In India’s garment factories, stitching clothes and a culture of non-violence

Cross-posted from UN Women

Viyakula Mary speaks at a training session aimed at reducing workplace sexual harassment, at a garment factory in Tamil Nadu. Photo courtesy of SAVE.

Viyakula Mary was born in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. She was first drawn to the issue of violence against women at the age of 16, when she heard that a member of her community had faced sexual harassment but had no prospect of justice.

Mary, now 39, works as a trainer for Social Awareness and Voluntary Education, a human rights organization based in Tirupur, a city in Tamil Nadu. She leads training sessions in six garment factories across the state aimed at reducing workplace sexual harassment. Her NGO is part of an innovative project focused on the garment supply chain that is led by Netherlands-based NGO Fair Wear Foundation, in partnership with garment factories in India and Bangladesh, European clothing brands, governments, civil society organizations and trade unions in Europe and Asia.

According to studies by Fair Wear Foundation, violence against women is widespread in India’s garment factories. Violence ranges from verbal and physical abuse to sexual harassment and rape.

A woman garment worker on the job at a factory in Tamil Nadu, India. Photo courtesy of Fair Wear Foundation

In the past, as was the case with violence in other social spheres, women were reluctant to report abuse. Mary says that in the factories where she has worked, very few effective mechanisms exist for women workers to report any kind of grievance. Women who faced violence also have so little faith in either the police or judicial systems that if a problem persisted, rather than pursue justice, they would simply look for alternative work.

In 2013, a new law, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, strengthened the legal protection afforded to women working in garment factories in India. To ensure the law is being implemented, Mary believes a holistic approach, including awareness and training, is needed.

As part of the initiative, the ‘Preventing Workplace Violence’ project, which is supported by the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, 3,500 workers in India and Bangladesh have received direct training in 24 factories, while another 15,000 workers have been trained via peer-to-peer education.

Women garment workers listen attentively at a training session where they are empowered to speak up about workplace harassment. Photo courtesy of Fair Wear Foundation.

The training sessions range from three to six hours and are open to all workers, women and men, as well as management and supervisors. They’re conducted during working hours and participants earn at least minimum wages during that time.

“Management now takes quick action when a complaint is brought to them. In the past they would not even know what we were going through,” says a 31-year-old female factory worker in Tirupur.

After receiving initial training, workers are nominated to join the management and NGO representatives as part of a newly-established ‘Anti-Harassment Committees’. They meet monthly to address harassment cases. This group receives further training in communication and listening, problem-solving and decision-making to help resolve cases.

According to Juliette Li, a coordinator with Fair Wear Foundation, “lots of women accept sexual harassment because they don’t recognize it as such. And if they do, the factory manager doesn’t take it seriously. We want to create an atmosphere in which workers can talk to their bosses.”

Through the training sessions, women learn to discuss issues of violence and harassment more openly with supervisors and one another. Photo courtesy of Fair Wear Foundation

The project, which started two years ago, is showing initial results. The Anti-Harassment Committees established in the factories where Mary works hear approximately four reports a month. The initiative has lifted the lid on a problem rarely spoken about and empowered workers to also address other issues including workplace discrimination and labour rights.

By participating in anti-harassment committees, women have become more vocal on the factory floor. Whereas no women held supervisory positions in any of the six factories at the beginning of the project, five women have since been promoted to such roles.

“We are empowering women more and they are getting knowledge of all these related issues,” says Mary. “We could see after the trainings that the position of women is changing.”

Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Indian Society’s Castigation of Rape Victims

rape victimIndia, often touted as the greatest democracy in the world, has an abysmal record when it comes to the safety of women. Crimes against women have increased over the years, and the country’s overburdened legal system has failed to provide justice to the victims. While Indians have displayed anger and frustration over the government’s ineptness and incompetence in ensuring the safety for women, there is a sizeable percentage of people who believe that it is women who are to be blamed for “inviting trouble.” They accuse the victims of dressing provocatively and inciting sexual offenders into committing sexual assaults. This attitude is typically exhibited by people who come from a patriarchal family system, and it is not only the average man who holds a rape victim responsible, even top police officers and elected representatives have publicly put the blame on them.

