#Bringbackourgirls hasn’t brought back Chibok’s girls, but it has changed Nigeria’s politics

I wrote this for The Guardian on the one year anniversary of the abductions from Chibok that sparked global consciousness (at least for a while). As of today, it’s been 412 days.

The story that emerged from Nigeria this time last year should have read something like this. “Last night, armed men attempted to kidnap more than 200 girls from Chibok government secondary school in Nigeria’s north-east Borno state. Security forces, stationed at the school to protect the girls, foiled their plan. The president, who flew to Chibok this morning to meet the girls and their families, apologised, admitting more precautions should have been taken. In the wake of several such attempts to kidnap women and girls over the past two years by Jama’at Ahlus-Sunnah Lida’awati wal-Jihad , commonly known as Boko Haram, he announced his government would undertake a comprehensive review to make sure this never happened again. The girls and their families will now benefit from comprehensive medical care and counselling offered by the government.”

If the story had played out like that, it would never have caught the attention of global politicians, celebrities and the Twitterati. But, of course, the girls were in fact abducted by Boko Haram, and one year later, the majority are still missing.

In all the discussions and news coverage that followed the abductions, the voices of women in the region were rarely heard. But they were the first to speak out, continuing the protests and activism in which they have been engaged since the start of the insurgency. A week after the abductions, Borno women, coordinated by Baobab for Human Rights, called on the government and their president to take action. They warned that the government would be seen as accomplices in the abduction if they failed to rescue the girls. They went to Chibok, lobbied the state government and made links with women and men all over the country and around the world.

Chibok was the not the first abduction, and it hasn’t been the last. It is estimated that at least 2,000 women and girls have been kidnapped since the start of 2014. Boys and young men have also been taken. It was not that this was not known before; a typical sentence in a Nigerian newspaper reporting on an attack would be “56 people were killed, 29 women and girls taken and property burned and destroyed.” Even before the abductions from Chibok, women activists in north-east Nigeria had been trying to raise awareness of what was happening, urge political action and provide services and assistance to those who escaped or were rescued.

This time, the world paid attention. In cities across Nigeria, including Abuja, Lagos, Kano, Port Harcourt and Jos, people went out on the streets, demanding that the government “Bring Back Our Girls”. There were marches and protests across the world. Syrian women in a refugee camp spoke out in solidarity. This increased attention led the government to develop guidelines on gender-based violence, including provision for counselling, mental health services and continued education for girls. Women’s rights activists also drew attention to the fact that Nigeria has no national laws against violence against women and girls, despite numerous attempts and civil society pressure to pass legislation since 2003.

Women’s activism and participation in public life in what is now north-east Nigeria stretches back to the time of the historical Kanem-Bornu empire. In the modern day, women have played a direct role in hostilities – as security officials, Boko Haram fighters and members of community security groups. They walk the line between different sides of the conflict, negotiating for the return of women and girls, for access for humanitarian workers to give medical care, and for the end of the fighting itself. Acting as mediators, they try to negotiate peace between Boko Haram and the government.

Women also support those who have experienced the brunt of the violence. They provide services to survivors of rape and sexual violence and speak out against the stigma and shame they experience. The University of Maiduguri Muslim women’s association is one of many women-led organisations which have provided food and shelter to those who have fled rural areas for the state capital. The Centre for Women and Adolescent Empowerment, and Tapestry, have set up a support network to address trauma in girls and women, training lay counsellors in communities across the north-eastern states affected by the insurgency. Working together across ethnic and religious lines, women have repeatedly marched and protested in the streets of Maiduguri, against the continued detention of their family members, for human rights, and for peace and justice.

Tomorrow marks one year since the girls were taken from Chibok government secondary school. Although not at the same fever pitch as in May and June last year, and perhaps all but forgotten outside the country, the abductions are still present in people’s minds in Nigeria. Newspapers still carry boxes declaring the number of days it has been since the abductions. Women in Borno carry on supporting women and girls who have managed to escape – and push for human rights, justice and an end to the conflict. Women from the state capital Maiduguri will be in Chibok tomorrow to commemorate, support and comfort families through the anniversary.

The indefatigable Bring Back Our Girls movement continues to hold protests. Rallying people all around the world, they have called for a week of action in solidarity. A man is cycling across west Africa, from Abidjan to Lagos, to raise awareness. The anniversary will see the Empire State building lit up in purple and red. There will be a Global School Girl March, taking place from Tasmania in Australia to Stavanger in Norway, from Santiago in Chile to London in the UK – and, of course, in cities across Nigeria.

