CREA’s work broadly covers four interrelated areas—human rights, gender, sexuality, and violence against women. Instead of addressing these issues separately, CREA takes a more holistic and inclusive approach to improving the lives of women and girls in the global South.
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status…”
—The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
CREA believes that for sustainable development, women and girls must have the freedom, the power, and the support to demand and access their sexual and human rights. Only then can they enjoy safe and happy lives. However, across the world, unequal social structures repress women and their rights, along with the rights of other marginalised communities. Women and girls are denied the opportunity to make choices around their bodies and their lives. And, if they “dare” to, they face discrimination and exclusion. This violation of their basic human rights plays out in a multitude of ways—from lack of access to proper nutrition, education, and employment opportunities to restricted mobility and violence.
Exclusion is the segregation of a group of people from the social, political, economic, cultural, educational, and religious domains of societal life. It provides the basis for senses of superiority and inferiority among the members of the same society or culture, and culminates in a system of domination and subjugation, oppression, and exploitation.
Traditional practices and customs, for instance, continue to discriminate against women, even when there are laws in place to protect their rights. In India, for example, child marriage and dowry demands persist despite laws forbidding them. Another expression of discrimination against women is the son preference syndrome, which has survived and mutated in India and many South Asian countries, despite modernisation.
The social and economic status of women and other communities may also limit their ability to enjoy their rights. These statuses are largely determined by societal structures. More and more women are losing access to common lands, forests, and natural resources, on which their household economies rest, because of privatisation and land accumulation in rural areas. This, in turn, is preventing them from enjoying their human rights to the fullest.
Sexual rights are particularly curtailed, especially those of women and girls and of people whose sexual preferences and/or gender expressions are not considered legitimate. Same-sex-desiring and transgender people face harassment, intimidation, and extortion, particularly from State authorities.
The concept of ‘marginalisation’ encounters a great deal of fluidity in its definition. At its broadest, some argue that all women are marginalised and are, therefore, in need of protective strategies to promote their full participation in society. Others look at the intersection of gender with other variables such as class, caste, profession, education, and/or sexuality to identify women who are ‘more’ marginalised than others. Still others use the framework of social exclusion analysis to explain why some groups of women are systematically restricted in their access to resources and power, and are unable to fully participate in society.
The very networks and structures that are supposed to support women and girls at all stages of their lives—family and community, friends, and formal support systems provided by the State, such as education, health, and justice—often fail them when they are most in need. For example, disabled people, especially women, may find themselves shunned by their natal families, denied basic necessities such as food and education, and married off at the earliest possible opportunity. Sex-working women are subjected to stigma, discrimination, and humiliation when they try to access the very health services that are supposed to be providing care. Same-sex-desiring people often lose their accommodation, means of earning livelihood, and family support when they ‘come out’.
While all women and marginalised communities experience oppression at some point in time, those from the global South often experience added burdens as a result of the intersections within their lives—being based in the South, facing poverty, and belonging to marginalised and/or minority communities (including LBT and disabled women). Also, they are often under-represented in leadership and decision-making positions within social movements, organisations, and communities.
These are just few examples of the ways in which women, girls, and other marginalised communities are denied their human rights and silenced by the unequal and unjust power structures of the society. The injustices are much more convoluted and entrenched in the societal structures; so much so that they are often considered “normal” or usual.
“Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviour, activities, and attributes that a particular society considers appropriate for men and women. The distinct roles and behaviour may give rise to gender inequalities, i.e. differences between men and women that systematically favour one group…”
—World Health Organization
We often hear statements like “Pink is such a ‘girly’ colour; boys should wear blue” or “Girls should ride mopeds and boys should ride motorcycles; they are more ‘macho’” or “She laughs so loudly; like a man!” or “A woman must know how to cook” or “A woman must have long hair to look ‘beautiful’” or “Politics is not for women” or “Boys don’t cry”?
These are the ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ roles that are attributed to women and men (respectively, of course) by their societies. These socially constructed roles are referred to as gender. Gender is quite different from biological sex. Gender is not something that you are born with; it is not innate or “natural”. It is something that you learn, acquire, and adhere to, forcibly or unknowingly. The differences between these roles give rise to gender inequality, favouring one group over the other.
At birth, newborns are identified as ‘male’ or ‘female’, based on their sex organs. Those babies whose genitals are not clearly male or female are termed ‘intersex’. Some come to feel ambiguous about their gender identity or identify with the gender other than the one they were brought up with. They may be termed ‘transgender’.
Gender roles and norms impact everyone’s lives, including their sexual and reproductive health and rights. Restrictive gender roles limit the opportunities available, especially to women, to develop to their full capacity as a human being. Thus, most countries have identified the achievement of gender equality as a moral imperative and as key to strengthening societies. However, gender norms, roles, and stereotypes are so deeply entrenched in our societies that this seems like a daunting task. Patriarchy is further reconstituting the old binary sexual identities and gender roles, responsibilities, and stereotypes, while simultaneously constructing new ones. Those who do not conform to the dominant gender roles are excluded, marginalised, and/or threatened. They face stigma, discrimination, and violence. They are denied equal opportunities as those conform to these roles, and are prevented from exercising their rights.
