I can’t remember anymore when it was when I first heard about FGM or female genital mutilation. It must have been rather late, in my early 20s, at university (on my side of the world this was one of the miseries that women did not have to endure). What I clearly remember, however, is what shaped my thinking about it. After reading The Color Purple I became fascinated with Alice Walker. So I started reading her books one by one, and I soon got to Possessing the Secret of Joy. I was amazed, shocked and appalled by Tashi’s story, who undergoes this dreadful ritual as an adult and then tries to get on with her life in America. Walker broke taboos and at the same time raised awareness of this practice in the Western world when she wrote the book in 1992.

A few years ago I moved to a part of Europe where the number of immigrants is quite high from Northern Africa, and from French-speaking countries of Africa. I also work in an environment where most of my coworkers have lived  in developing countries for decades and worked on missions trying to “make the world a better place.” Many of them are doctors and many volunteer for various NGOs in their free time, so I have become much more closely exposed to this issue. One of them very actively took part in the European Campaign of Amnesty International to End FGM (as the immigrants from these countries bring their culture with them, there are about 180,000 girls at risk in Europe of undergoing FGM. Worldwide, 3 million girls undergo FGM every year.) Recently I took a class on Gender, Diversity and Politics at a Brussels university and some people argued there that if we want to fully respect and protect multiculturalism, then we should not intervene and advocate for the end of FGM. We should let people do things according to rules of their own culture. I disagree in this case, strongly. I tend to agree more with Alice Walker (and my colleagues): “Torture is not culture.”

This was only an intro to a video I stumbled upon on TED recently. It is a must see. The speaker, Kakenya Ntaiya made a deal with her father: She would undergo the traditional Maasai rite of passage of female circumcision if he would let her go to high school. Now she is changing the destiny of girls in her village by having built a school for them.

Not Your Baby – a smartphone app against harassment

A few days ago I wrote about Hollaback! (and its leader Emily May), the non-profit organization the mission of which is to end street harassment by empowering the targets. They recently hit the news in connection with a sofware application, namely a smartphone app called ‘Not Your Baby‘. This is a free app that is hoped to initiate dialogue around sexual harassment before they happen, but also during and after they happen. This unusual app was developed by Metracthe Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children, which prevents violence against diverse women and youth. Hollaback! was their partner a few years ago when they worked together on an online survey on responses to sexual harassment.

The app came out in September this year and got quite some media coverage. This is a screenshot from the app and there is more here in a Huffington Post article:

not your baby

To be able to give an opinion I downloaded this app, but to be honest, I have doubts about whether it can work. You can type in where and from whom you are experiencing harassing behavior and a tailored advice pops up (along with a “random fact”) that suits the users needs, which derives from the above mentioned survey (200 people), but as the app grows, potentially more. However, to me it is unrealistic that in the actual moment I can just get my phone out and say/do something smart when I’m lost for words or simly, I’m too scared/bitten/hurt/embarrassed.

Nevertheless, I think such an app (or rather, incentive) can be useful for sharing information on what  legal actions can be taken if harassment happens at the workplace, or what qualifies as harassment, or simly exchanging experiences and letting others know that they are not alone.

As this is my 4th or 5th post about street harassment, I need to say that I am very happy that I finally found a quote that touches upon a crucial thing when discussing this topic with others – Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism project, said:  “Many people tend to think of it as not particularly serious, with victims being told they are ‘overreacting’ or should ‘take it as a compliment’.” This, sadly, many times  comes from our friends, parents, etc. Harassment is not a compliment. Anything that makes someone scared or uncomfortable, cannot be a compliment.

Sexism, video games, trolls

Anita Sarkeesian from Feminist Frequency is a feminist media critic who initiated a successful Kickstarter campaign to examine sexism and representations of women in video games. (Kickstarter is a fundign platform for creative projects.) Apparently, little did she know what this will bring out of some of the members of the gaming community. Shortly after, she fell victim to (cyber) harassment, and there was even a game developed where users could punch a photo of Sarkeesian.

