Migrant work is often gendered. In this piece, Joyce Wu and Patrick Kilby share their findings from a qualitative study with 112 women in Nepal – the gendered violence they face and their incredible courage, resourcefulness and resilience.
Across the world, there are an estimated 169 million migrant workers, with women representing 41.5% of this group. Women and women-identifying migrant workers are everywhere and in every sector, from domestic work, retail and hospitality, the garment sector, offices, to the agricultural sector and more.
Women migrant workers are diverse in their identities. They can be a European backpacker who works at a Melbourne café, or a Nepalese woman who is well-versed in serial migration: six months in Saudi Arabia as a housemaid, three years in Lebanon as a freelance migrant worker, negotiating for the best contract as a domestic worker, shopkeeper and nanny. It is the story of the latter that we have been researching for the past three years, through a UK Government funded project to evaluate the impact of the International Labour Organization (ILO) project, Work in Freedom Phase II, which seeks to create a safer migration pathway and safer working conditions for migrant women in South Asia.
Through our research, we have found that women migrant workers are incredible in courage, resourcefulness and resilience, but that they constantly face gendered violence throughout the entire migration journey.
In a qualitative study with 112 women in focus groups and as key informants in Nepal, these are our findings:
At Home and in the Community
As of 2020, Nepal receives 24.5% of its GDP from remittances. Although Nepalese women make up a small percentage at 5% of the Nepalese overseas migration, it is a number that is steadily growing.
The key factors driving migration are poverty and the need to support families and children, compounded by the lack of decent jobs locally due to the government’s lack of a gender-sensitive education policy which means Nepalese girls have fewer qualifications compared to boys.
Family and intimate partner violence (especially drug and alcohol addiction) also serve as a push factor, with 25% of Nepalese women experiencing violence during their lifetime and 32.8% experiencing child marriage.
In our interviews with Nepalese women, working overseas thus represents an answer to poverty, as well as an escape from abusive situations.
Trafficking: A Wicked Problem with No Easy Solution
The government’s response to migrant women has been mixed. On the one hand, there are official migration agencies (locally referred to as Manpower agencies) that facilitate the process. On the other hand, Nepal vacillates between banning women from migrating or supporting them. However, limiting women’s mobility and job options overseas pushes up undocumented migration and trafficking, whereby women actively find people (sometimes it is their own family and friends who are familiar with migration procedures) who can help them.
This is a perilous journey, with India used as a transit hub to go on to the destination country.
Nepalese women have told us that during this “transit” some were forced to work in brothels for several months before being allowed to leave. This form of sexual violence and indentured labour goes unreported because Nepalese women are fearful of legal punishment if they admit to undocumented migration, as well as the stigma of being a sexual violence survivor.
At the Destination Country
For many, it is a work experience fraught with physical, sexual, emotional, verbal and financial violence. Middle Eastern countries that operate the Kafala system enables employers to withhold migrant workers’ visa and passport, thus having enormous power over them.
Women have reported being underpaid or not at all, having to work 18 hours and sleep in noisy, public areas of the house, being subjected to sexual violence and harassment from the men and boys in the household, as well as beatings and berating over small mistakes.
In Lebanon, the combination of COVID-19 and the Beirut Port explosions left migrant workers destitute as some found themselves dumped by their employers on the roadside.
However, for some women, overseas migration means higher income, the opportunity to learn new languages and cultures, and gaining self-confidence and new skills. They were able to network and work together with other migrant women to negotiate better contracts and work conditions with employers, as well as sending money back home. Children’s education and a better prospect for them is one of the key motivations for migrant women, although a number of them also expressed worry that their children are not looked after properly by their partner and/or family back home, with reports of children being teased for having a “migrant woman” as a mother. Children dropping out of was also a concern.
Ending Gendered Violence against Women
Migrating overseas for work in the hope of better outcomes will continue to be a push factor for migrant women globally. Gender inequality, globalisation and the feminisation of certain labour mean that there will be a constant demand for female migrant workers. Governments need to recognise that this is a complex issue with no quick fixes, and ending gender inequality and eliminating violence against women need to be at the centre of any policy lens.
