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Standing up for Blind Women’s Rights in El Salvador

3 Oct

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We spoke to Rubidia Cornejo – President of the Association of Blind Women in El Salvador (AMUCES) and named in One World Action’s list of One Hundred Unseen Powerful Women who Change the World – about the work of AMUCES and the obstacles faced by blind women living in El Salvador.

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What does AMUCES do?

Rubidia

We help blind women in El Salvador exercise and demand their rights.

Blind women in El Salvador have specific needs. The biggest problem for people living with disabilities in El Salvador – especially in rural areas – is unemployment and a lack of resources. So these are the women that AMUCES tries to target. Many of the blind women we work with may have been taken out of school and have no way of earning an income. These women first need to have their confidence built up, and then need training so that they are able to organise themselves.

Giving blind women the opportunity to earn a salary is a priority for AMUCES – without it the women cannot take control of their lives.

How long has AMUCES been running?

We are quite young but are growing all the time – AMUCES has been running since 2006. I was always keen to focus on blind women and we took a lot of inspiration at the time from strong women’s organisations in El Salvador such as Las Melidas and Las Dignas.

Providing an income for blind women - Xpress Massage was set up by AMUCES at El Salvador's international airport

Which women have inspired you?

Internationally I have always found Hillary Clinton an inspiration, but here in El Salvador Eileen Giron has always been an inspiration to me because of her great leadership. I think it is important that women, including women with disabilities, have others around them who they can look up to.

How long have you been working for the rights of blind people?

I became a member of ASCES in 1989 but before that I was involved in other organisations. I was always interested in the subject of blind people’s rights and have been involved in associations and organisations since I was at university. When I considered the situation of blind people in El Salvador it was obvious that massive changes needed to take place – and still do!

What are you most proud of since being with AMUCES?

In just a few years we have become recognised within El Salvador and Latin America and have managed to include the opinion of blind women in national debates.

How can people learn more or help with the work you do?

XPress Massage

People can find out more by going to the website for the Association of Blind People in El Salvador (ASCES) – our sister organisation. AMUCES doesn’t have a website yet.

There are still huge amounts of work to be done in El Salvador to ensure blind people – in particular blind women – enjoy their rights as equal citizens. The main problem we face is getting funding for our advocacy work. This is increasingly difficult because international cooperation is being pulled out of Central America all the time. Being classed as ‘middle-income’ countries has not helped.

Other than getting funding, what is the biggest obstacle you face?

The biggest practical obstacle is delinquency. I live a long way from the office outside of the capital San Salvador and rely on public transport to get into work everyday. But because of crime and gangs extorting bus drivers, buses are often robbed, frequently cancelled, and always stop early in the evening. Delinquency is increasing in El Salvador and it can be very dangerous to make long journeys alone late at night, especially for blind woman.

Are you working with blind women? What are the biggest obstacles where you live and work? Tell us by leaving a comment below.

Made in Dagenham on point: Rights. Not privileges.

16 Aug

– Laura Ouseley, Campaigns Coordinator, One World Action

On Saturday night I finally sat down and watched Made in Dagenham. The film tells the story of the 187 women machinists from Ford’s Dagenham plant who, in 1968, bravely stood up and went onto the picket line to demand equal pay. At the time, it was the last thing anyone expected them to do. There aren’t enough feminist films around and this is a great one. At the end of the film I was struck by how this success story for women’s rights so closely reflects One World Action’s work over the last 22 years.

As the film shows, strong women’s leadership is essential for generating positive change for women. Celebrating and supporting women’s leadership in all its forms is something that One World Action has been doing for years, and getting to know so many inspirational women has led to our latest campaign to find One Hundred Unseen Powerful Women who Change the World. In the film, the role of the unseen powerful woman falls to Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins), who is stirred into action to lead the other women workers.

The film was interesting in it showed how the women’s striking had an impact on their relationships with men and the challenge it made to traditional gender roles.. Breaking a gender stereotype was – and continues to be – one of the biggest obstacles to women’s political participation in every country of the world. Whilst women stood by their husbands when they were on strike, women going on strike was seen as somehow laughable and outside what was within the accepted boundaries of behaviour, particularly if men’s jobs were affected. Perhaps my favourite part of the film is when Rita is arguing with her husband Eddie about going out on strike. As Rita put is ‘you’re right actually. You don’t knock us about, you don’t drink, you don’t gamble, you do join in with the family. That’s-as-it-should-be! Try and understand that. Please. What you’re talkin’ about now, what I’ve been fightin’ for, the last few weeks. Same thing. Rights. Not privileges’.

