I am calling for a non-violent revolution. A call to arms, without weapons.
On Tuesday the 8th of March, I joined Annie Lennox, Cheri Lunghi, Jude Kelly, Natasha Walter and hundreds of women on a march along London's Southbank to celebrate 100 years of International Women's Day (IWD).
It was encouraging to see so many women come together, but we should have been thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions perhaps? The first march in 1911 saw over a million women and men campaign to end discrimination against women and to demand equal rights.
Are we so complacent that we feel we do not need to demand gender equality? Many women are convinced there is equality between men and women. The fact however is that the US has never had a female president and, in the UK there has been just one female prime minister out of 52 male leaders. Shouldn't this be a wake up call to all those who think we have achieved gender equality?
It is true that much progress has been made since the original march for IWD, and women are excelling in many fields. We may have different lives to those of our grandmothers and even our mothers but gender equality has far from been achieved. Michelle Bachelet, Under Secretary General and Executive Director of UN Women, stated "gender equality is closer than ever before, but we stil have far to go."
In recent months we have seen women at the forefront of revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Asmaa Mahfouz, a 25-year-old Egyptian woman has been credited by some for sparking the revolution in Egypt when she posted a YouTube video calling for people to join her in Tahrir Square in a fight for democracy. Of the hundreds and thousands of people who joined Asmaa Mahfouz there were as many women as men. This is a pivotal time in history for the Middle East, and women are playing a significant role in its progression towards democracy and freedom.
After such progress, it was shocking this week to see a peaceful march led by women in Tahrir square to mark International Women's Day met with aggression and sexual harassment from a gang of over 200 men.
In many countries around the world women have to physically fight for their voices to be heard. We in the west are lucky that we have a voice, but it must come with an obligation to fight for those women who don't.
As we see women around the world risk their lives to fight for fairness and freedom, we should be inspired to stand up for our rights, our right to be equal; a right which was passed in 1948, under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is yet to be fully achieved.
In response to those who deny the existence of gender discrimination I let the statistics speak for themselves.
Women now carry out 60% of the world's work and produce 50% of the world's food but only earn 10% of the world's income and only own 1% of its property. According the UN women make up 70% of the worlds poorest. Two thirds of the 774 million illiterate adults worldwide are women. This is because 70 million girls each year are denied the right to the most basic education.
Women around the world face severe restrictions in freedom and in some cases are condemned to death for allegedly breaking bias moral and religious codes, enforced by men.
In recent years many cases of gender discrimination, gender related violence and honour killings have been brought to public attention. Some of the most egregious cases I have come across are; Mosammet Hena a 14-year-old girl from Bangladesh, who was allegedly raped and was whipped to death for crimes against honour.
The disturbing case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old mother of two, who was sentenced to death by stoning in Iran for adultery and murder, crimes she has repeatedly denied. Death by stoning is a mandatory sentence for "adultery while married" in Iran. After intense public outcry and campaigning by the international community, human rights organisations including my own The Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, the Iranian authorities have since announced that her death sentence has been "suspended". At present, the outcome of her case remains unclear.
Honour killings are increasing in the western world, the recent cases of the television executive Muzzammil Hassan who was found guilty of beheading his wife in a suspected honor crime and the Iraqi father, found guilty of running over his 20-year-old daughter in a Arizona car park have shocked America. In 2009 police recorded over 250 incidents of "honor"-based violence in London alone, according to the Guardian.
Female Genital Mutilation and AIDS
Female genital mutilation and AIDS are another threat to women around the world. Action Aid estimates that 75% of all young people in Sub-Saharan Africa with AIDS or HIV are women. 92 million women and girls around the world are believed to have undergone female genital mutilation.
Rape as Weapon of War
Rape has long been used a weapon of war, during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, it is estimated between 250,000-500,000 women were raped. UN Special Reporter Rene Degnu-Segui stated, "rape was the rule, it's absence the exception". In 1993 I travelled with United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) personnel through Bosnia and Croatia on a fact finding mission to document the mass rape of women, I had been asked to testify before the Helsinki Commission in the US Congress. I listened to hundreds of shocking testimonies of women who had been brutally raped. It is estimated that during the Bosnian war up to 50,000 women were systematically raped.
Although the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia issued arrest warrants based on the Geneva Conventions and Violations of the Laws or Customs of War, rape continues to be used as a weapon of war. In 2009 we learned of the brutal raping of 8,000 women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Margot Wallstrom, the UN's special representative on sexual violence in conflict, described the country as "the rape capital of the world" speaking of the violence she explained "if women continue to suffer sexual violence, it is not because the law is inadequate to protect them, but because it is inadequately enforced."
In countries such as Saudi Arabia, women are not even allowed to drive, let alone vote. In Saudi Arabia and in places such as Chechnya, Afghanistan and Somalia women are routinely punished for not adhering to strict dress codes, and can be flogged in the street for showing their faces.
Seven UN member states have not signed the convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; Iran, Nauru, Palau, Somalia, Sudan and Tonga. The United States, along with Niue and the Vatican City have not yet ratified it!
Sexual Assault & Domestic Violence
These stories are not freak occurrences, every day women face gender related abuse. I was shocked to learn that globally 60 million girls are sexually assaulted on their way to school each year. In the UK only 7% of rape cases end in conviction and only between 10-20% of rapes are thought to be reported. In the US one in four women can expect to experience domestic violence, and according to the National Centre for Injury Prevention and Control, women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes each year.
Globally there is severe disparity between men and women in parliament, and women make up only 19% of the worlds parliament seats. As of 2011 there were only 17 female Senators in the US out of 100 and 76 women in Congress out of 435. In the UK there are 144 members of parliament out of 650. In a world where leaders such as Obama, Cameron, Sarkozy, Burlesconi, Putin, Gaddafi, Mubarak make headlines daily, we hear relatively little of Gillard, Rousseff, Patil and Fernández de Kirchner, some of the world's 18 female heads of state. Is it perhaps because they make up such a small percentage of world's power or is it because we underestimate the power of women in leadership positions?
The reason why I have emphasized the statistics in this article, is because they speak for themselves. Nevertheless they are easily ignored, but we cannot afford to ignore the reality they represent.
Call to Action
We have the tools to change the world, we can make a difference, we can even change the course of history. The time for further excuses, postponement, or procrastination, for hesitation and prevarication has long passed. Now is the time for courage and leadership. We must take concrete steps to empower women, achieve gender equality, equal legal rights and justice.
We must demand that all countries adhere to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and meet the Millennium Development Goals to eradicate extreme poverty, achieve universal primary education, improve maternal health and reduce child mortality, and combat HIV/AIDS.
We can, and we must embark upon a non-violent revolution. We cannot afford to be apathetic, for the sake of the women suffering at the hands of violence, persecution and injustice. For the sake of our daughters and grand daughters we cannot sit still or we will jeopardize their future.
I call on governments, academics, NGO's, and people across the world to do what it takes to achieve gender equality.
I will be speaking tomorrow at 4.30pm at The Women of the World Festival, Southbank Centre, London
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