Published: 3rd August 2010
Heera Rajagopal - There is amazing courage and strength in women who have faced extreme brutalities, yet it seems to lack in women who have faced far less. In your experience of working with such women do you see something specific that makes them flourish with even the slightest assistance?
Taina Bien-Aimé - I think when you look at the women who have not only survived violation but have taken that pain and transformed it into leadership and action, I think they are women who—I don't particularly think it is because they are in a specific country or not—I think that they are just leaders.
It is true that when you are squeezed against the wall; and you really have to protect your family, or you love life so much that you understand that you need to survive and not only survive yourself but also you need to help others get out of a terrible situation; you do have that extra impetus to change. Those who have been in dire situations and have had the vision and leadership to change have been remarkable leaders.
And it is true that if you do have a more comfortable life, the urgency of change may be less. But what we urge is that those who do have a more comfortable life, to be educated about the violations against women and girls around the world and help them in any way they can. You do not have to dedicate your life to human rights to help others; sometimes it is just signing a check, or writing a letter to government, or picking up the phone and calling the local representative and asking them to pay attention to these issues. So there is enough work to be done for all of us.
HR – What would you say to those who question the interest and participation of first world countries in third world and developing countries?
TB - Human rights is not a Western concept. It is very convenient for people who oppose equality and dignity for women and girls to blatantly say that it is Western. Human rights transcends culture, religion and regions.
In every community where there are human rights violations perpetrated against women and girls, you have outstanding individuals and grass root organizations that come from those communities. They often are survivors of human rights abuses who are leading the way to end the abuses against women and girls, and who are challenging the political norms of their communities.
What Equality Now (EN) does is help the work that is being done on the ground in such communities and those communities then challenge the harmful aspects of their religion, tradition or culture. What they don't have is access to the media, access to decision-making, access to mobilization of the international community to end those abuses. EN works in a way that provides an international layer for the work that is being done on the ground.
HR - So it is our responsibility to affect change when we have access or a better platform?
TB - Yes, I think it is the responsibility of those of us who have access and have the power to put pressure on government to affect change to help those in the ground war to help their sisters and women in their community to live a life free of violence where they can reach their potential.
I think there are two movements. You have the grass roots movements, the people in their communities who are challenging the political norms. We are talking about politics, yes—religion and culture play a huge role but very often religion is used as a political tool to oppress women. If you go back to the original text, whether it is the Koran or the Bible or the Torah, very often people will take passages that are convenient to oppress women. So there is the grassroots part that we need to support.
There is also the government part. Governments around the world go to the United Nations many times a year where they make commitments to protecting the rights of human beings including women and girls. They have passed declarations and resolutions and signed laws and international human rights instruments, regional instruments and sometimes even national constituents that promote equality. So, the second part is for us as a community to put pressure on government to implement the laws that they have signed.
And we always say that with political will, women's rights organizations will be out of business in three months. There is very, very limited political will to ensure that the laws are in place to prevent violence, to protect children and women from violence, and to prosecute those who harm them.
So while there has been tremendous success in certain countries in establishing laws that protect women or appealing discriminatory laws against women; laws such as, wife obedience, laws allowing polygamy, or laws that make minimum age of marriage eighteen, there are still too many countries that have discriminatory laws or they do not implement the laws that they have to protect women and girls.
HR – How do you propose to bring about change in woman's rights where the heads of state have multiple wives and mistresses; where using culture as an excuse to maintain control is the norm?
TB –I think it is part of dismantling the patriarchal system. And it is not just in countries where polygamy exists; even when you look in the West it is very hard to, on the one hand call for the equality of women and end the exploitation of women yet on the other hand pay for sex and pay for prostituted women which happens a lot in the West. So not only are you breaking the law but you are also perpetuating systems of exploitation. It is very frustrating for our work to have to put pressure on governments that are headed by men who have no respect for women's rights.
HR - You just answered my next question—regarding dealing with men in power who have no respect for the rights of women.
TB - Yes, you know we always say that culture can change because of the grass roots movement and we see that; for instance, in the issue of female genital mutilation. But where we find the most stringent resistance is at the highest levels of decision making; where men in power who have the opportunity to change laws or policies or take action but refuse to do so and blame it on whatever religious, tradition or cultural practices. In fact, it is very often that they don't believe in principals of equality and are certainly not models of maintaining systems of respect or justice for women in their own lives.
HR - How can progress be made in rural areas where the leadership for decision making to select a woman project leader or a leader to promote women's equality is given to the local man who is a known criminal or an oppressor of women?
TB - Nobody works on an island and everybody is part of a political structure. I think it is really important for central government, or even regional or state entities or other political mechanisms, to ensure that if you are in a position of power you have to abide by the law and you have to abide by human rights principles.