Evolving the conversation. Bec Ordish
The streets of Nepal are awash with waves of red saris, glittering red bangles and a soundtrack of songs on women’s hardships, rights and dreams. It’s early September and yes, it’s Teej, the festival of women. It’s hard not to get caught up in the atmosphere and the dancing as the women take the rare opportunity of time off to celebrate their womanhood. But underneath, I wonder whether Teej does in fact empower the women of Nepal or is it simply another way for men to control their wives.
The conversation around women’s issues has changed. The increased visibility cannot be denied – International Women’s Day, Women’s Entrepreneurship Day which falls on November 19th, the power of the pink breast cancer campaigns, the controversy over the wearing of the burkha. I know there remains a lot of work to do and there are far too many women who remain subjected to domestic violence, sex slavery, and inferior treatment. But in many ways, the focus on women and women’s issues is dis-empowering the men; they barely get a look in. It also potentially lets them off the hook.
With the work we have done empowering women and girls in Nepal, we have learned a lot of lessons. We don’t always get it right but learning and adjusting along the way is one of the most powerful parts. We started with literacy programs – not only reading and writing but financial literacy, health and well-being literacy and entrepreneurial literacy, as well as providing information about their rights. These programs were a lot of fun and in many ways very successful. But we ran into some problems. It turned out that by focusing on the women, we were ignoring half of the problem – and half of the solution. Educating the women as to their rights failed to address the awareness levels of the men. And to create lasting change, we needed to engage them as well. Obviously inviting them to workshops on women’s rights was unlikely to attract them so we ran business skills workshops for men and snuck the women’s rights content into them. Measuring the effectiveness of this approach was difficult, but awareness is definitely on the increase in Nepal.
Nepal now has “Women Only” seats on public transport. Initially, these were ignored – the men sat in them, the women were too embarrassed to ask them to move. Now the police have started enforcing them. I asked some of our girls of their views of these seats and their opinion took me by surprise. They don’t want special seats. They don’t want to be treated differently. They don’t want special treatment which suggests they are somehow weaker. They want to be treated equally – they want equity.
The conversation needs to change. The balance has tipped, yes. Women’s issues definitely get the lion’s share of the publicity and support and this was necessary to draw attention to the issues. But the conversation now needs to evolve; the language is still very divisive, often still “us v them”, “men v women”, “boys v girls”. The campaigns
are aimed at women and in many cases isolate men who don’t feel any responsibility. Emma Watson’s recent UN speech inviting men to join the campaign is an important start. The conversation needs to be about how we harness the energy and passion of both men and women, how we celebrate our strengths regardless of our gender, to solve the challenges of the world. We’re no longer addressing the right problem. The issues need to be re-couched in terms of humanity’s issues now – human rights, war, sustainability, well-being. Women’s issues fails to address half of the problems – and half of the opportunities.
Traditionally during Teej, women fast for the long lives of their husbands or to find a husband. Although the women sing songs about women’s issues, they bond and relax together, at its core, Teej remains a festival aimed at men’s power over women. But the conversation is changing. Sabitri proudly tells me that she will not be fasting for her boyfriend’s long life; instead they will be fasting together for a happy future together. This gives me hope that the next generation will create a new approach, an inclusive one which focuses on all of us working together, throwing off the labels and celebrating our individual strengths to take advantages of the opportunities to solve the world’s challenges. Only then will equity truly be possible.
Bec Ordish – Women’s Empowerment
Bec is passionate about learning and about life. She wears many hats through which she explores her passions, including running the Mitrataa Foundation, an organisation she founded 13 years ago to provide women and girls in Nepal with the skills and knowledge to empower themselves. Her dream is to be an inspirationalist – someone who inspires others to believe in themselves and achieve their dreams, to find their gift to the world. If we build on what is working, on our gifts and passions, we can tackle any problem faced by the world. She lives in Nepal with her two daughters, Nimu and Saraswoti. Bec can be contacted at www.mitrataa.org
Life Balance = Laughter. Cuddles. Conversations.