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 “We do not have time for education. Our whole day is consumed in household chores and mostly fetching water…” [i]  

Have you ever thought about how water effects your rights?  In my daily life in the northern hemisphere I turn on a tap and I have access to water.  It is simply there and I do not have to think about it.  This has been the case all through my life from the age of being a girl to an adult woman.   When I think about water I do not think that it might put me at greater risk of gender based violence.  When I was a young girl I did not associate lack of access to water with a potential end to my education, nor did I think that if I was born a girl in a different region of the world it might mean that I would be forced into early marriage.

However, this is not the case for all women and girls across the world.  Safe access to clean water is not part of everyday life.  Girls are exposed to many rights violations on account of being young and female and this is particularly true when safe access to water is not available close to their homes.   Let’s take a closer look at how water impacts the daily life of Rose[ii], a 11 year old girl from Niger in Western Africa…

Young girls from Niger

My name is Rose and I would like to share with you my story about water. 

At 5am I need to get up and leave the house to collect the water for the day.  This is one of my many daily chores as a girl.  Sometimes I feel bad because I am tired from fetching the water, it is heavy and the well near to our hose is often dry so I have to walk to the next village.  There is nearly always a long line to collect the water, sometimes this is nice as some of my friends from the next village are there and we get the chance to chat.  But sometimes men look at us in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable and unsafe.  When this happens I am scared I have heard of other girls who have been caught by these men on the way home. 

When I get home I need to wake my brother so he knows he can wash before school.  We have breakfast and then we set out on the walk to school.  I like to walk with my brother as I feel safe when he is with me.  After school my brother stays out in the village with his friends to play.  I return to the house to get the pails to fill up with water.  When I get home I help my mother to boil the rice and after we eat I use the rest of the water to wash the plates. By the time I sit down to look at my homework I am tired.  My brother has finished his and is listening to the radio.  I am so tired that I only do some of the work as I find it hard to concentrate.  I know I am falling behind in my school and I feel bad about that.    My brother helps me with my homework when he can.  He also wants me to finish my education; he does not want me to be married off at 13 like some of the other girls in the village.  He is very worried about this as they say the drought is coming and when this happened two years ago our uncle did not have enough money to feed everyone in the family so he sent our cousin Faith to be married to a man in another village.  She was 14.  Faith was very sad as she had to leave her family and leave school but her uncle said they had no choice as the drought meant they had not enough food and water for the family.  It was a long time before she came back to our village to visit and when she did she had a little daughter called Hope.  

I want to finish school like my brother and would like to have a job one day where I can earn some money and make good choices for my future.  I wish we had more wells in our village then I could have more time to work on my homework.  When I have to walk long distances to the next villages to get water I wish they had some lights on the roads so I could feel safer in the early morning and late evening.  I wish that people looked out for us girls around the wells and on the long walks so that bad things would not happen to us like they have to other girls from our villages.  I wish that the long drought will not come and last a long time.  I wish not to have the same story as my cousin Faith and have to be married to a man in another village and have a baby when I am still only a young girl.  I wish that we always could have safe access to clean water in our village so I could finish my education. More than anything I want an education; it is my path to my future.

Author:  Jean Casey is the project coordinator of “The State of the Worlds Girls” report at Plan International.

[i] Abdul Shakoor Sindhu “Climate Cha(lle)nge Children: a new perspective on climate change in Pakistan”, Plan Pakistan and RDI. (2012).  Quote is from a young girl interviewed in this study.

[ii] Rose is a fictitious character; her story with water is based on the writer’s experience and analysis of interviewing young girls in Niger in November 2012 for the 2013 State of the Worlds girls forthcoming report  on Adolescent girls and Emergencies by Plan International.

October 11th 2012 – the first international day of the girl – all over the world Plan International who had campaigned for the day, launched their Because I am a Girl campaign for girls’ rights. Public buildings were bathed in pink, celebrities pledged support and Plan also launched the 6th State of the World’s Girls report, Learning for Life. It focuses on the importance of a quality education for girls, not just enrolment at primary school, but 9 years in school able to learn something useful.  And give them the skills the knowledge and the confidence that will enable young women to be active citizens, with decent jobs, forming equal relationships with partners and family.

Meanwhile one of my colleagues, Nikki van der Gaag, who will be writing the 7th Girls’ Report, came back from Pakistan, a long way from the pink London Eye or Empire State building,  with a story that illustrates why campaigning for girls’ rights is so important. And why adolescence, a time when for many of us life opened up, is so crucially important –  12 year old girls in many parts of the world find themselves enclosed in a domestic world going from child to “woman” virtually overnight.

