I don’t believe that fighting fire with fire is the means to a peaceful end – especially as it pertains to the rights of women in developing countries. We can’t politically sway the opinions and decisions of the civil laws in these places. The means to equality is through empowerment from within. This is what we are all about. We travel to, stay with and train these women on an important craft so that they can financially prosper, gain self-esteem, have access to hygiene and take care of their children and families. We believe that this is the key to unlocking the confined door of negative customary social paradigms.
Thus, I am reporting on 3 different topics on the current state of women as it stands today:
1. The denial of property rights in sub-Saharan Africa
2. Honor killings in the Middle East
3. Dowry in South Asia
As a group, let’s stay abreast of the current conditions of 50% our species population. Let’s stay current about the on-goings of the female empowerment movement. There are far too many to report on in this issue, so I landed on three. Please email me or call me if you have any topics you would like me to write about moving forward. Part of my job here at the Lovin’ Soap Project is to educate the populace about the big-picture outlooks, trials and tribulations of the empowerment movement so that people realize what and why we are doing what we are doing.
Denial of Property Rights and the H2O Fall-Out
Outright violence usually harvests the most lurid reactions when we discuss the chronic oppression of women in developing nations. But a far lengthier and customary assassin of rights has been existent for centuries. The economic subjugation that results from the absence of property rights for women is so commonplace that we often forget the severity of the impacts. This is seen most in agrarian societies where subsistence farming is not only the way of life; it is the literal means to living. The Lovin’ Soap Project witnessed this first hand in Uganda last year.
In many African nations south of the Saharan desert, such as Kenya, Liberia, Rwanda, Ghana, Tanzania and Uganda, women will lose their land when they are widowed because their entitlement to the land is founded solely on their marriage. In essence, they never really owned anything. In the eyes of customary law in Sub-Saharan Africa, the wife simply gains access to their husbands’ land through marriage, but they do not gain property rights whatsoever. An unmarried woman has “rights” to their father’s land as long as he is alive.
In theory, women may own property according to the formal civil law in many (slowly) progressing African nations. In reality, however, the customary law prevails over the civil law, and the former still gives women the same status as goods or cattle. ‘Nakivumbi’ (Place of sickness and starvation), the village in Uganda where we taught and trained, is so far away from any formal town or city. Even the thought of having police to enforce the civil law of the country and area seems outlandish. So no matter what the law may say, the simple fact is that abject poverty is rampant among women and children in vast agrarian regions of Africa due to habitual social patterns. Imagine if you will, having a family of 7 children on a small plot of farmable land one day and the next day it is taken from you – after your husband has just passed away.
Owning land in an agrarian society usually means access to water, which is far more than a luxury – it is crucial to life and is the absolute most invaluable resource one can have in the environment. In many nations across sub-Saharan Africa, women can spend an average of eight hours walking to and from a water source, often acquiring the extra hands of their young children. This job is beneath men in these societies, thus the workload entrapment of women as the literal carriers-of-a-life-source never really ends. To put things into perspective, it takes roughly one thousand liters of water to grow one kilogram of grain. Taking into account an average of a little more than 1,000 mm of rainfall in some areas of sub-Saharan Africa, the rest of the water the crops demand is maintained by women.
Again, the customary law in African societies regards the fetching of water as strictly woman’s work, denigrating for a man. In some places, a man is actually prohibited even from assisting a woman in retrieving the water. The social status of the water fetchers is on par with that of cattle. When a woman’s access to water is restricted because of distance, time constraints, or illness, she must use lower-quality water. Unfortunately, 80 percent of all illnesses in undeveloped countries are transmitted by contaminated water, so the resort to inferior water sources poses a serious threat to health.
A Woman Raped Turns to Rubbish…
Islamic law does not necessarily sanction or validate honor killings, but it certainly can stimulate the horrific act under certain circumstances. A woman can dishonor her family by becoming a victim of rape. A 2002 study of women killed in Alexandria, Egypt, indicates that 47 percent of them were killed by a relative after they had been raped. In Jordan and Lebanon, 70 to 75 percent of the perpetrators of these so-called honor killings are the women’s brothers.
Quoted from Michelle Fram Cohen’s article in “The Independent Review” in regards to honor killing:
“In 2001, a sixteen-year-old rape victim turned to Jordanian police for protection from her family members, who threatened to kill her. The police made the girl’s father sign a statement in which he declared that he would not harm her. As soon as the girl returned home, however, her brother shot her four times in the head. After spending six months in jail, the brother was released and made the following statement to a CBS reporter: ‘I shouldn’t have been in prison for a minute. If she had stayed alive, everyone in our family would have hung his head in shame. A girl is like a glass plate. Take a glass plate and throw it on the floor and it breaks. Would it be any use anymore or not? A girl is just like that. If she has been violated, she’s finished’ (Roberts 2001).”
[Volume XI, Number 2, Fall 2006]
The Lovin’ Soap Project has yet to travel to the Middle East or country of Islamic predominance, although the area of Uganda we stayed was about 90% Muslim. I simply report about this subject matter to inform all of us of the very current matters at hand in our global community.
From Dowry to Blackmail to Murder
The practice of dowry continues to be prevalent in all socioeconomic groups in India. In simple terms, dowry is the wealth transferred from the bride’s family to the groom or his family, ostensibly for the bride. Dowry is an ancient custom, and its existence may even well predate any written records of it. Though this is a steadfast tradition in India (also North Africa and the Balkans), we all need to view the larger repercussions. Even when dowry is paid, the in-laws of the now-married woman may begin to blackmail her and her family for more money. In some cases, when the demands of the groom’s family are not met by the bride’s, the bride is murdered. This has become a very serious issue in South Asia, and some young wives have committed suicide under the pressures of the in-laws against her family.
According to the UNIFEM report Violence Against Women, nearly fifteen thousand dowry deaths are estimated every year in India. Most of these deaths are designed to look like accidental kitchen fires. Another growing trend in violent dowry disputes in this region of the world is acid attacks, which almost always causes blindness and often disfigurement (if they do not eventually die from the initial attack).
What does this mean in the larger social spectrum? The stresses of dowry lead to the substantial collective preference of having sons to daughters. Young men are assets and young daughters become liabilities. And what does this preference then infer?…female infanticide and sex-selective abortion. According to the Asia
Observer, parents are encouraged by unsavory medical practitioners who advertise their abortion services with the claim that 6,000 rupees (about $120 USD) paid today to abort a female fetus is cheaper than paying a lot more later for a dowry.
The Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 made the giving or taking of dowry illegal in India, punishable by a prison term and a fine, but the formal law has had little effect on the operation of the customary law
The Lovin’ Soap Project has been in Anupshahr, India in the state of Uttar Pradesh from March 18th – April 1st, teaching and training a group of women in a small village.
We are optimists. We have to be. Again, this is why you are reading this in the first place – because you care enough to make a difference. Ending violence and oppression against women and girls is within our reach. We can make a giant difference in the lives of the women that we teach, which sets up more learning onto their sons and daughters as time goes on. The Lovin’ Soap Project’s vision for a secure, satisfying and peaceful world is one in which women and girls are free from violence and abuse. Moreover, it is one where women and girls are free to thrive as equals. We can do this in a variety of ways as a people. Our way is through the artisan craft of soapmaking. This is what we are here to do. This is our purpose. We thank you so much for taking the time to read, contribute and spread the word. We cannot do this without you. You are ‘We’.
Benjamin Aaron, Co-Director