This campaigning has been successful in highlighting the plight of the abducted girls, and although it hasn’t led to their safe return yet, it has had an important effect on Nigerian politics. Perceived government inaction in the wake of Chibok abductions was not the only reason Nigerians voted Goodluck Jonathan out of office last month, but insecurity and violence in the north-east was one of the main factors in prompting many to vote for change. In the run up to the presidential elections, people still asked: what has he done to bring back our girls? The Bring Back Our Girls movement was instrumental in mobilising the country in protests and conversations about the abductions, and in doing so, helped remove a Nigerian president from power in what will be the first democratic transition in the country’s history.

The president of Nigeria is set to change on 29 May, but women in the north-east will continue to push for justice, peace, human rights – and the return of women and girls who have been abducted in the past two years. Once in office, the president-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, has to deliver.

 Now that Buhari is in office, I’m looking forward to the steps he will take to ensure genuine, meaningful and sustained peace and security for all – both women and men – in the North East.

feminism and conflict: whose security is it anyway?

I wrote this for The New Left Project back in March.

You need to give us more condoms because ‘you know, we have to use three or four women a day’.

These are the words of a soldier in Plateau State in Nigeria as reported to me by women’s rights activists there. They are telling me of the numbers of girls and young women who are being left pregnant by men in the security forces. The irony of messages around safe sex and HIV prevention being heard, while issues around power and violence against women and girls are not, is not lost to any of us.

Despite the international attention being paid to issues around sexual violence in conflict, and sexual exploitation and abuse by security forces in particular, these issues are not part of mainstream discourse when talking about peace and security. Sexual relationships between young women and men in security forces are well known. Men tend to view these relationships in terms of the material gains the women concerned make. They rarely consider whether genuine and enthusiastic consent to sex can truly exist when it is a man in uniform. Only a few women activists are trying to support the girls and young women concerned. They are not receiving any assistance to do so. Nor are they supported to speak out against what is happening.

Issues of women, peace and security are now on the global agenda in ways never previously seen. The Security Council, due to the activism of women’s rights activists and organisations, including those from conflict affected countries, passed Resolution 1325 in 2000. This was the first time, the organ charged with responsibility for international peace and security talked about women. In the past 13 years, a further 6 Resolutions have specifically looked at women and conflict. The African Union, the Committee on the Elimination of Violence against Women, conflict affected and donor countries are just some of those taking action.

Work is being done to look at sexual exploitation and abuse committed by peacekeepers and other military men and other forms of sexual violence in conflict. In fact, over the years, we have seen a narrowing of discussion around women, peace and security to issues of violence and an even further focusing to look particularly at sexual violence in conflict. This is conceptualised in a particular way: a militiaman coming across a (civilian) woman and raping or otherwise sexually torturing her. The sexual abuse by security forces that I talk about above fits into this and this reflects the realities for a lot of women. However, the risk is that the international community addresses this alone rather than looks more broadly at all types violence against women and girls that forms a continuum.

Doing so reflects only one aspect and misses the complexities of women’s experiences of conflict, peace and security. Although the most recent Resolution offered a welcome change to this overwhelming focus on sexual violence in conflict by examining women’s roles in peace processes, there is a danger in looking at women only as victims. Crucially, it misses the centrality of issues of women’s empowerment and leadership and does not see women as actors as well as being acted upon. In doing so, ways that experiences and expectations of gender roles change over the course of a conflict and how ideas of ‘what it means to be a woman’ and ‘what it means to be a man’ contribute to conflict, are lost.

Who are the women we are talking about?

The international discourse also tends to characterise all women into a homogenous category of ‘women’ writ large, as opposed to looking at differences between women. As a result, while some of the able-bodied, city-based, educated women may have opportunities, a lot more needs to be done to reach other women such as those who live in rural areas, and women who are of non-dominant ethnicities and religions, or marginalised classes and castes. One significant omission is women with disabilities, who are at least twice as likely to experience violence against them, are less likely to be believed when they report it and find it more difficult to access services and justice. Yet little national or international rhetoric, policy and action around gender based violence looks at this, let alone ensures that women with disabilities are able to take part in peace and security processes and decision-making. There is also little to no examination of homophobia and transphobia, and the ways in which strict policing of sexuality and gender identities drive conflict, how expectations around sexuality and gender identity change during the conflict and what happens to those who do not conform.