Sharon Goulds.  Girls Report Project Lead.  October 2012.

The invisible girls

As we drive along the road early in the morning, small groups of girls in blue and white uniforms hold hands as they walk to school. But they are almost the only females we see, apart from the occasional woman in the fields whose brightly coloured back is bent over picking rice or cutting grass that she carries in an enormous bundle on her back.

Otherwise it is only men and boys who are in the streets. Gathered in small groups, drinking tea, stretched out on charpai (traditional string beds), breaking bricks, or weaving motorbikes dangerously in and out of the traffic in the towns.  The holders of the carts selling orange mangoes, shiny apples and tempting watermelons yell at them, as do the drivers of the brightly coloured painted trucks. The only other woman I see is on the back of one of the motorbikes, completely covered in a white burqa with a little bobble on the top that is the custom in this area of the Punjab.

We drive off the main road and bump through vivid green rice fields and over small culverts. I know by now there will be a protocol to my visits. When I arrive, the men and perhaps a few boys will meet me first. I will ask some questions, they will decide if they are happy for me to continue on to meet the women.

I will then go on to where a group of perhaps 50 or 60 women and a few girls are waiting for me. Their clothes are a rainbow of colours; they are dressed in their best.  The women’s leaders sit at the front and are the ones who speak. The very old are there too, and the very young, and almost everyone in between. Hordes of children run around, peek over walls, giggling, or sneak in for a hug with their mothers or grandmothers.

But time and again, the one group I really want to meet is absent. From the age of 12 until they are married, often by the time they are 15, sometimes at 18, the girls stay in their homes. ‘Too much work to do to meet you,’ say the older women. ‘They are busy in the house.’

So at first I try and talk to the 12 year olds. But in the five villages I visit in southern Sindh and central Punjab, there are no schools for girls – and precious few for boys as well. The girls struggle to speak in front of a big group.  Latifan, from Ghulam Husain Bohrio village in Sindh, hides behind her blue scarf and says she thinks she is about 12. She has two sisters and one brother. She is hugely embarrassed to be speaking even in front of other women and girls. No, she hasn’t been to school but she can read Qur’an. Her day consists of fetching water – there are only two handpumps for the whole village and often these are broken so she has to walk to the river about half a kilometre away – washing up, washing clothes, reading Qur’an, looking after her younger siblings and sewing and doing embroidery. She is not interested in playing games, she says, she has too much to do. Her father is often away fishing and her mother looks after their animals and sometimes has to take them away from the house so she is very busy.

I am finally allowed to talk to the girls between 14 and 20. We leave the meeting house, cross a ditch on a little bridge and enter a bare room with a bed that is someone’s house. We sit on a beautifully embroidered bedspread, quilted by one of the girls, and a group of around 10 young women squat on the floor in front of us. We are there on condition we don’t take any photos.  They tell me a little about their lives, which sound very similar to Latifan’s.

I ask them how their lives are different from their brothers’, and they giggle behind their scarves before telling me that some of their brothers go to school, some spend their time lounging about, but many learn to fish with their fathers from an early age. ‘We don’t feel different from them, says Zeinab, ‘We are both busy. And when they are out fishing their lives are hard while we are in the home and safe.’

How safe is another question. We have been given statistics about the numbers of women and men, boys and girls in the villages. Normally you would expect slightly more girls than boys, but in the first village we visit, there are 100 boys but only 77 girls. But no-one seems to be able to give us an explanation.  Perhaps this is because, unlike in other countries, in Pakistan, this is the norm. It is one of the few countries in the world where men and boys outnumber women and boys. And there seems to be agreement among academics and analysts that this is not because girls are aborted or killed at birth as they are in some other countries, but simply that the preference for sons means that girls are neglected and die before they reach puberty. In addition, rates of violence against women are extremely high. Statistics for Oxfam’s We Can Campaign against violence against women show that 80 per cent of women in Pakistan experience domestic violence, though no-one here will talk about it.

Few of the girls in Ghulam Husain Bohrio village have ever been to Jati, the nearest town a few kilometres away – except when they were forced to leave in 2010 by the floods.  Their lives are not very different from their mothers’ and grandmothers’, they say. They have no electricity or television, though they occasionally listen to the radio – for news, they say, looking at their elders from under their eyelashes, which makes us think it is probably to listen to music. Some of their fathers have mobile phones, but they have never used them. ‘We get married early, at 15 or 16, says Zeinab ‘and then we are too busy for much else.’

