Period poverty, street harassment, the destruction of women’s reproductive rights... the list of challenges facing women around the globe in 2020 goes on.
The issues are so huge, so insidious, that figuring out how to tackle them can present another problem in itself. How, as one reader, can you really make a difference?
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #EachforEqual, promoting the idea of “collective individualism.” In other words, although individual efforts may feel futile, they lead to real change when society commits as a whole.
For every David-sized problem, there’s a Goliath who can overcome it – or at least lots of little Goliaths who can galvanise change when they join forces. To help get you started, we asked activists working to improve women’s lives what one thing we can all do to help.
Push to end period poverty
Amika George, founder of the #FreePeriods movement, successfully campaigned to get free sanitary products available in schools this year, but says period poverty remains a huge problem in the UK among women and girls across all age groups.
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“Period poverty still affects homeless women, refugees and women who are struggling to make ends meet,” she tells HuffPost UK, adding that everyone can help to tackle the issue.
“It would be amazing if readers could donate to food banks, to charities that distribute pads to refugees and homeless women, but I also think it’s key for us to normalise the conversation around periods,” says George.
“We must not be ashamed of something as normal as a period, but we are, and the taboo and stigma is still rife, even though we’re comfortable talking about so many other issues. We need to stop apologising for them and start talking about our periods.”
Shout about street harassment
Sisters Gemma and Maya Tutton are just 15 and 20 years old, but they’ve already understand the prevalence of street harassment. Gemma was just 11 years old the first time she was harassed, which was “heartbreaking” for her big sister to hear. Together, they’ve launched an online petition to make street harassment illegal in the UK, as it is in France, Belgium and Portugal.
If readers want to help end street harassment, the first stage is to “speak up”, the sisters tell HuffPost UK. “Tell your friends and family about this issue. Two out of three girls in the UK have experienced unwanted sexual attention in public, do they know about this problem?” they say.
The next stage is to “talk back” if you feel safe and able to do so: “Whether you’re the victim or a bystander, speaking out against street harassment when it occurs reduces the psychological harm on the victim whilst also making harassers think twice,” they say.
Finally, they want all readers to “shout out” about street harassment: “Our campaign, Our Streets Now, aims to end street harassment. Sign our petition, follow our Instagram and Twitter, and tell us about your experiences.”
Help all girls access education
Nibras Khudaida, a 21-year-old refugee, risked her life to go to school after Isis invaded her hometown in Srechka, northern Iraq. Now a student at Creighton University, US, Khudaida works with Malala Fund – the charity founded by Malala and Ziauddin Yousafzai – to advocate for every girl’s right to learn.
“130 million girls are out of school today and two-thirds are of secondary school age. Conflict, poverty, gender-based violence, inadequate sanitary provision and early marriage are all barriers,” she says. “To see every girl in school, we need leaders to invest more money in girls’ education. They’re currently spending less than half of what they need to be.”
Individuals can help by listening to what girls have to say, she says – and using that knowledge to pressure world leaders to do more.
“We are the ones who understand the barriers that prevent us from learning. Too often people ignore our experiences and make decisions about our future without our considerations,” she explains. “One easy way to learn more about girls’ lives and opinions: read and share articles from Assembly, Malala Fund’s digital publication.”
Be a proud LGBTQ+ ally
Laura Russell is director of campaigns, policy and research at Stonewall UK. “We’re living in an increasingly polarised society with some looking to target and divide the LGBT community,” she says of a year that saw such shocking public incidents of homophobia as the same-sex couple attacked on a London bus by teenagers when the women refused to kiss for the boys’ entertainment.
In 2018-19, police in England and Wales recorded a 25% rise in hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation and a jump in transgender identity hate crimes by 37%. “This means it’s more important than ever that lesbian, gay, bi and trans people look out for and have each other’s back,” says Russell.
“Allies who aren’t LGBT can also play a powerful role here by being visible and vocal in their support for equality, along with challenging anti-LGBT language and behaviour, if it’s safe to do so.”
Unity and diversity are the path to liberation, says Russell. “So on International Women’s Day and in the year ahead, I hope we see more lesbian, bi and trans women, along with our non-binary siblings, standing up for each other. True equality never exists unless it includes everyone, so we must stand together.”
Campaign for women’s reproductive rights
Women in Northern Ireland may have gained the legal right to abortion in 2019, but elsewhere in the world, reproductive rights appear to be going backwards – just look at some of the headlines coming out of America.
Naisola Likimani is CEO of the Support Unit at SheDecides – a campaign group calling for “a world where every girl and woman can decide what to do with her body, with her life and with her future”. Central to their work is the idea that having control over your body is a human right.
“But for millions of women and girls around the world, access to reproductive health services and education is non-existent or under threat, leading to unwanted pregnancies, disease, and even death,” Likimani says.
Even right now in the UK, anti-abortion activists are ramping up their protests. However, you can help change the narrative by standing up and speaking out.
“SheDecides is a movement for those who want to use their voice to create a new normal where all women and girls, everywhere, decide about their bodies, their lives and their future, without question, where they have access to all of the information and healthcare they need, to make the choices only they should make,” Likimani says.
“Sign the SheDecides Manifesto if you believe in a world where SheDecides. By signing the manifesto, individuals are committing to take action on behalf of the movement.”
Mentor the next generation
“Every girl deserves the skills, confidence, and opportunities to shape her world and her future,” says Charley Young, founder of mentoring scheme The Girls Network. “Girls from the least advantaged communities are disproportionately held back from fulfilling their potential as they’re less likely to have all three.”
Young is passionate about the fact that “today’s girls are tomorrow’s leaders” and says by helping a young woman, we also impact her family. “Working with young women is the key driver in achieving equality, and an equal world is a better world,” she says.
“Mentoring works. Of course we’d love as many women as possible to mentor with The Girls’ Network, but what’s important is to get out there and champion young people in your local community in whatever way you can.
“Don’t underestimate the skills and the experience you’ve gained. Everyone can be a role model.”