Women are well-represented in the contemporary Indian workplace; they are highly confident and competitive, to a point where some even openly subscribe to sugar daddy dating. But in spite of this seemingly liberal atmosphere, women are constantly subjected to one or the other form of harassment. Whether the discrimination is at the workplace or on the streets, the hard truth is that Indian women are not even safe in cities. In fact, New Delhi, the capital of India, is known for being extremely unsafe for women. It was in New Delhi that a young woman was gang-raped and brutally assaulted in a moving bus, and then thrown on to the streets to die. The incident shook the collective conscience of Indians, and invited large-scale protests; but sadly, the situation at ground level did not change much. Policemen, who are supposed to help women who have been sexually assaulted, often view rape victims as being of “loose character”. Reports of policemen further assaulting a rape victim or threatening them against filing an official complaint have often surfaced in the media.

Social attitudes towards rape often make some concessions for the perpetrator. Statements such as, “Men are always on the lookout for an opportunity; it is the women who have to be careful”, or “If she would have not gone out for that late-night movie, this thing would have never happened” can be heard often from those who claim to be the custodians of India’s ancient culture. Women who go out for parties and drink with men are castigated, and any complaint of sexual assault is deemed as manipulation or an attempt at blackmailing someone. A sting operation by Tehelka magazine caught a senior Delhi cop saying that women go to pubs to drink and have sex for money, but when someone uses force on them, they call it rape. (The rapes will go on’:  Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 15, Dated 14 April 2012)

When it comes to rapes, it is not only society’s reprehensible attitude that is a cause of concern; in some cases, kangaroo courts in Indian villages have ordered gang-rapes of women so that they can be punished for their ‘wrong acts’. By using rape as a punishment, women are forced to obey the archaic rituals and customs of society.

Although a lot is said about the flaws in law enforcement and in India’s judicial system, it is also important to take a hard look at ourselves and identify the flaws in our attitudes. As a society, we need to make some major changes in our outlook and see things the way they are. Our law enforcement and judiciary needs to be sensitized about the issue of assault on women. Once we develop the right attitude towards this heinous crime, we will be in a better position to fight against it.

Tagged , , | Leave a comment

No Excuse for Not Shopping?

I was watching an interview recently with Farah Baker, a 16-year-old girl living in Gaza, about the tweets she had been posting, giving updates to the world on the siege by the Israeli state. The interviewer, from Sky News, seemed unable to discard the themes of shopping, clothes and music when talking to her: after inquiring whether she ever tweeted about shopping or clothes, he proceeded to try and insist that she admit to being more interested in shopping than in the fact that a bomb could hit her home any moment as a result of the siege.

As familiar as I am with these stereotypes of us teenage girls, I was a little incredulous that even in the face of the war, and the hospital near her home being constantly bombed, Farah was expected to live up to an idea the reporter had of her, based solely on her age and gender. It was like a reminder that, really, fearing for your own life and those of your loved ones is secondary, if you have something more important – like being a typical teenage girl – to occupy your mind and get on with. What are you doing sitting here tweeting about the destruction around you? Go out there and do some clothes shopping! I wonder how people would react if the same questions were posed 70 years ago to Anne Frank, sitting in the annexe writing her diary: Aren’t you supposed to be writing about shopping? Isn’t that what you teenage girls do?

