Stronger Together – Staying in the Battle for Women Everywhere to be Recognized as ‘Persons’?
At Power of Voice International, we are ‘paying it forward’ in our determination to support civil society organizations (CSOs) around the world who fight tirelessly for equal rights and freedoms for women. These CSOs are the heroes who lean in, roll up their sleeves, and work relentlessly to change the laws and social norms that prevent women from enjoying parity with men and prevent the full social and economic development that ensues.
In that spirit its worth remembering that it was not so long ago in more developed nations like Canada, USA, and Europe, legal recognition of women was achieved only after a relentless battle led by persistent women and men who marched, wrote articles, gave lectures, argued and demanded that women be recognized as equals in their homes and their communities.
As recently as 1929 in Canada the law stated that “Women are persons in matters of pains and penalties but are not persons in matters of rights and privileges.” Finally, and only after years of activism, Canada’s highest court ruled that, “Yes, women were indeed persons….” Prior to that 1929 landmark ruling, a married woman in Canada enjoyed so few rights that even if she had used her own money to purchase the matrimonial home, she had no rights of ownership. Her husband was perfectly free to sell the house without her consent and without sharing any of the proceeds with his wife.
Legal recognition of women as ‘persons’ in these countries led to gigantic leaps forward in social andeconomic development as women exercised property rights, political rights, gained access to jobs, rights to their marital home and more. Taken as a given today, these legal rights were the result of tireless activism by countless organizations and individuals who fought for equality for women in both the social and legal structures.
And let’s not forget that while the Beatles were lighting up a generation of Boomers across North America, the launch of the birth control pill sparked a huge furor. Denounced by the Pope, many were shocked at the idea that women could be as free sexually as men. Doctors (mostly male), were skeptical that women could, or even should, ‘manage’ the freedom to choose when to become pregnant. Yet the pill sparked a revolution by giving women new freedom to pursue education, a career and also choice over the number of babies they wanted and could care for.
While our battles in wealthy countries for gender equality are not finished, in many developing countries it is still early days. Today in Tanzania, for example almost two out of five girls marry before they reach 18. Married girls are routinely expelled from school which usually means the end of their education.
Even more shocking to feminists like us, Tanzania’s schools routinely force girls to undergo pregnancy texts and then expel those who are found to be pregnant – even victims of abuse. Tanzania’s President John Magufuli rejected activists’ calls for the government to allow pregnant students to attend state schools, saying it was “immoral for young girls to be sexually active.” I heard about this travesty from the outraged social media feed of a powerful Tanzanian-led group of feminists, TGNP-Mtandao. [tgnp.org]
Feminists, men and women alike, know that access to birth control lets young women decide if and when they want to start a family — setting them up for success in their careers and as parents. In fact, being able to get the birth control pill before age 21 is one of the most influential factors enabling women already in college to stay in college. In many less affluent countries, not only are many women and girls denied the right to access the pill without their husbands’ or fathers’ consent, they remain burdened by pregnancies that too often was not their chosen path.
Our challenge today is to raise the voices of organizations like TGNP-M in Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Mali, Bolivia, Colombia, India and so forth. These are the activists who stand up every day to challenge their neighbours, their members of parliament, their church leaders and their own fathers and husbands to advocate againstlaws and norms that condemn women and their families to second class citizenship or worse.
At Power of Voice International, we see it as our obligation to contribute to strengthening the voices of these activists in their communities and on the international stage – to further empower the brave, persistent groups in each country who, often at great personal risk, are the voices for a better life for women and girls.
Our work is not done until women everywhere are recognized as ‘Persons’.