Ethiopia’s young men: Between hope and a hard place

Ethiopia's young men

Ethiopia has invested much in recent years in economic growth and in policies to support young people. But a better match still needs to be created between education and skills and job opportunities for both young men and young women. © Young Lives / Antonio Fiorente

Miki’s* story breaks your heart. He grew up in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, where he was brought up by his grandmother. His mother had left when he was eight and his father was unwell. Nonetheless, he was a cheerful boy who liked helping his granny with the housework and dreamed of being an engineer. Although his family were poor, he did well at school, seeing himself as: ‘a mature and disciplined person’ who acted as a peacemaker when his friends argued.

But then everything changed. In Grade 11, Miki’s father became so ill that his son had to stay home from school. When he returned, he had an argument with his teacher about missing classes. The conflict escalated to the point the police were called, and Miki was expelled.

Miki’s case is not unusual. He is one of 12,000 children and young people in Young Lives, a study on child poverty in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam which has been going on for 15 years, giving a unique insight into children’s lives as they grow up.

The current overwhelming attention on adolescent girls in international development policy often fails to acknowledge the challenges that boys and young men face.

© Young Lives / Antonio Fiorente

After leaving school, Miki earned money selling eggs and chickens. He applied for a loan to expand his business, but his application was rejected. Many of the young men who have left school and are searching for work are in a similar situation; no longer deserving of the protection afforded younger children, yet not old enough to access the resources available to adult men, such as status, ID cards, land, business loans or membership in work cooperatives.

At the time, Miki defined poverty as: ‘Working hard but not changing your life.’ In desperation, he migrated to Sudan in search of work, taking months to arrive; he suffered a lot of violence and his passport and other belongings were stolen. Seeing very few other options, he became involved in smuggling and contraband as a means of survival. He said: ‘You know, when you are hopeless, you feel bad and make wrong decisions.’

© Young Lives / Antonio Fiorente

Now he sees no way out. He would like to return to school but considers it impossible. On top of this, he was diagnosed with diabetes. He misses his grandmother and wants to return to Addis Ababa but his future is uncertain. He says: ‘Life here is very bad. Things may work out only for “the haves”. But for those who do not have [“the have nots”], even the law doesn’t help.’ The only positive thing in his life is his relationship with his girlfriend.

At the time, Miki defined poverty as: ‘Working hard but not changing your life’

Stories like Miki’s are seldom told. The policy focus on young people in development in recent years has been on adolescent girls rather than boys and young men. For good reasons – in many countries, girls and women are still treated as second-class citizens. They are less likely to go to school, and vulnerable to violence and discrimination, including child marriage and female genital mutilation and cutting. This work needs to continue.

But the overwhelming attention on adolescent girls has two major flaws. First, it tends to focus on the empowerment of individual girls rather than on the wider contextual and structural analysis of power, privilege or patriarchy. That is needed if things are really going to change: young people’s individual trajectories make little sense in isolation from others’ or from the wider social and economic changes that directly and indirectly affect their choices, chances and actions, or from the services provided (or not) by government in terms of health, education and employment. The spotlight on girls alone largely ignores the relationships between young women and girls and young men and boys, the differences between them, and how they impact each other.

© Young Lives / Antonio Fiorente

It also fails to acknowledge the challenges that boys and young men from poor families face – like Miki. For example, although overall more boys than girls are in school, in many countries, more girls than boys are now staying there. In the Young Lives study in Ethiopia, by the age of 19, 66 per cent of girls were still in education, compared with 56 per cent of boys, and the girls had completed slightly higher levels of schooling than the boys. Young Lives has found that boys and young men sometimes leave school for paid work, but often it is for seemingly minor reasons which should be resolvable if schools were more flexible to their needs. What does leaving school mean for their futures, for work, marriage and family? Men in many countries are still seen as the providers – with serious consequences for themselves and for society if, like Miki, they fail to provide through no fault of their own.

With support and quality education, boys and young men can help to build a more gender-equal world. Research in a number of countries shows that if men have completed at least some secondary education, they are likely to have attitudes that are more gender-equitable, and are less likely to use violence against an intimate partner.

Ethiopia has invested much in recent years in economic growth and in policies to support young people. The young people in our study have responded with initiative and a determination to make the best of their lives. But for those in the poorest sectors of society this is an uphill task. A better match needs to be created between education and skills and job opportunities for both young men and young women. Or else young men like Miki will remain stuck between the ruin of their childhood hopes and the hard reality in which they find themselves.

*His name has been changed to protect his identity.

Chilcot report: looking back on why we went to war with Iraq


US President George W. Bush (L) and British Prime Minister Tony Blair walk together from their meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels, 22 February 2005. © REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

It was 15 February 2003. My family and I joined the march against the Iraq War, along with an estimated 36 million people around the world, and more than a million in London.

Like others, I was angry with Tony Blair and George W. Bush for proceeding without UN approval with what was essentially an illegal invasion. I was strongly against the impending war because I had spent three weeks in Iraq in 1999, putting together an issue of New Internationalist with my fellow journalist Felicity Arbuthnot, who had visited many times and was an expert on the country.

Air strikes rock Baghdad on 21 March 2003.

REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/Files

Looking back now as the Chilcot Inquiry finally publishes its results, I can feel a resurgence of that anger: 100,000 people dead, hundreds of thousands more injured, and the forces of darkness in the shape of ISIS unleashed upon the world.

At the time I went to Iraq, its people were in the iron grip of Saddam Hussein and were also suffering bitterly under United Nations sanctions – not to mention the occasional bombing by the West of an unsuspecting shepherd family, the aftermath of which I also witnessed.

A statue of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad 9 April 2003.

REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

It was not that Saddam Hussein was a good guy, but it was clear even on a short visit like mine that although he was a dictator who imprisoned, murdered and tortured people he didn’t like, he was also holding the country together.

