Ruth Vieira Melo, FGV-EAESP winner of the CoBS 2020 student CSR article competition, explores how women have been fighting for their rights and how companies can integrate this fight and contribute to reshaping old values that facilitate the maintenance of violence against women – one of the worst aspects of the suppression of women’s rights.
Human Rights Are Women’s Rights by Ruth Vieira Melo.
Women take the lead to ensure security and autonomy for themselves and future generations
From Suffragettes to #MeToo women: The evolution of the fight for women’s rights
The United Nations defines human rights as the rights to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many others that are inherent to all individuals regardless of their race, sex, ethnicity, religion or other status (United Nations, n.d.). Nevertheless, certain groups still do not enjoy these rights and one of these groups is composed of women and girls around the world. Throughout History, women have been fighting to change this reality. There has been great progress, but there is still a long way ahead.
Regarding, for instance, the right to vote, New Zealand was the first country to allow women to vote at the end of 19th century (Amnesty International, n.d.). In the beginning of the 20th century, women in Britain started the Suffragists movement aiming to conquer the right to vote. They believed in peaceful protests but made no immediate progress. That is why a frustrated member left the organization and started what were called Suffragettes group, whose actions became more violent and involved breaking windows and even planting bombs. It was only in 1918, after women became more active in the labor market during the First World War, that the right to vote was conceded to women over 30 years’ old who owned a property (Amnesty International UK, n.d.).
In Brazil, this only happened in 1932, but with certain restrictions: only married women that had their husband’s consent could vote and also widows and single women that had some income (Gouvea, 2019). Even though, nowadays, women still face trouble to vote – for instance in Pakistan, mainly in remote areas in the north of the country, where Pakistani women made a great effort to vote in the last election in 2018, and when millions of women registered to vote for the first time (Jaffery, 2018).
Another human and basic right is the access to education. Only at the end of the 19th century, in Britain, the first university opened its courses for women (Amnesty International UK, n.d.). More than a hundred years later, women still have low access to education in certain parts of the globe. In Afghanistan, for example, the enrolment rate in secondary school was 34% for male and only 13% for female, in 2007 (UNESCO, 2014). The list is inexhaustible – that is why, today, we cannot say that this activism exists only in History books. It is more alive than ever.
Today, women have gained a new tool to keep this activism alive. Social media encourages solidarity and the exchange of experiences (Powell, 2018). Some hashtag movements have echoed around the world and in 2017, actresses posted the #MeToo hashtag to reveal sexual abuse performed by Hollywood bigwigs.
Violence against women: A war with no ceasefire and a strong reason to keep fighting for women’s rights
Despite all the conquests that women obtained throughout History, it is still necessary to fight for women’s rights. This is a war with no ceasefire: even when the world is concentrating efforts on stopping the coronavirus pandemic and the United Nations is calling for a global ceasefire, women are experiencing an increase in domestic violence due to social isolation. Moreover, violence against women is a global pandemic without efficient treatment or vaccine – a phenomenon dating back to the beginnings of human civilization that dramatically affects societies around the globe.
According to an EU-wide survey on violence against women conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2014, which interviewed more than 40,000 women around European Union, 33% of women have suffered physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15 years old. The most common patterns of physical violence involved being shoved, pushed, grabbed or hair pulled.
At a country level, Denmark, Finland and Latvia present the highest levels of physical violence performed by partners, while the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden present the highest rates for a non-partner physical violence (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2014).
This report showed that even in countries where gender-equality has theoretically been achieved, violence still exists. This contradictory situation has been named “The Nordic Paradox”. The reasons behind this are still underexplored: one possibility is that women in these countries feel safer to talk about domestic violence, but another possibility is that these countries are facing the effect of redefining manhood and womanhood (Leahy, 2016).
So, it is possible to say that violence against women exists in every country, even in the most developed ones, and includes different forms of abuse.
In the developing world the numbers and the ways that violence presents itself are even more scary. In the Republic of the Congo, women were used as a war weapon: in some villages, all women were raped and the whole community was obliged to watch, forcing people to leave and give up their lands. Many shocking stories were brought to light after Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, won the Nobel Prize, in 2018, for treating these rape victims in Congo (BBC News Brasil, 2018).