Nikki van der Gaag October  2012.

Reach for the Stars


This was recently posted on Woman Deliver. I’m re-posting it here! 

A narrow one-way lane leads to a dirt track about 5 hours south of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. To one side of this dirt track sits a small one room shack where Srey Pha, her elder brother, younger brother and parents all live together. Srey Pha’s mother, Hean Ra, couldn’t attend school because she had to help her mother with the house chores and take care of her younger siblings. When she was 16, a local farmer who knew her parents asked for her hand in marriage. After a year of steady pressure by her parents, she relented and agreed to marry a man 10 years her senior. She now hopes her daughter will have a better future. “I advise my daughter to study hard, I tell her if you don’t study you will regret it, end up like me. I want her to be a teacher or a health worker”.

This is the story of one family, but it is also the experience of thousands of families across the globe in many poor countries. Parents who have little education, who cannot read or write, and are struggling to put food on the table – always hope their children will have a better life. The importance of education in determining life choices is clear to those who live in places where schooling is all that stands between them and a life of deprivation. And the importance of sending girls to school is clear to their mothers who understand that schooling equates to decision making power. And it’s clear to us that the only way to ensure Srey Pha along with tens of millions of other girls who should be in primary school receive the education they deserve, requires a global campaign. This is why with 75 years of development programming under our belt, Plan International has launched a campaign to ensure all girls can access and enjoy their right to an education.

Parents make sacrifices so they can send all their children to school. But these struggles and choices are not free from value judgments. If parents can only afford to send one child to school, they will choose to send their son to school instead of sending their daughter, because they believe she will marry one day and the returns on her education will be transferred to her husband’s family. Proverbs such as ‘educating your daughter is like watering another man’s garden’ depict the general attitude in many regions about girls schooling. And yet we know the only way to ensure sustainable changes in health and livelihoods, is by educating girls who will one day be mothers and transfer all the gains of their education onto their children.

Changing attitudes is a slow process. But by changing legislation and policy where necessary, and mobilizing girls and boys, families and decision makers at all levels to support the call for girls empowerment – lasting change can and will be achieved. Through community engagement at the grass roots level, by fostering dialogue and encouraging discussion on issues that have till now been taboo, such as early and forced marriage, Plan is opening a space for change. Our work at the local level is joined by our international efforts and together we believe the ‘Because I am a Girl’ movement will transform the lives of millions. Not just the girls who directly benefit from our efforts and support, but their families, their communities and ultimately their entire country.

We are proud to be one of the top 10 advocacy and policy campaigns to be chosen by Women Deliver, and our faithful supporters, for the 101st International Women’s Day. Our success is the hope of millions of girls who are already benefitting from Plan’s programs in over 68 countries. We invite partners, campaigners and activists to join our movement and change girl’s lives. It’s up to us all to make sure Srey Pha and girls like her across the globe get the chance to fulfill their dreams and reach for the stars.

Keshet Bachan

I spent a full day yesterday focusing on the intersection of feminism, activism, and Information Communication Technologies (ICTs). And I kept running into the same women (the feminist Twitterati?). And these women were mostly already known to me from my own work on the issue (alongside Miz Raftree). This worries me a little bit. Could it be that there are so few feminist / female Techies in the world that we all know each other?! This is an important space. As Valentina says ‘Internet is a strategic feminist issue’. Especially if u subscribe to the opinion that the web is just a new space for old kinds of bad behavior; then this is absolutely a space that requires our intervention. And this should be broadened out even more – technology is a feminist issue. We need to be wary of falling into complacency in thinking ICTs are empowering without recognizing how they have been co-opted. In other words, we need to differentiate between the practical uses of ICTs which are democratizing and the political uses of ICTs which are mapped onto existing unequal social relations.

At the CITIGen session Srilatha Batliwala posed a hypothesis – that ICTs have given rise to a new social paradigm – The Network Society. And this is a paradigm that requires a feminist intervention seeking social justice as it is reproducing power imbalances, and we are taking part in this reproduction. Anita Gurumurthy posed that women have been innovating within the Network Society, and these are sites of subversion, but not of struggle. Feminist activism has concerned itself with appropriating and co-opting of ICTs, but we have not treated ICTs as a determinant of the political economy. So we are trapped in the user discourse, while this discourse is being shaped by the ‘powers that be’. We are meeting, as ‘activists’, in a space that is a vector of capitalism. And this is actually de-politicizing civil society. We now see the rise of new actors such as the Gates Foundation who are hugely active in the areas of technological health innovations and human rights, and yet they are representing capitalist profit driven interests.