While few people dared speak out publicly against him, many pointed to the development that took place under his regime in the 1980s. Iraq had a good record on women’s rights. And, as I wrote at the time: ‘Adult literacy had risen to 95 per cent (Iraq won the UNESCO prize for literacy three years in a row); 92 per cent of the population had access to safe water and 93 per cent access to a clinic or hospital. Both education and health were free and Iraq’s welfare system was one of the most generous in the Arab world. The country prided itself on the support it gave to countries in need... Economic rights were a priority, though civil liberties were not.’ Now the people of Iraq have neither.

A team of weapons inspectors from the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) search a military industrial complex, Al-Tariq General Company, some 90 km (56 miles) northwest of Baghdad and near the town of Fallujah 9 December 2002.

REUTERS/Suhaib Salem/File Photo

Indeed, when I was in Iraq it hadn’t been that long since Saddam had been an ally of the West, supported by the US and the UK in the long-running Iran-Iraq war. Even after the chemical bombardment of the Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988, the US Commerce Department continued to export military equipment to Iraq – including chemicals necessary for the manufacture of nerve gas.

I was pretty sure though in 1999 from talking to people in Iraq – from ministry officials to UN Inspectors – that Iraq did not possess substantial weapons of mass destruction. I had even visited one of the factories that was supposed to have been producing them; it had been supplying vaccines for diseases such as foot-and-mouth at cost price to other countries in the Middle East.

British Royal Air Force personnel wait in a bunker wearing full Nuclear Biological and Chemical suits after a warning of a Scud missile attack on their base in Kuwait 20 March 2003.

REUTERS/Russell Boyce/File Photo

Scott Ritter a UN weapons inspector in Iraq, told New Internationalist that he had resigned: ‘when it became clear that the US and Richard Butler, Executive Director of UNSCOM, were manipulating inspections as a vehicle for maintaining economic sanctions, instead of disarmament. I could not be part of that. My job was to find the weapons.’

He also said that at that time he felt the country had been 90 per cent disarmed and that in relation to the famed chemical weapons, the supposed justification for the US and the UK going to war with Iraq: ‘There’s a real possibility that Iraq still has five hundred 155-mm mustard shells. But militarily that’s nothing. To have an effect on the battlefield you need tens of thousands. A few years ago it had a major plant making chemical weapons. It does not today. The same goes for the biological, nuclear and ballistic programs.’

Detail of a declassified handwritten letter sent by the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to George W. Bush, former President of the United States, is seen as part of the Iraq Inquiry Report presented by Sir John Chilcot at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster, in London, Britain 6 July 2016.

REUTERS/Jeff J Mitchell/Pool

No-one I spoke to wanted military intervention. There was too much history involved between Britain and Iraq, where, in a stroke of irony, we were the colonial rulers who took Baghdad in 1917 with the help of an Arab revolt against the German-allied Ottomans, and later it was Winston Churchill who argued ‘in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes’ – mainly referring to the Kurds.

As Nasra al-Sa’adoun, whose grandfather was an Iraqi Prime Minister and who had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, said firmly to me: ‘Don’t talk to me about human rights. Your analysis is too simplistic. You see the West as good and Iraq as bad. You think you have the right to interfere in our affairs because you have always done so.’

British Army troops take position near a crowd of protesting former Iraqi soldiers after stones were thrown in the southern Iraq city of Basra 6 January 2004.

REUTERS/Atef Hassan/File Photo

As I was leaving, she smiled at me: ‘You know, I was asked the other day by another foreigner: “What should I tell people when they ask me: “Why haven’t the Iraqi people risen up against Saddam Hussein?” I told him to tell them that the Iraqi people are perfectly capable of sorting out our own affairs. “Tell them” I said. “Tell them to mind their own business…let us rebuild our own country.”’

If only Tony Blair and the UK Government had listened to the likes of Nasra, how different Iraq – and indeed the whole world – might be now.

More photos:

A British Army Challenger II tank crushes a portrait of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein at a former military training ground outside the southern city of Basra 27 March 2003. REUTERS/Chris Helgren/File Photo

A view of the auditorium where the Iraq Inquiry Report was presented by Sir John Chilcot at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster, London, Britain 6 July 2016.

REUTERS/ Dan Kitwood/Pool

Sir John Chilcot presents The Iraq Inquiry Report at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster, London, Britain 6 July 2016.

REUTERS/Jeff J Mitchell/Pool

A detail of the Iraq Inquiry Report presented by Sir John Chilcot at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster, London, Britain 6 July 2016.

REUTERS/ Dan Kitwood/Pool

Relatives and friends of military personnel killed during the Iraq War attend a news conference after listening to Sir John Chilcot present The Iraq Inquiry Report at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster, in London, Britain 6 July 2016.

REUTERS/Jeff J Mitchell/Pool

Deeds not words: in the spirit of the suffragettes


British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst once said: '[T]he condition of our sex is so deplorable that it is our duty to break the law in order to call attention to the reasons why we do.' by The New York Times photo archive, public domain.

The film industry is failing women, but there is hope, as Nikki van der Gaag explains.

When I was a young woman, the suffragettes were my heroes. I called my first car, a battered Renault, Emmeline (after Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the British suffragette movement in the early 20th century). I also loved the film Thelma and Louise and its 2 female stars, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, who defied all the stereotypical ideas of the time about how women should behave.

So when the chance came to attend an event where both came together, I couldn’t resist. The place was packed. Geena Davis and Abi Morgan, writer of the recent film Suffragette, were among the many women on stage at the 3rd Geena Davis Symposium on Women in the Media at the British Film Institute (BFI) in London.

Geena Davis was everything I had imagined her to be, but cleverer (why wouldn’t she be clever?) and funnier (likewise) – particularly when it came to her own life. She joked about her ambition, telling us that when her teacher at film school told her class that only 1% would make it, she remembers thinking: ‘How sad for the rest of them’! But it was also clear that she is just as ambitious about getting more women into the media – as lead actors, but also as directors, writers, editors and behind the camera.

