“It is important that we always keep in mind that we are advantaged somehow and so it is good to share that advantage with others”
As part of our Women and Girls in Conflict month at The Circle, we caught up with Maya Ghazal, the inspiration refugee rights activist to speak about her the challenges that refugees face in the UK and her take on Women Empowering Women. Maya is the recipient of The Diana Legacy Award and is a student of Aviation Engineering with Pilot Studies at Brunel University.
Maya, tell us a little bit about yourself:
My name is Maya Ghazal, I am 20 years old and I am a refugee from Syria. I left Syria when I was 15 and got to the UK in 2015. I got to the UK in a plane via family reunion visa with my mum and two younger brothers as my dad was already in the UK. I faced many struggles coming to the UK and got rejected by schools in my community, however, after few dark months I was able to get over those struggles and challenges and finally got accepted to a college and was able to get back on track with my education.
Now, I am an advocate for refugees rights, speak in different events and volunteer to raise awareness and spread a message of kindness.
Can you tell us a little bit about the challenges that refugees face whilst living in the UK?
Well, from my own personal experience, I can say that integrating to the new community would be a challenge, learning English, entering the educational system and sometimes finding a job. These normal life activities can sometimes be challenging especially from people from outside the country with no one to help them or to tell them what to do or to guide them along the way.
If you could share one thing with our supporters, what would it be?
Your smallest act of kindness can change someone’s life, don’t keep it in! Something as small as a smile or a nice supportive word to refugees could make a huge difference. I wouldn’t have been who I am and got to where I am without support, help and encouragements from people around me.
Finally, what does ‘Women Empowering Women’ mean to you?
We can support each other, lift each other and bring each other together. It is important that we always keep in mind that we are advantaged somehow and so it is good to share that advantage with others, it feels good to help and support each other, it truly makes a difference. There are many myths and labels to women and we can change that, together and as one, we can make a change and it is important that we prove to the outside word that we can do it all regardless to whatever labels and society would be giving.
“Female genital mutilation (FGM) includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” (World Health Organization)
In February 2018, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women stated for International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM/C that “FGM is an act that cuts away equality”. Women suffer immense pain and a lifetime of complications such as neonatal death. Girls are cut with no opportunity to defend themselves, no voice to say no. This is a human rights violation.
FGM/C is usually carried out on young women between infancy and 15 years of age. Before these girls become adults’, the possibility to have a natural childbirth is taken away from them. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), women are at a significant risk of complications such as a post-partum haemorrhage, a prolonged and obstructed labour and worse of all losing their baby. FGM/C has no health benefits; so why are women and girls being forced to suffer such immense pain?
FGM/C is rooted in tradition and culture. Mlambo-Ngcuka stated this month how this practice is a form of gender-based violence and cannot be isolated from other forms of violence against women and girls. Neil Williams of World Vision UK reported for girlsnotbrides.com about travelling to Ethiopia to meet girls at risk of FGM/C and their families. Through the conversations Williams had with the girls and their families, we begin to understand how FGM/C and child marriage are intrinsically linked. Parents fear abduction and pre-marital sex and so remove their daughters from school and arrange to have them cut and married at an early age. Devastatingly, this is considered a safer alternative.
In a statement for the 2017 International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, Mlambo-Ngcuka highlighted how children living in communities where FGM/C is practiced will not finish school and will therefore have limited employment prospects. The cycle continues as girls who have mothers without an education are more likely to be subjected to FGM/C. They see their daughters being cut as adding value to their lives, securing a future marriage and family honour. Then again it is also seen as suppressing their sexuality. Young women and girls are cruelly stripped of the opportunity to make their own choices about their future. In some communities’ girls are not educated beyond lower secondary school, leading them to get married as it is believed their future prospects will be greater. There are also a lack of job opportunities and these jobs are prioritized for boys’. But educating girls can prevent the reoccurrence of child marriage and FGM/C. Education can create a future for girls where they are not limited by decisions made about their bodies without their consent.
FGM/C is tied up in a complex web of other human rights issues which we must simultaneously address.
According to UNICEF, in Djibouti where 78% of women and girls are subjected to FGM/C, a woman named Mariam Kako was cut at five years old. A razorblade was used to perform the type of FGM/C called pharaonic. When her daughter was born Kako told her mother that she would be not cut. Her mother ignored those wishes, showing her deeply held belief in this tradition. Kako’s baby girl died 40 days later at six months old. Kako now works to educate the population through encouraging people to tell their stories and refuting the myth that FGM/C is associated with religion. Many communities believe that child marriage and FGM/C are a ‘marker of their religious identity’. However, in religious scripture, this is not a requirement.