Joyce Wu is a Senior Lecturer in Global Development at the School of Social Sciences, University of New South Wales. She is a Fulbright Fellow and Deputy Editor of Development in Practice.
Patrick Kilby is an Associate Professor in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology, Australian National University. Patrick is the Chief Editor of Development in Practice.
It’s December 10, Human Rights Day, and we’ve reached the end of #16DaysBlogathon for the global #16DaysofActivism against Gender-based Violence for another year.
The 16 Days Blogathon Team
It’s December 10 – Human Rights Day – and the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence comes to an end for another year. So, too, does our 2021 Blogathon. Over the last 16 days we have posted daily to raise awareness of gender-based violence as our way of supporting the global campaign.
This year, the theme has been Histories, Legacies, Myths and Memories.
Through our remarkable contributors, we have surfaced the voices and perspectives of victims, survivors and activists from the recent past to antiquity, and across multiple geographies, and traced the legacies reverberating through the decades and centuries.
Over the last 16 Days we have travelled from Australia to India, Scotland to the Caribbean, and Mexico to England.
Through personal testimony, memoir, reportage, formal archive, immersive field experience and oral history as well as through literature and traditional music and storytelling we have reflected upon the lessons to be learned from the past.
Ultimately a focus on histories, legacies, myths and memories provides us with an important tool. It helps us to identify what is distinct and different about the moment and location we inhabit and what we share in common across time and space. In moving forward in the struggle to expose and address gender-based violence we argue that these histories are a rich resource to inspire and motivate today’s feminist practices and pedagogies.
The 16 Days Blogathon is a collaborative project co-hosted by genderED at University of Edinburgh, the Gendered Violence Research Network at the University of New South Wales, and the Centre for Publishing at Dr B R Ambedkar University Delhi.
The blog posts in a nutshell
Every #16DaysBlogathon is summarised below.
Content note: posts inevitably address distressing experiences and issues around sexual and gender-based violence. We hope they also provoke, energise, create solidarity, and sometimes uplift
Award-winning folk singer, songwriter and storyteller, Karine Polwart, reflects on a Scottish folk tradition of ballads about violence against women. She argues such archives and catalogues require critical intervention so that we can navigate and cherish traditional sources with a contemporary understanding of gender-based violence.
Almost 50 years on, Anne Summers writes about the opening of Elsie Women’s Refuge in 1974. This blog highlights the importance of the brave and selfless refuge workers who have devoted their lives to helping other women try and leave violence behind.
By Garima Singh, Assistant Professor at the Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies
Garima Singh engages with the everyday resistance posed by women’s folk songs to the dominant social structure and their response to domestic violence in their own melody. She highlights that women have been conscious of their everyday struggle and, individually and in solidarity, pose a potent threat to the dominant.
By Lili Pâquet, Lecturer in Writing at the University of New England, Australia
Lili Pâquet discusses her research which aims to discover if true crime podcasts can offer informal justice to victim-survivors who feel dissatisfied with the formal police and court systems of Australia. She uses the examples of Trace and The Teacher’s Pet which discovered new witnesses in unsolved murder cases and led to arrests and coronial inquests.
By Balvinder Kaur Saund, Chair of the Sikh Women’s Alliance
This blog features a conversation with Balvinder Kaur Saund who has been at the frontline of activism within the UK’s Sikh community for over two decades. The London-based Sikh Women’s Alliance is an organisation which galvanizes women to tackle the deep-rooted attitudes and structures that fuel gender-based violence and constrain communities from tackling it.
By Maha Krayem Abdo (OAM), CEO of Muslim Women Australia
Maha Krayem Abdo writes about the history of Muslim Women Australia, who have led the way in centering the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse and faith-based communities. She highlights the healing and therapeutic nature of utilising faith as a tool for empowerment, with a client-centred focus to maintain a client’s dignity at every stage of support.
By Ulrike Roth, Ancient Historian at the University of Edinburgh
In this post, Ulrike Roth explores evidence from the ancient Roman world to raise questions about our preparedness to confront the issue of sexual violence against children, then and now. She discusses how acknowledging the ambiguities in the ancient evidence, and listening more carefully to the signs of abuse in it, helps to ingrain in our mindsets the kind of sensitivised attitude that is so essential in identifying and combating sexual violence today.