Supporting the women who create change

Women are often seen as weak, vulnerable, faceless and voiceless victims rather than as active agents for security and insecurity, while men are seen as strong, aggressors, perpetrators and those who take action. For example, when talking about youth, marginalisation and violence, we may be saying ‘youth’ but what we are really thinking is ‘young men.’ This stereotypes ‘young, angry, disaffected (black*) men’ as ticking time bombs that need defusing quickly. It ignores not only that the vast majority of young men are not violent and some of them actively work for peace, but also that women can be involved in violence too. Women make up 10-30% of armed forces and groups worldwide. In Nepal for example, women are estimated to be 30-40% of the guerrilla force. In addition, young women support militias and government forces (willingly or unwillingly) both directly and indirectly. In fact, while men are socialised into fighting due to dominant forms of violent, militarised masculinity, many women get involved precisely because it is seen as a way of challenging gender norms.

It is often men alone who are seen as those with political consciousness and power, when the reality is that women are also active agents for rights, peace and security. In Riyom, in western Plateau, women with sticks chased out men with guns, saying these soldiers were not providing security and so they did not want them there. Women activists in Plateau also point out that it is the women who are responsible for security for the family a lot of times; they are the ones who lock up the house at the end of an evening and make sure all is well. In terms of financial security too, the myth of the breadwinner is not borne out on examination of who actually provides for the family; women’s money is seen as belonging to families, while men’s money belongs to the men.

Riyom is not an isolated incident. All over the world women take action to deal with threats to the security of the community, promote rights and to mobilise for peace. In many cases, women are at the forefront of activism for democracy and human rights. In others, women take the lead in negotiating with (government and non government) militia groups as to what takes place in their communities during conflict. How the women of Liberia mobilised to end its civil war is probably the most well known example of this but there are countless others at community, national and regional levels that continue to be overlooked and unknown from Afghanistan and Palestine/ Israel to Nepal and beyond.

In Afghanisan, women in Shah Rahim in Balkh Province, with the support of men, negotiated projects that have provided access to water, irrigation systems, and a community centre. They also mediate community problems and help reduce corruption. In Nepal, Women For Human Rights ensured that the rights of widows was recognised in the interim Nepali Constitution and continue to raise awareness to change societal attitudes and assist widows to bring cases of violence to authorities. Activists from Palestine and Israel formed the International Women’s Commission after the breakdown of the Oslo Process. They are asked to brief the EU, UN and other stakeholders but are excluded from taking part in peace conferences themselves and told to continue to do what they do best: ‘whispering in the ears of decision-makers.’

Women make up only 1 in 40 signatories to peace agreements. Of the agreements signed between 1990 and 2010, only 16% even mention ‘women’ – and when they do, it is often to restrict their rights.

Not only do women continue to be marginalised from decision making but women’s rights activists also continue to lack resources and support. Only 1.3% of development funds for gender equality went to women’s rights organisations or women’s ministries in 2010. This means that 98.7% of money for gender equality is not going to activists or government departments concerned with achievement of women’s rights. Where is it going? What proportion of this 1.3% is actually going to activists as opposed to ministries? If this is the case for gender equality money, does any non-gender specific money go at all to women’s rights activists? It seems not. A global survey of 1, 119 women’s organisations from over 140 countries in 2011 found that only 1 in 10 of them received funding from national governments, international NGOs or foreign governments. Women’s rights organisations working on particular rights may receive even less. In 2010, groups empowering LGBTQI people received less than 0.01% of total aid donated by major government donors.

After all, whose peace and security are we talking about?

The prevalence of violence against women and girls should force us to rethink what is ‘conflict’ and what is ‘peace’. If women do not feel safe, this is not peace. Research shows that what is meant by peace can vary sharply between women and men. A study by ActionAid, Institute of Development Studies and Womankind Worldwide found that while women are more likely to see peace as including education, healthcare and freedom from violence, men have a greater tendency to look at the absence of formal conflict and the stability of government institutions and infrastructure.

In Plateau, one of the causes of violence is conflict over natural resources, particularly over control and use of land, between those who farm and those who herd. There is unclear demarcation of farming and grazing lands and, as a result, cows destroy crops, ruining the livelihood of famers, and herders do not have areas for their livestock to graze. Young men have set themselves up as ‘vanguards’ that protect and safeguard the land, the community and the women, against threats of violence and encroachment. However, the actions of these vanguards do not necessarily serve to reassure and make people feel safe but rather sometimes generate fear and conflict. Many women in particular feel unsafe walking alone, at night and/ or in secluded areas out of fear of harassment or other forms of violence from these male vanguards.