The research that her institute has unearthed showed just how necessary this is – and reinforced for me what I already know: that feminism is as important and relevant as ever, even in what seems to be the rarified heights of Hollywood – in fact, especially in Hollywood. The proportion of female characters in all roles in films made in the US (29.3%) was higher only than France (28.7%), Japan (26.6%) and India (24.9%) and lower than Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, Korea, Russia and Britain. When the UK collaborates with the US however, the resulting films come absolutely bottom of the heap, at 23.6%.

The percentage of female producers in the 11 countries (plus UK/US) was equally pitiful, with Japan at the bottom with 7.5% and Brazil, interestingly, way up top with 47.2 %. The UK came top for female directors, but it is sad to have to cheer for a paltry 27.3% when all the other countries except China are under double digits.

How is this possible in an age where many people think we have equality? ‘Unconscious bias’ was one of the reasons given by Geena and others. But in the end, said Bonnie Greer, American-British playwright, novelist and critic, who was chairing the second panel: ‘It is about power. That is what we are talking about.’

A woman sitting next to me who was a screenwriter told me that none of the facts surprised her, but what she wanted to know was what was actually being done about it? Where was the spirit of the suffragettes, which in Emmeline Pankhurst’s words was about ‘deeds not words’? There were, in fact, quite a few answers to her question.

Abi Morgan stood up from the floor in response to a question to say that she believed the women who had been protesting at the premier of her film against cuts in funding for domestic violence shelters were today’s suffragettes. She also pledged – to cheers from the audience – only to write about women for the next 5 years. (Suffragette is one of the few films not only to have female leads, but be written and directed by women as well.)

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media also has ideas on what can be done: for example, writers, directors and producers should simply increase the number of women at all levels. So if there is a crowd scene, the writer could add to the sentence: ‘Slowly, grim but determined volunteers step forward, half of whom are women.’ They could change men’s names to women’s. In children’s films – the subject of another study – they could ensure that women are not just housewives or sex goddesses or (mostly dead, added Geena) mothers. ‘Give them more aspirations, more to do – and more clothes,’ she added, noting that girls and women are twice as likely as men to be seen in sexually revealing clothing.

Oona King, the former MP who has been advising the BBC on diversity, stood up and announced that from next year the organization will be measuring diversity. Amanda Nevill, Chief Executive of the British Film Institute, talked about the importance of the pipeline and how their Film Academy for aspiring talent was 50% women.

One of the slogans of the Symposium was ‘Talent is everywhere, opportunity isn’t’. The women on the podium succeeded in making me feel, if only for a moment, that if a theatre full of women – and a few men too – could change that equation in an instant, we would have done it then and there. As Baroness Scotland, the first woman since 1315 to hold the post of Attorney General for England and Wales, said: ‘Each of us has the opportunity to make a choice – what we buy, what we watch, and what we protest against. We can change things.’

Oh and why ‘heroes’ and not ‘heroines’? Because women want to be the norm, not the exception. Because Geena said so.

The fatherhood revolution


Kelly Sikkema under a Creative Commons Licence

I have been a feminist since my late teens. I have seen how women’s organizations have made a difference to women’s and girls’ lives in countries as different as Pakistan and El Salvador, Egypt and Indonesia.

I  have rejoiced with the many gains that women and girls have made, and grieved where progress was too slow or even gone backwards – the levels of violence against women that never seem to change, the women dying unnecessarily in childbirth, the fact that there are still fewer girls than boys in school, the dearth of women in senior positions…

But until relatively recently, there was one thing that I had not considered, and that was men.

It was easy to see them as the problem. After all, they still hold the majority of power when it comes to economy, governments, religion, the media and often within the household too. They also commit the majority of violence against women – as well as against each other.

But men and boys are also fathers, brothers, husbands, partners, grandfathers, uncles and cousins to women and girls. So could they also be part of the solution?

It was my son, then aged 11, who alerted me to this when he said simply: ‘Mum, why are you obsessed with women’s rights? What about me?’

This was the start of a journey that led to my writing Feminism and Men and to working on this first ever report on the State of the World’s Fathers.

I started trying to meet men and boys, as well as girls and women during the course of my work.

I noticed that wherever they came from, whether they were rich or poor, young or old, one of the things they talked about was how becoming a father had changed them; how the love they felt for their daughters and sons had made them more caring and even less violent people.  

A group of men in the Dominican Republic, for example, had come together from different communities because they were concerned about violence against women.

Cristobal, one of the older men in the group, said fiercely: ‘My father treated us children like animals. I knew when I had my own kids that I wanted to be a better father than he was.’

Wilman, a younger man, was worried about the violence in his family and didn’t know what to do about it.  

Those who were fathers said that fatherhood had been a turning point for them in their lives. They wanted to hand down love, not violence; care, not absence of care, to their sons and daughters. And it really helped to talk about this, to share it with other men, often for the first time in their lives.

A group of fathers who were part of the MenCare campaign in South Africa also told me how becoming a father had been a way in to talking, often for the first time, about the kind of destructive and narrow masculinity that tells men and boys that they have to be strong, not to cry, to be the top dog – and the damage they knew this had done to them when they were very small.

As a result, many said they were trying to become more involved in the home, sharing the burden of unpaid domestic and caring work with their partners for the first time, wanting to be there for the birth of their children, believing that they could break the cycle of violence handed down from their own fathers.

When I was able to talk to their wives and partners, they often corroborated the change – though this is something I would like to explore further.

Four out of five men will become fathers at some point in their lives. And most of the others will play some kind of role in a child’s life. Which is why this very first State of the World’s Fathers, bringing together men in their nurturing roles firmly into the picture, is so important.

Women all over the world still spend between 1 and 3 more hours a day on housework than men and 2 to 10 times as much time on caring for a child or older person.