By Tanuja Kothiyal, Professor of History in the School of Liberal Studies, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University Delhi
Tanuja Kothial discusses the portrayal of marginalised women and gendered violence in oral narratives and Hindu epic literature. While these narratives provide voice to marginal communities and groups, even within these traditions women’s locations remain marginal and mostly within respect to male figures.
In this blog, writer Hazel Atkinson explores ‘feminist’ reinterpretations and reclaiming of myths which historically have perpetuated violence against women. She asks the important question: Does repeatedly depicting the violence women face, even with the best of intentions, challenge or contribute to it?
Catherine Dwyer, writer and director of the film Brazen Hussies, reflects on the Women’s Liberation Movement and the work of Bessie Guthrie – a feminist and campaigner for child welfare reforms. Through her collaboration with the Women’s Liberation movement, she attracted media attention resulting in an exposé on the abuse of girls in state care and the barbaric act of forced virginity testing.
By Nancy Yadav, PhD candidate in Gender Studies at the School of Human Studies at Dr B R Ambedkar University Delhi
Nancy Yadav writes about stereotypes embedded in myth and colonial history that oppress the Bonda tribal women in India. While the recorded history of the Bonda community intersects with gender-based violence, Bonda women continue to bring rays of hope, interrogating negative stereotypes that they are born in to and repositioning their identity.
By Hannah McGlade, Noongar woman, Senior Indigenous Research Fellow at Curtin University and an Advisor to the Noongar Council for Family Safety and Wellbeing
In this blog, Hannah McGlade highlights how Aboriginal women have consistently voiced concern about state indifference and violence that contributes directly and indirectly to the violence that is blighting the lives of too many women and children. A standalone National Action Plan and recognition of the fundamental right of self-determination is needed to combat the systemic and structural discrimination that contributes to violence against Aboriginal women.
By Sarah Easy, human rights lawyer and research assistant for the Australian Human Rights Institute
Sarah Easy discusses the anti-gender based violence movement in Mexico and the practice of dismantling public monuments or ‘statue toppling’. She considers whether the dismantling of the old and rebuilding of new public monuments is merely symbolic, or whether it can engender genuine cultural change.
By Rachna Mera, Assistant Professor in the Urban Studies Program (SGA), Dr. B. R Ambedkar University Delhi
Rachna Mehra traces the legacies of Partition-era gender-based violence and abductions on community relations and consensual inter-faith marriages in contemporary India. She argues that whether it was 1947 or it is 2021, the honour of the Hindu family, community and nation is inextricably linked with a woman’s body.
By Janeille Zorina Matthews, multi-disciplinary criminal justice scholar, The University of the West Indies Cave Hill campus, Barbados
Janeille Matthews offers a critical perspective into the story of the ‘masked serial rapist’ in Antigua and how it frames gender-based violence. She argues that Antiguans need to hear a different story about crime and sexual violence, one that includes a historical understanding of the intra-racial sexual violence that existed during slavery and its post-emancipation aftermath and is grounded in 50 years of police data.
By Kristy M Stewart, New College Collections Curator and School of Scottish Studies Archivist, Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh
This blog considers the role of the archivist and the problems of taking a neutral voice in curation when many stories are underpinned by gendered violence and silencing women’s voices. Kristy Stewart argues that the re-telling of such stories should give women and girls a voice that their history should have had all along.
By Mara Keire, Senior Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford
Mara Keire discusses her research on rape in the 20th century and how the rhetoric of ‘it was different back then’ enables the justification of men’s sexually predatory behaviour. She argues that studying the history of sexual violence serves to obliterate the idea that rapists are solitary ‘bad apples’. Instead, researchers can uncover the networks of complicity that reinforce male power.
Building upon the previous blog, Mara Schmueckle discusses the medieval Scottish notarial record on Janet Lausoun, who was abducted and forced into marriage. The story highlights the burden placed on women where their credibility is measured against expectations of the behaviour of “real victims.”
