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Shame and stigma: The taboo of menstruating in South Asia

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The beliefs and practices that revolve around menstruation differ across societies. In some cultures, the menstruating women are victimised due to the regressive attitudes that exist around menstruation. In others, menstruation as a topic is not up for discussion; it is covered in layers of shame and stigma. Nevertheless, what remains common for the women who go under this natural biological phenomenon is that there exist different battles. Actually, these battles have to be fought primarily as a result of some concepts that render women dirty and their bodies polluted; as not sacred enough to befit daily activities. These beliefs reduce women into untouchables and sometimes compel them to live in isolation.

In the region of South Asia, the practices vary from culture to culture, and there is a stark contrast between urban and rural societies. In Hindu societies, families host figurines of deities in their houses that are worshipped regularly with full devotion. The concept of sacred and profane is very widely present in such families, and menstruating women are considered profane. Living in the same space as the god is sacrilegious.

In Nepal, 19% women are banished from their houses to ‘chhaupadi goth’, roughly translating to menstruation huts. Chhaupadi is a practice in the mountainous western Nepal that forces women to sleep and live in sheds for the duration of their period, due to the belief that menstruating women cause ill-luck to the family, crops, and cattle if the god is displeased.  The practice had been outlawed by the Supreme Court in 2005, and recently in 2017 was taken up in the parliament again because it caused death in huge numbers. In 2017 alone, the cases of Chhaupadi related deaths came up and it was immediately re-criminalised with a penalty for the offenders.

Despite this, the practice has not stopped. In interviews that were taken immediately as the nation was outraged by the frequent deaths that took place in western Nepal, the women were questioned if they would still practice Chhaupadior put their daughters through the same after the re-criminalisation and additional penalty. They responded that it was not up to them but on the very societies that coerced them to undergo such malpractice. Furthermore, criminalising the practice would mean filing formal complaints against the family members which is very unlikely. If the women had that kind of powers, they would not be banished to a shed in the first place.

Merely making and implementing of draconian laws is not enough because people house their belief systems in superstitious interpretation of religion. Vulnerable in those sheds, women fear snake bite and animal attacks, mosquitoes, asphyxiation due to inhalation of smoke from the fire built to fight the cold, and sexual predators among others. However, these families see it more deeming that a woman live in a shed outside the house in unsafe conditions just to prevent the house from being polluted by her presence. This all boils down to the fact that a death of a menstruating woman would be justified because at least, the god was spared from pollution, the crops and cattle were intact. It perhaps gets justified as a result of something she did, maybe touch a bottle of pickle, who knows?

A large section of the urbanised sectors lament, often in forms that take of troll posts and memes, about the so-called ‘feminists’ in the ‘East’ who limit their talk to menstruation to come off as empowered in contrast to the ‘feminists’ in the ‘West’ who battle real and important feminist issues like ‘equal pay’ and ‘glass ceiling’. Dissecting this, it dawns upon a realisation that people in these societies regard the women who talk about menstruation in the open as aggressively progressive. Moreover, they would rather dismiss the topic as something irrelevant and consider talking about it lesser important than talking about other inequalities. However, it is only fitting to be vocal about menstruation as much as required.

We forget to remember that women in remote areas with poor access do not benefit from the choice between various menstrual products at their disposal. In India, less than 16% of the women use marketed feminine products. In various parts of the country, women use sand, or wood shavings or pieces of cloth. Now, the issues that arise are of infections amongst other things. To begin with, these products are unsafe and pose a threat of infections like urogenital infection and bacterial vaginosis. The cloths are repeatedly used without being sun-dried because of the shame of exposure of the used cloths to men and other women. What also prevents these women from using hygienic safe products is due to unavailability for several kilometres, unaffordability arising out of poverty, and embarrassment to ask for even a sanitary pad, especially from male shopkeepers. In fact, 23% of the girls drop out of school upon starting their menstruation. The Indian government, along with entrepreneurs, and educators have worked hard to ensure all women have access to sanitary products. However, the lack of funds, expensive to afford one-use products, unable to maintain quality of the low-budgeted products, and failure to meet the needs of all women in the country are some problems that are faced.

