I have spent more than 16 years travelling through various parts of the world. I have travelled through Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, North America and the many islands of the Caribbean, Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
I have spent time in slums in Senegal, in fishing villages in Cambodia and with former child soldiers in Uganda. I have met female fighters in Iraq, stayed in small villages in Afghanistan and in the homes of families in Kashmir.
I have travelled through the Brazilian Amazon by boat, met with ex slaves in Mauritania and Syrian refugees in Lebanon. I have spent time in the United States, in homes in Kazakhstan and with Sahrawi refugees in the Algerian desert and so much more.
I have noted that through these travels, that while there are many differences amongst us, there are some things that we share in common.
One of them being the way in which we normalize violence and discrimination against women and girls.
There has been literally no part of the world that I have been to, where violence and discrimination against women and girls is not accepted, in one way or another, as a normal part of daily life. In different intensities and in different ways but nevertheless, it is everywhere.
It could be rape or blaming women for being raped. It could be relentless sexual harassment and then blaming women for that too. It could be men hitting their wives or just blatant declarations that women have less value than men.
It could be honor killings, forced marriages, female genital mutilation, unequal pay, not allowing girls to school or to enter into political office.
Even in the face of the most horrific forms of violence and discrimination, people so often don’t even shrug a shoulder, or raise an eyebrow.
They just say its normal. They say that it’s their culture.
In the Middle East my travels have taken me through the various countries of the Gulf, the Arabian peninsula and to the far reaching corners of Kurdistan in Iraq and Turkey. I have come across attitudes and institutionalized laws that deliberately discriminate against women and girls and in many cases, support violence against women and girls.
Throughout the region, social norms and ‘cultural’ values dictate that women should not have the same rights to participate in social life as men. In Yemen, for example I barely saw a woman on the street, nor did I in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Honor killings are prevalent in this part of the world. An honour killing stems from a deeply misogynistic male need to control women’s sexuality. In this part of the world, women and girls are not allowed to have sexual relations outside of marriage and are expected to be virgins until they are married.
Any deviation from this, or even a suspected deviation, is believed to destroy the family honor and the only way to redeem this honor, is to kill her.
In Africa, attitudes that discriminate against women are also rampant. In Morocco, I found it almost too difficult to be outside, the lecherous staring and incessant rude comments from the men, was just so bad. Something that Moroccan women deal with on a daily basis. One Moroccan woman even said that she had bought a car, just so she didn’t have to deal with the daily harassment on the street.
In Mauritania, women can face jail time for sex outside of marriage, even if they were raped and even if they were raped when they were a slave. What is known as decent based slavery was legal in Mauritania up until 2007.
In Mozambique, sexual harassment from school teachers is common in the country’s poverty stricken schools. In a phenomenon known as ‘sex for grades,’ young girls are expected to exchange sexual favors with their teachers in return for grades. In South Africa, women complained about the relentless daily sexual harassment. In Senegal, a school teacher said that in Senegal, ‘sexual harassment is everywhere.’
In Latin America it’s not much better. ‘Women are just sexual objects,’ one Colombian man told me. A fact that was obvious from the incessant lecherous stares and rude comments that I faced on daily basis on the street in Colombia and in fact, virtually anywhere I went in Central and South America.
I remember one young Colombian girl telling me that, ‘there would be more punishment for stealing a chicken than raping a young girl in Colombia.’
Asia can also be an incredibly difficult place for women. I have yet to meet a woman from India or a woman who has visited India, that has not faced some form of violence, harassment or discrimination.
In the Maldives, women told me that due to the increasing presence of Islamic extremists in the country, they were loosing their rights to do things such as leaving the home without permission from a male member of the family. In the Philippines, I met young girls who had been tricked and sold into sexual slavery.
In the Western world, sexual harassment, domestic violence and unequal pay are still all problems women face on a daily basis. As they are in the islands of the Pacific, Indian Ocean and Caribbean and in fact virtually everywhere around the world.
These are just a few examples, but they are endless.
They are in part endless because they are so accepted. Because these attitudes and behaviors are dismissed as ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’. Because people just shrug their shoulders and say, ‘well that’s normal’.
Violence and discrimination should never be normal, ever. It should never be considered normal to hit a woman. It should never be considered normal for a young girl to be sold into prostitution. It should never be normal for teachers to sexually harass their students at school or to sexually harass women and girls anywhere for that matter.
What should be normal is respect. Respect for the dignity and well being of everybody. What should be normal is that men who abuse, disrespect, degrade and humiliate women, are punished.
A global effort is needed to bring an end to these very serious forms of violence and discrimination against women and girls.
Everybody needs to be involved with and most importantly, we need to stop saying that violence and discrimination against women and girls, is normal.