By Ann Curthoys, Department of History at the University of Sydney, Catherine Kevin, College of Humanities, Arts and Social sciences at Flinders University and Zora Simic, Historian and Gender Studies scholar, Faculty of Arts, Design and Architecture at the University of New South Wales
In this blog, the contributors discuss their research which aims to capture the first national history of domestic violence against women in Australia. In doing so, they are working to understand the significant changes over time in public discourse, legal frameworks and activism to combat domestic violence, and to understand how and why domestic violence has wreaked such enormous damage on women, children and society as whole from the 19th century to present.
By Charlotte James Robinson, doctoral researcher at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Gender History
Charlotte James Robinson reflects on the International Conference on Violence, Abuse and Women’s Citizenship, held in November 1996. The conference was considered a remarkable culmination of two decades of feminist activism against gender-based violence. She discusses the success of the conference in including the voices of all women working on gender-based violence.
By Monimalika Day, Associate Professor at the School of Education Studies, Dr B R Ambedkar University Delhi and Deputy Director, Centre for Publishing
Monimalika Day discusses how education students grapple with stories, memories and narratives of gender-based violence. A range of experiences are shared, with variations in the degree of violence, the relationship with the perpetrator, the nature of oppression, the site of the violence, each a powerful testimony of dehumanization. However, this approach often challenges the instructor to move beyond the well-defined space of a syllabus and explore uncharted waters.
Tereza Valny, Teaching Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, Department of History
In this blog, Tereza Valny discusses the challenges of teaching about historical case studies of sexual violence and how this may impact students and create feelings of anxiety, tension and distress. She asks the important question: what can we do as instructors to face these inevitable dilemmas that arise from teaching material which has the potential to traumatise and re-traumatise?
By Anubha Sinha, Alumni Dr B R Ambedkar University Delhi and Consultant at PRADAN
Anubha Sinha reflects on the immersive action research she conducted in Dokal in the state of Chhattisgarh, India, where she formed a collective of forty women who had experienced domestic violence. The blog highlights how these strong women are taking small steps every day to survive and bring attention to the injustice of gender-based violence.
By Claire E. Aubin, PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity, and Emily Rose Hay, PhD scholar situated between the School of History, Classics and Archaeology and the School of Law at the University of Edinburgh
Co-convenors of the Emotionally Demanding Histories Group Claire E. Aubin and Emily Rose Hay discuss how researching sensitive topics, such as gender-based violence, can present ethical and methodological dilemmas and impact the person’s emotional health. They consider how we can engage with traumatic histories in a way that does not cause further harm to researchers, but which does justice to the stories we are telling.
By Jan Breckenridge, Professor and Head of School of Social Sciences and Co-Convenor of the Gendered Violence Research Network, UNSW Sydney and Mailin Suchting, Manager of the Gendered Violence Research Network, UNSW Sydney
This blog highlights that social action in the 1970s and 1980s meant that it was no longer possible to ignore domestic violence, rape and the sexual assault of children. The results of this work were tangible with a proliferation of women’s health and sexual assault services, survivor groups and government policy development. There is no doubt that these changes established child and adult sexual assault as a serious and prevalent issue. But is our world a safer place?
By Kyllie Cripps, Scientia Fellow and Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law and Justice and Co-Convenor of the Gendered Violence Research Network at UNSW, Sydney
It is widely understood that gender-based violence disproportionately impacts Indigenous populations compared to other population groups. And yet, why are their lives not honoured or mourned or valued in the same way? Kyllie Cripps discusses the silencing of Indigenous women and girls’ experiences of violence and how Indigenous women continue to speak up and speak back to the narratives constructed about their victimhood.
By Sumangala Damodaran, Professor of Economics, Development Studies and Popular Music Studies at Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University Delhi
Sumangala Damodaran discusses how songs about gender-based violence have been a significant element of wider struggles in India. They have been written spontaneously as part of various campaigns and social and political events that brought issues to the fore, including before the mass mobilisation of the women’s movement in the 1970s. Songs depicting the lives of women, and particularly focusing on the violence that is inflicted, have had to edge their way into larger repertoires around class, caste, racial and ethnic discrimination.
