Women’s rights and the rule of law: education and implementation

Legislative victories are important in changing society to eradicate injustices like forced child marriage, but such change is delivered because of and not without daring, challenging, transformative processes of education and action whether led by state, religious, familiar or civic actors. Trusting women, and trusting ourselves, can often be a moment of defiance

In her opening address broadcast by video, Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese opposition politician and Nobel laureate, showed a remarkable ability to predict the main themes of the first day of the Trust Women conference. The theme of the conference, co-organised by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and International Herald Tribune, is Putting the Rule of Law Behind Women’s Rights, yet she presciently argued that advancing women’s rights is as much about individual empowerment and effective education as it is about legal guarantees: “The expression ‘trust women’ is very strange for me”, she said, “as I have never known not to trust women. Brought up by a widow I thought it was women who dominated the world. How do we learn to trust women? Us women have to learn to trust ourselves …”

The process which Aung San Suu Kyi referred to was a focus of much discussion throughout the day, especially during two panels on “When ‘culture’ clashes with the law”. It was forcefully argued that even when women’s rights are guaranteed in law, ‘culture’ can remain a huge barrier to their implementation. As Ghaidaa Al-Absi has recently reported in relation to protections against sexual harassment in the Yemeni Penal Code, there is much debate over interpretation and many stakeholders, from passers-by to law enforcers, can choose to act with impunity. Where legal protections are enshrined in law, how can we educate society as a whole towards the implementation of women’s rights? What can we do to get men and women behind the rule of law?

10 million children are still forcibly married each year, the human trafficking industry is flourishing with annual revenue of $US 32 billion – more than the combined income of Apple and McDonalds – and millions of women remain second class citizens, or non-citizens, under the guardianship of male relatives, as pointed out in a key-note address by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The majority of this activity is illegal. Against this backdrop, Monique Villa, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, stressed the need to critically examine and encourage the process by which society comes to respect women’s rights. This is “cultural change which takes time and education”, said Kevin Bales, co-founder of Free the Slaves, but “what kind of education?”

Several panellists in an afternoon discussion of forced child marriage stressed that schools are a central vehicle through which to educate girls about their rights and justice channels and to thereby ensure the long-term eradication of the practice. Through reforming education we can achieve cultural transformation in a generation, said Mabel van Oranje, senior advisor to The Elders. If a girl is able to claim her right to not enter into a forced marriage when she is young, she is more likely to continue into secondary education and it is very unlikely that she will impose the practice on her own daughters. Teachers can serve as key gate-keepers, yet participants from England and Scotland lamented that despite 2,000 girls going missing from UK classrooms in 2008 alone, schools are unwilling to accept free training or even put up posters to raise awareness of the issue. Even following the passing of a Forced Marriage Act in Scotland last year which criminalised forced child marriages, not a single school has come forward.

Many participants expressed concern that the passing of a similar act in England next year will be met by a similar lack of concerted engagement on the ground. To really tackle the issue, we cannot simply wipe our hands of the issue when a girl leaves a school, moves from a region or crosses the border, said one participant, we need a joined up strategy. As it stands, “nothing happens when a woman comes to the UK as a bride, nothing happens when a girl leaves the UK and never comes back – the UK doesn’t engage with her after she leaves the border.”

Yet limitations were also raised to the approach of engaging schools and it was stressed that there was no one-size fits all solution. In Malawi, where only 9.1% of girls continue in education after they turn 13, educational establishments don’t have much reach. Many girls will be taken out of school precisely because of forced marriage, as Aîssa Doumara Ngatansou has recently reported to be the case in the North-East Region of Cameroon.

Jasvinder Sanghera, founder of Karma Nirvana, a UK based charity that supports victims and survivors of forced marriages and honour based violence, stressed that being able to trust yourself, and your own judgement, can be a crucial factor in girls and women coming forward to report abuse. Describing her own experiences of fleeing her family in the UK to avoid being taken to Pakistan for a forced marriage aged 14, she spoke about the feelings of shame felt my many young girls who seek to reject traditional practices.