Challenges and opportunities for female health systems researchers

EV session at SymposiumThis will be a crosspost of an article that appeared in BMJ Open. BMJ is an online medical journal (more info here) and they run a couple of blogs. One of these is the Open blog, where a post appeared which I had the chance (and honor) to co-author with 4 others. One of them is a medical student, two are health systems researchers and one of them is a journalist/media specialist/research associate. We were (are) all part of a project called Emerging Voices, which is an initiative of The Institute of Tropical Medicine in Belgium (my workplace). This Emerging Voices 2012 edition was supported by the 2nd Global Symposium on Health System Research.

We held an organized session at this conference (on October 31, 2012 in Beijing, China) and the following article grew out of the discussions that took place there. I will crosspost it as it was originally published.

Juggling personal and professional lives in search of the perfect balance is an art that women and men across the world, in different spheres of work, are familiar with. How does this play out in the life of a female health researcher? At the Health Systems Research Symposium held in Beijing recently, a group of young female public health professionals from the “Emerging Voices” programme came together with their male counterparts to discuss the challenges and opportunities they face and have observed as young female researchers in the field of health systems research.

Although improving today, the evident underrepresentation of women in leadership positions led to the idea of exploring the issue of the glass ceiling—a term that was first used in the 1980s to indicate the lack of women in leadership positions in the workplace. What began as a fishbowl discussion on the challenges faced by female researchers, opened up into a debate of the challenges facing women in the workplace generally, raising multiple questions.

At the heart of the discussion was the conflict between balancing a family life and career that most female participants feel they face. With extensive travel, often for extended periods of time and to remote locations, is health systems research a family friendly career option for women? Is time taken for maternity leave a barrier to promotion? Have organisations, communities, and smaller family units evolved enough to accept the role of women as professionals along with their more traditional roles as wives, mothers, and carers of the old, young, and infirm?

The personal-professional conflict was further reflected in anecdotal evidence of female PhD candidates being discouraged from having families alongside their academic commitments. There were examples of almost equally qualified men being selected over women for positions. There were also examples of workplace norms which encouraged longer work hours that indirectly led to choices to delay childbearing for some female professionals. In some countries workplace policies that offered short maternity leave were felt to be insufficient for women to be able to look after very young babies as they had to return to work.

The Emerging Voices also felt that different yardsticks were used to measure the behavior and performance of men and women in the workplace. It was felt that women were allowed to make fewer mistakes once they reached senior leadership positions and had to constantly justify their positions.

Gender stereotyping also came up as an issue. Stereotypes ranged from associations of beauty with incompetence, to negative attitudes towards women who choose to forego childbearing to focus on their career, or conversely those who choose to have children and then take maternity leave.

However, all is not bleak and challenging, there are more women getting higher degrees today (over 60% of college graduates in the US are women), and women are increasingly entering spaces previously reserved for men. Some of the “Emerging Voices” from India mentioned examples of women from socially and economically disadvantaged areas transforming the health indicators of entire villages.

There are obvious biological differences between men and women. Bearing children is something that only women can do. Keeping these differences in mind, can social structures evolve to support women so that having and raising children is something that women can do alongside professional responsibilities? Instead of placing the responsibility on a woman of choosing “the right man”—societal and structural solutions are necessary (equal pay for men and women, day-care facilities for young children in workplaces). Both men and women should be able to develop supportive social and professional systems that would allow families and individuals to give equal opportunities to both genders.


  • Radhika Arora, Public Health Foundation of India; 
  • Natalie Eggermont, Institute of Tropical Medicine, Antwerp; 
  • Fabienne Richard, Institute of Tropical Medicine, Antwerp;
  • Ildikó Bokros, Institute of Tropical Medicine, Antwerp; 
  • Marsha Orgill, Health Economics Unit, University of Cape Town.

The authors are part of the “Emerging Voices for Global Health” programme of the Institute of Tropical Medicine, Antwerp, Belgium. Run concurrently and in collaboration with the Global Symposium on Health Systems Research, the programme provides training, mentoring, and networking opportunities for promising young health researchers and professionals from low and middle income countries. The views presented by the authors are solely hers and not of her affiliated institution.

