By Sophia Papastavrou, Gender Learning Hub Lead for World Vision's Middle East and Eastern Europe regional office
This year marks the 24th year of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign whose goal is the elimination of violence against women and girls. Although, as a global community, we have made great strides, there is still much work to be done.
Sometimes I lie awake at night wondering about what kind of future lies ahead for women? What kind of future lies ahead for the future generations? And, what kind of future lies ahead for my four-month old daughter, Anna? It goes without saying that my daughter will be in a place of privilege. Unlike 30 per cent of babies born each year (1), my daughter (and I) have access to high-quality maternal health services. In contrast to the more than 1 billion people who lack access to clean water, my daughter has a nearly unlimited supply. She won’t have to waste her time, potentially miss out on her education and be exposed to danger in order to carry jerry cans back and forth to fetch often filthy water. And, unlike an estimated 62 million girls around the world, Anna will have access to an education and be able to enjoy access to equal opportunities that allow her to learn in a safe environment.
The problem is her ‘privileges’ are not privileges at all. Access to healthcare, clean water and education are all essential human rights; rights that are all too often not extended to women around the world.
Despite all our progress, although women make up half the world's population they continue to represent a staggering 70 per cent of the world's poor. Their economical poverty is just the tip of the iceberg. Many other inequalities, such as lack of access to education, poor nutrition and unequal pay lurk beyond the surface, teaching us that we cannot simply focus on what is visible, we must also address what is invisible. To address the base of the iceberg, we must put resources into women's hands while at the same time promoting gender equality at household and in societal levels while empowering girls and young women to make informed choices.
World Vision’s reporting has found that young girls living in fragile, conflict and transitional societies continue to risk their lives simply to go to school—girls like Malala who was shot in the head as she was on the bus to school. The attack against her and her refusal to stand down from what she believed was right, brought to light the plight of millions of children around the world who are denied an education today. In Afghanistan, there were at least 185 documented attacks on schools and hospitals last year. In Pakistan, 140 students were killed as gunmen went from classroom to classroom. Such violent acts are often attributed to armed groups opposed to girls' education.
Violence against women often starts before they are even born and continues throughout their lives. In Armenia, World Vision is working to reduce sex-selective abortion. The impact of this project has showed strong indicators of success, including a decline in domestic violence, increased school enrollment, and an increase in shared responsibility for child caregiving. As a result, 43.2 per cent of participants mentioned at least three changes in their perceptions/attitudes/behaviours regarding gender equality. In Lebanon and Jerusalem, West Bank, and Gaza, World Vision is working with local partners to raise awareness of domestic violence and abuse. In Albania, we are helping girls, like Merushe Tojalli, 16, reach their dreams of a secondary education. “For most of my young life I was planning on and living [to reach my] dream to become a doctor,” she says. But, like many girls across Albania, Merushe’s dream was crushed when it came face-to-face with the harsh reality. As if poverty wasn’t enough of a hurdle, Merushe also faced the added level of traditional barriers. “I ran into the cold cultural wall blocking females from higher education,” she says. Merushe is one of the girls who participated in the campaign and advocated for access to education. She was at in the eighth grade at the time. She never knew that the next year she would find herself on the same path as the girls she was advocating for.
In Afghanistan we are providing girls living in poverty access to education through a Street Kids Project: 92.5 per cent of children of the Street Children project are now attending school. Additionally, early childhood education ensures that education for girls is prioritized from a young age 637 children (316 girls and 321 boys) of age 5 years old completed the ECCD program with 95.5% of the children scoring high on school readiness indicators.
It is only through the elimination of violence and discrimination against women and girls that we can hope to achieve the sustainable, peaceful and just society that everyone, especially girls deserve. All girls have the right to have access to healthcare and education, they have the right to be protected at home and in public, they have the right to be free from the fear or act of acid attacks, rape, and assault and the right enjoy access to equal opportunities.
We can have the future we want and need. Each and every one of us have the responsibility to help both men and women, boys and girls in our communities and spheres of influence to understand why gender matters and why gender equality is essential to sustainable development. Over the next 16 Days, during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, I challenge all to take the road less travelled and delve into the stark realities that resisting gender brings to our future.
Sophia Papastavrou is a gender and development expert working with World Vision's Middle East and Eastern Europe regional office, based in Cyprus as the leader of the Gender Learning Hub. She is has more than 10 years of experience at a number of UN and non-governmental organizations in Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Cyprus, Uganda and Ghana focusing on gender-based equality and violence (especially in conflict and post conflict contexts). She is currently working towards a doctorate in the Department of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Social Justice Education at the University of Toronto.