One World Action has always been a proudly political organisation. It has supported low-paid garment workers and trade unions across the world for many years. Women home workers in India are now better represented and better paid since joining SEWA – a trade union movement of informal women workers supported by One World Action. SEWA believe that women’s human rights will not be achieved without economic empowerment and self reliance. The movement began in 1971 when a handful of women came together to protest against their unfair treatment by local merchants and it currently has over one million members.

But sometimes strong women’s leadership or trade union membership is not enough. Women still need men and women in positions of power who support women’s rights. Getting more women into positions of power was what One World Action’s last campaign was all about: the More Women More Power campaign called for more women in parliament – and asked women already in power to use their voices to amplify the voices of women who are fighting to be heard. In the late 1960s it was Secretary of State Barbara Castle’s (Miranda Richardson) support for the women’s demands for equal pay that secured their success.

Seeing women stand up for their rights in this film was inspirational, but let’s not forget that in the UK the full-time gender wage gap is still 15.5%. What’s more, women are paid less but they often have to work harder as well. There is no doubt that more men are doing their share of childcare and housework, but it can safely be said that these tasks remain firmly in the area of ‘women’s work’.

Despite the Equal Pay Act being passed in 1970, 41 years later women are still fighting for equal pay. In fact, there are currently 45,000 women in the UK taking equal pay claims to court!

I am not convinced that women being politically active has been fully accepted in the UK, so it gives me hope when I hear that 200 people signed up in the first 24 hours to attend the Feminist Summer Camp that took place last weekend. What’s more, UK Feminista is setting up a new activist group so that even more people can stand up and demand a more equal world – just like the 187 machinists from Dagenham.

 

 

Focus on Sri Lanka

2 Aug

Hannah Davies, Director, One World Action.

Emerging from a decade-long brutal civil war, the human rights record in Sri Lanka has been under the spotlight over the last few months. Women human rights activists in Sri Lanka have played an important role in lobbying, both for women’s rights as well as for a more robust rights culture where all people are respected – regardless of ethnicity, gender or caste.

We’re highlighting here three inspiring Sri Lankan women who have, in their different ways, been fighting for human rights.

Challenging traditional roles and values in the wake of conflict

Shereen Xavier is the Executive Director of Home for Human Rights. She comes from Jaffna, Sri Lanka`s most conservative city, and returned there in 2007 two years before the defeat of the Tamil Tigers. Her father was a civil rights lawyer and she continues his work at Home for Human Rights where she campaigns for Tamil rights and provides free legal advice.

While conflict between the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil Tigers cost thousands of lives, as is often the case during war, it also opened up a space for women to challenge strict cultural roles that had been imposed on them.

According to Sherine Xavier, women often had to take a lead role as many men were killed, imprisoned, or forced into fighting.  Women therefore took on double burden: running a family and taking decisions. Most women had to adjust the second role. But, in part because of women’s rights activists, the rest of society began to give women more space: in many homes women now make decisions including about health and education of family members which used to be the role of men.

In addition to changes for women, the conflict also challenged the caste structure. Many of the Tamil rebels came from lower castes so high-caste Tamils were forced to rethink caste divisions as part of the broader struggle.

More information:

http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=51132

Rethinking women’s rights from the developing country perspective

Kumari Jayawardena is a leading feminist figure and academic inSri Lanka.

Jayawardena is the author of several books, including Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, a book that is widely used in Women’s Studies courses around the world.

In the book she describes women’s rights movements in Asia and the Middle East from the 19th century to the 1980s, focusing on Egypt, Turkey, Iran, India, Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, Koreaand the Philippines.  She argues that it is not a foreign ideology that is imposed on developing countries but that each has its own distinct character in Asia and the Middle East that links women’s struggle for equal rights with broader movements for political and civil rights.

She currently teaches in the Masters Programme in Women’s Studies at the Colombo University and is a Senior Fellow of the university’s Graduate Studies Institute.

Jayawardena’s books and articles have been translated into Sinhala and Tamil. She plays an active role in women’s research organizations and civil rights movements inSri Lanka, and is presently the Secretary of the Social Scientists’ Association, a group of concerned scholars working on ethnic, gender, caste and other issues

More information

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kumari_Jayawardena

Campaigning for civil rights

Another rights activist inSri Lanka is Suriya Wickramasinghe, Secretary of the Civil Rights Movement. Among other campaigns she played an active role in advocating for the abolition of the death penalty.

The Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka was among the first organizations to suggest that agreement on human rights protection and monitoring should be an essential component of peace settlements and should pave the way for agreement on other issues:

“It has always been the firm conviction of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) that the proper securing of human rights throughoutSri Lanka, both in law and as a practical reality, must be an integral part of any political settlement of the conflict.”