In Pakistan, 80% women do not have access to sanitary menstrual products. UNICEF reported that the biggest hindrance to sanitary conditions was prevented by the lack of washing facilities. In fact, for a country frequented by natural calamities and insurgencies in some areas, women should be educated and encouraged about using hygienic productssince there is always the likelihood of moving to temporary shelters in such circumstances. It was reported that a stunning number of girls are shocked upon menstruating their first time because they were not aware about it. In only a few years to follow, many drop out of school or stay absent from school when they are menstruating, thus hindering their education.

To sum it up, menstruation has been evolved as a shameful event in this part of the world. Menstruating women are shunned and indoctrinated as inferior and unchaste and they do not even fight against the practices but accept it as normal. Firstly, religion has a significant part to play as it is due to the god-fearing purity seeking individuals that seek to maintain the sanctity of their surroundings from where the concept of sacred and impure arise. But, how can any practice be religious if it causes the already disadvantaged more detriment? Secondly, unawareness and equating menstruation with shame and secrecy has worsened the situations to where women are not comfortable with their own bodies so much so that they from birth to death are unaware of their own anatomies. Where mothers are themselves not at peace with their body and bodily functions, passing it on to their daughters is difficult and discussing about it with their sons unimaginable. Lastly, this exclusion of men and terming menstruation as a ‘woman thing’ has led to men genuinely having no idea what the deal is about and why is it important for women to be safe, clean, healthy, and rested when they menstruate. Thus, a change is necessary by educating women, by subsiding sanitary menstrual products, criminalising discrimination against menstruating women, and by including men in this drive.

Aryal is a student of Social Science and writes about social and developmental issues pertaining to exclusion, inequalities, and gender disparities in the South Asian context.

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New Social Compact

Child Abuse & Legal System

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In world where the population is high, crime rate is higher. China has a separate system because China has a large population but the laws are so strict that people are afraid to commit crimes. Legal System of Punishments in China is strict . The recent example in china is during COVID 19. People in China during lockdown was following the laws so strictly. On the other hand the situation in all others countries was very clear.

In countries where the punishments are harsher and deterrent, there is a reduction in crimes. Whereas in countries where the punishments are softer, people do not stop committing crimes.

When we discuss about the Punishments in Islamic Legal System , In Islamic law and the Qur’an there are severe punishments in heinous offenses. In Islam, it has always been the case that if a person commits a major crime, he should be punished in such a way that he becomes a lesson for others and people learn from it.It is in Islam that if someone steals, his hands will be cut off, then no one will ever dare to steal. Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him) said that if my daughter Fatima also stole, I would cut off her hands.

Legal System of Pakistan , If the punishment is severe then the crime will decrease, if the punishment is not severe then the crime will increase day by day. In our country’s legal system Islamic law exist but No proper implementation is there. We mostly follow the principles of the common law for punishment.

The Pakistan Penal Code deals with punishments in criminal cases. Its origin is from the Indian Penal Code which is dated back to the 1860. When Pakistan came into being they renamed this enactment as Pakistan Panel Code. In fact, the origin of the mentioned punishments in the said enactment have basis from the Common Law System which was the system of British Government in the 19th Century. When  British Government was ruling over the Indo-Pak subcontinent, they made these laws in the beginning.

The Indian Penal Code was the basic legislation made in the 1860. Later on in 1898 the Code of Criminal Procedure was enacted also. Now in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh the same law is the basic criminal law with certain amendments. These laws have been changed a little bit, but their basic laws are the same and it is still implemented to a greater extent.

Example :According to section 377 of Pakistan Penal Code the unnatural offences are defined in a way that they are related to unnatural lust. If a man tries to have sex with a man and even if he tries to have sex with a child, his sentence is 10 years imprisonment. So if an offender wishes to abuse a child with a fear that if he is caught, he will be imprisoned, he will never commit such offense. Similarly if he knows that he will be released in little span of time on bail by getting the consent from the child’s family and by settling the matter by giving them some money, he may commit the offense without any fear. He may commit the same offense again and again.