SEXUALITY AND SEXUAL RIGHTS
“Sexuality is an integral part of the personhood of every human being. For this reason, a favourable environment in which everyone may enjoy all sexual rights as part of the process of development must be created.”
—Sexual Rights: an International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) declaration
When someone talks about ‘sexuality’, the first—and for some, the only—thing that comes to mind is sexual activity. Sexuality is rarely seen and understood as anything beyond that. Thus, it is often regarded as more trivial than ‘critical’ problems such as poverty, war, or drought. Even when considering women’s issues, sexuality is deemed as less important than gender, human rights, reproductive health, and violence against women. Also, it is much more difficult and unsettling for people (including activists and policymakers) to talk about sexuality and break the age-long silence associated with this ‘taboo’ issue. It is much more “safe” and “moral” to avoid dealing with sexuality.
Sexuality, however, has extremely deep, strong, and intricate interconnections with all these issues and more. There is, for instance, recognised and direct corollary between poverty and inadequate access to good quality reproductive and sexual healthcare, sexual violence, and harassment, restrictions on mobility, and stigma and discrimination related to HIV status, and sexual and gender identities. Sexuality, similarly, is an issue that we cannot choose to omit when we talk about gender, human rights, reproductive health and rights, violence against women, marriage, abortion, HIV/AIDS, and other such issues. Only when people’s basic human rights are honoured can they make choices about their sexuality, and only when their choices about their sexuality are honoured can they access their human rights.
“Sexuality is, at the very least, about health, pleasure, bodies, violence, rights, identity, and employment. It is about families and domestic spaces, intimate relations and public engagements, access to economic resources and the right to go safely to a conducive work environment. In its various spaces, languages, and forms, it is no longer willing to be a lesser politics, but instead is one that is demanding to be heard, and have its connections with other politics acknowledged.”
—Sexual Rights and Social Movements in India, CREA publication
Sexuality is an evolving concept, which includes sexual activity, intimacy, eroticism, pleasure, reproduction, as well as sexual orientation, gender identities, and health. It is framed and influenced by the interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, ethical, legal, historical, religious, and spiritual factors. It gets reflected in our desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviours, practices, and relationships. Sexual rights are human rights related to sexuality, which contribute to the freedom, equality, and dignity of all people. Three elements are essential to this—pleasure, choice, and consent.
Women, for instance, must have autonomy over decisions about their bodies and lives—choose when and whom to have sex with, decide if and with whom to get married, choose when and if to have children, determine when and what medical and other information and services they require and access them, protect themselves from violence, “use” their bodies to earn a living if they want, and much more. They must feel confident and safe in expressing their sexual orientation and preferences without any fear of stigma, discrimination, or violence. These are their sexual rights.
Another important aspect is that sexuality must be detached from reproduction. Sexuality, and the pleasure derived from it, is central to being human, whether or not a person chooses to reproduce. This is especially true in the case of people with non-heteronormative sexual identity and/or gender orientation.
However, across the world, people face several barriers to exercising their sexual rights. These barriers and violations take different forms, and they are so common that they are often seen as “normal”. Sexuality is used as a domain of control that furthers a variety of injustices, especially for vulnerable groups such as women and sexual minorities. Fundamentalism, for instance, particularly curtails sexual rights, especially those of women and of people whose sexual preferences and/or gender expressions are not considered legitimate. States, religions, cultures, societies, and families exert influence and control over women’s bodies. Same-sex-desiring and transgender people face harassment, intimidation, and extortion, particularly from State authorities.
“Prostitution is often loosely referred to as ‘selling the body’, a term that perpetuates the myth that what is exchanged is also ownership, personhood, and self. “Are we selling our bodies or are we selling sex?” asked Misra [Geetanjali Misra, CREA]. “We very easily say: she’s selling her body. Is she? She still has it. How we use language in our advocacy impacts what happens to people behind those words.”
“Sex work is often seen through binary lenses—sex work out of necessity is considered legitimate, but not sex work for any other reason. “Why is it okay to do sex work for stomach or survival but not for lipstick?” asked Meenakshi Kamble, a woman in sex work from VAMP. “Why should girls not have a right to luxury items?”
“While sex work has traditionally been seen as the most extreme manifestation of patriarchy, sex workers rights groups argue that sex work also challenges patriarchy…In deconstructing patriarchy, it is vital to talk about institutions that control sexuality. “We also need to talk about the sacred space of sex. The engagement of feminists on the so-called ‘sacred space’ of sex is very limited. Sex is looked down upon, but anything in the name of love is considered.” [Meena Seshu, Sampada Gramin Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM)]
“Everything around prostitution has been so maligned and stigmatized that violence around it is very high,” said Meenakshi Kamble. Violence exists in both marriage and prostitution, but marriage is not itself seen as violence—prostitution is. Neither are married women maligned the way sex workers are.”
