Throughout history, patriarchal control over the mobility of women and girls has been constant. Importantly, this has been a key mechanism for controlling girls’ and women’s sexuality, often by reinforcing the idea of honour and purity as the sole source of value before marriage, leaving them and their families fearful of pre-marital sex. Thus, to guarantee girls’ and women’s purity, parents tend to guard their daughters carefully – limiting girls’ mobility, condemning the expression of their sexuality, controlling clothing choices and body language, and marrying them off young.
The notion of purity is so pervasive that consent as a fundamental right of women and girls is often completely ignored. They are not only unable to choose if, when, and with whom to get married; but they are also responsible for remaining virgins and protecting their family honour, regardless of the circumstances. Even when they have experienced sexual violence, women and girls are blamed for not avoiding being looked at and lusted after.
Not long ago, in a small village in Bangladesh, Taslima had given up going to school for six months because the 20-minute walk to get there was not safe anymore –not after a boy decided to follow her each and every morning and afternoon. Her family, the villagers and many acquaintances insinuated or clearly blamed her for ‘luring’ the boy into continuously harassing her.
Taslima’s story is not unique to her community or to communities like hers around the world. According to UN Women, one out of three women worldwide, have experienced sexual or physical violence – as have I. Women and girls’ mobility is threatened and constrained by blatant or veiled experiences of violence in the public space – which can take the form of a street, a park, a library, or a particular field of work. This lack of safety certainly results from the threat of physical violence, but also comes from harassment, from the seemingly perpetual absence of female bodies in certain spaces which makes us anticipate rejection, and from the overt and covert signals that clearly let us know that we are not supposed to be there. The forced abandonment of the public space takes a toll on girls and women’s rights, dreams, and general wellbeing.
However, Taslima’s particular story includes a fortunate twist – and her name is Shirin. After learning what was happening to her friend, Shirin managed to persuade Taslima’s mother of the benefits that developing new skills could bring to her daughter’s life, if she were to attend some of the sessions in the Fun Center – a safe space created by CARE’s Tipping Point project where girls and other community members can discuss and come up with strategies to address patriarchy and gender inequality in an effort to tackle child, early and forced marriage in their communities. There, where girls could share their daily struggles and socialise with peers, Taslima learned that being harassed was not her fault.
Hegemonic patriarchy makes it incredibly challenging to expand the limited conceptions of girls and women, including blaming them for provoking the attacks, abuse, isolation and violence they experience. Women and men perpetuate the patriarchal system through daily actions and accepted and expected notions of behaviour presumed to be the norm. The notion of sexual violence has significantly been romanticised in the media, for instance, by normalising men sexually harassing women after they have repeatedly said ‘NO’ and reinforcing the false idea that women and girls desire such misogynistic and violent behaviour in their lives – from a forced kiss or similar advances to creating narratives in which women are responsible for men’s success, happiness, wellbeing, and even daily behaviour. In many cases, such experiences are perceived as an ‘expected, acceptable or deserved’ occurrence.
The patriarchal system strictly enforces gender roles and social norms that privilege men over women. This sense of male entitlement over women and girls’ bodies have insured their confinement to spaces where they are stripped of power, threatened by harassment and discrimination, and extremely vulnerable so that men get to play the role of protectors. There is also the subtle expectation of women being in charge of birthing, parenting, and the household chores; thus, they end up doing unpaid jobs, have limited access to the financial markets, earn less money and pay more for certain products and services, and are less likely to hold positions of power. By overtly excluding and subverting women and girls’ participation in public and collective spaces, patriarchal societies are enabling those in power to stay in control – including their ability to exert control over women and girls’ bodies. Consequently, men get to remain comfortable in their privileges and dominance.
Fortunately, the positive norms shift needed to achieve gender equality and smash patriarchy already exists in some communities. However, while it is possible and sustainable, realising such change globally will take time and concerted effort. A building block is showcasing examples of positive behaviour in public, highlighting how fellow community members – whether friends or acquaintances – are living their lives in progressive ways (such as riding bicycles or being a vocal community leader), and supporting women and girls’ choices and promoting solidarity. Similarly, creating dedicated spaces for dialogue and facilitating meaningful debates about gender, patriarchy, and masculinity are essential. And for that to happen realistically and sustainably, we need more than ever to bring boys and men to the table. We need them as allies and advocates for gender equality.
Recent publications are advocating for holistic approaches that address the root causes of oppression and gender inequality – and not just the symptoms – to effect sustainable change. Scholars and practitioners have proven that shifting social norms related to girls’ and women’s mobility (a symptom of gender inequality) so that they can move freely, ride bikes or play sports in public spaces invariably requires shifting harmful social norms controlling girls’ sexuality (root cause). This approach broadens impact on women and girls’ lives in a number of areas – such as their economic freedom or their right to choose if and when they marry. In Ethiopia, for example, two CARE funded projects (TESFA and Abdiboru) empowered adolescent girls with financial and health information and life skills. Consequently, the girls’ status in their families and society improved, and they grew into advocates against early marriage for other girls.
Taslima’s participation in CARE’s Tipping Point project also is an example of how programs grounded in local contexts are addressing the underlying issues and complexities of girls’ lives to create sustainable, wide-reaching impact. By providing a safe and inviting space for girls and women to meet with peers and break the cycle of isolation, they are not only able to expand their experience of the world, but they can also build their capabilities, cultivate their aspirations and get organised as a movement. Such convening spaces are often used for learning cross-cutting life and self-care skills, such as an understanding of their sexual and reproductive rights, organisation of thoughts and actions, negotiation and leadership skills, and financial management.
When girls and women can move freely, without fear for their immediate safety or the social sanctions they may encounter, they can show up – as participants and leaders – in different spaces. Taslima’s attendance in various Tipping Point sessions gave her the opportunity and strength to follow her dreams and to advocate by herself. It took her some time to convince her mother about going back to school. But with a new sense of confidence and thanks to the comradery of her Fun Center peers, she decided to finish school and serve as an army officer.
Guaranteeing girls and women’s rights to choice and freedom of movement, especially to ensuring their bodily autonomy, sexual rights and life plans can’t be their sole responsibility. We all need to be part of this deeply transformative process and support each other in identifying the resources and networks we need to promote positive change not only as individuals, but also as instrumental members of families and communities.
Tackling the Taboo: Sexuality and gender-transformative programmes to end child, early and forced marriage and unions: https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/resource-centre/tackling-the-taboo-sexuality-and-gender-transformative-programmes-to-end-child-early-and-forced-marriage-and-unions/
Child, early and forced marriage: CARE’s global experience: https://caretippingpoint.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/CARE_CEFM_CapacityStatement.pdf
 TESFA, project brief: http://www.care.org/sites/default/files/tesfa_2_pager_screen.pdf
Abdiboru, baseline report: https://www.icrw.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Abdiboru-Baseline-Quantitative-report-V5_03092017_Final.pdf
Tipping Point initiative: http://www.care.org/sites/default/files/documents/CARE_Tipping_Point_External%20Report_Web.pdf
CARE’s Girls Leadership Model: https://www.care.org/sites/default/files/documents/GE-2009-PW_Leadership.pdf