I have worked for UNICEF for over 30 years in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Eastern Caribbean, Indonesia and now India.
Though across each of these countries and regions there are many differences, one common thread, sadly, is the continued violence and discrimination against women and girls. The numbers and context may vary in each of these countries, but the challenges that these women and girls face are quite similar. This is in spite of the national and international commitments of the governments and our common humanity.
In each of the countries in which I have worked, I can immediately remember the face and the name of some victims of gender-based violence and also of women and men who courageously and persistently struggled to end such unacceptable violations of human rights. These are etched into my mind forevermore.
To cite one such case, while working with UNICEF in Afghanistan, I was part of the first UN fact-finding mission in the Shomali Valley, during the Taliban period, and heard first-hand accounts of bereaved and shocked families whose young daughters were raped and taken away.
In my years of working on children and women’s rights issues, I have had the privilege of meeting and working with remarkable brave and inspiring child and women’s rights activists who I will also never forget and whom I try to honour each and every day.
And now that I have been working as the UNICEF Chief of Field Office of Uttar Pradesh (UP) in India for over 18 months, all the earlier memories and experiences keep resonating in UNICEF’s work in this state of 210 million people.
Living and working in the state capital, Lucknow, or traveling across the state, I hear almost every day of unacceptable violence against girls and women. Daily reports are coming through in the media and in discussions with our partners and networks about human rights and child rights violations, as well as about discrimination, exclusion and stereotyping across caste, religion, poverty groups and geographic location. According to the National Crime Records Bureau of India, for example, a crime against a woman is committed every three minutes!
Despite the progress in India over the past decades, when it comes to various aspects of social and economic development, the reality on the ground continues to alarm and shake us all each and every day when I or my colleagues travel to the districts.
For example, in India, 47% of girls aged 20-24 are married before the age of 18 as per the UNICEF State of the World’s Children Report. According to the International Centre for Research on Women (2007), girls who were married before the age of 18 were twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped or threatened by their husbands than girls who married later.
As a UNICEF team leader in one of the world’s largest field Office, I have committed to further push myself, my colleagues and our partners in understanding and mainstreaming gender across all the work at hand. I have, specifically, strived to strengthen our collaboration with social and cultural activists, promoting gender equality issues through a variety of platforms, including literary festivals.
Along with civil society and media partners, the team in UP has contributed to raise awareness and engagement on violence against girls and women through roundtable discussions, workshops, research and campaigns like #ENDviolence or, more recently, the #HeForShe campaign, for which we have joined hands with UNWOMEN.
Violence comes in different shapes and forms: physical, emotional, psychological and verbal violence are some of them, and all are painful and unacceptable. It happens anywhere: in homes, institutions, schools, health care centers, public areas, and work places.
There are also less evident representations of violence. For example, when improving the standards in labour rooms or training the staff working in these rooms, are we also looking at it from the eyes of the mother’s dignity and rights? Do we keep in mind how a delivering mother would feel?
As they stand now, most labour rooms in Uttar Pradesh lack basic and functioning facilities, including soap, running clean water and sanitary toilets among others. In addition to overcoming the afore-mentioned shortcoming, I strongly feel that we need to also focus on the rights and dignity of mothers in labour rooms and we are now beginning to shift our mindset in that direction.
I personally get inspired every day by the struggles of the many known and unknown champions of gender equality in Uttar Pradesh, India and internationally. These include some of the young girls in the UNICEF-supported adolescent girls’ peer groups who have proactively stopped cases of child marriage in their own communities. There is so much to learn from all of them!
So, let’s stop for a second and visualize that vulnerable child that all of us has seen more than once. In my case, and given the place where I live and work, I would probably see a girl, from the lowest income quintile, rural-based most likely, from a scheduled caste and disabled. It is her harsh reality and her right to have a better life what has to motivate and inspire us to do more. Let us work towards a more equitable world wherein no child is left behind.
Niloufar Pourzand is the Chief of the Uttar Pradesh Field office, UNICEF India Country Office