Journalist and film-maker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy reported similar feelings of internalised shame or guilt among acid victims in Pakistan, such as Roxanna, featured in her film Saving Face. Following her vicious attack, during which her husband threw acid on her, her sister-in-law covered her in gasoline and her mother-in-law lit a match, she was terrified to report her abuse or press charges against her family and continued to live with them. This was in part due to pressure from her family, says Sharmeen, but also because there was no precedent of prosecution in her community. Yet in fact the law was on her side. Acid violence is punished by between 14 years and life imprisonment in Pakistan, and a fine of up to $11,000. While constitutions enshrine rights, stressed Sharmeen, “families play a big role in defining who you are”. She made clear that it is often female family members who are the perpetrators of violence, a point later echoed by several participants, such as one Indian activist: “we have to accept that the key perpetrators are women, mothers, sisters, aunties…and work with them to make real changes.”

In some cases it seems that, isolated and alone, survivors simply do not see a precedent for standing up to the abuses they experience and therefore feel obliged to trust the will of others rather than themselves. Where law is already in place to support women’s rights, many participants concurred that putting the rule of law behind women’s rights means putting the rule of law in a place where it is accessible to women.

In this context, calls for a much broader, and more accessible, conception of rights based ‘education’ were echoed throughout the day, with a focus on the need to reach out to a broader range of institutions and sources of public knowledge. These include the extended family. Judi Aubel, executive director of Grandmother Project, spoke of the role of grandmothers, a much under utilised resource in many communities; often seen as beneficiaries, they can play a much more active role in defending the rights of women and girls. Jimmie Briggs, international journalist and founder of the Man Up campaign, similarly spoke of the need for male role models within the family and the public sphere.

From Malawi to Chechnya, Iran to France, participants listed many other daring and challenging ways in which women and men are seeking to spread knowledge of women’s rights in their communities. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy spoke of a young woman called Khalida in Pakistan who goes directly to village elders to convince them to allow her to set up vocational centres for women to teach embroidery and “reinstate ancient practices”. Here she tells the women about their rights: “to divorce, to education, to have a voice”: “Khalida is leading a silent movement in Pakistan”, says Sharmeen. Jimmie Briggs and several other participants also spoke to the need to engage religious authorities and tribal leaders. In a workshop on “Female genital cutting”, Imam Cisse Djiguiba from Cote d’Ivoire explained how effective this can be, describing how he uses his own sermons to educate the 6,000 who attend his mosque in the medical dangers of the practice.

Chechnyan women’s rights activist Raisa Borshchigova spoke of the important role played by local officials and elites in setting an example. In Chechnya, she explained that it is hard to create a culture that looks down on forced child marriage and respects women when local government officials are known to cruise in neighbourhoods and pick girls they would like to marry: “the families feel powerless to resist, and they often receive money”.

Several attendees contributed a broader vision of cultural change to discussions throughout the day, depicting education as a force for civic transformation. In his call to arms, Jimmie Briggs alluded to historical cases where the fight for putting the rule of law behind women’s rights, and the rights of all, have led to confrontation with the law, whether the suffragists, or youth engaged in the infamous Birmingham civil rights campaign. Kevin Bales similarly spoke of the need to examine social movements and learn lessons for the task ahead. Speaking on forced child marriage, he said, “I have been struck today by descriptions of situations that are similar to what happened in the deep south of the US in the run up to the civil rights movements. …We need to study how civil rights movements occurred; for these are civil rights we are talking about… we need legislative, political and citizenship action.” These social movements may involve planned confrontation with the law, such as being arrested as part of process leading to legal challenge. In countries which have law that protects women’s rights, but which fail to implement it or misinterpret it, is civil disobedience an effective means to enforce and to improve the rule of law?

In the United Kingdom, we are seeing a rise in civil disobedience on questions related to not just the correct implementation of justice, but universal access to it. Activists are demanding an end to public sector spending cuts – including £5.6 million being cut from violence against women services – and a clamp down on corporate tax avoidance in order to secure provisions such as legal aid that allow women to seek remedy for crimes such as domestic violence. They are also calling for a reinstatement of funding to the women’s refuges which, for many, are the first point of call to access justice. According to activist network UK Uncut, 230 women are being turned away from refuges each day.

Trusting women, and trusting ourselves, can often be a moment of defiance. We have to dare to trust women, because women are daring to trust themselves. What was clear from today’s conference was the importance of legislative victories in changing society to eradicate injustices like forced child marriage, but that such change is delivered because of and not without daring, challenging, transformative processes of education and action whether led by state, religious, familiar or civic actors