These generalisations link up all too clearly to the emphasis on beauty, fashion and consumption which are marketed at teenage girls in more ways than ever. They are seen not only as necessary components of being a teen girl, but are prioritised over all other aspects of life. The latest arena where these messages are urgently and persistently delivered is the world of vlogging. YouTubers have become immensely popular among young people, but whereas male vloggers seem licensed to solely provide comic entertainment, their female counterparts mainly use their videos to give advice targeted at young girls, on topics such as beauty, fashion and lifestyle, with the occasional addition of something a little more serious, such as tips for dealing with anxiety. While there are some exceptions, it is rare to find a female internet personality that has risen to this position simply by playing practical jokes, comedy, or even describing mundane things with a comic edge. This discrepancy leads to a very problematic conclusion: to be a young woman means to advise, and the target of the advice is teenage girls, soon to step in to the difficult, challenging world of being a grown-up woman – and wearing twice as much make-up.

These women include two of the biggest UK stars of the vlogging world, Zoe Sugg (Zoella, with over 5 million subscribers) and Louise Watson (Sprinkleofglitter, with over a million), both major endorsers of brands such as Primark. The videos have titles such as ‘Huge Summer Primark Haul’, ‘Would You Rather (Beauty Edition),’ and ‘Flying Makeup’ (advice on how to manage one’s makeup when flying). In the description boxes for many of the videos are long lists of items they have either mentioned or are wearing themselves during the video, along with the details of the shop or brand.

The key message given to girls by these internet stars is that everything will be ok, because you have people like them to guide you through life as a girl, but life as a girl is very demanding because of all the time you must spend on applying chemicals to your face, and shopping for them. What’s more, this can’t be challenged; it’s something we all must do. This message is hugely significant considering the way these women want to be seen – as big sisters, advisers, agony aunts to their subscribers in the millions. And even more tell-tale is the amount of sponsorship they receive from major clothing and beauty products brands. Isn’t this all just one big way of endorsing these companies to teenage girls, now and forever their main consumers? Isn’t it about co-opting the independent world of the Internet into corporate circles?  Isn’t it all, in the end, about the market? It keeps teenage girls shopping, consuming, shopping some more. Feeding the companies, which in turn feed the vloggers, just a little bit. With so many profits to be made, it’s no wonder we should be shopping even when a bomb could fall on our house.

Perhaps the most harmful aspect of the beauty vlogging phenomenon is the message that, to be successful as a girl or woman, there is a lot to learn and you can’t simply make jokes or act comic. Being a woman always has to be a little more challenging, a little more serious than being a man, and yet this is hugely ironic, as the assumption that teenage girls are completely preoccupied with shopping, make-up, etc. paints us as extremely shallow. In Farah Baker’s interview, the interviewer effectively refused to recognise her as a ‘normal’ teenage girl unless she admitted to these preoccupations. The way this ethos was used to try to silence her is one of the reasons we must challenge it.   

Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The 5 covert sexists you meet online

Any online dating profile containing the word “feminist” is bound to elicit some unsettling reactions, some merely misinformed – “I’m not a feminist; I believe in equality” – and some outright adversarial – “I guess you don’t want a man with balls” (that’s an actual OKCupid message). You probably won’t give these people* a second glance. But some are less upfront about their sexism. They may even make it through a few dates before you come face-to-face with their covert but insidious beliefs.

1. Mr. Nice Guy

His MO: He believes he deserves a gold star for treating you like a human.

His case for himself: Guys like him are a rare lifeboat in a sea full of douchebags, so you’d better grab onto him before you drown.

Why I’m not buying it: Mr. Nice Guy is not an escape from the douchebags; he’s one of them. The minimal respect he would show a man should be a given, not a source of pride. Men like him believe a woman is a prize that you win for beating a villain in a video game or being a “nice guy.” Entitlement complexes are dangerous.

2. Mr. Guilt-Free

His MO: He would never advocate sexism, but he’s not too eager to challenge his beliefs about gender differences or update his views based on your personal testimony. “Privilege” is not in his vocabulary. He thinks as long as he’s not a mean person, his actions couldn’t have a negative impact on society. He also believes that owning his desires means not questioning their problematic roots. He’s probably attracted to conventionally feminine qualities. He also probably sees no issue with racial preferences in dating.