Which brings us to our next point: Facebook and Youtube for instance are tools that provide spaces for activism, but they are not liberation technologies. In fact, we repeatedly give up our privacy in order to use these platforms. According to Jac Kee from APC data mining is sold in online auctions – this is how our information supports the profit margins of large corporations. ‘Every time you search on Google for something, this information is gathered and sold’. According to the experts in the room ‘Google are Information fascists’. And this is a core feminist concern. There is content online that is challenging the ideas of normativity and gender normalization. And this is worrying the corporate powers that be. So they try to contain what can be said online and they are battling users. According to Melissa Ditmore, who managed the American part of the ERoTICS research project, SOPA and PIPA were proposed by corporate lobbyists to prevent users from sharing and copying content and to shore up corporate profit (and by politicians who don’t use the internet, otherwise they would know that sharing & copying content is pretty much the ONLY thing people do online).

Regulating the internet = regulating sexuality. According to Melissa Ditmore the internet has become a nexus of moral panic. For instance, the US government requires school and library computers to restrict youth access to “harmful” content. But there is no guidance on what is harmful, so this usually means sexual content. Things that have been limited in different places include the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders website, sites about breast cancer and websites providing information about Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Reproductive Health. And it’s not just governments who are deciding for us what is ‘sexual’. For instance, Facbook doesn’t allow pictures of women breastfeeding (which you can report under ‘nudity and porn’). According to Nadine Moawad Facebook is moving towards open data platforms. But this means more surveillance and less privacy which is critical (and even dangerous) in the context of what can be seen as ‘sexual deviance’ (i.e. LGBTQI). Moreover, in the USA, under 18’s can be prosecuted and put on the sex offenders list for taking a sexual photo on their mobile phone or sexting. But this is private content (!) and it is being used with the complicity of Tech companies to police adolescents.

After a full day of discussions it seems to me that the ‘Techie’ space and surrounding debates, both from a feminist and a civil rights perspective, is sorely lacking in visibility within the broader women’s movement. So many feminists believe the only way to protest is to take to the streets. But it is no less important to protect a website that is providing information about safe abortions which is being attacked by governments and users. And it’s no less important to critically evaluate the ways in which surveillance and lack of privacy is compromising women’s rights and freedom. I hope there will be more opportunities in the future for feminists to discuss and mobilize around these issues – and I hope to be there to tweet about it!!

Keshet Bachan

I arrived (very) early on Thursday morning to attend the 4 day Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) forum 2012 in Istanbul. I was immensely excited. This conference is probably the biggest meeting of feminists I have ever attended (aside from the Commission on the Status of Women) – and the most radical. There are over 2,000 activists here from all over the world that have made the pilgrimage to the Forum in the hopes of learning, networking and sharing, building coalitions, increasing solidarity and consolidating action.

I had expected to meet women from all over the world, but even I was surprised to (literally) run into a delegate from Syria (they are enjoying celebrity status here, everyone wants a photo op with the Syrians). Maybe less surprising is an interesting conversation I had with an Iranian delegate who has had to resort to crowd-funding her project (working with children refugees) due to the sanctions. As an Israeli activist it is both unnerving and exciting to meet women activists from places I only hear about in scary news stories. I’m pretty sure they feel the same way about me.

In fact, it seems that the decision to hold the forum in Turkey was right on the money allowing for delegates in the MENA region to easily attend, and more importantly, to put the Arab spring discussions firmly on the agenda. From what we are hearing in the sessions and in the corridor conversations, this ‘Spring’ has not been entirely good for women and girls. In fact, Manal Hassan, a prominent Egyptian Techie, told harrowing stories about women activists who were detained by the military and subjected to virginity testing. When the story broke, the Egyptian military claimed this was done to prove they were not raped at the holding facility. As if it’s ok to rape non-virgins.

Other issues that are receiving a lot of (tweeting?) attention are the intersections of feminism, activism and ICTs. There are some obvious links between undermining hegemonic culture and patriarchy, and the unregulated, open-ended, user-driven nature of the Net. More unexpected however are the ways in which indigenous women are harnessing technology to document and archive their knowledge, and the use of flip cameras in the DRC to capture women’s struggles against violence. In addition, the internet, and social media sites, are being discussed both as sites of resistance and as sites of commodification. The argument being made is that the profit driven nature of giants like Google and Faebook is mediating, disrupting and appropriating user-driven knowledge, attempting to subjugate this knowledge under ownership and privacy laws. This regulation is reproducing patriarchal and discriminatory practices online, stifling the democratic and subversive nature of the web. In addition, the content being generated by ‘users’ is reflecting existing power dynamics – according to a Wikipedia rep, 80% of their articles are edited by men. So the questions we are asking are – where is our feminist knowledge? and how do we share it online without losing its political sting?