A key reason why these young men form these groups is because of practices of land ownership and inheritance. Despite provisions in the draft gender policy for Plateau State, women do not inherit land. They marry into other communities and so are seen as having no claims to either their natal or marital land. In contrast, young men are brought up to see the land as theirs and so act to defend what is seen as their inheritance. As such, ideas of masculinity and ownership are mobilised in ways that drive conflict. But of course, in a lot of communities it is women, not men, who actually work the land and they are the ones who collect the water for household needs. Due to gender norms around inheritance, however, women do not have rights over land that they work. Furthermore, due to harassment by vanguards, they are afraid when doing that work and caring for the family.

Young men appointing themselves as ‘community protectors’ is not ‘an African problem.’ During the recent riots in the UK, ‘community protectors’, largely men who came out to protect their property, were lauded as heroes. Information as to the violence with which some of them were behaving did not really reach the media. A friend of mine saw a group severely beat a young man who they thought was a rioter.  There is also a rich history of these self-appointed ‘protectors’ monitoring the behaviour of women and threatening them. Women’s sexuality and freedom are often policed to ensure adherence to ossified ideals of ‘tradition’ and culture’ in the name of ‘protecting community values’.

The Way Forward

In the past 15 years, gender and conflict has been taken increasingly more seriously. Given where we started from, this is a huge achievement in and of itself. It falls far short, however, of what is needed.  We are still at the ‘sometimes add women and stir’ stage rather than anything truly meaningful and transformatory. This is despite the overwhelming evidence of the roles that women play in making and building peace. Moreover, gender inequality is both cause and consequence of violent conflict – and a form of violence in and of itself. As restated recently in Sex and World Peace, gender inequality is, more than national wealth, level of democracy or issues of ethnicity and religion, the best predictor for whether a state will engage in inter or intra state conflict. Given these empirical facts, it is astounding that more is not done to redress unequal power relations between women and men.

Seeing the full complexity of what happens and what is meant by peace and security provides new insights and ways forward. We need to reconfigure our understanding of security to look at issues of concern to both women and men and counter how gender norms influence and perpetuate insecurity. This would mean dealing with threats to security that women mostly face, such as from security forces themselves; looking at ‘traditional’ security issues, such as land conflict, and seeing what is happening to women; and thinking about how stereotypes, roles and norms of what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man, such as inheritance, influence and add to conflict dynamics.

We should not lionise all women as noble and brave, struggling and providing or stereotype all men as feckless, concerned only for themselves and a good time and living off the hard work of women. Black men get a hard enough time as it is; racialised as ‘perpetrators’ from which ‘their women’ need ‘saving’. Makua Matua critiques the savages – victims – saviours triad of international human rights: black men are seen as savages who perpetrate acts of violence against black women victims, who are rescued by white people saviours. As Gayathri Spivak writes, white men will not save brown women from brown men. There are many good men who work for human rights (including the rights of women), who resist toxic forms of militarised violent masculinity and act for peace. We need to be careful not to feed into racist perceptions of black men while also speaking out against gender inequalities. This is the classic dilemma of the black and Third World feminist.

We need to look at what is actually happening, contextualize and allow for nuance, rather than deal in broad-based gendered generalisations. There is a difference between what women and men are expected to do and what their realities and experiences actually are. It is true that men are supposed to provide security – both physical and economic – for their families and communities and that they may suffer when they are seen as not being able to do so, with their masculinity called into question. It is also true that women’s experiences and realities are complex. Women fulfill traditional gender roles, perpetrate violence and abuse and protect and defend rights and peace. Sometimes the same woman even does all three.

For peace and security to be fully achieved, it needs to be truly meaningful for both women and men. Without a feminist analysis, not only does what happens to women and girls get left out of the conflict narrative and what happens in response, but the root causes of conflict and how they are intertwined with gendered expectations of women and men are never addressed. Conflict analysis and peacebuilding work that is gender sensitive is both good for the achievement of the rights of women and girls and absolutely essential for the achievement of a genuine, meaningful and sustainable peace.

