By Anya Katz and Joanne Sandler
There is growing debate about whether or not we are at a tipping point for gender equality, a time when the gender discrimination and gender binaries that have divided and distorted us are poised to wither away. When we see millions of people on the street protesting the rape of a young Indian woman, young men and women in Egypt joining together to protect women from public sexual harassment, marriage equality becoming law or proposed as law in more and more countries and localities, projects like Everyday Sexism going viral…we dare to consider that a new era is – well, maybe not around the corner, but possibly – at an incipient stage.
We had this sense that there is far more happening than we hear about to confront gender discrimination in the every-day lives of people and we wanted to know about it: which is one reason we proposed the End Gender Discrimination Now! Contest and joined forces with AWID, BRIDGE and FLACSO, in August 2013, to issue a worldwide call for entries. We wanted to know, in particular, what strategies seemed to have proven traction, what innovative ideas people had and were interested in testing out, and also what was not working. We wanted to know if, in addition to the many examples that we know through our work or through the media – that is, those that float to the top – there were other initiatives that would emerge.
Earlier this year, we announced winners in three categories and another six submissions that deserved honorable mention because they were so inspiring. In the coming days, you can read more about each of the individuals and organizations that were selected on our websites.
The 200+ submissions we received paint an interesting picture. Caveats aside – this was our first contest of this type, we were asking for complex processes to be described in 750 words or less, etc. – we were surprised both by what was submitted…and also what was not.
First some basic demographic data: We got very few submissions from North America and Europe (15% of the total), no submissions from the Pacific Islands and only 1 from the Caribbean, and relatively few submissions on gender and organizational change (an explicit focus of what we asked for). More than 30% of the entries were submitted by men. The region with the largest number of entries was Africa. With submissions from more than 60 countries, the two countries with the largest number of entries were Argentina and India.
What was particularly interesting about the entries was that they did not come, primarily, from the larger, well-known national and international NGOs or donor agencies that are most often associated with work on gender equality and women’s rights. The majority of submissions were far more local, including a surprising number from women and men who submitted their gut-based reflections on how they ‘witnessed’ gender discrimination and became sensitized to it. These submissions broke the mold of proposing project-oriented solutions; they simply described what they saw and ended with random ideas for change. They also showed, dramatically and straightforwardly, how gender intersects with other categories of discrimination. They included, for instance, a submission describing the Tanzanian practice of Nyumba Ntobhu – which roughly translates into “women marrying women”. The entry described Nyumba Ntobhu as a custom that enabled wealthy women who can’t have children to pay a ‘bridal’ price to a young woman’s poor family so that the young woman can bear children for the wealthier woman with any man designated to have the ‘right’ qualities. We received a heartfelt submission about the journey to gain self-respect and end societal bias by a trans-sexual activist in Kenya. Or a submission from El Salvador, where a community development worker described her wake-up call, “One day in 1991 I was sitting on a log with a friend, mother of 14 children, and she asked me, ‘what is an orgasm?’ She gave birth to 14 children and had never experienced the wonders of her own body…her story was the women’s story in these rural communities.”
Another quick impression of the totality of entries was the prominence of the strategy of ‘women inspiring women’. If a woman in a Muslim-majority country where travel for women was restricted saw women post photographs of themselves travelling alone, the premise was that other women would be motivated to do the same. If women see other female engineers succeeding, they will be more driven to pursue technical careers. Women diplomats, women in the airport security systems and in many other fields submitted examples of the ways in which challenging gender stereotypes in visible and courageous ways is crucial to confronting gender discrimination.
Other strategies – the extraordinarily creative use of traditional and social media (from radio to internet chat groups to databases), the continuing importance of self-awareness and consciousness-raising, the importance of actions by local governments, and the dedicated and courageous organizing of community-based groups – appeared in many of the entries. There were many submissions that described tried and true approaches and a smaller number that demonstrated out-of-the-box thinking.
The social justice activist and folk-singer, Pete Seeger, who recently died, once said, “I think the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when they get big.” And so it is for these contest entries. These hundreds of small things, multiplied by many more hundreds and thousands, offer great promise to create a tipping point: a time when gender discrimination is a memory, one that is an important history lesson, but that we no longer live on a daily basis.
About the authors: Anya is a first-year student at Oberlin College who focused her winter-break project on analyzing the entries to the End Gender Discrimination Now! contest; Joanne is a senior associate for Gender at Work and the co-author of the feminist mystery, Murder by Choice: A Sister Sleuth Adventure.