As with all feminist struggles, there is a tension between those who believe the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, and those who believe we need to seize these tools to undermine the foundations of the house. This is being played out online where feminists and female bloggers are fighting for voice, recognition and a chance to be at the table. As one panelist said, if you’re not at the table – you’re on the menu. While other feminists say – It doesn’t matter how big your share of the pie is if it’s a poisoned pie. I’m firmly on the side of those who want to be at the table and so I’m sending forth this user-driven blog to disrupt the patriarchal nature of the web. Or something.


Keshet Bachan

 Stay tuned for more from the 2012 #AWIDforum. Follow me on @keshetbachan

International Women’s Day comes around every year to remind us that women still face many oppressive and discriminatory acts simply because they are female. And so, once a year, we all get together online and in the streets and in special high level meetings and we talk about violence against women, and maternal mortality and lack of political representation. But there seems to me to be something missing.

A quick scan of articles, blogs and events reveals an uncomfortable truth – International Women’s Day is a women’s issue. Even the new ‘politics of gender’ edition of the Guardian is misleading as it’s not offering views on gender it’s offering views on women. And that is not the same thing! The issues women face, even those that don’t get on the agenda, like working double and triple shifts at the office and then at home, are the business of our partners and fathers and brothers. Of the men who raise us, and love us and stand beside us during good times and bad.

International women’s day should be a platform for solidarity. Instead, it has become a platform of exclusion.

Yes, women and girls are oppressed and discriminated against in every sphere of life, both public and private due to their sex and their age. This is a critical issue to tackle, and I make my living talking about this intersection of discrimination and vulnerability. However, I get the distinct sense that instead of offering people a chance to come together, an opening of a space that encourages a multiplicity of voices and opinions, we hear the same women saying the same thing every year. It’s this ‘women’s issues’ focus that is excluding half of the population from taking a stand.

I know, it’s called International Women’s Day, not international gender day. However, I’m pretty sure that there are many men out there who are outraged by violence against women – so where are they? Where are the voices and participation of those who should stand with us? Have we excluded the people we need the most? 

Women and girl’s empowerment cannot be their responsibility alone. There’s little point in trying to eradicate harmful practices such as Female Genital Mutilation without the participation and support of men, both as future spouses who can insist their wife not be cut, as well as those in positions of power, especially in traditional communities where this practice is most prevalent. After all, girls are not cutting themselves.

So why is the conversation on International Women’s Day limited to women? And why are we having this conversation amongst ourselves?

I for one believe the discourse on Women’s Day would do well to shift away from a ‘women’s issues’ focus, to a social justice approach which would open up room for discussing oppression as a harmful force in the relations between men and women, and within our societies as a whole. Such a focus would provide men with a chance to stand together with the women they love and call for a fairer social order that doesn’t raise men to believe they gain from women’s oppression. Social justice means men would get a chance to benefit from better working hours, no longer expected to be the main breadwinner, and more time with their children, no longer excluded from being part of their upbringing and care. Such an approach would allow men to renounce violence as a foreign concept in the construction of healthy masculine behavior. Taking a holistic approach would allow us to see that much of the discrimination women face in society is intrinsically related to injustices that require working together with men – both as victims of injustice and as perpetrators of negative behavior.

International Women’s Day should be about what really matters – it should be about power. Who has it, who doesn’t and how do we redistribute it to make everyone’s life better?


Keshet Bachan

Wait... What?

In this guest post, Keshet Bachan, gender equality activist and blogger at The XX Factor, questions whether mobile phone applications addressing street violence are an effective way to prevent violence against women. What do you think? 

Can mobile ‘apps’ really prevent or discourage instances of violence against women? This question has been on my mind since a colleague shared this video from Voice of America about a mobile app called ‘Fight Back’, marketed as ‘India’s first mobile app for women’s safety’.

The video sparked an email discussion that raised some interesting questions that deserve a closer examination.

The VOA story provides a holistic view of violence against women and the developers of the mobile phone application admit that they are but one element in a broader system that needs to respond to instances of violence. They discuss the involvement of police and other duty bearers, such as…

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