Women Opinion

Women's rights are paramount: The world is failing on gender equality

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Women must be entitled to equal rights in the Cook Islands (image by John Colles Burland via Wikimedia Commons)

I'm sitting in Rarotonga, the capital of the Cook Islands. A small island nation located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is beautiful.

The ocean is a dizzying array of electric blues and greens that swirl together in stunning beauty.

When the sun emerges from behind the dark rain clouds that have frequented the skies since my stay, the beauty is startling.

The plant life is like nothing that I have seen before. The trees are covered in giant leaves and beautiful, brightly coloured flowers. Enormous, jungle-covered mountains run through the middle of the island and the trees are abundant with fruit. The island has a sense of majesty about it and one could most certainly be made to believe, that they are in paradise.

Yet, as I have discovered from my many travels around the world, what lies on the surface can be deceptive. What may lie beneath a stunning exterior is a much darker and more sinister interior.

I have spent most of the last 16 years travelling throughout the many very diverse parts of the world be it Africa, Latin America, the Middle East or my current base in Asia, Cambodia.

I have found that wherever I have gone in the world, when I have sat down with people to talk about human rights, I have found that there's a very different reality from what appears on the exterior.

It is usually one that is far less beautiful and much, much darker.

It can be a reality that is torn with injustice, inequality and unfairness. One where human life can hold little value, especially the life of a woman.

I have heard people speak openly of how in their societies, women are considered second-class citizens. How violence, discrimination and the sexual harassment of women is not only considered acceptable but is thought of as being something normal.

They will shrug their shoulders when I ask if there are laws to protect women and will instead explain how their law favours men in most areas of life including inheritance, land ownership and rights over their children.

People will explain that women’s skills and abilities are not given the same value as those of men and that women are often denied access to opportunities, just because they are women. In many cases, girls are stopped from going to school, just because they are girls.

Women are not given equal opportunities in their societies, just because they are women.

They say how a woman’s worth lies only in her ability to have children and be a good housekeeper for her husband, nothing more and nothing less.

They will also say that it is normal for men to hiss, leer and publicly disparage women with no shame or fear because they know, that you, the public, will allow them to do it.

They know that if they sexually assault or harass a woman, then you will ask them nothing. Instead, you will ask the woman what she was wearing or why she was there. You will ask her if she was drinking alcohol and if she was, you will shake your head and say, "well what did you expect?"

You will ask the sexual aggressor nothing and give him a safe passage to continue his acts of sexual aggression freely and by doing so, you will ensure that there is no justice for his victims.

This creates an incredibly dangerous and ugly world for women and girls. A world where regardless of the spectacular and stunning scenery that surrounds her, her inability to move and travel, to go to school or work without fear makes her world anything but beautiful.

When she is unable to earn a sufficient income to live her life because her society does not allow her to or if there is no protection from the law when she encounters violence or harassment then her world, is going to be a very difficult one.

As I sit amongst the majesty and incredible beauty of the Cook Islands and observe my stunning surroundings, I wonder about what is going on beneath all of it. I wonder what I would find in this small island nation, should I sit down amongst the frangipanis with a local, and ask.

Will they tell of a social life that is filled with beauty to match that of its exterior? Where women are treated equally and are protected by the law? Where there are social attitudes that do not permit violence, discrimination or harassment against women and where girls are given as many opportunities as boys and women are as equally represented in public and political life as men are? I doubt it.

The situation of women’s rights globally is unacceptable. There is far too much violence and discrimination against women and girls around the world and there is far too little being said or done about it.

We need to do more globally to speak about this very serious problem and insist that more is done to ensure that women and girls everywhere have the rights and freedoms that they deserve, everywhere. We should make sure that we always have the ultimate goal of ensuring that the places where we live reflect the same beauty on the inside as they may have on the outside and that means women having rights.

Johanna Higgs is an anthropologist and founder of Project MonMa, which advocates for women’s rights around the world.

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