I first came across the story of Bessie Guthrie and her campaigns for child welfare reforms in an essay by Suzanne Bellamy about MeJane, a Sydney Women’s Liberation Newspaper that ran from 1971-1974. I found it in a book called Things that Liberate An Australian Feminist Wunderkammer (2013) edited by Alison Bartlett and Margaret Henderson. The book is a collection of essays by various women centered around objects from the Women’s Liberation Movement. It became an object in my own ‘Wunderkammer’, acquired during the five years I spent researching and making the documentary film, Brazen Hussies.
In Suzanne’s essay I discovered the hilarious story of Vera Figner, a 19th century Russian revolutionary, whose name was used as MeJane’s ‘Publisher’. As a result, Vera Figner was later found to be a “New South Wales Person of Interest” in ASIO’s surveillance on the Women’s Liberation Movement. This story made it into the film where we also combined ASIO surveillance footage with the pop song ‘Girl Watcher’ by the O’Kaysions – putting an ironic twist on the sexist pastime of ogling women.
But it was difficult to capture all of the facets of the women’s movement in one 90 minute film, and one of my favourite stories ended up on the cutting room floor. It was the story of Bessie Guthrie’s arrival one day at the MeJane Headquarters. She was armed with folders of documents from her one-woman crusade for child welfare reform that she had amassed over 20 years. She announced to the MeJane collective of radical feminists “I’ve been waiting for you girls all my life.”
One of the most significant campaigns [from MeJane] in terms of its success and coverage came in the wake of the arrival of the grand dame Bessie Guthrie … She was in her 60s when she arrived, a tall, elegant woman who came with piles of folders about her campaigns for child welfare reform. It was an astonishing amount of work and took us time to really process.
Suzanne Bellamy, during her interview for Brazen Hussies
Bessie was a local Glebe woman, concerned about the plight of runaway teenage girls and their horrific treatment in state institutions. She would often take them in, her home becoming a makeshift halfway house for runaways.
She fashioned this campaign through MeJane and she gradually allowed us to explore her material and shape it, and then to access what we had, which was the power of numbers. And so we had really important demonstrations outside the Bidura children’s prison in Glebe in which women climbed up on the roof.
With the power of numbers, they were also able to attract the attention of ABC journalist Peter Manning, who reported an exposé on the abuse of girls in state care and the barbaric act of forced virginity testing. It was in watching this report that I was struck by how absolutely horrific the treatment of these girls was.
In a report for the ABC on the Paramatta Girls Home in 1973, Peter Manning discussed the ‘exposure to moral danger’ laws which could be used against girls up until the age of 18:
Annual reports of the child welfare department state that no young men or boys are ever picked up on the charge of exposure to moral danger. It is the section of the Child Welfare Act used exclusively on girls … They are made to scrub the floors of the shelter on their knees every day, ordered to wear a uniform, and they are given a medical examination.
The medical exam included a pelvic examination to determine whether or not they were ‘virginal’. For this white, middleclass, Australian millennial -at least-the idea that the state could compel teenage girls to be physically violated to assess whether they were virgins or not, sounds like something from medieval times, rather than a common occurrence in 1970s Australia. A pelvic examination is not at all a scientifically sound means of testing ‘virginity’.
Image details: Protest at the Parramatta Girls Home, December 9th, 1974. Photo by Anne Roberts courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Tribune / SEARCH Foundation
Just like the criminalization of abortion, the lack of financial support for single mothers and the pressure on them to give their babies up for adoption, the ‘exposure to moral danger’ law was all part of the gendered violence that controlled women’s bodies, and subjugated them under a patriarchal society. Exposure to moral danger was a crime only committed by poor, often Aboriginal, young women, for no other reason than being born female.
