I have spent more than 15 years of travelling around the many diverse parts of the world. I have visited jungles in Nicaragua, small villages in Madagascar and slums in Senegal. I have been to rural villages in Afghanistan, the beautiful architectural cities of Europe and tiny islands in the Indian Ocean. I have spent time with Yezidis in Northern Iraq, travelled through the remote countryside of Tajikistan and visited small villages in China. Regardless of whether I am in a bustling city in Argentina, a small village in Gabon or a mountainous valley in Uzbekistan, everywhere I have gone I have heard stories of some form of violence and discrimination against women and girls.
It seems to be just everywhere.
It could be relentless sexual harassment where men aggressively and blatantly leer at women as they walk down on the street. It could be making lewd and inappropriate comments about a woman’s body. It could be groping and touching a woman without her permission. It could also be doing these things and then laughing about it, as if it’s something fun, no big deal.
It could be domestic violence where it considered both normal and acceptable for men to a physically, verbally or emotionally abuse women. It could be honor killings where it is deemed acceptable to kill a woman who is suspected of having a sexual relationship outside of marriage.
It could be bride kidnapping where women are kidnapped and forced into marriage. It could be putting women in jail for being raped and it could include lashing women for adultery while not punishing men who do the same.
It could include calling women from certain cultural backgrounds ‘whores’ because they don’t adhere to one’s own cultural ideas of behavior and dress and it could also include justifying violence against women on the basis that she is a ‘whore’.
It could be inappropriate sexual jokes that are designed to demean and degrade and it could also be very blatant, offensive declarations that women are second class citizens.
Violence and discrimination against women and girls is everywhere. It spans the globe, regardless of whether it’s a small village in Iraq, a bustling city in the United States or with desert nomads in Mongolia, everywhere, there are men behaving badly.
In Mozambique women told me about sexual harassment that runs rife through the country’s poverty stricken schools. Girls are asked to give sexual favours to their teachers in return for receiving high grades. Saying no could result in her not passing the grade.
In Northern Iraq, it was explained that should a woman engage in a sexual relationship outside of marriage, or even be suspected of engaging in a sexual relationship then it would be culturally required to kill her. This is otherwise known as an honor killing.
In the Maldives, women described their fears of a changing cultural environment where extremist ideas coming from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were resulting in a reduction of their rights. Women were increasingly having to cover their faces and have permission from a male member of the family to leave the home.
In Afghanistan, women in small villages complained of being forced into marriages, sometimes as young as 14 or 15 years old.
In Mauritania, women recounted stories of rape and endless sexual violence after being born a slave, part of the Mauritanian decent based slavery system.
In Lebanon, Syrian women complained of relentless sexual harassment from local men when looking for work who were taking advantage of their vulnerability as refugees.
In South Africa women complained about daily sexual harassment as did women in Tajikistan. Women in Gabon said that the sexual harassment was so bad that it was too difficult for them to be able to work.
In fact, I have barely been to a country where women have not complained about persistent sexual harassment on the street, in the workplace or in any public place in general.
These levels of violence and discrimination against women and girls are far, far too high. It is absolutely unacceptable that any woman or any girl anywhere should have to be subject to physical, emotional or sexual violence. It is unacceptable that any women or girl should be told that she is a second class citizen or should have to live her life without the freedom to live it as she herself would like to live it.
The only way we are going to bring an end to these very high levels of violence and discrimination against women and girls around the world is by speaking out and acknowledging that this problem exists. It’s going to be through changing attitudes and demanding better from our men and boys and now allowing the problem to be dismissed with annoyance and if its no big deal.
If we as a global community work together to achieve these norms we can make a difference in the lives of women and girls. We can make our world a better place together. Because as long as we allow and tolerate bad behavior from men, wherever it is in our world, these disgraceful attitudes that make the lives of so many women and girls around the world uncomfortable and difficult, is going to continue.