Experiences like Mlambo-Ngcuka’s and Mariam Kako’s stories are deeply personal and these women are incredibly brave to speak up about what they have been through to help expose the brutal effect FGM/C has on women and girls;
According to BBC News, by 2020 secondary school pupils in England will be educated on FGM as a dangerous practice. This education is incredibly important. According to UNICEF, between 2019 and 2030, 68 million girls will be cut if active steps are not taken to stop this brutal practice.
Many do not realise that FGM/C happens in the UK. Hibo Wadere told her story to the BBC, published on 4th February 2019. As a women she graphically describes the experience she went through as a six-year-old girl; the memories of blood and the screams still distressingly vivid.
UN Women are working with traditional leaders across Africa to increase commitment to ending child marriage and FGM/C. FGM/C is prevalent across 30 countries: 28 of them are in Africa. Queen Mother Best Kemigisa of the Tooro Kingdom, Uganda supports the work of UN Women. The Queen Mother states how people will listen to the religious and traditional leaders who uphold these practices as adding value to the lives of women and girls. The work UN Women are doing is vitally important. We need to work with these leaders and listen to their perspective in order for them to hopefully choose to listen to the reasons why these practices are unnecessary and harmful. If the minds of these leaders are changed, so too will the minds of their communities.
Annie Lennox’s Global Feminism campaign addresses how as feminists we must be looking at gender inequality on a global scale. It is about recognising that “Feminism needs to be relevant, appreciated and respected especially where the needs are greatest —in countries where women and girls are not even near the lowest rung of the ladder in terms of being able to realise the most fundamental of human rights.” – (Annie Lennox). Feminism is about reaching out to individual women and girls and addressing their individual needs which vary depending on where you live in the world. We must make sure to help encourage and strengthen the platform for women to speak up about their experiences of FGM/C and empower social and cultural change.
The UN have made it one of their sustainable development goals to “Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation” (Goal 5.3).
It is incredible that we dedicate February to raising awareness of FGM/C. We need intense periods of time where we gather together to educate people who are not aware of FGM/C or indeed the scale of the problem. But the campaigning cannot occur only in February. In order to continue fighting for women and girls to lead healthy lives, we must carry on discussing the issue and taking action to end it.
This article was written by Georgia Bridgett who is an intern for The Circle. Georgia is a recent English graduate and is passionate about women’s rights and the underlying issues in the fast-fashion industry.
“Experience of violence can lead to long term physical, mental and emotional health problems; in the most extreme cases, violence against women can lead to death.” – UN Stats
Every day women and girls face unimaginable circumstances as refugees. They endure an extremely unsafe journey where they are in fear of and at risk of violence only to reach a refugee camp where the fear and risk only continues.
The inhumane actions women experience appear to often remain in darkness as so many women feeling unable to share their pain and suffering. This suffering suggests that the distress and trauma of this horrific experience will only continue to fester. Women and girls are seeking a new life only to experience further pain forced upon them. The fear that they will experience gender-based violence is dominating their lives and limited choices. Woman have reportedly starved themselves so that they do not have to use the same bathrooms as men and one women was reportedly abused for asking for extra food for her children. Women and girls are being prayed on as a result of their vulnerable position. This should not be the case.
Women who have escaped their home country due to their sexual orientation are more at risk of violence.
According to Monica Costa Riba for Amnesty International, simple tasks such as showering or going to the toilet in Greek refugee camps ‘become dangerous missions’ which is partly due to a lack of toilets and showers in women-only areas. Women like Simone, a 20-year old lesbian woman who was beaten by her family because of her sexuality felt at risk of rape. Furthermore, according to the UN, women and girls are exposed to the risk of sexual harassment when collecting firewood for the daily chores such as cooking – tasks essential to survival. It has also been reported that some women ‘engage in survival sex’ to support their daughters.
We need to provide more support and safe spaces for women and girls at refugee camps to allow them to speak about their experiences.
In Dadaab, Kenya there is a project where refugee community workers are helping women and girls to get the help and support they need after traumatic experiences of violence and abuse. Please visit the International Rescue Committee’s record of a diary account written by an amazing young woman helping traumatised women at the Dadaab refugee camp to rebuild their lives whilst also bravely putting her own life at risk to do so. Miriam (name changed to protect her identity) meets with women in private to understand their situations and ask if they require services such as a medical exam if they have been sexually abused. This project highlights the dire situation refugee women and girls are facing every moment and the urgency needed to improve access to things like education which will help to break the cycle of abuse.