Because of Bessie Guthrie’s collaboration with the Women’s Liberation movement, a group of women also made a short film exposing the plight of girls charged with exposure to moral danger. Home, made by Leonie Crennan, Margot Knox, Barbara Levy, Robynne Murphy and Susan Varga features testimony by Toni Wilson, a young woman who spent much of her adolescence in girls homes. The film shows a reenactment of legs going into stirrups from the patient’s point of view. She recounted the following:
The doctor sticks his finger up you. So you can imagine the effect that would have on a thirteen year old child. And a virgin at that. And the doctor saying you know when I resisted purely out of embarrassment, ‘Oh if you don’t lie still we’ll take you to Parramatta and tie you down.’ Completely misinterpreting my attitude, that’s what shits me. An air of defence is just born of fear and bewilderment and you’re penalised for it.
After the episode of This Day Tonight aired compulsory virginity testing was stopped virtually overnight. Eventually the charge of ‘Exposure to moral danger’ was also dropped.
For more information about the “Exposure to Moral Danger” laws and the girls institutions listen to Ann Arnold’s award winning ABC radio documentary from 2009, Exposed to Moral Danger.
Catherine Dwyer is the Writer and Director of Brazen Hussies– an historical dive into the Australian Women’s Liberation Movement 1965-1975. She was inspired to make the film during her time as an Associate Producer on Mary Dore’s She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014) – about the Women’s Movement in the United States. During this experience she realized how little she knew of her own country’s feminist history and how easily it was being forgotten. Catherine was nominated for an Australian Director’s Guild Award for Brazen Hussies as well as an AACTA award for Best Direction. Brazen Hussies was nominated for the 2020 AIDC and AACTA Awards for “Best Feature Documentary” and is listed as one of The Guardian’s top 10 Australian films of 2020.
How can the experiences of women affected by sexual violence from war be highlighted through art without further reproducing and perpetuating trauma? Projects like Thinking of You (Alketa Xhafa Mripa) provide a powerful example.
Image above: Thinking of You by Alketa Xhafa-Mripa. Reproduced by permission of the artist
Maria Alina Asavei
Can we represent or commemorate victims of gender-based mass violence as part of processes of justice without objectifying and retraumatising women? These are the dilemmas faced by transitional justice scholars and practitioners.
The experiences of the women affected by armed conflicts and political violence are often overlooked in the official institutions of remembrance and transitional justice processes of commemoration and symbolic reparations. This happens on various grounds, among which, the most unsettling takes for granted the claim that “sexual violence has always been part of the war” and is therefore unremarkable and unworthy of attention. At the same time, the survivors of mass violence have often felt reluctant or unwilling to evoke memories of their past sexual abuses and other forms of aggression, finding it too painful to relive traumatic pasts, even in the name of retributive justice.
The fact that these memories of sexual violence cannot be tackled openly and publicly is not surprising, and, as the artist Judy Chicago asked rhetorically, ‘how open can you be when it is shrouded in shame?’ Yet, the preference in many legal traditions for individual memory in re-establishing truth and justice (the traditional rules of evidence in transitional justice focus on individual representation, testimony and memory) offers less space for collective representations and collective memory (forms which might prevent trauma for those women survivors of mass violence).
Equally worrisome is that some cultural representation (especially in the film industry) does harm rather than support the process of redress because they keep reproducing a pattern of cultural memory that displays women victims of mass sexual violence by exposing nakedness, body parts and romanticizing the relationship between victim and perpetrator. Such art cannot count as a form of symbolic reparation. Nor does it establish relations across difference. These representations fail to pay respect to the women who suffered violence and even risk re-traumatizing them.
For these reasons, these art pieces do nothing to highlight women’s agency in political, economic and social transformation within post-conflict societies.
This does not mean that all artistic/cultural responses to mass violence against women are inappropriate. There are several instances of collaborative, participatory and collective artistic memory work that has the ability to foster communities of remembrance beyond gender, biographical and national borders divides. Participatory and/or collaborative artistic memory work has the merit of enabling witnesses and post-witnesses to collectively experience the women victims ’painful past without relying on the proclivities of the gaze alone. At the same time, the collective representations of painful memories, displayed by both witnesses and post-witnesses, can trigger a critical collective memory whose cultural materializations did not employ the sexualization and objectification of women and girls. One instance of this collaborative cultural memory is the huge installation Thinking of You (conceptualized by the artist Alketa Xhafa-Mripa in Kosovo, 2015).