Conclusion:It is important to create deterrence in punishments especially in heinous offenses so that people have fear of committing them. Only this way offenses can be controlled and society can be peaceful to live in.

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East Africa: The status of women remains unequal at all levels of society

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For over two decades, the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW) has been fighting for gender equality, empowerment of women and improvement of women’s rights in Kenya and broadly in East Africa. Established in 1999, CREAW has used bold, innovative and holistic interventions for the realization of women’s rights. Most of its programs have focused on challenging practices that undermine equity, equality and constitutionalism, promoting women’s participation in decision making and deepening the ideology and philosophy of women’s empowerment.

In this interview, Mercy Jelimo, an Executive Program Officer at the Nairobi-based Center for Rights, Education and Awareness (CREAW) discusses the current situation about gender issues, landmarked achievements, existing challenges and the way forward. Here are the interview excerpts:

In your estimation and from your research, how is the situation with gender inequality, specifically in Kenya, and generally in East Africa?

MJ: This survey was commissioned by our partners Women Deliver and Focus 2030 with over 17,000 respondents covering 17 countries on six continents. The survey findings indicated that over 60% of respondents believed that Gender Equality had progressed. However, on average 57% of respondents also felt that the fight for gender equality is not over particularly because we see key aspects of gender inequality persist including:  unequal distribution of unpaid care, domestic work and parental responsibilities between men and women (the COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted the burden women bear as caregivers) different employment opportunities with religion and culture continuing to entrench discrimination against women.

Whereas in East Africa, the survey only covered Kenya, the results are shared across. In particular, the Kenyan respondents indicated that there has been notable progress in regards to Gender equality particularly when it comes to the legal and policy frameworks to guard against discrimination on whichever basis be it sex, religion, class or race.

Over the last quarter century, the country has promulgated a new Constitution and a raft of subsidiary legislations and policies that are critical to Gender equality. Some of these laws include but not limited to: the Sexual Offences Act 2006, the Children’s Act 2001, the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act 2011, the Marriage Act 2014, the Protection Against Domestic Violence Act 2015, the Victim Protection Act 2014, the Witness Protection Act 2008, the National Policy for Prevention and Response to Gender-Based Violence 2014, the National Guidelines on the Management of Sexual Violence 2015, the Multi-sector Standard Operating Procedures for Prevention and Response to Gender Based Violence, and the National Policy on the Eradication of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) 2019.

Kenya has also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol), the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, among other instruments. However, even with this robust legal framework, accountability and the implementation of these laws have lagged behind.

The status of women and girls as compared to men and boys still remains unequal at all levels of society both public and private. This imbalance manifests itself as normalized negative social norms and ‘cultural’ practices with brutal violations against women and girls continuing to be perpetrated, women being excluded from leadership and decision making  positions, limited in their political participation and women and girls being denied access to economic opportunities.

Undeniably, women and girls continue to be victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) including rape, domestic violence, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and child marriage. In fact, as of March 2020, according to statistics from Kenya’s Gender Violence Recovery Centre (GVRC), 45% of women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 have experienced either physical or sexual violence with women with girls accounting for 90% of gender-based violence (SGBV) cases reported. Harmful practices such as FGM and child marriage are still prevalent, with the Kenya Demographic Health Survey (2014) reporting a national FGM prevalence rate of 21% for women and girls aged 15-49 years of age. The prevalence rate differs from one practicing community to the other, with communities such Somali (96%) Samburu (86%) and The Maasai (78%) having significantly higher prevalence. 

Sadly, this is the story across all the other countries in East Africa where we have progressive legal and Policy framework but with zero accountability mechanisms. It is worth noting that in 2018, the East Africa Community Council of Ministers approved the EAC Gender policy which is key to ensuring that gender equality and empowerment of women are not only integrated into every aspect of its work but provides an outline of key priority areas for partner states. The EAC has also instituted other gender mainstreaming efforts including the EAC Social Development framework (2013), the EAC child policy (2016) the EAC Youth policy (2013), a Gender Mainstreaming Strategy for EAC Organs and Institutions, (2013) amongst others.