Many women refugees who have grown up without an education are more likely to face gender-based violence.
Indeed, the UN Refugee Agency has stated that a lack of education means women and girls are unable to protect themselves against abuse and improve their communities. The UNHCR states that, globally, primary schools enrol less than eight refugee girls per ten refugee boys. In secondary school there are less than seven refugee girls per ten refugee boys. Consequently, without an education the cycle of abuse continues. An education enables women to have the confidence to speak up for their rights and freedoms. Seeing women become doctors, teachers, artists, and lawyers for example allows girls to see that they can also be leaders in their communities. This will encourage young girls to see their potential and that their gender should never restrict them from reaching it. This year the UNHCR published a report entitled “Her Turn” which was a call to action for making refugee girls’ education a priority. This campaign is urging for more female teachers to inspire and teach girls and boys so that they can see that women are also leaders. Through putting reports like these into action and raising awareness of this crisis we can truly make a difference for future generations of women and girl refugees; until one day equal access to education will become a reality. No person should live in fear of violence.
Although the 16 Days of Activism and our Chai Day initiative have come to an end, we must continually demand better for women and girls across the globe, encourage increasing awareness of the desperate situation that refugee women and girls are forced into, and take action.
This article was written by Georgia Bridgett who is a volunteer for The Circle. Georgia is a recent English graduate and is passionate about women’s rights and the underlying issues in the fast-fashion industry.
Photography series tells the stories of Russia’s female prisoners
Domestic violence against women remains a global issue. According to UN Women, 70% of women worldwide have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual abuse from their partners in their lives. This is over double the number of women who have experienced abuse from a stranger. Statistics like this can often get overlooked, as home is a place associated with safety. However, sadly it is the place that many women are the most vulnerable.
The concept of marriage has changed over time and in most of the developed world is now predominantly associated with love. However, in many countries, marriage is still deeply rooted in patriarchal ideas. The unequal power dynamic this creates is one of the root causes of domestic violence. This is particularly visible in Russia; a society where culture is steeped in patriarchal tradition.
Elena Anasova// Section
An old Russian proverb states: “if he beats you, it means he loves you”. Dating back to the 15th Century, this phrase has long told Russian women to be proud of their bruises, suggesting that they are the outward symbol of a loving relationship. It suggests that a wife is her husband’s property; and her primary function is his emotional release.
Worryingly, recent reports have found that this turn of phrase is being used increasingly often. Women are referring to it when asked why they are staying with their abusive husbands, and victims of domestic violence are citing it when questioned on trial. It seems that Russian culture embraces domestic abuse; which makes it very difficult for women who are seeking help to come forward.
Elena Anasova // Section
This condoning of domestic abuse is also reflected in government policy. Previously in Russia, a man engaging in domestic violence could be sentenced to two years in jail. However, things took a frightening turn for the worse in 2017, when the Russian government passed the controversial ‘slapping law’.
The new legislation meant that men no longer faced prison sentences for beating their wives; so long as no bones were broken and it was a first-time offence. Instead, they would have to pay a fine – a move that would financially impact the whole family and leave the woman still vulnerable to her husband’s wrath. Most importantly, it sent out the worrying message that the Russian government were not prepared to take domestic abuse seriously.
Consequently, it is estimated that only 30% of domestic abuse cases in Russia are reported. Women receive little sympathy from the authorities, who commonly believe that domestic violence is a trivial issue that should be resolved within the home. Being unable to turn to the authorities, many women find themselves trapped in a frightening and isolating situation.
Elena Anasova // Section
If a woman decides to run, she will not have anywhere to go. In the capital city of Moscow, which has a population of 12 million, there is only 1 sanctuary for women fleeing situations of domestic violence. This does not even nearly cater for the staggering 36,000 women whom the Moscow Times estimate get beaten by their partners every day. Therefore, many women who flee end up living on the streets; putting themselves in as much danger as they were in at home.
Equally, if a woman decides to stay and fight, the outcome is just as bleak. Many women find themselves in jail for fighting back against their abusive husbands. In result, they will be separated from their children, and left with a criminal record that will stigmatize them for life.
Elena Anasova// Section
Elena Anasova is a photographer from the Baikal region of North Eastern Siberia. She works with subjects of borders, identity, and collective memory. As part of a trilogy on Russian women in closed institutions, she has captured the stories of female convicts incarcerated in a Siberian prison. Through her images, she explores isolation and confinement. She is interested in how identities are often disfigured and traumatized whilst in confinement; and particularly the impact that the constant 24hr surveillance has upon women.
