Celebrating International Woman's Day
In celebration of International Women’s Day, Suze Pole interviews Bethan Williams, Programme Manager at Womankind Worldwide, the charity that campaigns worldwide for women’s rights.
Here at Pukka our vision is for nurturing the environment and social equality. Can you tell us about your vision at Womankind?
Our vision at Womankind is for a fair world where being a woman doesn’t limit choices, opportunities or rights. We bring about change by working closely with partners (local women’s rights organisations) on the ground in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Our work there focuses on ending violence against women and girls, ensuring women’s economic rights are realised and helping them to have a say in the decisions that affect them.
What is your role in Womankind and what is life like for women in some of the countries you are working with?
I am closely involved with women’s rights groups in Afghanistan where, away from the cities and especially in the East of the country, where are partners are working, women have very little freedom. Women may not be allowed to leave the home at all or only to go to the market to buy food. There is a strong notion of the importance of family reputation and that women must not be allowed to bring shame on the family.
Although there is a law in Afghanistan forbidding violence against women it is not generally upheld and it is seen as normal within the family for the men to beat the women to ‘keep them under control.’ This culture is so ingrained that if a woman went to a police station to report the violence against her by a family member she would likely be turned away.
It is a very tough situation but there are many ways our partners in Afghanistan are helping; we are working to educate policeman and other state officials on the law, and we meet with Mullahs and community elders to encourage men to accept women onto their local village councils so women’s needs can be recognised in their community.
A crucial part of our partners’ work is to identify local women who can be supported to understand their rights; they can then pass this information on to other women in their communities who go to them for support.
This way word spreads from woman to woman and momentum builds as more and more women talk about their situations and learn that change is possible. But in these communities finding a space where women are allowed to meet is tricky. One effective solution is to encourage the wife of the community leader to invite women to her home. She has status and so women are likely to be allowed to visit her home. This means women who have never been allowed out of their home can be given the chance to go there to meet with other women for the first time to talk together and learn that they do have rights.
We are also working hard to encourage families to send their daughters to school as most girls in Afghanistan leave school after primary level. In one community our partner got to know a woman teacher who was a tireless campaigner for girls’ education. As a teacher she commanded respect locally and after much work behind the scenes, we managed to get her onto the local council and she is now the leader of the female council which sets a fantastic example to other communities.
Does some of your work involve women’s health?
Yes in many countries we are addressing women’s sexual and reproductive health rights such as in Zambia, Tanzania, Bolivia and Peru.
I have been working closely with our partners in Zambia, one of the poorest countries in the world, where there is a tradition of early marriage and pregnancy and a lot of sexual violence against women. There is a real lack of access to sex education and to birth control. Many girls become pregnant at a young age and leave school and many girls and women in Zambia die in childbirth.
We are working with our partners in rural areas to train community members to become peer educators and educate men and women in sexual and reproductive health rights and to know how to access health services and birth control. We have helped set up ‘ girls leadership clubs’ in schools so girls can learn sex education and that they do have the right to go back to school if they have had a baby.
This is such valuable work and it is so important to bring attention to the plight of women internationally. Today is International Woman’s Day. How are Womankind marking this important day?
Womankind Worldwide is focusing on women’s participation in politics and leadership globally. When women’s voices aren’t heard in decision making, the deep-rooted causes of gender inequality, discrimination and unequal access to things like healthcare and education remain.
We have conducted research into what works in getting more women into politics and public life. The research found that the absence of safe spaces for women, lack of economic empowerment, low literacy levels and strong cultural traditions are all obstacles to women having a voice, but that women’s groups and women-only safe spaces can help women find the confidence and gain the skills to take on leadership roles in their communities and, in some cases, run for elected office.
As part of our activity, we’re launching an app to raise awareness of the challenges women face getting elected around the world. The app, inspired by the Suffragette’s original Pank-a-Squith board game, features real-life hurdles women face to have their voices heard in politics – from Twitter sexism to assassination attempts. Named ‘Suffragette Roulette’, in tribute to the feminist movement started over a century ago in the UK, the app highlights that women today only account for 22% of politicians globally. Even here in the UK, that figure is less than one third, at 29%.
We hope that the app and the research will get people talking about the issues and recognising that, while women’s rights movements and organisations are making remarkable progress globally, there is still an enormous gender gap in many aspects of society, especially at this fundamental level.
Suffragette Roulette is available to download from app stores from International Women’s Day or visit www.womankind.org.uk/app
You can donate to Womankind from their website: www.womankind.org.uk