By the way, what are your research findings that you presented in report on Jan 28? Are there any similarities and differences about gender studies in other East Africa countries?

MJ: The key findings from Kenya can generally be used to paint a picture of the situation in the EAC region. Apparent Gender disparities in the region remain in a number of areas such as in political representation, access to education and training, access to quality and affordable healthcare, high unemployment rates of women, rampant sexual and gender-based violence, harmful cultural practices, inadequate financing for gender needs and programs. 

Firstly, when asked about the status of Gender Equality, the majority of respondents identified Gender Equality as an important issue (96%) and that government should do more (invest) to promote gender equality.

Secondly, the role of religion and culture; how boys and girls are socialized and unequal representation were identified as obstacles to gender equality. This finding indicates the work that still remains to be done for Gender equality actors in Kenya and other partner states in the EAC. The most important step to achieving gender equality is dismantling systems and structures that promote and protect inequalities. whereas the country has made tremendous progress in having relevant legal and policy frameworks, there is still lack of implementation of these laws – this finding answers the why question– because institutions, people and structures are still very patriarchal. Furthermore, the lack of representation of women (also cited by Kenyan respondents as an obstacle) might explain the failures in implementation of the laws and policies.

Thirdly, the respondents identified corruption as the most important issue facing the country. This finding is also supported by the 2019 Global Corruption Barometer – Africa survey that showed that more than half of citizens in the continent think graft is getting worse and that governments were doing very little to curb the vice.  The impact that corruption has on service delivery cannot be overemphasized especially on public goods such as healthcare, education, water and sanitation. More specifically, is the resulting lack of public financing to programs and interventions that address gender needs & promote gender equality.

A recent Corruption Perception Index (CPI) Report by Transparency International indicated that all the countries in East Africa with the exception of Rwanda scored below the global average rate of 43 out of 100. More importantly is that the report noted that countries that perform well on the CPI have strong enforcement of campaign finance regulations as this correlates with the dismal performance of women in politics who often than not do not have the requisite political funding to mount effective political campaigns and outcompete their male counterparts.

What would you say about discrimination or representation of women in politics in the region? Do you feel that women are not strongly encouraged in this political sphere?

MJ: There has been significant progress when it comes to women’s political representation and participation with a majority of the countries in the EAC region adopting constitutional quotas and other remedies to promote representation. All the countries in the East Africa Community have achieved the 30% critical mass with the exception of Kenya (21%) and South Sudan (28%). More women occupy ministerial portfolios that were perceived to be the preserve of men such as defense, foreign affairs, manufacturing, trade, public service and so forth. Not to miss that the leading country globally – Rwanda is from the region (63%).

However, most institutions including parliaments are still male dominated and women in the region still face a number of challenges including violence against women in politics, religious and cultural beliefs and norms that limit women role, lack of support from political parties, lack of campaign financing and unregulated campaign financing environment with the progressive legal and policy frameworks yet to be fully implemented. These challenges continue to limit the representation and participation of women in public and  political sphere. The region is yet to have a woman as a president just to illustrate the glass ceilings that remain.

Tell us about how women are perceived (public opinion) in the society there? How is the state or government committed to change this situation, most probably by enacting policies?

MJ: “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget and I ‘ll tell you what you value” This quote by President Joe Biden aptly captures the state of affairs in the region in relation to gender equality. The countries in the region have continued to enact and reform legal and policy frameworks but have largely remain unimplemented. The primary reasons being lack of financial and accountability mechanisms to ensure that these programs and policies are actualized. For us to reach to the conclusion that governments are committed to promoting gender equality and women empowerment, we need to see a shift from lip service to prioritization and adequate resourcing of programs that advance gender equality.

What platforms are there for improving gender equality, for ending gender-based violence and for discussing forms of discrimination there? Do you suggest governments have to act now to accelerate issues and progress on gender equality in East Africa?

