In September I had the honour of following Carolyn Handschin (WFWPI UN Office Director) through the panel discussions and conferences of the 33rd Human Rights Council in Geneva and to see first hand the great work that Women's Federation for World Peace International is doing. Obviously, one of the recurring themes for the council is the implementation of Women's Rights and this session was no exception; panels tackled different issues in various fields spanning from maternal morbidity and mortality to the violence against women in indigenous communities.
I was asked, somewhat hesitantly, if it would be fine for me to represent WFWPI as an intern, which I was more than happy to do. Participating to the Human Rights Council revealed itself, in fact, to be a great opportunity to see many good people passionate for the most noble causes and I felt the breeze of the world's changing towards the better on me. After following a couple of conferences and side events, though, I remarked an interesting phenomenon: the disparity of genders in people stepping up for Women's Rights. Witnessing a significant majority of women makes one wonder about the difficulties men may have to speak out in their support, but before assessing how it can be done, it is worth looking at the magnitude of gender oppression and discrepancy.
According to the World Health Organization, over a third of women globally have suffered violence from a partner or sexual violence from another man. The UN estimates that about 133 million girls and women have suffered female genital mutilation, and believes that nearly all of the 4.5 million people "forced into sexual exploitation" are girls and women. Sexual violence is a severely under-reported crime with surveys showing dark figures of up to 91.6%, but in Britain alone "estimates speak of about 1.2 million women who suffer domestic violence a year, 400,000 are sexually assaulted, and 85,000 are raped."
Oppression shows itself also on an economic and financial level. The International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde describes "an insidious conspiracy" against women through laws, varying in scale across the world, that prevent women from working, learning or accessing information. Women are disproportionately concentrated in the "lowest paid, most insecure and often most demeaning forms of work." The discrepancy of salaries is visible even in the most developed countries with all but modelling being instances of a financial lack of equal treatment of women. They also do the vast majority of unpaid housework and childcare.
Our societies are built on precarious social and cultural norms which originate from earlier than the Middle Ages and today still dictate the boundaries of how men and women are supposed to behave. Those who do not conform to the stereotypes are often victims of sexism. It's effects visible in the most subtle considerations such as assuming that a woman who walks in a hospital room is a nurse while a man necessarily a doctor. Even when access to education is present other forms of social oppression take form. The Times of India recently reported, in fact, that only 17% of Indian women who graduate from medical school end up practicing despite being the largest percentage of medical students. The cause being that the degree is only seen as a tool for qualifying in finding a partner.
Even art and literature are not spared from the disparity of genders. The idea of female beauty represents perhaps the greatest of the forms of oppression that affects girls starting from early childhood along most of a woman's life. Men, once again, stand at the very epicentre oppressing women in the millions through the fashion and media industries. The very language we use is marked with expressions such as "Stop being such a woman," or "Be a man," which are only examples of a lingering sexism. Women are left struggling with their beauty and men unable to talk about their feelings, placing gender bias as the major reason for suicide in young people.
So what is the role of men in all this? As a man one cannot but feel part of the oppression. When I hear of a rape in the news a small part of me feels guilty - guilty for being a man. Suddenly the lack of men in the UN conference rooms is less of a mystery. The liberation of women is down to women, after all, and the great advances that have so far been made are down to the struggle and sacrifice of women: some known, some airbrushed from the history books. The women's movement has taught much to men and changed them for the better to be more encouraging towards women or to have a greater role in raising children. We are so used to various privileges - such as automatically being taken more seriously - that we are not even aware they exist. That's why it is so crucial that men listen to the experiences of women and the organizations that represent them such as the WFWPI, and learn. In the end, men will only stop oppressing women if they change, which means tackling attitudes within their ranks that make possible the objectification of women or which normalize violence against women. This is one of the key arguments made by UN Women Goodwill Ambassadors such as Emma Watson, who actively campaigns to encourage men to support women. Unless men speak out, such attitudes will persist and the oppression against women will continue. That's why I am a proud intern of Women's Federation for World Peace International.