Even when fathers are involved in the household, it is usually doing the fun things like taking a child out or playing with them, rather than taking responsibility for the messy business involved in running a home and caring for a family.

And this double burden is one of the reasons why women are still regarded as second-class citizens in so many places, why they only make up 21.8% of parliamentarians globally and head only 24 of America’s top 500 companies, and why girls are pulled out of school.

The women’s revolution has achieved so much. But the things we still need to end violence against women, ensure that women can compete on a more even playing field with men, and allow girls to go to school, is men who support gender equality and fathers who support feminism.

Because fatherhood is a key part of this. Even in Britain, notes the report, it is when women have children that the gender pay gap really rockets – from 7% to 21%.

If men valued caregiving and unpaid work and participated equally in the home – rather than just ‘helping’, and taught their sons to do the same, rigid ideas about gender and all the corresponding harm that this brings to women, to children – and to men themselves – could begin to unravel.

Of course, there are huge structural changes that need to happen as well – in the law, in health, in education, in the workplace.

For example, in Britain we work the longest hours in Europe – hardly conducive to being a parent for either mothers or fathers – and we have only just introduced paternity leave, one of the key calls of the report.  

So my son was right. We need men to be involved if we are ever to achieve gender equality.

This means men making the changes to their lives that women have made to theirs over the last decades. Dads need to clean the toilet, but also lobby for the kind of family-friendly policies recommended in the report that benefit fathers as well as mothers.

Nothing less than a fatherhood revolution.

The State of the World’s Fathers is out now.

Nikki van der Gaag is a former New Internationalist Co-Editor.

The boys in Brazil's favelas who shun violence

International Centre for Research on Women

Gary Barker pioneered ground-breaking work with young people, in particular disaffected young men, to promote gender equality and prevent violence. Instituto Promundo in Brazil, which he co-founded in 1997, has brought about remarkable changes in young people’s attitudes through workshops, social media, music, videos and toolkits. Promundo’s ideas are now being used all over the world. He is interviewed by Nikki van der Gaag.

How did it all start?

My father was a social worker, which is largely a woman’s profession. I never questioned that care work was men’s work. As a child, violence was part of a boy’s life, in school and in the neighbourhood. I witnessed an incident where a young man was shot right in front of me in the high school cafeteria. The school dealt with it very badly: they barely even talked about it. And I remember thinking, ‘Wait a minute, there is something not right about this. How come we don’t even have a space to talk about this?’

Then early in my career I worked on adolescent reproductive health and rights, which is mostly a woman’s field. There was a lot about ‘Aren’t men horrible?’ and about the things men do that leave young women vulnerable. So I started thinking: ‘I am a man too! There have got to be other men who are thinking, can we do something to transform these ways of thinking about what it is to be a man.’ That was the beginning of my quest.

What are the most effective ways of reaching men – and women – with this work?

While the international women’s rights movement and United Nations conventions were very important to bring momentum to this work, the most valuable and useful insights come from how couples themselves are negotiating equality in their daily lives. There are men in the most gender rigid places, who are willing to question and to speak out loud about how things should be different. Personal stories are more powerful than any manual or campaign.

A group of Promundo's youth promoters planning community activities.

Jon Spaull

I can think of one young man in particular. I shall call him João. Most of his family had some kind of drug trafficking connection. At the end of the day he would go home from washing and watching cars in the middle-class neighbourhood where I lived. He knew that if people at night saw a young black man dressed in rather ragged work clothes they would think: ‘He is a thief.’ So he would call out: ‘Don’t worry, I’m a nice guy!’ He had a real sense of humour. He also had a fantastic grandmother who was the anchor of the whole family.

Anyway, his girlfriend got pregnant. Her family didn’t think he was up and coming and therefore they didn’t want him live with her or to have much contact with the child. He made all these efforts to understand their point of view, to let them know that he was there to stay, that he loved their daughter and their granddaughter. I thought: ‘Wow! He has a cousin who was killed by drug traffickers, his brothers are all involved, his father died early from alcohol abuse, and yet he was able to say: “I am not going to be boxed into a corner. I will not be the violent, alcohol-abusing, gang-involved guy that the world expects me to be.”’

There are lots of young men like João who want to do things differently. We have helped many to get out of gangs. They are all very connected fathers. Many are now referred to us by some of the first young people we worked with. That is some accomplishment.

Is violence the major issue here?

For the most part, the world doesn’t make gender equitable men – it spends a lot of time making men who are angry and disconnected and violent. But the use of violence is not something men are happy about. In fact, it suggests how troubled many men are, and their own experience of violence growing up. We need to say: ‘You can’t do this’ and to end the impunity but also to say to men: ‘We understand that the violence you are using is coming from the violence you experienced or witnessed when you were growing up and we would like to offer you some alternative.’ It is when we reach out with two hands, one that serves as a kind of social control and the other that is supportive, that we are most likely to be successful.

Do you feel there is increasing interest in work with men on gender equality?

There is a generational shift happening. There is a generation of young men who grew up with women’s rights as daily reality, and a group of young women who expect nothing less than respect from men. I think that reality is driving our work in many parts of the world. There are more and more women who are women’s rights advocates who say: ‘Of course you (as men) should be here. You don’t have to come and do your introductory remarks on why men should be part of gender. We get that.’ But there is still – and in some cases it is quite healthy – a bit of mistrust: ‘We want to see that your credentials are truly in favour of gender equality and that you are not part of the men’s backlash group.’ These backlash groups are not that big in most parts of the world but they are very distasteful.

What needs to happen next?

We can show you men – and women – who say their lives have changed because of this work, but how to make that leap from stories of individual change into public policy? We need to recognize that this work is not yet part of the mainstream. There is no question that men are going to have to give up privileges if they really want gender equality. Perhaps the hardest part to give up is the work that women and girls so often do for them.