In 1998, in Kenya, a police officer beat his wife to death because there was no meat for dinner after he arrived back from work (Kimani, 2007). Alonge (2018) argues that, in countries such as Nigeria, women even reported lack of support of their own families, due to economic reasons, when they expressed the wish to break free from their husbands. Alonge (2018) showed that poverty affects more women than men in sub-Saharan Africa: 122 women living in extreme poverty for each 100 men.
All these cases demonstrate that in some countries patriarchal values are still strictly followed and that the notions that men deserve absolute respect and submission from women are embedded in society. In Brazil, one woman is killed every seven hours according to a data survey performed by Globo and the University of Sao Paulo in March of 2020. The highest rate of femicide occurs at Acre, a Brazilian state located in the North, a region that is less densely populated than others (Velasco et al., 2020).
Another Brazilian region that is seriously affected by violence against women is the Northeast: as reported by the United Nations in 2017, 27% of all women between 15 and 49 years old from the Northeast of Brazil have already suffered domestic violence (Agência Brasil, 2017). A survey conducted, in 2019, by the Institute for Applied Economic Research, in Brazil, showed that violence affects more women than integrate the economically active population (52.2%), while only 24.9% of women who do not integrate the labor force reported that they have already been a victim of violence (Costa, 2019) – exposing that violence can increase when women challenge the patriarchal values imposed to them since they were born.
“Boys wear blue, and girls wear pink”: The role conceded to women in society and the need to reshape it
For years, women were demanded to stay home, cooking, taking care of their children, and waiting for their husbands to arrive back from work. It is true that, in many countries, women are succeeding in entering the labor market, but it is also true that these patriarchal values are still being taught in society since childhood and are still able to influence everyone’s lives.
Girls grow up playing with dolls, dolls’ houses and mini ovens and boys grow up watching this and believing that only girls were born to exert these roles. These values are so embedded in society that, in the last few years, Brazil, for instance, watched a minister and an important communication vehicle reproducing these retrograde values.
Pastor Damares, Brazilian Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights, said that “Boys wear blue, and girls wear pink” and that “girls will be princesses and boys will be princes” in a video that went viral. Minister Damares believes that an “ideological indoctrination” of children and teenagers is happening in Brazil (Folha, 2019). Actually, what is really happening is that the very Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights cannot understand that previous years’ activism, occurring mainly on social media and performed by women and girls, aims to reshape these old patterns and extend women’s role in society in order for women to gain more bargaining power to fight for their rights.
Besides that, in 2016, an important Brazilian magazine wrote a story about the former Brazilian First Lady, referring to her as a “beautiful, demure housewife” and expressing how lucky the ex-president, Michel Temer was for marrying such a well-behaved wife (Linhares, 2016).
Reinforcing these values mean keeping women in a vulnerable position and taking from them the right to choose to be whatever they want to be. That is why every institution needs to create ways to put an end to this idea that men deserve submission from women and also ways to integrate and protect women against any kind of repression.
Violence against women: Not only a family matter, but also a business matter
In Brazil, we are used to repeating an old saying that means that when a couple is fighting, no one should interfere. But that is not true. Companies are an essential player in fighting violence against women. Managers can always get tempted to think that their employees do not suffer any kind of domestic abuse, but the statistics show the opposite.
As such, it is necessary that companies develop the expertise to identify a victim of domestic violence and that managers create a safe environment for these victims to talk about it. The workplace needs to be a safe place, where victims can find legal and psychological support. Furthermore, companies need to reinforce security schemes in order to keep aggressors away from their victims, since a significant part of domestic violence homicides happen in the workplace (Darbyshire, 2018).
Besides that, companies should find a way to support their female customers. Vodafone, for instance, developed an app that helps users to locate the nearest support system in case they are experiencing domestic violence.
In the entrepreneurship field, women face obstacles when looking for investment for their businesses. Venture Capital firms need to employ more women in order to put an end to this biased view that female entrepreneurs are inexperienced and incapable of running a successful business.
Female entrepreneurship is essential in fighting violence against women, because the entrepreneurs become able to create their own workplace culture (Salter, 2019). Additionally, entrepreneurs in the toy segment need to reshape the concept of girls’ toys, contributing to stopping the spread of patriarchal values that favor the maintenance of violence against women in the world.
Building a better future
Reshaping secular values and organizational culture, companies can contribute significantly in the fight for women’s rights and in decreasing violence against women – one of the worst aspects of the suppression of these rights. This way, companies will enjoy greater productivity and women around the world will occupy leadership positions and inspire each other, thereby creating a safe place for future generations.
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