At a crucial juncture for women’s rights, here is our agenda for change

4 Jul

– Emily Esplen, Women’s Rights Coordinator, One World Action

Now is a moment ripe with possibility for making strides forwards on women’s rights. Just last week, the Executive Director of the first ever United Nations women’s agency, Michelle Bachelet, announced UN Women’s strategic plan. For One World Action, it felt like a huge milestone to see women’s leadership and participation as UN Women’s first priority – an issue we have been campaigning on for several decades. This year, the power of women’s participation was most vividly demonstrated to me by the pivotal role women have played in protesting for democracy and freedom in the Middle East and North Africa. Throughout the region, women have stood alongside men and demanded change. Another particularly poignant example of the key role of women leaders in mobilising social change came last year with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s courageous pro-democracy leader.

Yet alongside these inspiring examples, I sense an aching disappointment among many feminists – particularly those of us engaged with or situated within the development industry – at the gap between aspirations for social transformation and the limited and fragile gains that women have made towards equality and freedom. We have seen the transformation that comes when women know their rights and entitlements and are able to make demands and put pressure on the state to deliver these. Yet, increasingly, narrow and instrumental economic and security agendas seem to be trumping more positive agendas based on human rights and well-being. We know that in order to transform the unequal position of women we must build collective power, particularly at the grassroots, so that women themselves define and drive their own change. Yet we have watched as donor resources have shifted away from supporting women’s organising towards interventions which show more readily “measurable” returns in the short-term.

The future is perhaps more precarious still, with the fascinating rise of new emerging donors – China, India, Brazil, Russia, South Africa – whose aid is focused primarily on south-south economic cooperation rather than poverty reduction or human rights. What will the consequences be for advancing a positive women’s rights-based development agenda in the longer-term? Another group of new donors – the New Member States of the European Union – are also channelling their aid in support not of rights or even poverty reduction, but political interests and regional stability. At this time of shifting global dynamics, the presence of strong feminist movements surely becomes all the more critical to pressure governments in emerging donor countries to invest in the kinds of interventions that can truly transform the lives of women and girls.

At this crucial juncture for women’s rights, it seems time to ask some difficult questions. How can we close the yawning gap between abstract legal rights and frameworks and women’s access to a justice system that treats them fairly and equally? In a world marked by the resurgence of fundamentalisms and persistent attacks on sexual and reproductive rights, what will it take to realise one of the most basic yet contested of rights – women’s right to control what happens to their own bodies? How can we make women’s work safe, fairly paid and valued when the race-to-the-bottom in labour standards and wages continues unabated and when un- and under- employment grows in the aftermath of the financial crisis? With decision-making still dominated by men the world over, what will it take to get women’s voices heard and taken seriously?

Our agenda for changeConstruction workers and members of the Self Employed Women's Assocation, India

It is in this context – marked by huge opportunity but also a darkening political environment for women’s rights – that One World Action believes a feminist approach to development is more important than ever. This is why we work in partnership with women’s rights organisations around the world to empower women so that their voices are heard, their rights are observed and their choices respected. In Zambia, for example, we are supporting the national Women’s Lobby to run Girls’ Leadership Clubs in schools to build girls’ confidence and leadership skills. Our groundbreaking project in India is linking high street companies such as Next, Monsoon and Gap to buy directly from women embroiderers who work at home – as a result 1,000 women are now being paid on time and have seen their wages double. In Malawi, we are supporting the first ever platform for women living with HIV to challenge cultural norms, sensitise communities, and make women aware of their human rights and confident in claiming them. And in Tanzania, we are working with the Women’s Legal Aid Centre to strengthen women’s legal literacy through an innovative radio programme.

Strengthening women’s voice, agency, leadership and decision-making power – none of these are quick or easy to achieve. Yet we focus on these changes because we believe they are fundamental cornerstones of achieving gender equality and catalysing positive social change. Only when women are supported to act as agents of change – as leaders and decision-makers rather than as victims in need of rescuing by development agencies – is it possible to truly transform the position of women in their societies and create a fairer world.

One World Action has launched a new campaign to find One Hundred Unseen Powerful Women who change the worldFor more information and to nominate your unseen powerful women please go to: https://oneworldaction.wordpress.com/100-unseen-powerful-women/  

We will be awarding prizes to the top ten women within several categories. To donate to the campaign fund, which will also support One World Action’s work to empower women leaders around the world, please visit the following page: http://www.justgiving.com/OneHundredWomen  

Or text POWA00 followed by £2, £5 or £10 to 70070

“Untouchable” in Mayfair: Challenging discrimination with the launch of Bhimayana

13 Apr

"Bhimayana"

The Nehru Centre at the heart of London’s Mayfair is renowned for events promoting Indian high culture. It’s a beautiful building in the classical 18th century style and was once owned by the Duke of Cambridge. The lease now belongs to the High Commission of India.