Advertisements: Best and Worst Attempts to Sell Stuff to Women

We all have a love-hate relationships with ads on TV. OK, mostly hate. But every now and then (unlike Axe and most fragrance ads for example) they can be smart, non-sexist and funny.

Policymic collected some of the best and worst US ads of 2012 in which they are trying to sell stuff for women. I only include two examples here, but they have more.

One of the worst: you have probably heard about the pink “BIC for her” pens, which caused some turbulence on the internet and BIC was heavily attacked for being sexist (not without a reason). You may have also seen Ellen DeGeneres’s brilliant piece about it. (If not, watch it, it is hilarious!)

So here is the commercial of this new product for her:

Thankfully, there were good examples also, one of them being from Kotex, who gave a new twist to the usual tampon commercial 🙂

Why Women Still Can’t Have It All

AtlanticCoverSlaughterAnne-Marie Slaughter is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, and the mother of two teenage boys. She served as the director of policy planning at the US State Department from 2009 to 2011. I have read her recent blogpost entitled Why Family Is a Foreign-Policy Issue on the Foreign Policy blog where she discusses that “if more women could juggle work and family successfully enough to allow them to remain on high-powered foreign-policy career tracks, more women would be available for top foreign-policy jobs. And that would change the world far more than you think, from giving peace talks a better chance to making us better able to mobilize international coalitions to reordering what issues governments even choose to work on.”

In this blogpost she refers to a longer essay that she wrote earlier this year to The Atlantic magazine on  why, as the modified saying goes, “you can have it all; you just can’t have it all at once.” I have the feeling that what she says is still universal to most working women in many countries, and not only to those with such high-profile jobs. In her essay one of the people Slaughter quotes is Mary Matalin, who spent two years as an assistant to Bush and the counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney before stepping down to spend more time with her daughters:  “Having control over your schedule is the only way that women who want to have a career and a family can make it work.” This, ultimately, affects all working mothers, and actually, should affect all working parents. (On that note, one of my male colleagues is changing jobs at the end of this year because he came to the conclusion that his present position requires so much traveling that it is not compatible with raising three small children if he wants to stay committed professionally.)

Slaughter’s essay might be a bit lengthy, but it is definitely worth to read if you are interested in how to combine work and private life. Two interesting quotes might be enough to lure you into reading on:

“To many men, however, the choice to spend more time with their children, instead of working long hours on issues that affect many lives, seems selfish. Male leaders are routinely praised for having sacrificed their personal life on the altar of public or corporate service. That sacrifice, of course, typically involves their family. Yet their children, too, are trained to value public service over private responsibility. At the diplomat Richard Holbrooke’s memorial service, one of his sons told the audience that when he was a child, his father was often gone, not around to teach him to throw a ball or to watch his games. But as he grew older, he said, he realized that Holbrooke’s absence was the price of saving people around the world—a price worth paying.”

“Ultimately, it is society that must change, coming to value choices to put family ahead of work just as much as those to put work ahead of family. If we really valued those choices, we would value the people who make them; if we valued the people who make them, we would do everything possible to hire and retain them; if we did everything possible to allow them to combine work and family equally over time, then the choices would get a lot easier.”

Street harassment – this time in NYC (and how they try to fight it)

According to the TEDx website, when feminist icon Gloria Steinem was asked, “What women today inspire you and make you feel that the movement continues?,” her response was, “Emily May of Hollaback!, who has empowered women in the street, literally.”

So who is Emily May and what is Hollaback!? Emily is an activist who (along with a couple of her friends) created Hollaback! in order to fight street harassment in the streets of New York City. Their aim is to empower the targets and make the harasser feel uncomfortable. In order to achieve this, they encourage people to use their smartphones to document, map, and share incidents of street harassment. Hollaback! is now present in 25 countries of the world, in more than a 60 cities.