But we haven’t done a good enough job of finding the sugar to go along with the medicine: helping men to understand that there are positive things that come with gender equality – better sex, happier partners, happier children, happier lives for men themselves because their children and their partners are happier. There are win-wins in this and we need to make them better known.

The No-Nonsense Guide to Women's Rights

The forward, Table of Contents and Chapter 1 are available for The No-Nonsense Guide to Women's Rights on our website. 

women's rights nnThe No-Nonsense Guide to Women’s Rights

by Nikki van der Gaag

February was an eventful month. The demonstrations in the Arab world spread across the Middle East  and continue in Libya as I am writing. And on the other side of the world, with much less attention from the world’s press, UN Women was launched. 

Many of the women who were there for the launch in New York, hardened campaigners and young activists alike, found themselves in tears. Michele Bachelet, former President of Chile and head of UN Women said: ‘The decision to establish UN Women reflects global concern with the slow pace of change. It is no longer acceptable to live in a world where young girls are taken out of school and forced into early marriage, where women’s employment opportunities are limited, and where the threat of gender-based violence is a daily reality — at home, in the street, at school and at work.’ 

I documented that ‘slow pace of change’ in 2005 in The No-Nonsense Guide to Women’s Rights. And it was an Egyptian who wrote the foreword. Nawal el Saadawi has spent her life challenging injustice and oppression. As she put it: ‘Women and the poor, in almost all countries, in the South and in the North – but especially in the South – are subjected to a capitalist masculine system based on power and double standards in all domains of life, economic, political, sexual, religious and psychological; at the global, national, family and personal level…Power and money work together to exploit the majority of people, especially poor women and their children.’ 

I saw this exploitation at first hand during a visit to Egypt. Habiba was eight years old. She had charming smile and lots of curly dark hair. She lived with her mother and three older sisters in a poor area of Cairo. She suffers from cerebral palsy and can’t walk, stand, talk or eat by herself. Her father had already beaten her mother for only giving birth to girls. He tried several times to murder his daughter, locking her in a car in the boiling sun for 10 hours and beating her so badly he broke her pelvis. But Habiba survived. Her mother is now divorced and she and Habiba go to a programme at their local community centre where she enjoys the company of other children. 

Or Iman, aged 11, who is one of Egypt’s 1.5 million street children. Her parents send her to beg on the streets. She is not allowed to come home until she has a certain amount of money. Girls on the street face stigma from the public and from the authorities because any girl on her own, however young, is regarded as a prostitute. Ghada, Iman’s sister, said: ‘The police pick us up because they don’t want us on the street but we go back there anyway in the end. When they take you some are good and some are bad and hit us and insult us.’ 

I know from my work on women’s rights that abuse, discrimination and violence is still the reality of life for many thousands of girls and young women around the world. This is the injustice that Nawal continues to campaign against. It is rarely reported. I would like to believe that UN Women can provide a new focus for change, despite its small budget. I want to believe that this is the start of another revolution, one that might help to improve the lives of girls like Habiba, Iman and Ghada; to ensure that their lives are better than the women of previous generations. 

Nawal herself epitomises that hope for change. Although she is now 80, she was standing alongside the young women and men in Tahrir Square. She said that they  told her to leave because it was dangerous, but she refused to go. ‘I may be 80 years old but I am not going to leave. I have demonstrated against King Farouq in the 1950s when I was a child and against Nasser and Sadat and Mubarak. But I have never seen anything like this and we should stick together. I am going to stay. We are not going to submit.’

But even in the new Egypt, the signs are not promising for women. There are no women on the Constitutional Drafting Committee. The new political parties are made up mostly of men. There is no woman in the cabinet and no proposals for a Minister for Women. A recent Egyptian newspaper had a front page headline: ‘We prefer no woman to be Prime Minister or President’ with a diatribe against campaigns for women’s rights. And one man in a coalition party was heard to say that this was ‘no time to be talking about gender issues’. There could be more of that once the real business was done.

Women’s rights are central to democratic change. Nawal has heard all the anti arguments before. And she has shown that she has staying power. Both she and her husband Sherif Hetata have been imprisoned and exiled. At one point there was a move to deprive her of her nationality and at another to force the couple to divorce. But Nawal would not back down. And she is cheering on this latest and most exciting revolution in her home country. Let us hope that UN Women and others campaigning for women’s rights have the same tenacity. They will need it.


Because I am a girl... How young women’s rights are being ignored

Brenda was born in March 2007 in a village in El Salvador.

She was born at home, with no midwife, and has been ill since birth with diarrhoea and a chronic chest infection.

Brenda is one of a cohort of girls chosen as part of a study for a global report, _Because I am a Girl: the State of the World’s Girls 2007_, published by Plan International.^1^ Her mother, Adina, is only 14 herself. She comes from a very poor family, and has had only a few years of primary education. She already has one child, Caterin, who is three years old and was born when Adina was 11.

Brenda’s case is not unusual. She is having a tough time because she was born to a mother who was still a child herself. She comes from a poor rural family who live in a country with few resources. But her chances in life are limited still more, simply because she is a girl.

That such discrimination still exists against girls and young women is surprising because for at least 20 years national and international legislation has banned gender discrimination and women have campaigned for equal rights with men for themselves and for their daughters and granddaughters.

Things have improved as a result. In some countries, girls are doing better than boys at school and see themselves as equal to their brothers. Many young women today believe they are capable of doing anything a boy can do – and better. The reality as they grow up, however, is likely to be rather different. Even in the North, though many things have changed, women are still not equal to men; they are paid less and they hold fewer positions of power.

Second-class citizens

In the majority of the world, women are still seen as second-class citizens, and young women and girls particularly so; the property of their fathers until they are married and of their husbands after they have tied the knot. The more patriarchal a society, the more sons are preferred. One report notes that:

‘While a number of national and international legal norms protect the rights of the girl child in theory, in practice cultural and social beliefs about gender and the value of girls and boys have been much more difficult to overcome… By age five, most girls and boys have already internalized the gender role expectations communicated to them by their families, schools, the media and society as a whole, and these norms will influence their behaviour and their development for the rest of their lives.’

