But it’s a great start. At 3.4 billion, women are undoubtedly the world’s largest minority. The fact that an awareness day is necessary to highlight the inequality faced by such a large proportion of the world’s population is an indictment on society. Of course, as a society, generally speaking, most men and women do not actively encourage this inequality, but with the exception of a perceived radical few, we all seem for the most part to be pretty content with ignoring it and pretending that it is one of those things that only happens in places far away from here.
Well it’s time to wake up. Because inequality and abuse happen in this country on a scale that is shocking. Earlier this year, I resigned from a position where in that role, I was one of a very small group of people who was privy to the data collected in the Youth ‘07 and Youth ’12 reports which collected data on all manner of areas including health and education from high school students around New Zealand (in 2007 and 2012). In fact, a little known fact about me is that I have quietly yet actively probed government to tackle the issue of abuse of girls and women in NZ through this role – my concern surrounding this issue is certainly nothing new, and for a long time I have felt that we currently are aiming to be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff rather than taking preventative action. This study was a joint project between the University of Auckland and the Ministry of Health. My role saw me on a panel providing a youth perspective report on the data (you can download the report here). The findings appalled me. Sexual abuse and coercion of girls under the age of 16 in this country is endemic. Although it has been progressively declining since 2001 (or the reporting of it anyway), 1 in 5 girls at high school in NZ currently report having been sexually abused or coerced – statistically, that is one girl at every table in every high school. That worries me, yet this statistic is not widely known by society. On top of this statistic of course are those who feel they cannot report it, those who are first abused after age 16, and the incredible amount of sexual harrassment which almost every girl I know has reported experiencing on multiple occassions. This statistic also makes no differentiation between isolated incidents and years of continued abuse. This abuse is not restricted to certain demographics of society either – those from wealthy and poorer backgrounds are just as likely to be victims of abuse, and the majority of the time, the abuse comes from someone within the family who is supposed to be in a position of trust. In light of all this, we can fairly safely assume that the 1 in 5 statistic is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this issue. As a country we need to ask ourselves why this is happening, and take the stand that this is not okay. It has got to stop. We need to remove the taboo and shame that is placed on the victims of such abuse and place that firmly on the shoulders of the perpetrators whom, statistically are unlikely to be brought to account for their actions. Better yet, we should be answering the question of what it is that is driving so many people – both men and women, who presumably in many cases are perceived by those around them as ordinary members of society, many presumably with respected jobs to inflict physical and emotional hurt on those who are supposed to be in their care. And then we need to be a country that leads the way in putting an end to abuse.
Sexual harrassment is another epidemic which we as a society know all too well is absolutely rife, yet are reluctant to do anything about. It seems that if you are a particularly physically attractive person, that you can expect sexual harrassment. Harassment can take many different forms, from a suggestive comment or gesture being yelled from a passing car, to being leered at, or to the even less subtle slap on the bum by a customer as you are working a menial job trying to make ends meet. The blind-eye that society turns towards this implies that one should perhaps even take such harrassment as a compliment, but the reality is that it is creepy and leaves people feeling very uncomfortable, whether you intended it to or not. Sexual harrassment is largely unreported. There are plenty of ways to compliment someone, and show your appreciation for the holistic person that they are – none of these ways involve harassment. Again, as a society, we need to ask ourselves why this practice is such commonplace, and perhaps the media also need to take a long hard look at themselves.
The number of high-flying female role models on TV is far fewer than the average representation of women on many popular TV shows watched by impressionable young people which feature highly sexualised, poorly educated young women whose sole purposes appear to be to fulfil an ancient stereotype where they paint their nails and please their man. Most of the popular music of today makes some reference to a desire to perform a sexual act usually with the man being dominant and the woman submissive. The song “Timber” by Pitbull featuring Ke$ha is a perfect example of this, with the line ‘I’m slicker than an oil spill, she says she won’t, but I bet she will’ – whilst I enjoy a good dance beat as much as the next person, we do have to ponder the message that this may send out to some people who perhaps interpret what they see and hear more literally than challenging what they are told. On top of this, young people growing up are living in an age where porn is so readily accessible which portrays women more as an object to be used for your pleasure as opposed to a fellow human with independent thought and emotions. Teenage boys need more support in navigating the minefield that is puberty so that they have an appropriate perspective of girls and women instilled in them from the beginning, and girls need more support on what true reality and beauty looks like so they too can manage the barrage of assaults on self-esteem imparted by traditional and social media and create a stronger self-image. We cannot (and should not) ban these types of media, but we should focus on delivering a more balanced view of reality and empowering young people to discern for themselves what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour to replicate.
Raising awareness of the global plight for women is not confined to sexual inequality though, it stretches further than that. Relative to some countries, we are fortunate that in law at least, women are afforded the same rights as men – we were the first country to give women the vote back in 1894 (it seems proposterous to us today that half the adult population were not granted this fundamental right prior to that), women, like men, are permitted freedom of speech, expression and movement in our country as well as equal access to healthcare and education – these are all written into our Bill of Rights. Yet, inequality is still there. Employment is a fine example. Archaic as it seems, there does still seem to be a pay gap between the average wage earned by a man versus that earned by a woman. We see examples where some job and training opportunities are only available to men or only available to women and this is wrong. I have had the privilege of working in male-dominated, female-dominated and gender-neutral industries in my time. Of these, the industry with the highest pay scales was a male-dominated one. In this particular industry, women are rare but are generally viewed as a valued asset, would earn an amount on par with a man doing the same job, but would rarely progress to hold the top positions. These are strong industries, held in high-regard around the world. In the female-dominated industries I have worked in, as a male I have felt that I too am seen as an asset, although have felt I initially had to prove my worth (as I imagine a woman working in a male-dominated industry does too). In these industries, so far, I have found no pay gap between men and women, and the right person for the job will typically hold the top positions. Of all the industries I have worked in, I have found these ones to be the fairest with regard to hiring practice. I have however, felt that some other industries feel that some female-dominated industries are less important or hold less credence than their own which is untrue. I found gender-neutral industries to be the worst. This is where I noticed significant pay gaps between men and women, harrassment of women, and a lack of promotional opportunities for women because, and I quote “they will only end up leaving to have babies”. This quotation was one male manager’s view but could well be fairly representative of supposedly gender-neutral industries as in my experiences men held the top jobs and would be promoted more quickly whilst women remained in menial jobs for longer. This is discrimination, is not uncommon and is certainly not right.
I for one hope to see the day where I do not feel privilege and advantage for having been born a male – something that like every girl and women out there, I had no control over, and that my female counterparts globally are given the respect, opportunities, safety and security that all humans deserve regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, religion or disability, not just for one day, but everyday. Until then, may International Women’s Day serve as a timely reminder that equality remains an aspiration, an aspiration that starts by each and every one of us acknowledging that discrimination exists at a societal level, and that although it may be far easier to ignore it, we must appreciate the hurt that it causes, and our actions, not words at both an individual and societal level must demonstrate that when we say that every person is afforded equal rights and opportunities that we really mean it. I hope that by the time my children grow up, that they find it hard to believe equality between fellow humans was ever something that people had to fight for. This isn’t about feminism, this is about protecting all of humanity. Whenever we discriminate against a sector of society and prevent them from or do not empower them to make a valuable contribution to society, then we have all lost. All 7 billion of us. Much of what I know today has been imparted to me by women and without their contribution to my life, I too would be limited in my contribution I can make to the planet. This is about men and women around the world standing up for what we know is right, for all of humanity’s sake.