MJ: As Deliver for Good Campaign partners in Kenya together with other gender equality advocates, the Sustainable Development Goals and Africa Agenda 2063 provide important blueprints to developing our society economically, socially and politically. The Deliver for Good campaign is an evidence-based advocacy campaigns that call for better policies, programming and financial investments in girls and women. Most importantly, the Generation Equality Forum (GEF) is an important mobilization moment to ask governments and private sector to accelerate progress not just in East Africa but globally. Specifically, we will be using this moment to call on governments, not only make bigger and bolder commitments but also, to ensure that they match these commitments with financing and accountability mechanisms.

As the Deliver for Good campaign partners in Kenya, we have a particular interest on one of the GEF Action Coalitions – Gender Based Violence – to leverage on the Kenyan government leadership and the political will to end traditional practices that are harmful to women and girls such as Female Genital Mutilation and Child Marriage. Particularly and in line with the survey findings, we will be calling for: increased accountability for physical and sexual crimes against women; increased investment on prevention and protection programs while calling for inclusive efforts and programs that leave no woman behind in Kenya and East Africa.

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New Social Compact

RUSAL Receives Guinea’s Best Company Awards For Fight Against COVID-19

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Russian Aluminium, a leading global aluminium producer, announced early February that its representative office in Guinea was awarded the Guinea Best Company Awards for its contribution to the fight against COVID-19 and socially responsible policy during the pandemic.

Since 2010, the Guinea Best Company Awards have been presented annually by the Think Tank of COPE-Guinée (Coordination of Guinean non-governmental organizations for the promotion of excellence) to 50 enterprises in Guinea and West Africa that have demonstrated significant achievements across various fields such as industry, economics and public life.

Assessing the results of 2020, the COPE-Guinée named Alexander Larionov, RUSAL General Director in Guinea, among the top 50 managers of commercial enterprises in the region. The results were based on indicators such as compliance with high standards of Corporate Social Responsibility during the pandemic, including the preservation of jobs, wages, social payments, investment projects, as well as the special contribution of enterprises to combat the spread of COVID-19 in Guinea.

The award ceremony was held in Conakry under the chairmanship of the High Representative of the Head of State, Claude Kory Kondiano, who noted in his speech: “Entrepreneurs and businessmen play a leading role in the development of Guinea, which has made significant progress in many areas over the past 10 years under the leadership of President Alpha Conde. Today’s ceremony is a great opportunity to pay tribute to the best of those who create jobs and support the national well-being of our country.”

Commenting on the RUSAL management in Guinea’s award for its achievements in the field of Corporate Social Responsibility and the fight against COVID-19, Yakov Itskov, Director of RUSAL’s Alumina Business, said: “For 20 years, RUSAL has been successfully developing its business in Guinea and has always helped the country’s residents in difficult times. In 2015, we built a state-of-the-art epidemiology center in Guinea to fight the Ebola epidemic, and in 2020, we opened another multi-functional infectious disease treatment center to counter COVID-19. We will continue to provide systematic support to Guinean healthcare, guided by the principles of social responsibility of business.”

In addition, in July 2020, RUSAL delivered medical humanitarian cargo intended to combat the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic. The cargo included dozens of medicines, as well as modern medical equipment and consumables for the treatment of patients with coronavirus. In November 2020, RUSAL supplied two new ambulances to Guinea, both equipped for providing emergency medical care and resuscitation of patients, including ventilators.

RUSAL was the first private company to assist Africa in fighting against the spread of dangerous infections. During the Ebola epidemic outbreak in Kindia in 2015, RUSAL built the Centre for Epidemic and Microbiological Research and Treatment (CEMRT). The center has since been acknowledged nationally as one of the sites for the diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19 in Guinea, and received the first patients with coronavirus. In June 2020, the new multifunctional medical center for the treatment of infectious diseases was constructed in Fria.

RUSAL has been operating in the Republic of Guinea since 2001, and remains as one of the largest international investors in the country. In Guinea, RUSAL owns Compagnie des Bauxites de Kindia (CBK), as well as the Friguia bauxite and alumina production facility. In addition, RUSAL is continuing with the implementation of a project aimed at developing the world’s largest bauxite deposit Dian-Dian in Boke. The proven reserves of this field amount to 564 million tons.

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