His case for himself: Like the nice guy, he believes simply being a decent person is enough. He wouldn’t deny that women have been oppressed historically, but hey, he didn’t do it.

Why I’m not buying it: Mr. Guilt-Free may be fun for a few dates, but after a while, you’ll probably get tired of him getting defensive when the topic of sexism comes up or dismissing your personal experiences.

3. Mr. Free Love

His MO: He’s all about sexual liberation, but his version of liberation is men taking liberties with women.

His case for himself: He’s a free spirit. He likes to test limits. Life is an adventure, live on the edge, blah blah blah.

Why I’m not buying it: Unfortunately, he’ll probably try to test YOUR limits. Mr. Free Love will try to push things a litttttle further physically than you seem willing to go – and might even whip out (pun intended) that “sexual liberation” rhetoric to guilt you into going there. Sexual liberation means not being ashamed of your sexuality, but he would have you think it means sharing your sexuality with everyone. Nobody should ever try to influence what you share and whom you share it with.

4. Mr. Separate-But-Equal

His MO: Whether backed up by evolutionary pseudoscience, New Age spirituality, or even just cultural difference, he celebrates gender essentialism as a form of diversity.

His case for himself: He believes in respecting one another’s differences. Yin and yang energies, male and female brains, etc. should all be considered equal – what’s not to like about that?

Why I’m not buying it: It’s hard to feel respected or equal when you’re being squeezed into one half of a yin-yang or one side of an evolutionary strategy. Mr. Separate-But-Equal isn’t listening to you; he’s finding a way to interpret all your actions as “feminine”: If you bring up an issue in the relationship and then move on and talk about something else, this is feminine fickleness; if you want to spend a day hanging out without any strict plans, this is feminine flexibility; if you want to talk about something he did that bothered you, this is feminine emotionality. Everything you do is fucking feminine. And everything he does is masculine: He probably believes that he is more logical, more visual, more sexual, etc., leaving little room for you to possess those qualities or him to possess “feminine” ones.

5. Mr. Men’s Rights

His MO: He fears that feminism is excluding men, resents the masculine stereotypes he has had to live up to, and counters your complaints about being a woman with anecdotes about why it’s hard to be a man as well. He’s also the kind of person likely to believe that he faces disadvantages by virtue of being white, straight, or middle-class.

His case for himself: There’s an appeal to someone who challenges gender roles and advocates some beliefs that are central to feminism, such as more balanced divisions of labor and challenging stereotypes.

Why I’m not buying it: We all agree that men should not be oppressed, that feminism shouldn’t reverse the current hierarchy, etc. Feminists aren’t trying to do that. I know it’s hard to be a man, and feminism is trying to change that too, but don’t try to compare our experiences or use yours to counter mine. A true ally will be sensitive to women’s struggles without claiming to fully understand them. Plus, Mr. Men’s Rights is often guilty of mansplaining.

Online and real-life dating are filled with these people, and sometimes they have noble intentions, and sometimes they really want to improve, and sometimes they’re just extremely attractive and hard to resist – but resisting them will be worth it once you find a true ally. While I’m all about educating people to become better allies, this education has to be solicited and should not be the condition upon which you are willing to date someone. Unfortunately, trying to give someone a feminist makeover is usually not only poorly received but also an ineffective use of your time (not to mention, it’s not your job).

What behaviors have you noticed that reveal a date’s covert sexism? On a more positive note, what are some behaviors indicate that a date is an ally?

*As always, this is written from the experience of a heterosexual woman without the desire to speak for others but with the desire to learn more about their experiences.

Leave a comment

Women mobilize to halt the spread of ebola in Sierra Leone

Cross-posted from UN Women

“Don’t touch!” warns feisty 3-year-old M’ballu Jalloh when her friend tries to draw her into a childhood game. Her apprehension reveals the level of awareness that even children now have about the Ebola Virus Disease in the town of Kailahun, in eastern Sierra Leone near the borders of Guinea and Liberia.

woman gives hand-washing demonstration

A campaign volunteer gives a demonstration on proper hand washing. Photo: UN Women/Emma Vincent

At least 2,455 cases of the disease have been reported across Sierra Leone as of 5 October, resulting in over 700 deaths.

