The feminist movement needs to forge relationships with all oppressed people — including transgender, queer, and indigenous populations — to form intersectional alliances.
Activists and campaigners have on Thursday come together to call for collaboration between all movements that demand social change.
“There’s a rise of the right-wing, hate is the new common sense,” Indian lawyer and human rights activist Vrinda Grover, told the audience during a panel discussion on re-assessing women’s rights at the Thomson Reuters Foundation Trust conference in London.
“There is nothing like a common enemy to strengthen the relationships between those who are oppressed,” asserted another panel member, Colombian reproductive rights consultant Monica Roa. “This is the time to come together to connect the dots.”
Bahrain human rights defender Maryam Al-Khawaja agreed, saying: “We need to have intersectionality in our struggles.”
The diverse panel included people fighting for women’s rights from the US, Bahrain, India, and Latin America, and spanned a vast range of issues — including child marriage, family planning, and domestic violence — and how we can come together to move forward in these areas.
“People don’t know what a big problem child marriage is in America,” said panellist Fraidy Reiss, the founder of Unchained at Last, the only non-profit in the US dedicated to helping women escape or resist arranged and forced marriages.
“In just the 38 states that actually track marriage ages, more than 160,000 children, some as young as 10, were married, and almost all were married to adult men,” Reiss continued. “I thought legislators just didn’t know. But that’s not the case unfortunately. They do know. What’s preventing these laws from passing is very simple. It’s misogyny.”
“If you can solve misogyny, you can figure out how to end child marriage in America,” she said. “The entire world needs to end child marriage.”
Reiss also highlighted the “hypocrisy” of the US “telling the rest of the world to end child marriage,” through reports such as a Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls — a report launched in March 2016.
“The report defined marriage before 18 as a human rights abuse, and shook its finger at the rest of the world saying they were forcing girls into adulthood before they were ready,” said Reiss. “And at the same time, it’s legal in all 50 states in the US. Twenty-five states don’t even set a minimum age for marriage. And that puts the US in line with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.”
While most US states have set 18 as the legal marriage age, every state has loopholes that still allow for children under 18 to get married — for example, in the case of pregnancy, or with parental approval.
The panel also discussed the recent law change in Saudi Arabia that will all women to legally drive in the country as of next year.
“A lot of people are applauding Saudi Arabia for giving women the right to drive in 2018,” said Al-Khawaja. “But driving is not the biggest issue. It’s only the very tip of the iceberg.”
She added: “They’ve done it the way they do everything else. There was no awareness campaign. There was no attempt the change the social construct that they’re created. [There was nothing to ensure] that women in Saudi Arabia are not going to be attacked by their spouses, by their family, by their community, for driving.”
Al-Khawaja said the biggest problem for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is the guardianship system — which dictates that women must be accompanied by a male guardian such as their husband, father, brother, or even son, in order to apply for a passport, travel outside the country, get married, exit prison, or access healthcare.
Read more: Proposed Iraq Law Would Allow Girls as Young as 9 to Marry
As well as calling for greater intersectionality between movements, the panellists said that a greater presence of women is needed in the human rights arena.
“We need more female legislators,” said Reiss, “more people like [murdered British MP] Jo Cox. And we need to not let the small things go, but to keep pushing and keep pointing out misogyny and patriarchy wherever we see it and never give up.”
Al-Khawaja reiterated the point, saying: “We need to change our discourse around women. We say, women took part in the revolution, they joined the protest, as though they’re not naturally meant to be there on the frontline.”
“Women human rights defenders are some of the strongest, most inspirational women I have ever met,” she continued. “They do not need saving. They need support, they need to be heard, and recognised for the heroes that they are.”
The Thomson Reuters Foundation Trust Conference is a two-day conference on human rights, particularly addressing the issues of modern slavery and re-assessing the rights of women and girls.