Perhaps this is not surprising. These attitudes go back a long way – one verse from the _Chinese Book of Songs_, written 3,000 years ago, says:

_‘When a son is born,
Let him sleep on the bed,
Clothe him with fine clothes,
And give him jade to play...
When a daughter is born,
Let her sleep on the ground,
Wrap her in common wrappings,
And give broken tiles to play...’_

In many countries today, the birth of a boy is still something to be celebrated and the birth of a girl a cause for commiseration. This can have serious consequences for their human rights, sometimes, paradoxically, assisted by advances in technology. Although it is often technically illegal, families that prefer to have male children are able to abort their female foetuses now that technology can tell them the sex of their unborn child. In Asia, at least 60 million women are missing due to sex-selective abortion and the practice of killing or abandoning girl babies.

Once they are born, girl babies are likely to be fed less than their brothers when food is short, leading to a permanent cycle of anaemia and under-nourishment. They are also less likely to go to school. As a result, 62 per cent of illiterates between the ages of 15 and 24 are young women. And this despite the fact that research has shown that an educated woman not only has a better chance of earning an income, but is more likely to keep her children healthy and send them to school.

As they grow up, many young women find they cannot choose when they have sex, or who they have it with, or under what conditions. More than 70,000 teenage girls, some as young as 10, are married every day, and 14 million girls under 18 are already mothers. As a result of giving birth before their bodies have finished growing, pregnancy and the complications of childbirth are the leading cause of death for young women aged between 15 and 19. In sub-Saharan Africa, two-thirds of 15-19 year olds newly infected with HIV are female.

Because they are physically the weakest of what is considered the ‘weaker sex’, younger women are also in danger of assault and rape. Nearly 50 per cent of all sexual assaults worldwide are against girls under 15. And the rise of religious fundamentalism over the last few years, underpinned sometimes by extreme conservatism when it comes to women’s rights, has led not only to the undermining of women’s rights, but to increasing numbers of young women murdered by their relatives for supposedly infringing a family code of ‘honour’. Young women like Banaz Mahmood, aged 20, who was killed in London in January 2006 by her father, uncle and a family associate because they disapproved of her boyfriend. Her body was found three months later in a suitcase buried in a pit in Birmingham.

Girls’ voices

Girls and young women speak out…

*‘Girl power is about being yourself, sticking up for your rights, and not being afraid of the challenges the world throws at you.’*
Girl, 17, Canada

*‘I don’t want to get married and have children, at least not anytime soon… I want to work and study. I don’t want to be like another girl I know who is 13 years old and already pregnant.’*
Girl, 13, Venezuela

*‘I never ever understand why boys and girls are not equal to each other. In rural areas elders think that girls are born to give birth and to marry and for cleaning the house. Girls who live in rural areas… are not sent to schools. Their parents are not aware of the changing world yet.’*
Girl, 15, Turkey

*‘The young boy is privileged to have good education, while the girls go to fetch water from streams. One often sees them with big basins of water on their heads to fetch water while the boys play football forgetting that they need water to take a bath. “After all,” they say, “why worry when God has blessed us with one or more sisters to relieve us of this task”.’*
Girl, 16, Cameroon

*‘My parents used to think that I was their property. They used to abuse me, using words which I cannot repeat without making me cry.’*
Girl, 13, Bangladesh

Changes in the law

Over the last 30 years, legislation to protect and prevent discrimination against women and children has been introduced at international and national levels. But few laws refer to girls and young women specifically.

Many things have improved as a result of this legislation. Change takes a long time. It is hard to legislate against attitudes or alter the way that girls and young women are viewed at home and in society as a whole.

Missing statistics

While there has been much debate on gender and equality over the last decades, it has obscured two things: first, that although facts and statistics are increasingly collected about women and children, there is very little information out there about girls and young women specifically. As a result, they have been largely ignored as a group, despite the fact that they must constitute at least 25 per cent of the world’s population (another statistic that we do not know for certain because figures are not collected).

What we do have are pockets of information from those working in health or education, for example. And it is only when it is collected together that we begin to get a picture of the overall discrimination that girls and young women continue to face; discrimination that can blight or even end their lives.

Changing lives with Xchange

Marleni Cuellar, 20, has dedicated herself to building a new youth movement called Xchange which is launching in Belize and the rest of the Caribbean over the next few months. ‘What we’re trying to do is create a culture of non-violence in the Caribbean, because it is becoming acceptable to use violence as a way of dealing with difficulties,’ she says.

Marleni is especially concerned about gun violence and violence associated with street crime, which is on the rise in Belize. ‘Recently it’s been a lot of 15, 16 and 17 year olds getting killed with guns, which wakes up anybody to think, “Hey, this is getting out of hand”,’ she says.

She is also concerned about violence in the home, which she says is rife in Belize, especially sexual and physical abuse and corporal punishment. She points out that Belize was the fifth country to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits all types of violence against children. Marleni believes that the government should now fulfil this commitment.

She also believes that cultural attitudes must change, and that this only happens through mass movements. This is one reason why she is so excited about Xchange. ‘We have to be able to spread the message, spread the word and get other young people involved as much as possible. And through that we can start the creation of a new culture that doesn’t accept violence so easily.’

What can be done?

While legislation is important, discrimination against girls cannot be abolished by laws alone: a belief in the equal rights of women needs to start in the family and continue through school, work and marriage. This can be reinforced in a number of ways.

  • _Because I am a Girl: State of the World’s Girls 2007_ (Plan, 2007) can be downloaded from

Girl power?

Aminata Palmer makes her point at the launch of the girls’ report.