* I use black in the political sense of the term. It denotes strength and solidarity in the shared past and continuing experiences of imperialism, slavery, resource extraction, inequality and power imbalance of all those descended (through one or both parents) from Africa, Asia (i.e. the Middle East to China, including the Pacific nations), Latin America, the original inhabitants of Australasia, North America and the islands of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean. It does so while acknowledging and celebrating our difference and diversity.

 

life for a girl: married too young and unwanted?

Two events caught my eye recently: one from Nigeria, the country of my birth and current residence and one from India, country of my heart, family and community.  Nigeria and India are similar in many ways. They are both countries of considerable size, influence and ethnic and religious diversity that dominate their regions – and, in common with every single country and culture in the world, they also see systemic and institutionalised oppression and silencing of girls and women.

In Nigeria, many have been incensed by recent debates in the Senate over constitutional amendments and the age of marriage. At present, section 29 (4) of the constitution states that a Nigerian can renounce citizenship when they are of full age or, in the case of girls, upon their marriage. The committee proposed that the second clause be struck out, in accordance with the Child Rights Act, which limits marriage to those who are at least 18. The Senate voted to pass the amendment but after the vote was counted, Senator Yerima, who had previously come to the attention of Nigerian women’s rights activists when he married a 13 year-old girl from Egypt after divorcing his 17 year-old fourth wife in order to do so, spoke out against the change. He invoked the laws and practices of Islam to defend the practice of adult men marrying young girls and a second vote was taken. This time, several senators changed their vote and, although the Senate voted 60-35 in favour of passing the amendment, as constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority to pass, the amendment failed by 13 votes.

Meanwhile in India came the news that there are 222 girls in Satara district in Maharashtra that have not had naming ceremonies and are named ‘Nakushi’ which translates to ‘unwanted’ in Marathi. Lest you think this only happens Maharashtra, in Punjab and Haryana, many girls are named ‘Unchahi’ which, yes you guessed right, also translates as ‘unwanted’.

[H/T The Life and Times of an Indian Homemaker]

Many girls are unwanted by many in India, a fact that becomes stark by looking at the population figures. Maharashtra, at 881 women to every 1,000 men, has one of the worst sex ratios at birth and the figures in Satara district are even worse. Haryana has the worst sex ratio in India with 830 girls born to every 1,000 boys. India has the ‘distinction’ of running China a close second when it comes to the numbers of female foetuses that are selectively aborted due to their sex and the numbers of girls who are killed, inadequately cared for or left to die. In response to this, disclosing the sex of foetuses during ultrasound scans has been made illegal – but this prohibition is easily circumvented.

I cannot imagine what life must be like for girls and women growing up, not merely knowing that they are unwanted, but having that fact being drilled into them (and everyone around them) every single time someone calls them. I cannot imagine the psychic strain of not only having everyone call you Nakushi but also having to name yourself as such.

Life for so many girls, and the women they grow up to become, continues to be one of being devalued and of choices being made for you. Patriarchy is the power of older men in particular over all women. This becomes apparent when looking at the number of men who wish to marry and/ or have sex with young girls. Needless to say, this does not happen in Nigeria and India alone and, despite much of the tone of the discourse in Nigeria at present, this is not limited to Islam. Every country, culture and religious group has the phenomenon of older men having sex with young girls – with or without marriage. The UK has been rocked in recent months with revelations of men in the entertainment industry and politics preying on women, many of them young. These revelations, coupled with the Rochdale and Oldham cases of child sexual exploitation, have initiated public debate on male sexual violence against women to an extent not seen in recent times in the UK. And, of course, there is the annual pilgrimage that so many men from Europe and North America make to (usually Southeast Asian) destinations renowned for the ‘opportunity’ to have sex with young girls and boys.

Feminist movements around the world have achieved much. I often trace their (partial) success through the lives of the women in my own family in the last three generations alone and the possibilities we have had to choose the contours of our lives. Ages in India, particularly for that generation, are hardly an exact science but one set of grandparents themselves put their ages at marriage as 14 and 24. My grandmother was an older bride who, having finished Standard V, was highly educated, especially for a girl. People had started to talk and there was some worry that she was getting too old to find a husband. One of the elders of my family put the ages of my other grandparents as 9 and 30 but I am not sure how accurate this is.

