Fighting the Shadow Pandemic

25 Years After The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the COVID lockdown has once again brought back the focus on gender inequalities and domestic violence on women.
Keywords: Gender Biases | Gender role expectations |  Human Trafficking | Shadow Pandemic | Domestic Abuse | Leadership Roles | Cultural Values
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Official Logo of UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing.

I spent my childhood with my brothers, climbing and sitting on thick boughs, picking and eating fruits directly from trees, and running around in the small backyard groves of my birth country Trinidad and Tobago. When I turned 12 years old, my Indian origin grandmother told me gently to no longer climb trees or any tree that bore fruits. “Why?” I asked. She responded, “Because you’re a young lady now, and the trees will bear sour fruits if you climb them.” I wanted to protest, “Why can my brothers still climb the tree but not me? Because I’m a girl?” But I knew better than to exhibit an outburst around her. 

So I was made to sit on the wide roots at the bottom of trees while my brothers continued to climb, eat and laugh atop the trees. Though simple and innocent were my grandmother’s words, they orally transmitted the traditions and practices that were passed to her. In a way, it was my initiation into culturally enforced gender biases and gender role expectations. Little did I know then that this was the most minute sampling on the incline of a mass of disparities facing women across nations and cultures.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, a Shadow Pandemic has emerged, which has brought into focus an unprecedented escalation in domestic violence and abuse of women. Today globally half a billion women and girls over the age of 15 are still illiterate. Of the estimated 25 million victims of human trafficking, over 70% are women and girls, most of whom are recruited as sex traffickers. Last year, 190 million women who wanted to avoid pregnancy did not have access to any form of contraception. The institution of the family is in jeopardy, and according to reports, the most dangerous place for a woman to be is in her own home. 66,000 women are violently murdered worldwide annually with 68% of femicides happening either in the home of the victim or the perpetrators. With longer life expectancy, lower wages and unpaid child care and caregiving, the topic of women as the majority of the world’s poor is a recurring theme driving conversations about the economic security of women.

Today globally half a billion women and girls over the age of 15 are still illiterate. Of the estimated 25 million victims of human trafficking, over 70% are women and girls, most of whom are recruited as sex traffickers.

In September 1995, the United Nations held in Beijing, China its Fourth World Conference on Women. One hundred eighty-nine countries agreed on a transformative agenda and benchmarks for the empowerment of women and the advancement of gender equality in 12 critical areas of concern. The Conference underscored women’s empowerment as a cornerstone for advancing democracy as well as social justice, human rights and economic development issues. However, 25 years after the Beijing Platform for Action was held, poverty, education, health, violence and discrimination remain some of the critical issues affecting women and girls everywhere. This has brought into question the relevance and efficacy of the Beijing Platform.

In September 2015, the 193 Member States of the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, but conceded, “While the integrated and universal implementation of the vision laid out in the 2030 Agenda holds the potential to transform the lives of women and girls all over the world, the challenges are daunting. Change is coming at a pace that is too slow for women and girls whose lives depend on it. Over the next 10 years, the global community must act with urgency and determination to accelerate progress and achieve gender equality for all women and girls everywhere.”

In September 1995, the United Nations held in Beijing, China its Fourth World Conference on Women. One hundred eighty-nine countries agreed on a transformative agenda and benchmarks for the empowerment of women and the advancement of gender equality in 12 critical areas of concern.

The challenges that continue to affect the rate of progress are multifarious and span a wide range of equally urgent issues like climate change, environmental degradation, volatile global economies and varying dimensions of deprivation, socio-economic and political mayhem, and shrinking civic spaces.

Gender prejudices are pervasive and deeply embedded in our society in the form of implicit stereotypes and linguistic nuances. Studies have shown that “gendered grammar reinforces gender stereotypes and hierarchical socioeconomic structures.” A UNESCO study titled, “I’d Blush If I Could,” revealed how AI perpetuates harmful gender biases by analysing the deferential and flirtatious responses by Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, both female personae in subservience.

Gender prejudices are pervasive and deeply embedded in our society in the form of implicit stereotypes and linguistic nuances. A UNESCO study titled, “I’d Blush If I Could,” revealed how AI perpetuates harmful gender biases.

In the highest offices, the interweaving of patriarchy, capitalism, power and gender inequality is evident, and together provides a cogent systemic explanation for the perversion of cultural values and traditions and improprieties that lead to the dishonour, domination and subordination of women – an apparent global phenomenon. Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron said in his eulogy for Margaret Thatcher, Europe’s first woman prime minister, that most people fail to appreciate the “thickness of the glass ceiling she broke through.” Women in leadership roles traditionally held by men continue to encounter resistance through gendered insults, misogynistic epithets and bigotry among others hurled at them, especially when the political waters are turbulent. Most recently, it happened just late last month in the highest echelons of the US federal government to Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez right on the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C.

Stepping back for a moment into the ancient world, many cultures, including India’s worship women and the sacred feminine. In Vedic times, women were held in the highest regard with honour and respect; they occupied important positions of leadership and conducted religious ceremonies. Girls underwent upanayana saṃskāra or the sacred thread ceremony. Hinduism’s oldest text and highest authority, the Rigveda, is clear also on the elevated status and distinguished responsibility of women. The Dharmaśāstras state, “Where women are honoured, there the devas are pleased.” Indeed, when any woman is abused or harmed, that action goes against the tenets of sanātana dharma and the doctrine of non-violence or ahiṃsā.

In Vedic times, women were held in the highest regard with honour and respect; they occupied important positions of leadership and conducted religious ceremonies. Girls underwent upanayana saṃskāra or the sacred thread ceremony.

The journey ahead of us in this struggle is long. Democratization remains deficient when any part of the population is subject to negative discrimination and violence in any form. Former US President Barack Obama stated, “You can judge a nation, and how successful it will be, based on how it treats its women and its girls.” It will take a committed, collective effort from everyone – all genders – standing together with voices united in deep wisdom, empathy and compassion to eliminate gender inequality through public support and political will. This may take the form of, among others, creating platforms to raise consciousness about and question practices that derogate women, upholding universal human responsibilities and values, advocating for inclusive governance and policy changes, and ultimately returning to a humanizing, edified, more peaceful and prosperous world in which the barriers to equality will be broken down, and women will have the unobstructed freedom to simply live as women and human beings – equal and with respect and dignity.

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Karen Dipnarine-Saroop

Karen Dipnarine-Saroop holds an undergraduate degree from Osmania University in India and a master’s degree from the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. She received her Accreditation in Public Relations from the Public Relations Society of America. Karen is a member of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh and has served as an Associate Editor in Pragna Bharati in India, as Vice President of Health & Wellness in the International Center for Cultural Studies in the USA, as well as the head of communications in the Office of the Prime Minister (Social Services Division) in the Government of Trinidad and Tobago. She is the co-founder of The Green Brain Initiative.

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