizations active in our province.

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