Ways of Seeing: Women’s rights are human rights

It is almost two years since I agreed, with some trepidation, to join the WomenSafe board of directors. I was nervous about joining a board because I had never served on one before, and I wasn’t sure if I had the right skills to be useful. I pretty much suck at technology beyond answering my email, and my financial literacy might be even worse. To be honest, I was surprised they even asked me! But I have found my time helping to steer this organization, which has worked since 1980 to help countless survivors in our community, to be precious beyond measure.
This time we are in, sometimes called the #MeToo moment, represents a gigantic sea change in the way our society views power, consent and abuse. I am so grateful, at this moment in history, to be serving an organization whose mission is to support victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. In addition to helping people who are experiencing abuse to get free, we are also holding a vision. We envision a community where NO ONE of any race, age, gender, sexual orientation, ability or size is victimized or abused.
Violence can be physical, emotional, mental or financial, and we envision a community free from all of these kinds of abuse. We envision a community where exerting power to humiliate, belittle or abuse another person is not tolerated. Turning our vision into reality will require a massive effort to educate everyone, especially kids, in order to prevent abuse from occurring in the first place. We are now devoting a significant portion of our resources toward prevention.
A dear friend of mine, who is in the process of extricating herself from a toxic relationship, told me how ashamed she feels to be enmeshed in such an unhealthy situation. But feeling ashamed only isolates her from the systems of support she most needs right now. “Don’t be ashamed!” I told her, “He is the one who should be ashamed for mistreating you. Please keep reaching out for support. Gather your friends around you, they all want to help. Systems of abuse thrive when the victim is made to feel that she somehow deserves what she is experiencing. No one deserves to be mistreated.”
This is why the #MeToo Movement is so powerful. Woman after woman, and a few men too, in every field, have spoken out about harassment and assault endured in the workplace. In spite of mechanisms meant to keep them quiet, like nondisclosure agreements, or threats of firing or demotion, women have taken the risk of telling their stories. And for the first time, it seems like powerful men are actually being held accountable for their misdeeds.
What will it take to change our society, so that we can send our daughters out into the world with confidence instead of fear? I want all the young people in our community, and their parents and grandparents too, to have a thorough understanding of consent. In terms of physical relationships, consent means that whatever is going on, be it holding hands, kissing, intimate touching, (or more, you get the idea) both parties are really and truly into it. If one person is reluctantly acquiescing to something they don’t really want to do, it’s not consent. If one person is inebriated, it’s not consent. If there is any physical, mental, or emotional coercion, it’s not consent.
When it comes to relationships, respect is key. If I respect my partner, I want them to be really and truly pleased with whatever we are doing. We should all want this for each other. Respectful, caring relationships, be they with co-workers, friends, family members, or intimate partners, are the only kinds of relationships worth having.
Relationships are a lot of work, and that burden needs to be shared. Right now, in 2018, the relationship between men and women in our society is being renegotiated. Or to put it another way, the assumption that the world is a pyramid, with white men at the top and everyone else underneath, is being dismantled. I am not saying that as a white woman, I should get the same rights and privileges as a white man. I am saying that EVERYONE, be they Black, trans or gender nonconforming, disabled, undocumented or otherwise marginalized has inalienable human rights. My feminism is called Intersectional Feminism, which means a feminism that insists on freedom for everyone!
Intersectional Feminist women are insisting on several things:
1.      Our bodily autonomy is our Human Right. No one has the right to touch us without our consent. No one has the right to comment on our body without our consent. We have the right to dress ourselves as we choose, to please ourselves. If you appreciate how we look as we walk down the street, or if you want us to smile, or if you think we should lose or gain weight, just keep it to yourself.
2.      We have the right to be treated as equals in the workplace. We deserve to be paid equally for the work that we do. Currently, white women make 80 cents, while Black women earn 63 cents, and Latina women only 54 cents for every dollar that men earn. We have the right to be treated equitably in the workplace, to occupy leadership positions we are qualified for, and to receive the support and mentorship we need to succeed at our jobs. All people, including trans or gender nonconforming people, deserve workplace protections, including the right to flexible parental leave, affordable childcare, and paid time off to care for our families.
3.      My body, my choice. Women have the right to decide for themselves when, if, and how many children to bear and to parent. This is not only about having the right to terminate an unwanted or untenable pregnancy, but also about having the right to bear children, having the right to good pre and post natal care, and having the right to raise our children in safe communities. Trans or gender nonconforming people deserve access to hormones, and everyone, absolutely everyone, deserves the human right to quality healthcare.
The popular feminist saying “The personal is political” teaches us that forces outside our homes, in the broader public sphere, have a huge impact on our individual lives. Sometimes we feel powerless in the face of bureaucratic decisions made by unresponsive government or employers that don’t seem to care. But when we recognize the right of someone we love to be safe or when we recognize our own right to live free from fear, a bright spark gets kindled. When we see our own worth, no matter who may have tried to demean or humiliate us, we can find our voice, reach out for help, and together build a new world for everyone who comes after us.
Joanna Colwell is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded and directs Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury’s Marble Works, and lives with her family in East Middlebury. When not practicing or teaching yoga, Joanna enjoys taking walks, cooking, serving on the board of WomenSafe, and working with the Middlebury chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. Feedback welcome at: [email protected]. If you need help to free yourself from an unsafe situation, please call the WomenSafe hotline at 388-4205

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