Thinking of You commemorates the victims of mass sexual violence focusing on the public’s participation as crucial in the artwork’s final form and meaning. Every person from the public is at the same time a participant to the artistic memory event by donating skirts or dresses which have been eventually hung on elongated washing lines on the main soccer stadium in Pristina.
The artistic memory event gathered dresses and skirts not only from the people of Kosovo but from people from all over the world, who had no biographical ties with the victims of the former Yugoslavia. The ravishing documentary about the production of the unprecedented installation Thinking of You reveals the extraordinary participation of the post-witnesses of mass violence against women. The documentary titled The Making of Thinking of You by Anna di Lellio and Fitim Shala displays the campaign of collecting dresses and skirts all over Kosovo and several interviews with the participants to this commemorative event.
The same type of participatory memory work meant to empower the women victims of mass violence beyond national and biographical ties emerged in Cairo during the Arab Spring (2011). What is currently known as the “blue bra stencil” commemorates an unknown Egyptian woman victim of the military police during the revolution. The violent act perpetrated by the military policemen was recorded by an amateur camera and circulated then worldwide. The footage shows a young woman severely beaten with her abaya (Islamic robe) stripped off. The viewer cannot see the woman’s face but only her clothing, including a blue bra. The cultural responses occurred immediately after the violent act ended. Many walls in Cairo started to reveal the blue bra stencil in various designs. The same feminine garment appeared online worldwide as Facebook profile pictures.
The cultural memory of the act of mass violence against women in Cairo exceeds both the border of Egypt and the borders of its initial meaning being associated with other sets of political and social concerns. To give only several examples, the “Blue Bra” is represented and disseminated in the political cartoons of the Brazilian artist Carlos Latuff; in the pieces of textile art created by the Jordanian designer Naser Al-Khalylah and in the political video posters disseminated online by the anonymous artist collective Operation Blue Bra Girl.
Maria-Alina Asavei is Assistant Professor at the Institute of International Studies, Charles University Prague and curator of contemporary art. Drop her an email at email@example.com
The Pacific Islands may be well-known as an idyllic tourist destination, but gendered violence remains a chronic issue for Island women. AAP/Diana Plater via the Conversation
Since 2013, I have worked with women’s groups in the Pacific Islands countries of Fiji, Bougainville (in PNG), New Caledonia, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, to reflect on women’s right to physical security, and ask what that principle looks like in our Pacific region. My research has had two aims; first to understand how the right to safety is institutionalised and reforms are implemented in each country, and second, to examine how the right to safety is understood by women in an everyday sense.
To give some context, it is important to consider the global origins of women’s right to live in security from violence. In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly formally recognised violence against women to be a violation of women’s human rights. In doing so, the issue of women’s vulnerability was no longer considered a source of personal shame and stigma. Rather, it was given full recognition as a global challenge, and states were asked to do more to support their female populations who experienced this violence, as well as to work towards its elimination.
Since 1993, Pacific Island countries, including the larger island countries of Australia and New Zealand have all responded to this shift in global policy making on violence against women. We have come a long way from the days of 1995 when one Pacific leader jested amongst his male peers at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting, that Pacific men used the idle hours of the “Sunday Sabbath” to kick “either a football or one’s wife around”.
Nearly twenty years later, the Pacific Island Forum leaders meeting in 2012 was, by contrast are more sympathetic event. Here the regions leaders made a powerful commitment to tackle gender inequality in their countries and also to do more to challenge violence against women. In the years since, we have seen Pacific Island governments recognise their responsibilities towards women and establish reforms that aim to eliminate violence against women.
In PNG, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands we have seen new family law legislation and new domestic violence legislation with more protections for women and harsher penalties enacted for those who perpetrate violence. In Solomon Islands, additionally, the government has established a National Policy to Eliminate Violence Against Women and Girls in 2016 which integrates government and civil society programs to assist those exposed to violence.
In Fiji, we have seen new policing policy which stipulates a “zero tolerance approach” and “no drop” directing all officers to investigate cases of violence against women brought to their attention, even if women later try to withdraw the complaint. In New Caledonia there have been state and civil society initiatives such as the establishment of shelters and women’s bureaus who offer assistance to women who have been exposed to violence.