It was not, therefore, the obvious place to launch a book about someone “untouchable”. But on April 12, One World Action co-hosted the launch of a graphic novel that tells the story of the life of Dr. Ambedkar: the largely forgotten hero of the Indian Independence movement and drafter of the Indian constitution but also a Dalit (formerly known as “untouchables”).

The central message of the book – Bhimayana – is a challenge to discrimination based on caste. It is drawn in a vivid traditional style and was two and half years in the making. The two artists Subhash and Durgabai Vyam worked with Navayana Publishing and its dynamic director Anand to create a powerful story interweaving the life of Dr. Ambedkhar with contemporary experiences of untouchability.

Artists Subhash and Durgabai Vyam

For One World Action the production of the book and the story it tells provided an opportunity to draw attention to Dalit rights and enabled us to take our campaign against caste discrimination in a new direction.  One World Action provided a small grant to Navayana and the artists to finance the production of the book.

As the speakers at the launch pointed out, caste discrimination is one of the most pernicious and hidden forms of discrimination in the 21st century. To be “untouchable” is to be less than human and Dalit children grow up with the message that they are not equal. Celebrated historian of India Patrick French stressed how 160 million Dalits were still invisible in many parts of Indian society – even after over 60 years of independence. Poet Meena Kandasamy spoke of her own experiences of discrimination and read a poem about the experience of a young Dalit girl being attacked for drinking water at school from the wrong pot. And over 100 guests were able to view the work and learn for themselves more about the life of Dr. Ambedkar as well as the work that One World Action does to promote the rights of Dalits – particularly women and girls.

In spite of its incredible economic development and growing political power, caste discrimination is still a taboo subject in India. It was therefore fitting that Bhimayana’s ground-breaking international launch took place at The Nehru Centre – the heart of the Indian cultural establishment – putting Dr. Ambedkar into his rightful place as a hero of modern India.

One World Action: Dalit Rights are Human Rights

Support One World Action in ending caste discrimination

Navayana publishing house

Making abstract legal rights a reality for women around the world

8 Apr

Hannah Davies, OWA's Director, talks to Helen Kijo-Bisimba from the Women’s Legal Aid Centre in Tanzania

– Emily Esplen, Women’s Rights Coordinator, One World Action

Women’s groups around the world have achieved remarkable progress in advancing women’s legal rights and entitlements. Most countries have ratified major legal instruments such as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. At the national level, the number of equal rights and anti-discrimination statutes has also grown. Yet for many of the women that One World Action works with, these instruments are abstract and out of reach, and justice remains elusive. As women here in the UK also know all too well, equality in the eyes of the law – even where it exists – does not mean equality in practice.

Women’s access to justice was the focus of a One World Action event this week with UK legal professionals, hosted by Matrix Chambers. Helen Kijo-Bisimba from the Women’s Legal Aid Centre in Tanzania – one of OWA’s partner organisations – spoke eloquently about the many hurdles women face in accessing justice in Tanzania. Some of the obstacles are very practical, like a lack of time and money. In Tanzania, there are only 1,200 lawyers for a population of forty million[1], concentrated in the large cities. For women in remote areas, travelling vast distances to access courts, police and prosecution services is near impossible. Even for women in the cities, the lack of legal aid services in the country means costs are often prohibitive.

Other obstacles are social and cultural. Even where laws have been reformed so that women have access to justice, changes are slow to penetrate to the level of cultural traditions, beliefs, values and norms. Yet it is precisely these informal social and cultural systems which determine women’s access to the rights and protections provided through statutory laws. In Tanzania, where female genital mutilation (FGM) has been outlawed since 1998, 15% of girls still suffer the practice. This is a result of cultural beliefs about FGM acting as a control on women’s sexuality, guaranteeing their virginity before marriage and their chastity after marriage, improving their fertility, and enhancing their husband’s sexual pleasure. Although some cases have been taken to the courts, they are often withdrawn due to pressures from relatives and community.

Women victims/survivors of violence also come up against strong taboos which inhibit them from making such matters public. Many women remain silent out of shame or fear of retribution, including the risk of further violence at the hands of family or law enforcement officials. For women who are financially dependent on perpetrators, speaking out is a risky option. In other cases, women simply don’t recognise that their rights have been violated, or don’t realise that this violation constitutes a crime.

