To Break Free of Gender Violence, We must All #SayEnough and Act. 25/11/2016

Published by MAIL&GUARDIAN

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COMMENT
“Enough”, they said.

I recall how
my mother, a community leader, started and led women’s clubs in my
village. Women in my village stood together for their rights and those
of their daughters.
Their lesson has stayed with me. Through their clubs, women — most of
them poor — educated themselves and learned to distinguish rights from
the “social norms” that culture and tradition had forced on them.

What
ignited me most about their work was the power it gave them to assert
their rights and the rights of their girls, be it to education or to
inherit property. And the power to say “enough” in the face of
patriarchy and violence.

Some of my most painful memories
are of my friends and cousins crying as they were taken away to be
married to men they didn’t know, often much older. I grew up seeing
young girls sheltered by my mother in our house from being forced into
early marriage. Those were the fortunate few.

That was
many years ago and yet the same struggles endure. A half-century on, the
global crisis of violence against women and girls is endemic. Around
the world, one in three women will experience domestic abuse, sexual
violence or some other form of violence in her lifetime.

Violence
happens everywhere, across social groups and classes. Women and girls
in poverty suffer most. From sexual harassment to child marriage or
so-called honour killing, violence devastates the lives of millions of
women and girls around the world and fractures communities. It is both a
cause and a consequence of women’s poverty.

There are
many complex causes driving this violence against women and girls. But
it is ultimately rooted in the reality that women and men are not
treated equally.

When communities share expectations that
men have the right to assert power over women and are considered
socially superior, violence against women and girls increases. It
creates a reality in which men can physically discipline women for
“incorrect” behaviour, one where sex is men’s right in marriage.

These
are examples of social norms, the unwritten rules that dictate how we
behave. They are fundamental in allowing violence against women to
flourish.

Let me explain. Most people, most of the time,
conform to social norms. We continually absorb subtle messages about
what is and isn’t appropriate to do, say and think from our family, our
friends, our colleagues, from education, culture, the media, religion
and law. These sources are not neutral. They are informed by long
histories of inequalities and prejudice, and by economic and political
forces.

Our world is one in which social norms grant men
authority over women’s behaviour. They encourage men’s sense of
entitlement to women’s bodies, spread harmful notions of masculinity and
enforce rigid gender roles.

These norms are insidious
and powerful, often transmitted through throwaway comments or casual
actions: telling a woman who was raped that “she was out late at night,
drunk or travelling alone and was therefore responsible for the
violence” — or brushing off harmful misogyny as “locker-room banter”.

Formal
laws may not reign here. Attitudes like these create an environment in
which violence against women and girls is widely seen as acceptable,
even where laws call them illegal. Studies from India, Peru and Brazil
have linked the acceptance and approval of wife-beating in a particular
community with rates of actual violence in that community.

One
United Nations study in Asia and the Pacific found that, on average,
men with gender discriminatory attitudes were 42% more likely to abuse
their partners.

The same study examined men’s reported
motivation for rape. In most countries in the study, between 70% and 80%
of men who had ever forced a woman or girl to have sex said they had
done so because they felt entitled to have sex, regardless of consent.

We
must be aware of how social norms operate before we can change how we
respond. Violence against women and girls is sustained by a net of
harmful attitudes, assumptions and stereotypes. It’s a net that so many
are caught in: not always felt, but as strong as steel.

We can break free. We can change the harmful beliefs at the core of this problem. What was learned can be unlearned.

Today, Oxfam is launching a global campaign, firing up our long-standing work to end violence against women and girls.

“Enough” is the rallying cry of our campaign. I am reminded of the lessons I learned from my mother.

Our
campaign will see us stand shoulder to shoulder with the efforts of
women and men around the world already engaged in this struggle. We will
support women’s rights organisations, especially in the South, which
are already challenging harmful social norms. We will organise.

All
of us can play our part. It starts with challenging and changing our
own behaviour and then talking to our families, friends and colleagues
about unequal power relations. Governments and public institutions — and
the private sector too — must ensure their policies tackle, not
accentuate, harmful social norms.

We must act! Not
another girl or woman should have to suffer. Please watch and share our
campaign video (at sayenoughtoviolence.org/) and join the conversation
on social media using #SayENOUGH. This must be an urgent imperative for
all of us.