“There are a lot of women in the colonies convicted for excessive self-defense; cases related to protecting themselves, their families or children, [and] standing up to domestic violence” – Elena Anasova
Her images not only show the physical incarceration of her female subjects, but also allude to the wider issue of female confinement in Russian society. Anasova suggests that the prisons can be interpreted as microcosms of wider society, in which many women have a claustrophobic lack of autonomy within their relationships.
“Almost half of Russians believe that victims of violence are the ones to blame for what happened. Half of Russians are also convinced that public statements about violence destroy traditional values such as family, loyalty, love” – Elena Anosova
Elena Anosova // Section
Anasova is interested in how the stigma of prison conviction is much more powerful for women than for men. Male convicts are statistically more likely to have a supportive family waiting for them on the outside. The majority of female convicts are left by their husbands, meaning they have little stability to return to in the outside world. This often leads to a cycle of re-offence.
“The worst thing is that society and ordinary people don’t see [them as] people any more” – Elena Anasova
Also, men have a much higher chance of finding employment post-sentence. Anasova explains that this is mainly because men in Russia tend to have jobs that use their hands – such as mechanics and taxi drivers. These professions are far less likely to screen for criminal convictions than predominantly female professions such as childcare and nursing.
Elena Anasova // Section
In Russia, there is no rehabilitation program for women leaving prison. They are often left completely isolated from their friends, family, and society. In some cases, they are even left without clothes, with the original clothes they were convicted in having been lost many years ago.
“Only around page 20 the viewer realizes it’s [images] of a colony, and almost every second person who looked at the book couldn’t believe these young beautiful women from the start of the book exist in prison” – Elena Anasova
Through ‘Section’, Anasova aims to show the humanity and vulnerability of her subjects. She wishes to show that the prisoners are mothers and daughters and wives, each with their own story, in hope of removing the stigma against female convicts. Through her images, she breaks their isolation. She invokes both sympathy and empathy from the viewer; and makes the prisoner human again.
When Bina was pregnant, she was physically and verbally abused by her husband and threatened with more abuse if she told anyone. When she fled to her family’s home, her husband attacked them too.
Bina and her family went to the police station but the police refused to help her. Luckily, one of The Circle’s and Oxfam’s partner organisations spotted the family as they were walking into the police station and offered their help.
The organisation offered Bina counselling and legal support. She has managed to put her husband behind bars, has applied for child maintenance and is learning how to sew so that she can get a job and raise her son Vijay, who is two years old now.
Despite enormous societal pressure, Bina refuses to return to her husband.
The Circle, Oxfam, several local organisations and women leaders in Chhattisgarh and Odisha are working together to set up support centres offering medical care, legal advice, counselling and shelters to survivors of gender-based violence. Click here to find out more about the project.
Suhani* is 11 years old and lives in rural Rajasthan. A few years ago, Suhani was struggling to learn how to read and write. Her parents decided that she was not gaining much from going to school and she dropped out. Suhani was then confined to cooking, cleaning, fetching water and taking care of her younger siblings.
When the Eduate Girls’ community volunteers and staff first talked to her parents, they said that they didn’t think that Suhani would benefit much from going to school and that excelling at household chores would be far more useful. Other parents who took part in the community meetings shared the same view.
“When Narayan [the Field Coordinator] spoke to my parents, it had been three years since I dropped out of school”, Suhani says. “I did not know the importance of or feel the need for education. Most of the girls in my village were working at home, like I was, or were already married. I didn’t know there was something else I should or could be doing… Domestic work was my responsibility. I was preparing for my future.”
Educate Girls staff and volunteers organised community meetings and told parents about a nearby state school for girls with all-female staff. The school also offers extracurricular tuition after school. Suhani’s mother went to visit the school and meet the teachers and staff.
Her parents agreed to send her to school, so Suhani took a bridge course to catch up with her level and is now studying with other girls her age.
When Educate Girls staff travelled from Mumbai to Suhani’s village, she told them that “education is about more than just textbook learning. It gives me the freedom of choice. I’m not sure yet what I aspire to be, but one thing’s clear –I want to study for as long as I can!”
About Educate Girls
Educate Girls is a Mumbai-based NGO that has been working to increase girls’ enrollment and retention rates and improve the quality of education in the government-run schools of rural India since 2007.
Their Creative Learning and Teaching curriculum is designed for children studying in grades 3, 4 and 5. The learning curriculum is activity-based, child friendly and caters to the need of the most marginalized children in rural India.