Aware that changing laws can only ever be the first step in guaranteeing women’s access to justice, One World Action works with our partners to make abstract legal rights a reality. The Tanzanian Women’s Legal Aid Centre (WLAC) is a pioneer in this regard, being the first legal organisation to establish para-legal units in Tanzania to support grassroots women access justice. WLAC also provides mobile legal aid services throughout Tanzania, reaching almost 40,000 women and children to date. In response to horrific levels of sexual and gender-based violence in the refugee camps in western Tanzania, WLAC has extended its work to promote the rights of refugee women and girls. It now has two fully operational paralegal units run by refugees themselves who provide legal advice and counselling, and undertake advocacy and human rights education in their communities. Strengthening women’s legal literacy is another key focus for WLAC; for example through setting up a popular legal radio programme which attracts large numbers of listeners keen to know more about their rights and about the services available to support people whose rights have been violated.

What is clear is that access to justice for women requires more than pro-women policies and laws. It requires that women themselves, and their families and communities, are able to break the hold of tradition and taboo so that legislative gains translate into changes in women’s lives. It requires shifts in the attitudes and practices of the police and other law enforcers to ensure that women who report injustices are treated with dignity and respect rather than being harassed or shamed. It requires that women have access to the resources needed to be able to seek legal assistance. Above all, it requires that women know their human rights and legal rights, and feel confident and justified in seeking justice when these fundamental rights are violated.

These challenges are faced not only by women in Tanzania or the other countries where One World Action works. They are challenges which are pervasive, faced by women the world over. We hope that forging greater solidarity between women in the UK and those around the world who are concerned with women’s access to justice can act as a crucial step towards creating a safer, fairer, more just world for us all.


[1]    Based on 2009 figures

Sexism in the media

28 Mar

Rosamund Urwin, Evening Standard Journalist

KIRSTY Wark, Martha Kearney, Mariella Frostrup: there are many brilliant female broadcasters and writers working in Britain today. An advantage of the media industry is that complete male domination – at least in the public-facing roles – is easy to spot. If there are no female voices on the radio, female faces on TV or female names above articles, somebody notices.

But tally up those names, count the voices, add up the faces and you see something: how under-represented women are in high profile roles. And in the best gigs, you might find evidence of “tokenism”: a one-woman-but-no-more policy. Take the Today programme, the Radio 4 show which acts as an alarm clock to a large part of the nation: there is just one female presenter (the wonderful Sarah Montague) to four men.

Last year, at an event celebrating women in the arts, a well-known critic complained that she was tired of being the only woman on discussion panels. On a weekly arts show, which had four guests, another woman kept her seat warm when she wasn’t there, but they were the only females ever allowed on the sofa.

When a second does slip through, there is often an assumption that the two women must be feuding – the more established one taking against this invader. So when Emily Maitlis joined Newsnight, the thinking went that Kirsty Wark must be fuming. A view which Wark dismissed as “hilarious”. As she told an interviewer: “You could have Jeremy [Paxman] and Gavin [Esler] existing side by side, but somehow not two women? That was a very sexist attitude, and it was absolute nonsense.”

Older women suffer discrimination in the media most, of couse. This week, Miriam O’Reilly won her case for ageism against the BBC – proving that even an organisation obsessed with “diversity” is guilty of booting women out, Logan’s Run style, when they approach the big 5-0. O’Reilly was not only subject to ageism though, but sexism too. For while their female contemporaries are kicked off our screens as their hair turns grey, men are elevated to the status of “national treasures”. Think Radio 4’s John Humphrys, Strictly Come Dancing’s Bruce Forsyth, John Simpson and Jon Snow.

I suspect a few, very pretty young women get an easier ride than the boys at the start of their careers, especially in television. Though none would ever get there without talent, they are promoted to be the attractive face next to the more “serious” older men: Cheryl Cole and Dannii Minogue on the X Factor and the way Alesha Dixon replaced the far more knowledgeable Arlene Phillips (then 66) as the lone woman on Strictly Come Dancing.

A seasoned (male) journalist recently joked that I – at 26 – had only four years left in which to make a name in television. So far, in three years of journalism, I have encountered sexism in only one way – and that was from people commenting on articles, not from anyone working in the industry. But, as one of my worldly-wise female colleagues recently warned: “That may only be a matter of time.”

Rosamund Urwin is a More Women More Power Women’s Rights Champion. Rosamund has been billed as a woman to watch and was listed by Red magazine as one of 20 Red Hot Women under 30 and is leading the way with her weekly column where she stands up for women’s rights and feminist values.