“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Celebrating International Women’s Day from a Business and Human Rights Angle

by Theresa

As in 2015, I wish to honour International Women’s Day by highlighting the importance of fighting for women’s rights and by bridging the gap between women’s rights activists and Business and Human Rights (B & HR) activists. Trigger Warning: Text speaks about sexual violence.

The words in the title are a famous quotation subscribed to Mahatma Gandhi. By using this quote I do not want to contribute to the elevation of somebody who – besides doubtless political successes – is deeply controversial with claims of racism and misogyny. Instead I wish to employ this quote to show that B & HR and feminist activists are often treated the same way by adversaries. Both movements question balances of power and demand a change to the advantage of those currently disfavoured by power-holders who make decisions about how social, political and financial resources are distributed.

First they ignore you,

In mainstream media both B &HR and feminist issues are regularly ignored: Poorly paid, underpaid or, slave-like, not-paid-at-all workers contribute massively to our world economy. If you ever wondered what the connection between them and your life is: there is a handy survey to find out how many slaves work for you.

I am yet to find a country where girls, women and others of the non-male gender (for convenience’s sake I continue speaking about women, but do not intend to foster the binary concept) are paid equally compared to men. “Equally” meaning equal money for equal work with equal standards in all comparable categories, from aspects like age, experience, education to different employers e.g. private economy and public authorities. In Western Europe and the US women earn significantly less than men. The situation is even worse in other countries (comprehensive information here). The international Equal Pay Day campaign has its origins in the US. There it was founded as the Red Purse campaign, using the symbol of a red purse, in 1988. Only in 2008, a German equivalent was created. This is surprising in view of the wide gender pay gap: In Germany, Equal Pay Day is celebrated on the 19th of March in 2016 because the average German gender pay gap currently translates into women in Germany working for free from 1 January to 19 March this year.

then they laugh at you,

There seems to be an infinite amount of vile, racist and sexist media reports, blog posts, and cartoons as well as spiteful every day remarks and gestures meant to dehumanise people. People who happen to be “at the wrong place at the wrong time”: because their land, religious place or pure livelihood is located upon a lucrative place where mining companies want to operate. Or because some people needed an outlet for their aggression, sexual deviation. Or – and this unites both victims of classic B&HR and feminist abuses – merely because this individual or group of people was the easiest to be victimised since no powerful member of society would care to fight for their rights. I have recently participated in a debate about the gender pay gap in Germany with a man who simply laughed. It is impossible to have your voice heard and to raise understanding for your cause if your cause itself is a joke to somebody else.

then they fight you,

The constant persecution of human rights defenders is a depressing and enraging fact, especially considering that very often all that is demanded are basic human rights like in the case of unionists. One example is the recent murder of Berta Cáceres, an indigenous activist in Honduras fighting for land rights and against mines and dams.
Exemplifying what I understand as “fight against women” does not need to take recourse to homicides based on hate which are exclusively committed to people of the female gender – femicide – which, for instance, regularly are perpetrated in Mexico. We can look at one of the so-called “better developed” states which praises itself for its gender equality instead.

Impunity for Rape

In Germany, at least a thousand if not more women had a horrible start into the New Year. Many of them wished to greet 2016 in cities like Cologne and Hamburg and were subjected to sexual assaults by organised groups of men. The majority did not dare to report the sexual assaults, at least not immediately. Many women went to the police to report stolen wallets and briefcases. These thefts had occurred as collateral to the main crime. Instead of presenting the ridiculous, back-wards state of German law behind these actions, media in Germany and abroad focused on the fact that most of the aggressors were foreign men enjoying refugee status or awaiting their asylum decision. These crimes led to a new climax in the German debate on how to handle the constant stream of refugees. Side note: this humanitarian crisis was supposedly unexpected by all decision-makers despite easily accessible information about the target countries for German weaponry exports, and constant reports from the outskirts of the European Union (EU) and their neighbouring countries about waves of refugees wishing to enter the EU for years.

In contrast to this, Sylvester 2016 showed – first and foremost – the real-life implications of a legal system: a system where punishment for violating property is rated higher than violating the physical integrity of a fellow human being. There is no legal provision prohibiting kissing another person against their will and touching them in sexually sensitive areas (breast, butt and genitals). Experiencing this already leaves women shaken for days and weeks. Even more worrisome is that courts will refuse to state a case of rape unless the sexual act committed without the other person’s consent was (1) significant enough and (2) was enabled by another violent act or significant threats by the perpetrator. The understanding of “significance” of the act itself is contentious, but is regularly decided in favour of perpetrators. The victim has to prove that she really did not want to engage in intercourse. With regard to the second requirement, it ignores the real circumstances: regularly women are so terrified by the act committed by the perpetrator that their bodies fall into a condition called “freeze response”: the victim literally freezes so that no further violence is needed to enable the crime.

Jumping the legal analysis, we must state: rape regularly goes unpunished in Germany. An act which destroys a person’s physical and mental integrity and requires superhuman strength, energy and time to overcome is not punishable by law. Instead of fighting for equal pay, equal partnerships, a life worth living, millions of girls and women are kept busy with putting together the pieces of their identity – as are their families and friends. This happens every day in societies which are officially in peace. Not in zones of conflict and war where sexual violence is used as a weapon of war. Subtly, unspoken this marks women’s consciousness: women are fully cognisant that it will be them, not the perpetrator who is responsible for the crime committed against themselves. This creates fear. Overcoming ever-present fear every day is a constant battle: a fight for something which is self-evident for others. For anybody who has never felt deeply insecure while doing ordinary day-to-day things like walking in a street alone, it may not be clear why I call this a fight. Start asking questions to your female fellow human beings and listen carefully.
Please consider signing the petition which calls for a legal reform in Germany.

then you win.”

© Séb

© Séb

I wish I could give you a happy ending here. Gandhi was successful in making the British powers leave India. Unfortunately, neither B & HR activists nor feminism has reached a happy and definite ending. Maybe there will never be an ending and the fight will continue. Some activists speak about “failing better” i.e. making tiny steps of progress while still pursuing the bigger objective. Moreover, humanity continues to change and so do activists’ objectives. There is constant development in thoughts on how human rights ought to be respected in business as well as how equality between men and women ought to be implemented. At the end of the day, the objectives stay constant: fighting for the sake of not resigning, and in order to shape present and future.

My greatest respect to all the fighters in B & HR and feminism. Happy international Women’s Day to All of Us!
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One comment

  1. For all men who wish to support the fight against the current and abusive German penal law for sex crimes and the manipulation of the New Year’s attacks for racist purposes: there is an online petition on the topic (in English and German)! The English title “Not with me. Men against sexualised violence and racism”, may confuse. It is the literal translation of the German expression “Nicht mit mir!” which implies refusing to participate in somebody else’s conduct..

    Liked by 2 people

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