“Prostitution has traditionally been seen as a form of violence against women. Over the last two decades, however, the global sex workers’ rights movement has consistently argued that while there is violence within prostitution, the exchange of sexual services for money is not in and of itself violence. Consensual adult prostitution does not constitute violence per se.”
—Ain’t I a Woman? A Global Dialogue Between the Sex Workers’ Rights Movement and the Stop Violence Against Women Movement, Bangkok, Thailand, 12–14 March 2009
Disabled people are among the most marginalised throughout the world. Among other discriminations faced by them, they often lack proper access to the information, human connections, positive self-image, and health services that help fulfil sexual experiences. This discrimination is due to social norms about sexuality and disability, and assumptions and misunderstandings about disabled people’s sexuality. Disability intersects with other oppressions including gender, further compounding the problem. This does not only deny disabled people full human expression, but also leads to increased vulnerability to sexual violence and sexually transmitted infections.
Lack of bodily autonomy is particularly evident amongst adolescent girls in India. Their right to bodily integrity is violated in various ways. A large number of adolescent girls, for example, are forced into work that they have not chosen, either by their families or by employers. Many are forced into early marriage with boys or men who they have never met or have had no influence in choosing—about half of India's women marry before the legal minimum age of 18 years (Oxfam India, 2010). Contraception is absent in many parts of India, and it is men who usually have control over whether to use it or not. Many girls are forced to bear children at young ages and against their will—among young women age 15–19 years in Uttar Pradesh, 14% have already begun childbearing, a little lower than the national average (16%). Few have the power or the means to access abortion services should they wish to terminate pregnancy and, since many lack the knowledge of reproductive health issues, they are badly placed to negotiate pregnancy and the post-natal period.
Many development, health, and rights organisations, including disability and sexual and reproductive health and rights groups, have ignored disabled people, especially their needs related to sexuality. Civil society actors need to build awareness on disability, the sexual rights of disabled people, and how sexuality intersects with other aspects of people’s lives including basic needs of survival.
One of the main issues is that the ongoing work in the area of sexual and reproductive health suffers from a lack of coherent understanding and analysis of theoretical and conceptual issues related to sexuality and their practical applications. Also, women are often not included within the policy discussions and agenda setting around these issues, which leads to a lack of context and nuance, and flawed programme design. Few organisations working on issues of gender, human rights, HIV/AIDS, and sexual and reproductive health are aware of the links of sexuality with gender, health, and human rights. Therefore, organisations find themselves unable to examine the assumptions upon which they base their work. Also, many programmes on women’s reproductive health deny women agency by focusing solely upon population growth and control. Although some such programmes have begun to move towards improving the quality of individual lives through the promotion of gender equality, sexual choice, and reproductive rights, but a lot remains to be done.
As a result, strategies developed are based on unexamined models that might be discordant with stated goals. This not only reduces the potential impact of work on these issues, but sometimes also leads to the development and implementation of flawed programmes, advocacy initiatives, and actions. Ultimately, this acts as roadblock for attaining the human rights of all people, especially of women, young people, and sexual minorities.
Sexual and reproductive rights must be upheld to ensure the fulfilment of women’s dignity and bodily integrity. Without this, women’s full participation in society and the promotion and protection of human rights principles cannot be fully realised. As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women noted, “The articulation of sexual rights constitutes the final frontier for the women’s movement” (E/CN.4/2003/75 at para. 65).
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
“Violence against women means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”
—Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993), United Nations General Assembly
At least one in three women faces violence in her lifetime, regardless of her culture, religion, socioeconomic class, or education level. This violence is the final expression of the subordination of and discrimination against women as a gender. It remains embedded in our societies, both as a daily reality and a hallmark of crisis situations, perpetrated by State and non-State actors. And, it takes various forms—from forced marriage and domestic violence to forced abortion and sterilisation; from social exclusion to sex trafficking and rape; from dowry deaths to honour killings.
In an age of terror, war, and conflict, violence against women, including sexual violence, is a pandemic that is regarded by some as an inevitable, if regrettable, consequence of conflict and humanitarian situations. This attitude virtually guarantees impunity for perpetrators and effectively silences the survivors.
Women who are outside the ‘mainstream’ of the society on account of, for example, their sexuality (women who have sex with other women), their means of employment (women who sell sex), their age (young and never married), or their physical or mental ability to assert themselves (women with physical or mental disability) suffer high rates of violence. They are often unable to seek and receive protection from State agencies. And, although this violence is widespread, it remains underreported and under-addressed because of stigma and discrimination.
A recent Oxfam International study concluded that one in two women in South Asia faces violence within her home. In India, for example, a 2004 survey conducted in the state of Odisha revealed that virtually all women and girls with disabilities were beaten at home, 25% of the women with intellectual disabilities had been raped, and 6% of the women with disabilities had been forcibly sterilised. These sub-categories of marginalised women and the specific forms of violence that they face get shadowed by the overarching category of bodily violence, which is understood purely through the lens of conservative morality.