Both my grandfathers were good men. They cared and provided for their families, ensured their daughters were educated and one of them even encouraged my grandmother to continue and finish her education. He never treated my female cousins or I differently from my brother, took part in the food preparation in the house and while growing up was the only adult I knew who would never make me feel that he knew more than me because he was older. I credit him with a lot of my intellectual development. Male champions of women’s rights are considered a relatively recent phenomenon but here was a man, born at the beginning of the twentieth century who lived the practice of women and men being equal without even thinking or talking about it. My other grandfather died months after I was born but I am told that he was a remarkable man also.

That they married my grandmothers when they were so young was completely normalised at that time. Men were naturally older than their brides. They could only get married after they were financially established. Parents rushed to have their daughters married before they got too ‘old’ after which there would be of little value in the marriage market, in order to give them financial stability. As with foot binding in China, parents married off their daughters young out of love, before age meant they lost their marriageability. Survival for women depended on their husbands. It was your number one responsibility as a father and mother (or elder brother) to see your daughters (or sisters) married well. By the age of 15, most if not all the women would be married so, even if a man wanted to, there would likely not be any girls older than that available for marriage.

If married before the onset of puberty, the practice was to stay with parents until the first period, which marks sexual maturity, at which point girls are sent to the house of their husband and his family, to return to their birth family home for the birth of the first child. We do not know how long this has been happening. Often our ancestors are more progressive than we imagine, in ways that are both surprising and hidden from subsequent generations as history and tradition gets rewritten. Notwithstanding this, it is likely that women were married as girls for at least a century, if not longer, before my grandmothers were married.

This continues to be the case for many in India.

Every time my grandmother begs that she wants to see me married before she dies so that she can be sure of my future economic security, I remind myself of her reality – which is so remote from the luxury of the existence of my choices.

Even at that time however, this was starting to change. The movement for independence was not just against British rule but also for a fundamental refiguring of society, with a strong strain of changing ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ that was against rights. This included overturning the caste system, normalising widow remarriage and fighting against practices of child marriage. A couple of decades later, and in time for the youngest two of my grandmother’s sisters, life for women in my family (in a certain city, of a certain caste and of a certain community) had transformed. Marriage was still a given but most of my aunts finished school and many of them even went to university. This was a time where school and university fees were not as high as they are now so families were able to afford to send their daughters and sons into education.  My mother went to medical school and got married at the age of 32.

This state of affairs is where it has stayed now in our family although there are still echoes with our past. Our marriage ceremony on the bridal side starts with the chapra puja, the erection of a canopy of trees outside the home of her family through which the women in the house pray to the ancestors. This is to signify to everyone in the locality that there is a girl in the house who has started menstruating and so is eligible for marriage. A wedding follows days later. That this practice is still followed for the marriages of women in their 20s and 30s today who have chosen their own partners illustrates continuity with the past.

Now of course, this is just one family in India, one that is relatively privileged. The legal age for marriage in India may be 18 for women and 21 for men but women are still being married as girls in my country. Much needs to be done to change attitudes, behaviour and realities of and power relations between girls and men, not just in India but also globally. Much also needs to be done to acknowledge that different groups of girls are marginalised and oppressed in different ways. For example, despite the advances made in achievement of the rights of (some) women in my family, not a single member of my family has come out openly as queer to us all.

I take hope from the story of the women in my family – and of the work being done by and with women across communities and localities around the world. I also take hope in the strength and resistance of the feminist movement and in the impact this has had and continues to have on government policy. In Satara, district officials are now planning to conduct a naming ceremony for all the Nakushis and allowing them to choose their own names. In Nigeria, outrage over Senator Yerima’s remarks and the Senate vote has sparked debate about child marriage, not just on blogs and social media, but also in many homes and workplaces. The Nigerian Feminist Forum called on people to campaign to protect the right of the girl child and activists are collecting petition signatures in locations across the country. Senators are now seeking to distance themselves from the vote. David Marks, President of the Senate, is justifying the vote by claiming that senators were blackmailed by Ahmed Yerima as they did not want to seem anti Islamic. In response to protesters gathering with placards to protest his support for the constitutional clause, his summoning by the leaders of the councils he represents and his denunciation by women leaders across the six council areas, Ayo Akinyelure, the senator representing Ondo Central Senatorial District, even burst into tears claiming, ‘I voted in error. I can never in my life support under age marriage. Whatever this might have caused my people, please, forgive me. I will do whatever is humanly possible at my disposal to ensure that this thing is removed from the constitution.’ That is a pretty amazing turnaround. Let us see what happens next.