Jeoff Young

Aminata Palmer is an unusual 13-year-old. Born and brought up in Sierra Leone, she joined the Children’s Forum Network, a campaigning group run by children for children, thinking that it would give her an opportunity to use her acting skills in drama workshops. Instead, she found herself talking to street girls who had been raped. ‘We ask them how they feel and they tell us. Then we go back to our network and sit as a group and make plans on what should be done. We take them to the leaders and make sure that something is done.’

Aminata’s particular passion is for the rights of girls: ‘In Sierra Leone boys are seen to be more important than girls. If a woman gives birth to a boy, it is celebrated with great joy. On the other hand, if it is a girl, it is still celebrated but not as greatly. This is because girls are seen as a burden added to the family, which is why a girl who is still a child will be married off to a man older than her father.’

A new report by Plan International, _Because I am a Girl_, supports Aminata’s thesis on a global scale. Despite all the talk of girl power, millions of girls are getting a raw deal. An estimated 100 million women are ‘missing’ due to female foeticide and the growing practice of sex-selective abortion, according to the report. Baby girls are often fed less than their brothers. Meanwhile, 62 million girls are still denied primary schooling, despite commitments to girls’ education in the Millennium Development Goals. Millions of girls, like those Aminata refers to in Sierre Leone, are married at an early age, risking not only their education but their health and future prospects. Half a million women, more than 50 per cent of them under 19, are lost unnecessarily to pregnancy-related deaths each year.

Graça Machel, President of the Foundation for Community Development, says: ‘In today’s world, to discriminate on the basis of sex and gender is morally indefensible, and politically and socially unsupportable.’ Governments have signed international declarations like the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. But national laws to protect girls’ rights, even if they exist, are often not implemented. ‘We must hold our decision-makers accountable,’ says Ms Machel.

Aminata would agree. She wants to reach the highest levels with her message that discrimination against girls has to stop. Two years ago she met Gordon Brown, now Britain’s Prime Minister, at the G8 summit in Scotland. ‘I asked him what he was doing for girls. When I meet him at this summer’s G8 summit, I am going to say: “Why haven’t you done anything since we last met?”’ Even Gordon Brown might find himself at a loss for words, faced with such a feisty opponent. And girls certainly need a few more advocates like Aminata.

Pedalling to Hawaii

‘I believe it is important in our era of cars, trains and aeroplanes, that we are reminded of what human beings can achieve with their own strength and resources,’ says the Dalai Lama in his introduction to *Pedalling to Hawaii*.

Stevie Smith was working for the OECD in Paris when he decided, with his friend Jason Lewis, to embark on a journey around the world using pedal and leg power alone. They were hardly endurance freaks. Stevie had once cycled 50 miles – Jason’s record was more modest. Yet their aim was to cover more than 80,000 miles by bike, pedal boat and on foot. Stevie thought it would take ten years. He decided to stop after six. Jason is still pedalling twelve years later.

It often seemed they would come to grief as they slowly crossed the Atlantic in their custom-made pedal boat _Moksha_ (Sanskrit for freedom). The journey took several months, with the pair doing alternating four-hour shifts, one pedalling, one sleeping.

Stevie, today a ferryman in Devon, England, concludes: ‘You can’t depend on the accomplishment of goals or journeys... for your happiness. You just have to enjoy them all, and from beginning to end. Because happiness is the acceptance of the journey as it is now, not the promise of the other shore.’

Caste out

Davinder Prasad is very proud of his daughters. His oldest, Rena, works in the media; the second is doing a degree in fashion and the youngest, Indira, named after India’s former Prime Minister, is still at school. Davinder works as a laboratory manager in an American aerospace company and his wife Vimla is a teacher in a primary school.

They live in a detached bungalow with beautiful wooden floors. Goldfish swim in a tank in the living room and on the walls hang wooden artefacts from India and a large framed photograph of the family in front of the Taj Mahal.

They do not, however, live in India, but in Britain. And Davinder has another, more unusual, preoccupation. He is one of the founders of CasteWatch UK, an organization set up in 2003 to combat caste discrimination in Britain.

It was something he had not expected to encounter when he arrived in the country as a young man 26 years ago. When the Indian Diaspora first started settling in the West from the 1950s onwards, caste was not much of an issue. In any case, many immigrants were from the lower castes, perhaps because, technically, the ancient Laws of Manu, which many devout Hindus attempt to follow, prohibit the higher castes from living outside the land of their birth. But as Diaspora communities grew, so did caste distinctions. Sat Pal Muman reminisces at a Dalit conference: ‘I remember 30 years ago, when the numbers were small, there was a sense of kinship amongst fellow compatriots. People were simply viewed as Indians or Pakistani first and language or culture was only of secondary importance. As their numbers increased they began to establish their own news-papers – some in English, others in their local vernacular. They have established temples, businesses, and now they run their own radio and television stations.’1

When the Indian Diaspora first started settling in the West from the 1950s onwards, caste was not much of an issue

While 95 per cent of Hindus live in India and 98 per cent in South Asia, there are 4.5 million living in other parts of the world, including a million in the US. Dr Ambedkar, a Dalit leader and contemporary of Mahatma Gandhi, noted that ‘wherever a Hindu goes, he [sic] will take his caste system with him.’

Davinder feels there is ample evidence for this. He shows me a British school textbook on Hinduism, which describes caste without challenging it in any way. ‘If I were writing that book I would point out that caste was not a part of Hindu society to begin with. I would say that it was a form of racial discrimination and that it was not acceptable.’ He also says that he was surprised to find caste discrimination among Sikhs who traditionally reject such distinctions.

