2013 has been a year rife with the stories in the media of violence against women: from gang rape in India, to the plight of Malala Yousafzai, to female infanticide in China. Gender inequities are particularly pervasive in South Asia: of the world’s 493 million illiterate women, half live in South Asia. The region will see 130 million young girls married as children by 2030, and almost four in 10 South Asian women experience sexual violence in their lifetimes. As girls are forced to abandon their education, they become increasingly isolated.
The story to date has been one of struggle, not of solutions. December 10 brought the UN’s 16 Days of Action for the Elimination of Violence Against Women to a close, and as the year ends, more and more women and men across the globe are taking to the streets to ask the question: “What can we do to make this better?”
An answer to this violence and inequity comes from some of the most remote communities of South Asia, and it begins with a simple idea: creating safe spaces. Women across the region must often seek permission from their husbands to leave their homes for reasons other than childcare or agricultural work. For women in abusive homes, this isolation is paralyzing. Without a space to meet with other women who have had similar experiences, they may not have the courage to resist violence and fight for their rights.
Safe spaces can come in unlikely forms, like a library. In the developing world especially, libraries are much more than a collection of books. Libraries are often seen as neutral places for all members of society – especially if the library is community owned and operated. As places of knowledge and education, they are perceived as legitimate places for women to visit: women don’t need to ask their families for permission to go there.
Libraries often have the added benefit of often offering childcare services, and trainings in income-generating activities. If a husband in Nepal allows his wife to visit the local library for a skills training class, and as a result she can support her family’s income, he is more likely to allow her to visit the library for other reasons.
These women then gain access to critical information about legal rights, support resources, and sexual reproductive health, through print materials, trainings, and access to the Internet at the library. Libraries also provide information about how women can become more independent, such as through leadership or women’s empowerment trainings, and options for education outside of the formal system. The women then have a network of mutual support.
When women and other marginalized groups are given a safe space to gather, learn, and advocate for their rights, they can change social norms in their communities and create opportunities for their daughters that they never had.
Chuna Devi of Nepal is one of these women. She once said that “being born a girl is worthless.” But at the age of 47, she changed her and her daughters’ lives by finally learning to read at a READ Center, educating her daughters, and starting several women’s groups. Today, her goal is to convince other women that it’s never to late to learn. You can watch a 3-minute video of Chuna’s powerful story here: http://youtu.be/EN19au1tpsU
We have a collective responsibility to end to violence against women, and we can do this by creating safe spaces for them to self-advocate and access education. Once they have this space, they can create opportunities for future generations that result in a more equitable and nonviolent world.
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- A media year of violence against women: Where are the solutions? - December 12, 2013