M’ballu is among the 1.5 million people who have been reached by the Ose-to-Ose Ebola Tok (Door-to-Door Campaign) in September, which UN Women supported in Kailahun. Nearly 29,000 young women and men volunteers — cutting across all sectors, regions, religions, tribes and political lines — worked together over three days, leaving their comfort zones to reach remote villages.

“I am doing this for the love of my country, because no amount of money can be compared to the risk involved,” said female volunteer Jatu Kaneh.

Volunteers started their day as early as 5.30 a.m., trekking treacherous roads, sometimes under heavy rains. Some even had to carry their motorbikes, along with heavy cartons of soap on their heads.

One of the roads trekked by campaign volunteers. Photo: UN Women/Emma Vincent

Volunteers underwent intensive training to learn about the disease and their roles during the campaign. UN Women helped design the trainings, along with UNICEF, UNFPA and WHO.

Government reports indicate that the door-to-door campaign was successful, reaching over 80 per cent of households — 1.5 million people across Sierra Leone— with 92 dead bodies discovered and 130 more Ebola cases confirmed.

Orphans and stigmatized nurses

One of the youngest orphaned Ebola survivors in Sierra Leone is 21-month-old baby girl Neima Kanu (alias). Her entire family passed away at the Médecins Sans Frontières-run Kailahun Ebola Management Centre in Kailahun, the area first and most-badly hit by the disease in Sierra Leone.

Man wears shirt displaying info about Ebola

A man wears a t-shirt displaying information about the Ebola response. Photo: UN Women/Emma Vincent

Medical nurses are often their only hope. Nursing assistant Jamie (who preferred not to give her real name), says she discovered Neima on one of her daily rounds, provided her immediate treatment, and a bond flourished. When Neima was discharged from the hospital, there was no family to collect her so Jamie took her home to join her own two children.

Of the 1,423 Sierra Leonean children who have been affected by the virus as of 30 September 2014, 367 have been left orphaned. They are often rejected by surviving community and family members.

In response, UN Women, in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, is refurbishing former rehabilitation centres used during the country’s civil war to accommodate orphaned and abandoned children, as well as nurses who are now stigmatized because of their contact with patients.

Prevention: Social mobilization and data 

In ongoing efforts, UN Women is working with the Association of Traditional Women Leaders, Council of Paramount Chiefs, Inter-Religious Council, civil society organizations, women and youth clubs, and government agencies to gather information and enable better-targeted public health messages. Through the Office of the First Lady of Sierra Leone, UN Women has supported the sensitization of over 530 traditional leaders to seek information on the social and gender impacts of Ebola at the household level.

A woman displays an Ebola info card in Dodo Kortema Village, Kailahun District in Sierra Leone. Photo: UN Women/Emma Vincent

“There is an urgent need for stakeholders to collect and use gender-disaggregated data to better-target Ebola management and response at district and national levels,” explains UN Women Representative for Sierra Leone, Mary Okumu.

UN Women is also developing a manual on infection prevention and control that will be used to train health workers across the country. It will complement an existing campaign encouraging pregnant women and lactating mothers to access healthcare in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

To strengthen cultural and gender-sensitive outreach, UN Women has supported the production of a five-minute audio track about the disease and its gender dimensions in six major local languages. The song, aired on local radio stations across the country, was produced by the Deputy Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs.

Related links:

At the frontlines, Liberian women adopt new strategies in Ebola response

Ebola outbreak takes its toll on women

As front-line caretakers in Ebola crisis, women and girls need gender-based humanitarian response, Gender Alert says

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment
168 queries. 1.422 seconds