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Mar 9, 2018

Yet another International Women’s Day, Yet another Struggle

Oxfam India   /   Julie Thekkudan

Yet another International Women’s Day! And yet again, the market is bombarded with advertisements reaching out to women with freebies. So what should International Women’s Day mean in an environment where sexual exploitation and abuse has made headlines across the world? The fact that the #MeToo campaign shook the world is an understatement. Possibly, for the first time in recent history, did large numbers of individual women come forward to acknowledge the discrimination and harassment that they have faced! Then came the fall from grace for organisations whose core mandate was to reach out to the vulnerable and the marginalized. Where does this leave us as individuals, organisations, sectors and nations?

As individuals, we may feel outrage and helpless in our role in unwittingly supporting such organisations. Maybe we forget that in our own little ways, we too, have helped in creating this situation by adhering either knowingly or unknowingly to similar standards in our own lives (do I hear some vehement ‘no’ shifting just that tiny bit to a ‘maybe…yes, you could have a point there’).

Organisations are struggling to come to terms on the ways to deal with this reality. For some organisations, it is the time for deep reflections on how it may have fallen short of its own standards. Many others have woken to the need for more stringent measures, both formal as well as cultural, to ensure zero tolerance towards exploitation and abuse by organizational staff. The fall-out did not stop there. With individual organisations, came a more in-depth scrutiny on the entire sector of aid.

To castigate the entire sector and the work that this sector has achieved in the past and now, would be as one article put it ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’. In the absence of many aid agencies who are the first to reach out in emergencies, the vulnerable may be in worse conditions. This is definitely not to say that the actions of the perpetrators should be pushed under the carpet. The credibility of organisations is built on being open about its own failures. It may also be worthwhile to remember that the standards of disclosure too have shifted hugely in the recent years.

The sector has definitely pioneered some good practices that has pushed other sectors to adopt and in turn, develop other good practices. The sector will definitely need to engage in deep discussions around collective decisions on adopting standards that work for all. An open letter by women in the humanitarian and aid sector has asked for a minimum three fundamental shifts to end the patriarchal bias – to trust the woman, to listen and implement measures to foster a culture of where women (and men) can come forward to talk about the impact of power imbalances. Let us openly state it- sexual exploitation and abuse is all about power, then and now. And when power comes into the picture, actions and consequences are never simple.

So let us go back to what should this year’s International Women’s Day mean for us? It is time that we go beyond the mere consumerism associated with this day. It is time to let the #MeToo movement actually get on with the journey of transformation of power relations. As individuals, we should closely examine our own attitude to power that we have in our daily lives and how we use that power with those who do not possess the commensurate power. A fine example would be the way we treat our children, the women folk within our families or our domestic help. Organisations definitely have their task cut out to foster workplaces, which are transparent, conducive to women (and men) and walk the talk both internally as well as externally. This would also mean going beyond soul-stirring advertisements and making the real shift in organizational practices, including in its relations with stakeholders in the organizational supply chain.

The aid sector would need to have more honest conversations on standards it will hold itself accountable to (it would not be too off-the-mark to say that most other sectors too should open themselves to have these conversations).  And for many of the nations to consider themselves as providers (not protectors alone) of women’s rights, it has to be a journey of political will, finances to back the political will, commitment to not allow impunity for offenders at all levels. Only then would an International Women’s Day have the right meaning. Till then, women the world over will continue to march in solidarity on the 8th of March chanting ‘azadi (freedom) from patriarchy, azadi from all hierarchy’!

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