I have spent more than 16 years travelling through various parts of the world. I have travelled through Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, North America and the many islands of the Caribbean, Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
I have spent time in slums in Senegal, in fishing villages in Cambodia and with former child soldiers in Uganda. I have met female fighters in Iraq, stayed in small villages in Afghanistan and with families in Kashmir. I have travelled through the Brazilian Amazon by boat, met with ex slaves in Mauritania and Syrian refugees in Lebanon. I have travelled to the United States, Kazakhstan and spent time with Sahrawi refugees in the Algerian desert, and so much more.
I have noticed through these travels that while there is an incredible amount of differences amongst us, there are some things that we share in common.
One of them being the way in which we normalise violence and discrimination against women and girls.
There has been literally no part of the world that I have been to, where violence and discrimination against women and girls is not in some way or another accepted, as a normal part of daily life.
It could be rape or blaming women for being raped. It could be relentless sexual harassment and then blaming women for that too. It could be men hitting their wives or just blatant declarations that women have less value than men. It could be honour killings, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, unequal pay, not allowing girls to go to school or allowing them to reach the highest levels of political office.
In the Middle East my travels have taken me through the various countries of the Gulf, the Arabian peninsula and to the far reaching corners of Kurdistan in Iraq and Turkey. I have come across attitudes and institutionalised laws that deliberately discriminate against women and in many cases, support violence against women.
Social norms and ‘cultural’ values dictate that women should not have the same rights to participate in social life as men do. In Yemen, for example I barely saw a woman on the street, nor did I in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Honour killings are prevalent in this part of the world and stem from a deeply misogynistic male need to control women’s sexuality. In this part of the world, women and girls are not allowed to have sexual relations outside of marriage and are expected to be virgins until they are married. Any deviation from this, or even a suspected deviation, is believed to destroy the family honour and the only way to redeem this honour, is to kill her.
In Africa, the attitudes that discriminate against women are also rampant. In Morocco, I found it almost too difficult to be outside, the lecherous staring and incessant rude comments from the men, were just so bad. One Moroccan woman said that she had bought a car, just so she didn’t have to deal with the daily harassment on the street.
In Mauritania, women can face jail time for sex outside of marriage, even if they were raped and even if they were raped when they were a slave. What is known as decent based slavery was legal in Mauritania up until 2007.
In Mozambique, sexual harassment from school teachers is common in the country’s poverty stricken schools. A phenomenon known as ‘sex for grades,’ young girls are expected to exchange sexual favours with their teachers in return for grades. In South Africa, women complained about the relentless daily sexual harassment. In Senegal, a school teacher said, ‘sexual harassment is everywhere.’
In Latin America it’s not much better. ‘Women are just sexual objects,’ one Colombian man told me. A fact that was obvious from the incessant lecherous stares and rude comments that I faced on daily basis on the street in Colombia and in fact, virtually anywhere in central and South America. I remember one young Colombian girl telling me that, ‘there would be more punishment for stealing a chicken than raping a young girl.’
Asia can also be an incredibly difficult place for women. I have yet to meet a woman from India or a woman who has visited India, that has not faced some form of violence, harassment or been made to feel uncomfortable by men. In the Maldives, women told me that due to the increasing presence of Islamic extremists in the country, they were losing their rights to do things such as leaving the home without permission from a male member of the family. In the Philippines I met young girls who had been tricked and sold into sexual slavery, a problem that is widespread throughout the country.
In the Western world, sexual harassment, domestic violence and unequal pay are still all problems women face on a daily basis. As they are in the islands of the Pacific, Indian Ocean and Caribbean and virtually everywhere around the world.
And it’s in part endless because these things are so accepted. Because people dismiss these things as ‘tradition’ and ‘culture,’ they shrug their shoulders and say, ‘well that’s normal’.
Violence and discrimination should never be normal, ever. It should never be considered normal to hit a woman. It should never be considered normal for a young girl to be sold into prostitution. It should never be normal for teachers to sexually harass their students at school or anywhere for that matter.
What should be normal is respect. Respect for the dignity and well being of everybody. It should be normal that men who abuse, disrespect, degrade and humiliate women, are punished.
A global effort is needed here to bring an end to these very serious forms of violence and discrimination against women and girls to an end. Everybody needs to step up and speak up and most importantly, we need to stop saying that violence and discrimination against women and girls, is normal.