OPINION: BARONESS CAROLINE COX
When inequality is ingrained in society, it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle that is difficult to break. In many countries, there is gender discrimination against girls and women through all stages of life.
Before birth, girl foeticide is practised in places including China and India. This is often for financial reasons including payment of dowries or men earning more than women.
In childhood, inequality in access to education is found in many countries where parents with low incomes prioritise sending sons to school rather than daughters – because of boys’ greater potential, or gender norms requiring females to be raised primarily to care for their home and family. Child marriage and young pregnancy also cause many girls to leave secondary education.
This cycle of inequality is perpetuated in adulthood in many ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ countries where women’s wages are comparatively low compared with male counterparts – such as with participation in politics.
The small NGO which I founded, the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), provides aid and advocacy to help women to tackle barriers to equality in Sudan, South Sudan, Nigeria, Burma, India and Uganda through projects such as income generation training and a ‘girls school which boys may attend’.
In Burma, Shan Women’s Action (SWAN), is working tirelessly to challenge inequality. In Shan and Kachin States, fi ghting between the Burmese Army and ethnic armed groups continues to displace thousands of people, destroy homes and provide cover for gross human rights violations. Sexual violence by the Burmese Army is committed with impunity, and stigma causes many victims to stay silent. Maternal and child health care and education are severely lacking in areas of fighting.
SWAN empowers women in different ways: training health workers in maternal and child health to provide care throughout pregnancy, childbirth and post-natally; challenging domestic abuse and sexual violence through awareness-raising campaigns and support groups; training teachers; providing women’s empowerment and leadership courses; and advocating for women to play a greater role in politics and community decision-making.
Breaking the self-perpetuating cycle of inequality requires change in all aspects of society. If we feel overwhelmed by the seemingly impossible, we remember our HART motto: “I cannot do everything, but I must not do nothing”. Together, if we all do something, we can help to make a difference for girls and women in very challenging situations across the world.
Baroness Caroline Cox was created a Life Peer in 1982 for her contributions to education and served as a Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords from 1985 to 2005. She now sits in the Lords as a crossbencher, speaking regularly on behalf of the communities that HART supports.
The word ‘Burma’ as opposed to Myanmar has been used throughout this article because it is preferred by the peoples of Burma with whom HART works.