I see so much cause for optimism when it comes to women’s rights and the achievement of feminist movements across time and around the world. Although we are seeing a global backlash to the realisation of the human rights of women at the moment, justified by recourse to fossilised notions of ‘tradition,’ ‘culture’ and ‘religion’, progress continues to be made. We are part of a long line of women’s rights activists stretching back into history and forwards into the future. We see the struggle against child marriage as a relatively recent phenomenon. However, although child marriages have been performed in every country at some point in history, there has also been resistance against the practice throughout the ages. This is resistance that does not just come from outside the community or outside the country. In Afghanistan, for example, there are folk songs against child marriage that are centuries old. I feel so lucky to have been born at this time (and to my progressive family) but also hopeful that our daughters and sons will be even luckier than I am.

aid, violence against women and girls and the UK

On 12th March 2013, I appeared as a witness before the International Development Select Committee to give evidence for their inquiry into  the work of the Department for International Development on violence against women and girls.  I had written the submission of the Associate Parliamentary Group on Women, Peace and Security on which I based my comments in the evidence session.

You can watch a video recording of the session here.

For a full report of the Select Committee’s findings and recommendations, published in June 2013, please see here.

putting women’s rights into the Arms Trade Treaty

I wrote this report together with Caroline Green of Oxfam GB in June 2012. The year saw the culmination of over a decade of global activism for an Arms Trade Treaty that regulated the transfer of arms.

We recommended that:

A criterion in the Arms Trade Treaty should require States not to allow an international transfer of conventional arms where there is a substantial risk that the arms under consideration will be used to perpetrate or facilitate acts of gender-based violence, including rape and other forms of sexual violence.

After years of negotiation, the Arms Trade Treaty was passed on 2nd April 2013 by the General Assembly by a 154 – 3 vote with 23 abstentions. The countries abstaining were Iran, North Korea and Syria. The text requires that, prior to authorisation of transfers of arms, States assess whether they could be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian or human rights law. In addition, States shall consider taking feasible measures to avoid the arms being used to commit or facilitate gender based violence or violence against children.

from Delhi to Southall, freedom is our right

I am part of organising a march against violence against women and girls in Southall. I wrote about it before for The F-Word.

I also spoke at Million Women Rise on 9th March.

We know that all over the world, women are experiencing – and challenging – domestic violence, rape, sexual violence, sexual harassment, dowry related violence, honour-based violence, incest, female genital mutilation, acid attacks and many other forms of gender-based violence. All over the world, women are making their voices heard – and we today are part of this proud tradition.

Southall Black Sisters started the year with a protest outside the Indian High Commission.  This was in response to the rape and sexual torture of a young woman on a bus in Delhi and in solidarity with the waves of feminist protest in India against the appalling levels of violence that women experience everyday of their lives. Last year we held another protest outside the Indian High Commission – this time, in response to a 16 year old girl who was molested by around 30 men in public outside a nightclub – witnessed by hundreds, none of whom intervened.

We continue to stand in solidarity with our feminist sisters in India but also believe we need to shift our gaze on ourselves and our communities and challenge the values and norms that enable violence against women and girls. In Southall, as in other parts of the UK, women experience violence both within and outside the home, from family members and strangers on a daily basis.

‘We do not have the freedom or feel safe to walk on the streets of Southall whether it’s day or night. It is not just the street where we do not feel safe but also when we go to places of worship and the transport system’ (Southall Black Sisters Women’s Support Group).

It is time for us to hold up a mirror to our communities and to face uncomfortable truths. We often hear about women’s ‘honour’ and women’s ‘duty.’ We say: what honour keeps us silent? What duty stops us protesting?

It is time to take a stand. It is time to define the values that we want to live by, based on the right of all to live with bravery, dignity, equality and freedom, irrespective of gender and background. 

We shall be marching in the streets of Southall on 23rd March – that is two weeks today. We want to mobilise the women and men of Southall, to hold up a mirror to the community and urge all to take responsibility for the epidemic of violence against women that is endemic in our communities.

It is wonderful to be marching through the streets of central London – but we need to be marching in the streets of our communities too. We call on all women and men to join us in sending out clear message to our communities and our government that enough is enough; freedom is our right!

Please join us on the streets of Southall. Come talk with us at the SBS banner for full details.

Our Tradition: Struggle Not Submission

Saturday 23 March
Assemble from 12pm outside Southall Black Sisters, 21 Avenue Road, Southall, UB1 3BL
Rally from 3pm on The Green, UB2 4BG

People of all genders are welcome.