He has a file bursting with details of incidents, radio programmes, newspaper cuttings and even a glossy leaflet from a Hindu temple in London, all evidence of caste prejudice or discrimination. There are as yet no statistics on this in the West. Stories remain anecdotal, like that of the man, recently arrived in Britain from India, who had a surname that belonged to a caste higher than his own. The people he was staying with offered him all the help they could give – found him a job, supported and encouraged him. A few months later, however, during conversation, it came out that he was actually of a lower caste than his name suggested and as soon as this was known he was given the cold shoulder. It was a complete rejection. All of a sudden, the support he had come to rely on was yanked away, he lost his job and ended up looking for another place to stay.2

Caste permeates the whole Diaspora community. Everywhere in the West, advertisements aiming to arrange marriages among the Hindu community will advertise caste as part of the package – age, height, caste, nationality, educational qualifications, profession, hobbies. Some will state ‘caste no bar’; others, including those from so-called ‘untouchable’ castes, will make statements such as ‘Prefers a Ravidassa girl, but will welcome other castes’; ‘Khatri Family seeks’; ‘Jat Sikh educated family seeks ...’

Marriage matters

In North America, large meetings are held with the purpose of getting young people from the same caste to get to know each other. In Atlanta, the Patidar Samaj meeting drew 4,000 people and resulted in 100 marriages. Many people return to South Asia to marry someone from their own caste. Parar Bagawar of the Suman Bureau, a matrimonial agency in Britain, says: ‘People are still mentioning the issue of caste and bringing it up when it comes to marriage and generally... people don’t want to marry into a lower caste. We also find that those who originate from a lower caste prefer to meet someone of the same background because they know that they may be victimized because they are of a lower caste.’ She says that only 25 per cent of marriages take place across caste barriers.3

But Balbir Grewal of the Sikh Guru Granth Sahib temple in London says: ‘Everybody should be proud of whatever creed or caste they are and I think we should stick to it. It’s like roots. How can you plant a tropical plant into a cold country? If this carries on, the time will come when nobody will know which background, religion or caste they come from’.3

Many from the former ‘Untouchable’ castes disagree. Their concern is that as identity (both religious and ethnic) becomes increasingly important, caste becomes more entrenched. Davinder Prasad says: ‘Children today are asked at school: “What is your caste?” If they don’t want to say, then they are asked: “Why not? Is there something wrong with your caste?”’ Vimla tells of an incident in school where one little boy was biting his shoe and she overheard another teacher say: ‘Stop it, you chamar [Dalit sub-caste]!’ She added: ‘I was shocked that this still continues.’

‘Children today are asked at school: “What is your caste?” If they don't want to say, then they are asked: “Why not?”’

Increasingly popular among the young, Punjabi bhangra music often celebrates the pride of jat or caste. (Jats are also a particular land-owning feudal caste). Bobby Friction from BBC Radio 1’s Asian underground music programme notes: ‘There are many songs about jat pride, about the life of a jat... jat nationalism is running rampant in bhangra music now to the point where every bhangra album that comes out in Britain has at least one track that alludes to the power of the jats.’3

Religious fundamentalism

In the US, there are now many caste-based groups, such as the Brahmin Society of America, the Rajput Association of America, Patidar Samaj. Substantial amounts of funding are provided by them to caste, political and religious groups in South Asia. Many fear that their support for right-wing Hindu groups such as the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) is leading to an increase in religious fundamentalism and reinforcing caste in India. Angana Chatterji, Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, notes that such groups ‘are utilizing religion to foment communal violence toward organizing ultra right, non-secular and undemocratic nationalism in India.’ In addition, ‘justification of caste inequities, subordination of Dalits, women, adivasis (indigenous peoples) and other minorities, and the consolidation of a cohesive middle-class base are critical to its momentum.’4

But, as in Britain, there are movements to combat caste in both the US and Canada. The Chetna Association of Canada documents incidents of caste discrimination. In the US, the International Bahujan Organization (IBO) in New York has over 5,000 members.5 There is a Dalit International Newsletter published in Connecticut, US, and one in Britain published by the Dalit Solidarity Network. The first World Dalit Convention was held in Kuala Lumpur in October 1998. It was chaired by Senator MG Pandithan of Malaysia, and brought together Indian Dalit leaders as well as many from the Diaspora. Following on from the 2001 World Conference on Racism in South Africa, where Dalits ensured that caste was given high priority, the European Union and the United Nations have put caste issues – or ‘discrimination based on work and descent’ on their agendas. Dalits in the Diaspora have also lobbied to ensure that international aid agencies employ Dalit staff in the countries where they work.

They also want to ensure that discrimination on the grounds of caste is against the law in Western countries. Davinder Prasad notes that in Britain, where there are laws against discrimination on grounds of race or sex, it is not unlawful to call someone an ‘Untouchable’. He proposes that the Race Relations Act 1976 should be amended and brought up to date to include casteism. ‘One of the main objectives of CasteWatch UK is for there to be laws against caste discrimination. If we could get it outlawed in the UK it would send a signal around the world that this is not acceptable.’

He continues: ‘In this country we are British – and a Briton cannot be an Untouchable. I want my children to think of themselves as British. I want them to have the values of this society, this country. I want them never to have to fear discrimination because of their caste. And I want them to be aware of human rights, equality and justice.’

Telling tales

These are just a few specific examples of caste-related incidents in the West:

Arun K Sinha, a member of the kurmi caste, is the owner of a food store in Manhattan, New York. He complains that wholesalers from a ‘higher’ caste insist that he pays cash rather than extending to him the credit they give to merchants from their own caste.

E Valentine Daniel, a Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, says some Indian executives will not hire ‘Untouchables’, no matter how good their qualifications. ‘It’s even more than a glass ceiling, it’s a tin roof,’ he says.

A shopkeeper in Wolverhampton, England, tells of an incident where a customer insisted that their change be placed on the counter to avoid contact with someone from a lower caste.

On a factory floor, in Wolverhampton, England, women from so-called upper castes will not take water from the same tap as a lower caste person.

  1. International Dalit Human Rights Conference, London Sept 2000.
  2. Pashori Lal, Chairman of CasteWatch UK.
  3. ‘The Caste Divide’ Naresh Puri, BBC Radio 4 April 2003.
  5. New York Times, 24 October 2004.


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