If the antelope does not tell the story, the lion will.
--African proverb, relayed by Bernice Apondi, Gender Research and Policy Manager at Voices of Community Action and Leadership (Vocal-Kenya)
To be sure, there was more heartbreak shared than two days could hold at the RTI Gender Inequalities Conference in South Africa. The quote above begs the question: What if the antelope -- an analogy for the women who survived the lions’ violent attack -- told the story? The conference provided a platform for women who had survived violence, and other forms of gender inequality, to make their stories known.
Drs. Nabila El-Bassel and Anindita Dasgupta presented and heard stories of gender inequality -- from all ends of the earth -- about violence against women, child marriage, sex trafficking, female genital mutilation, HIV infection, and negative sexual and reproductive health. Dr. Dasgupta walked away with one key message: Gender inequality exists for every girl and woman in some capacity at some point in their lives, whether in Mumbai, the Middle East, or Manhattan.
The conference in South Africa, where Dr. Nabila El-Bassel was keynote and Dr. Anindita Dasgupta presented research, was in-turn tragic and motivational.
Meet Grizelda Grootboom
Dr. El-Bassel was struck by the survivor testimony of Grizelda Grootboom. Ms. Grootboom is an international advocate against slavery and sex trafficking, and author of the book Exit!. Ms. Grootboom has experienced some of the worst gender inequalities in her lifetime. She was gang-raped at age 9, trafficked into sex slavery at 18, and lived a life of survival involving sex work, extreme poverty, and drug use. As her book title suggests, Ms. Grootboom was able to "exit" from this life through support from NGOs focused on empowering women. Ms. Grootboom founded the Survivor Exit Foundation - an agency that raises awareness of the injustices of the sex slave industry and works to create solutions to end sex slavery, globally. Ms. Grootboom has dedicated her life to supporting fellow survivors of human trafficking as they undergo rehabilitation.
Placing women at the center of research
And these types of NGOs are sorely needed. In research conducted by both Drs. El-Bassel and Dasgupta through a project called Women ASPIRE, they work closely with NGOs and local partners to research gender-specific traumas women who are refugees experience. Further funding will enable Women ASPIRE to create, test, and implement more research studies to benefit Syrian refugee women. Dr. Dasgupta says “The conference reinforced that our next steps for Women ASPIRE must focus on interventions to reduce gender inequalities for Syrian refugee women. Continuing to ensure that women’s voices are at the center of all of this work is key.”
Toward the end of the conference, Dr. Dasgupta presented her research on WORTH -- a study examining women’s sexual and reproductive health in New York City -- and a study assessing the relationship between intimate partner violence, externally-decided pregnancy and unintended pregnancies among women in slum communities in Mumbai, India. Presenting both papers at a conference focused on gender inequality helped Dr. Dasgupta highlight the similarities between women’s experiences of gender inequalities in seemingly very different global populations: women who use drugs at heightened risk for HIV in New York City, and women six months postpartum living in slum communities in Mumbai, India.
Dr. Dasgupta says, "Both of these studies, which were conducted in very different settings come to the same conclusion -- that when women experience gender inequality in the form of intimate partner violence or do not have control over pregnancy decision-making, their sexual and reproductive health suffers from miscarriages, unintended pregnancies, and more."
Spending two days being engulfed in conversations with other researchers, and advocates on these issues gave me the opportunity to highlight the negative relationship between gender inequality and sexual and reproductive health, globally.
But how can we reduce gender inequalities?
“On a fundamental level, we must hold those who set gendered norms and create policies to the highest standards," Dr. Dasgupta continues. "Here in the US, we had an important election that made a difference for women. Voting for candidates who will support laws and policies to reduce gender inequality is key. Let’s look at the people in power who perpetuate gender inequalities.” In addition, Dr. Dasgupta encourages everyone to bring discussions of gender inequality to the forefront.
“It was empowering to spend two days in a space where women and men came together to discuss the negative health impacts of gender inequality,” Dr. Dasgupta said. “It reminded me that we need to encourage and support each other to have these conversations on a regular basis - and not just in academic spaces.”
Dr. El-Bassel adds: “To address gender inequalities globally, we must address barriers to education and employment. Child marriage is also a huge problem, and research shows that child marriage is tied specifically to lack of access to these barriers."
The more women can earn income and access education, including learning about reproductive health, the less they will experience violence as a result of a lack of options to control their own lives.
As demonstrated at the conference, for inequalities to be eliminated women’s voices must be at the center of any intervention work, epidemiological research, and policies.
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