We can find it everywhere, throughout the world in all sorts of forms and being directed against all sorts of people.
However, arguably one of the most pervasive forms of inequality globally, is gender inequality. It crosses cultures, religions and ethnic boundaries. Wherever you go in the world, you can find similar attitudes when it comes the rights of women and girls.
However, these gender inequalities, are often well hidden. They lay under layers of normalcy and culture and are often well disguised as ‘the way things are.’
Culture, I have noticed, has a very manipulative ability to disguise very blatant forms of violence and discrimination against women and girls as being ‘normal.’
In my more than 15 years of travelling around the world, everywhere I have gone, whether it be Africa, the Middle East, Asia or Latin America, Europe or the islands of the Pacific and the Caribbean, I have found ‘cultural ideas’ that suggest that violence and discrimination against women and girls, whether it be lack of freedoms, rampant sexual harassment or domestic violence, should be accepted and tolerated.
I found as much on my most recent trip to Burma.
I was in Burma as part of my work with my foundation Project Monma which aims to raise awareness about violence and discrimination against women and girls around the world.
During my travels along the Thai Burma border, the Chinese Burma border and in Burma itself I heard women tell stories of sexual violence in refugee camps and widespread sexual harassment, all with very little if no protection from the police. Women told stories of domestic violence and human trafficking.
However, besides these very blatant forms of violence, I noticed that there were also much more subtle forms of discrimination taking place as well. Though, they seemed to be so engrained in the culture that many of the women I met, could not see that they were taking place.
I noticed as much during a talk with a group of university students in Hpa An, a small state in Burma bordering Thailand.
I was invited by a professor at one of the local universities to speak to her English class. I happily accepted, as the majority of the class was female, I was looking forward to hearing what they had to say. But as I began to ask questions the class for the most part, was quiet.
However, towards the end of the class one girl slowly put up her hand. She explained that women and girls were not allowed to go to the highest part of the Pagoda, which is considered to be the most sacred part. In a country shaped by strong Buddhist traditions, this was significant.
The spatial representations of the Pagoda play a strong role in representing cultural understandings of value and worth in Burma and so women not being allowed to go to the top part of the Pagoda was something that she, and eventually all of the other women agreed was a type of discrimination.
Though despite this, all the women in the room shrugged their shoulders. ‘These are our traditions,’ they said.
Another women put up her hand and said that women and girls are not allowed to go out late at night, something which she also identified as a type of discrimination. Men and boys could, but not girls.
When I asked why, the class fell into silence, nobody was willing to explain.
We finished the class and I felt a sense of frustration. There were very evident forms of discrimination taking place and yet rather than being angry about them, the women had just accepted them. They saw them as culture, tradition.
After the class finished, two of the girls offered to drive me back to my hotel. I agreed and as we drove past the many sparkling, golden pagodas and green rolling hills, the conversation turned back to women’s rights. Perhaps being away from the pressure of speaking up in a group, the girls spoke more openly.
‘Do you want to know why girls can’t go out late at night,’ asked one of the girls.
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘It’s because they’re afraid that if girls go out at night then the boys will do something bad and she will get pregnant,’ she said.
By something bad, she was referring to sexual violence.
‘Do you think it’s fair that only women should be restricted,’ I asked her. ‘Shouldn’t men and women have the same freedoms?’
‘Well it’s been that way ever since I was a little girl,’ she said shrugging her shoulders. ‘This is how things are in Burma.’
It was evident that she had never considered whether it was fair or not that girls should have the same freedoms as boys.
And this is precisely the problem.
Throughout the world women and girls are expected to accept that they will not have the same rights and access to opportunities and freedoms that men have. They are taught from a young age that this is the way things are and that they are unchangeable.
However, as women, we don’t have to live with the traditions and cultures that are bestowed upon us, we have the right to challenge them and ask for them to change. We have the right to demand to live within cultures that treat us with dignity and respect and give us the freedoms that we want to have.
So women and girls everywhere, why do we accept the ‘cultural’ values and ideas that discriminate against us, however subtle they may be?
It’s time that we demand to live in a world where we are treated with the respect and dignity that we deserve.
Let’s get up and do that now.