Grassroots voices hold the key to fighting gender oppression

by Graça Machel | The Elders
Friday, 8 March 2019 10:30 GMT

School girls hold umbrellas as they perform during India's Independence Day celebrations in Agartala, India. August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jayanta Dey

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Violence against women can be eliminated if there is sufficient political will to educate populations, especially men and boys, and reform traditional structures, institutions and practices

Graça Machel is deputy chair of The Elders, and founder and president of the Foundation for Community Development and the Zizile Institute for Child Development and the Graça Machel Trust.

International Women’s Day is an important reminder to celebrate the tremendous value and contributions of women and girls around the world. It is a timely opportunity to challenge patriarchal structures and psychologies that continue to treat women as second-class citizens and deny them their full human rights. And it is a moment to fight back against the scourge of gender-based violence that blights the lives of so many millions of women in every corner of the globe.

It is estimated that 35 percent of women worldwide – 1.3 billion people, equivalent to the entire populations of North America and Europe combined - have experienced intimate partner violence or sexual violence at some point in their lives. This is an unconscionable nightmare that terrifies our daughters, sisters, mothers, aunts and friends in every part of the globe.

Violence against women is also an instrument of economic harm: first and foremost to women themselves, but also to wider society. The financial costs of violence against women to private businesses have been found to be as high as 3.7 percent of GDP in Peru and 6.5 percent of GDP in Bolivia. In the United States, the cost of intimate partner violence exceeds $8.3 billion per year.

Above all, violence against women is a moral obscenity and a profound injustice. For it to be meaningfully addressed and eradicated, we need to cultivate a culture of respect whereby men value women as true equals; women’s voices and bodies are held in high esteem; and protective legislation is created and enforced in courts and halls of government.

Violence against women is not an inherent to any culture on any continent. It can be eliminated if there is sufficient political will to educate populations, especially men and boys, and reform traditional structures, institutions and practices.

Whether economically, politically or socially, women are not passive victims of abuse, but agents of change whose empowerment and liberation will free our societies from the psychological shackles of oppression.

I have fought for women’s liberation my entire life: as a freedom fighter in Mozambique, as Education Minister when my country had achieved its independence, as a representative of the United Nations, and today as a member of The Elders, the group of independent leaders I co-founded with my late husband Nelson Mandela.

While a great deal of progress has been made, particularly in standards of discourse and improvements in equality legislation, it grieves me to see so many women, especially young girls, still subject to cycles of terrible gender-based violence and oppression.

In recent years, there has been a growing backlash against sexual abuse and discrimination in the worlds of entertainment, business, civil society and politics via the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

Any profound and wide-reaching challenge to the construct of masculinity and patriarchy needs to be a collective effort by men and women alike, in a spirit of solidarity. Until we address the root causes of discrimination and hold perpetrators responsible to account before the law, slogans on social media risk ringing hollow in an echo-chamber of the like-minded.

In 2015, a framework was agreed by which such progress could be implemented and measured in the form of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This summer, countries have an opportunity to show how they are implementing Goal 16, focused on peace, justice and strong institutions, at the High Level Political Forum in New York.

Governments must  show they are determined and willing to enact legislation and ensure effective enforcement against intimate partner violence.  

The best way to do this is for leaders – especially men – to listen and learn from women at the frontlines.

The Elders have been working with civil society groups worldwide to highlight diverse human rights issues. There is much to learn from their efforts to dismantle harmful patriarchal practices. From the Women’s Law Centre in Moldova to Rien Sans Les Femmes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, these brave grassroots defenders provide critical lessons on how to end gender-based violence.

On this International Women’s Day, let us stand and be counted in solidarity with all those working to build a world where every woman is able to give full expression to her potential and ambitions without the fear of violence.