My column from this week’s Ham & High:
Tacking Violence against Women and Girls internationally
I visited a rural village outside of Patna in the northern state of Bihar in India last week. Everyone was gathered around. We sat under a tree where an acting troupe put on a show about the violence women in India experience as part of their everyday lives.
The women of the village all sat in a circle – joined by myself and UK Department for International Development (DFID) aid workers with the men of the village watching on.
The ‘play’ showed a young woman who was just married and now living with her new family of in-laws. Daughters when they marry go to the family of the groom to live. The whole family treated her like a slave – the mother-in-law, sisters, brothers, father. They hit her for the most minor transgression (like putting down food for her husband slightly in the wrong position). She is four months pregnant. It gets worse and worse and one day the husband uses such violence that she dies. Never mind. He marries a new wife straight away. No problem there.
Afterwards I got to talk to the women of this village who are taking part in the state government and DFID program of setting up female Self Help Groups (SHGs). These SHGs are based on financial empowerment where women put in a few rupees to save. A bank account is opened – and then collectively they can loan the money to members for investment in small micro-finance projects (growing tomatoes and selling them was one) or to lend to a woman who needs medical treatment. The loans are paid back. From this ‘empowerment’ for the first time women are talking to each other about their circumstances.
I asked the women whether they recognised the situations portrayed in the play. Yes. I asked if any of them had experienced violence. Yes. I asked their assurance that when they became mothers-in-law – they would not treat their daughters-in-law that way. They say they would not. They also said that they would make sure their daughters were not forced into early marriage before they were eighteen and that they would make sure their daughters were educated.
They also said that since the formation of the SHG the violence had reduced by 75%.
Violence against women and girls in India is a very private matter. It is kept behind closed doors – silence surrounds the victim – and no one is there to help. But even here things are changing. There is a law now against Domestic Violence – but access to justice is very, very limited. Girls are now mandated primary education – but enrolment is better than attendance. The law now states that it is illegal to marry under 18 – but under age marriage is still common (70% of women in Bihar marry before 18). It is illegal to demand a dowry – but dowries are still common, and ‘dowry deaths’ are still regularly featured in the news – with young women either being driven to suicide – or actively helped. Forced marriage is not uncommon. 5000 women a year are murdered. Millions are victims of violence. Girl fetuses are often aborted. Trafficking is still common.
With recent attacks on the coalition for ring-fencing the overseas aid budget – I want to say how proud I am that even in this time of great hardship for people in our own country – we continue to recognise the depth of need and levels of poverty of others in the world and do not turn our backs on our international responsibilities.
I have just come back from two days in Nepal and three days in India in my role of overseas champion for tackling violence against women and girls internationally. Yes – we have a huge enough problem with domestic violence in this country which we are tackling at a number of levels and for which we are ring-fencing central government funding – but the scale and scandal of such violence in developing countries is beyond imagination. Our commitment to overseas aid and our work through DFID is a hugely important part of our commitment to international human rights.
Whilst violence against women runs at around 37% in India generally – in Bihar – a northern state of around 100 million people – it runs at 59%. The village I describe was in Bihar. Of course, in a column I only have space to relate one tiny piece of what I saw in India and Nepal. Bihar is one of three states in which DFID is concentrating UK aid efforts.
But in that village – what I saw with the SHG – was the beginning of change. It will take years – no doubt. Violence against women and girls happens right across the world in every country – but as women find a voice and group together – strength grows.
DFID is working on the ground in Bihar on health, on urban development, on governance and on violence against women. They work with the state government (many members of which I had meetings with) and my mission was to raise the issue and share information.
There is no doubt that this work, this partnership, will deliver huge change and huge benefits for the people of Bihar and we should be proud of our contribution.
What makes me sad is the single comment on the YouTube video which shows the village play. The sole comment is ‘who cares’?
Well – I do. And the British Government does. And despite our economic challenges – I have some faith that the majority of the British people do too.