All of these reforms show state and civil society commitment to the objective of eliminating gender violence. But what is their concrete effectiveness? Do they mean women experience less violence in their daily lives? This is always a hard question to answer ask because we also know that when there is more public debate about violence against women, and more effort to improve state authorities’ responses to this issue, more women who might not have reported abuse decide to come forward to demand assistance.
But given that we are now 16 years on from that landmark international policy shift of 1993, and 7 years on from the Pacific Islands Forum declaration recognising women’s insecurity as an issue of regional concern, we might also expect to see the beginning of a decline in numbers of women being exposed to this violence. Sadly, this is far from evident, and in many countries around the region we see violence against women perpetrated at significant rates consistent, or even higher than, those of 20 years ago.
So my research has really sought to understand why. My findings indicate to me that while state reform is important, implementation remains a challenge.
Part of the problem lies in the difficulties that women continue to face in trying to progress charges against violent family members through the criminal justice system. In Solomon Islands, for example, between the establishment of the Family Safety bill in 2014 and 2018, there were only 18 people convicted of family violence offences and only one person had received a custodial sentence.
There are many dedicated police officers that are sympathetic towards women who bring complaints of violence to their attention. But there are also many others who continue to treat this issue as of minimal importance in general law and order work. Through my research in the Pacific Islands region, I have amassed too many stories which show that even when official policing policy states that women’s complaints of violence must be investigated, individual police officers frequently dissuade women from pressing charges against family members and instead encourage them to return home and reconcile with their husbands.
The scope of policing authority in many Pacific Island countries is also usually quite limited too and this can have an impact on women’s safety. For example, when I began research on violence against women in Fiji in 2013, as the government was implementing the aforementioned “Zero Tolerance” policy on violence against women. This involved a community policing approach and cooperation from local community leaders. Many people around the country praised this program and urged me to study it. The fact that it sought to complement policing responses with the input and authority of community leaders seemed promising.
Yet, when I went to rural villages, or squatter settlements around the main cities in Fiji to find out more, I encountered less enthusiasm. Women in these places made statements such as “men have no idea what we go through” or “our experiences are just our own”. This suggested that even this program with its zero tolerance message, and degree of community-level cooperation was struggling to make an impact. The testimonies of the women I spoke to in this context, suggested to me that that government programs must do more than show success in a few well-publicised locations if women’s rights to security are to be upheld generally.
The question of what women might want in terms of state support when they are exposed to violence is interesting too, and suggests the ‘punish and protect’ model of policing may itself not be a solution that those exposed to violence always seek. My work in Vanuatu with Melissa Bull has yielded particularly interesting results on this question. It has shown that where police do have the capacity to intervene, women simply want officers to bring about a halt in household or family violence so that order is re-established and do not expect or want their partners subjected to punishment. Women here also explained that police can play an important role in educating perpetrators that their violent actions are against law and human rights.
So what can we take away from all of this? Certainly, we have come a long way in the Pacific region from the days when it was thought appropriate for Pacific leaders to make jokes about women’s vulnerability to violence and show little regard to questions of women’s safety. Today, many Pacific Island states take this challenge seriously and have enacted legal, policing and welfare reforms to uphold women’s rights to security, and make that an issue of state responsibility. But more work needs to be done to ensure that these commitments are more than just words. The design of reform is the first step.
Meaningful implementation in ways that provide women with valuable aid, support and protection from violence, is a second but far more challenging part of the process. This will be vital if we are committed to challenging the scenario where women’s rights to security are respected and we find it unacceptable that women’s stories of violence should remain “simply their own”.
Nicole George is Associate Professor at the University of Queensland. Her research focuses on the gendered politics of conflict and peacebuilding, violence, security and participation. Since the early 2000s, she has conducted research in the Pacific Islands region focusing on gender politics, gendered security and post conflict transition in Fiji, New Caledonia, Bougainville and Solomon Islands, working in collaboration with women’s organisations, women decision-makers and women policymakers in these settings.