Belgium to make sexism a criminal offence

A little follow up to my earlier post on new legislation that partially have been triggered by a video that features harassment on the streets of Brussels. Belgium’s Equal Opportunities Minister, Joëlle Milquet (Christian democrat), has unveiled plans to make sexism a criminal offence. As Flanders’ main news site, Deredactie writes: “She also wants sexism to be taken into consideration as an exacerbating circumstance when other crimes are being considered. The new bill speaks of “every gesture and utterance that is clearly intended to express contempt vis-à-vis one or more people of a different gender on the basis of their gender or that considers them to be inferior or reduces them to their sexual dimension and that constitutes a serious attack on their dignity”.

The victims of sexual intimidation in public places will be able to file a civil complaint. Local authorities will have the opportunity of punishing sexism using anti-social behaviour fines.”

Rock on,  Joëlle.

Obama wins – did the women’s vote make the difference?

At work we have a weekly International Health Policies Newsletter. This week I wrote the editorial for the first time. Here is a link to the original post.

Obama wins – did the women make the difference?

As 87% of the votes have been processed by Wednesday afternoon European time, I took a look at the composition of the voters as shown in the exit polls. It has been predicted all along that more women would vote than men, and that became true: women made up 52%, men made up 48% of the voters. But let’s focus on another, more striking figure: 47% of the men and a stunning 58% of the women voted for Obama. I began to wonder: did the women’s vote make Obama president?

It might be so, as there are quite a number of pleasant gender-related  surprises in this election. The state of New Hampshire made history as it elected the first all women delegation in history, made up of two women senators, a female governor and two female house representatives.  The Senate also broke a recordthe Congress will have at least 19 female senators, the most ever in U.S. history. Interestingly, one of those senators will be Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin, who is the first openly gay member of the Senate.

So what exactly happened? Did Romney lose as a result of the Republicans’ much quoted “War on Women”? According to its definition on Wikipedia (yes, this term already has an extensive entry on Wikipedia) the aptly named War on Women is a political catchphrase used in United States politics to describe Republican Party initiatives in federal and state legislatures that are seen as restricting women’s rights, especially with regard to reproductive rights. What did and does this include?

Among other things, it included hundreds of bills that have been introduced in the U.S. Congress since January 2010 and states attacking reproductive rights. As Karen Teegarden, the founder of unitewomen.org, a grassroots organization providing voter education and facilitating the mobilization of individual states and a nationwide voice wrote in a blogpost for The Huffington Post: “GOP presidential candidates are signing “Personhood” pledges and vowing to eliminate Planned Parenthood — an organization that provides millions of low-income women primary healthcare.”

Then there was the issue of violence against women. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which was first passed in 1994, increased federal penalties for domestic violence and provided funding for groups and services that aid victims of domestic abuse. This bill has been reauthorized twice since 1994, but in February 2012 all eight GOP senators on the Judiciary Committee voted against the bill when the committee considered it.

As the War on Women began to unfold in 2011, in August 2012, Republican representative Todd Akin’s comments regarding pregnancy and “legitimate” rape sparked (world)wide media attention, and this time even those who did not follow politics very closely were forced to face some of the extreme opinions of various GOP candidates. Similarly to Todd’s, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh made outrageous remarks when he called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for her support of women’s access to birth control. Even though Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski criticized GOP presidential candidates for not condemning Limbaugh, neither Romney, nor Gingrich or Santorum said more than that “Limbaugh’s comments were absurd”.

In addition to influencing domestic U.S. politics, the War on Women has had an effect on the situation of women globally. Religious groups attacked a London family planning summit which was co-hosted  by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. NOW, the National Organization for Woman in the U.S. had posted a statement on their website, stating that “sadly, the “War on Women” isn’t restricted to U.S. women. The House is poised to deliver a huge blow to the global women’s health community by cutting international family planning assistance. This strike would include the elimination of all U.S. funds designated for UNFPA, the international development agency that works to reduce poverty and promote women’s reproductive health in underserved areas around the world.”

So could all these have pushed women (and men) into opposition of the Republicans and into voting for the Democrats? It is quite certain that they had an effect, but so did other issues, like Obamacare. Obama’s vision of a united nation (see his election speech for best illustration), social inclusion and cohesion and his fight for the middle class must have appealed to many, and not only to women: polls show that he also got the majority of the Latino vote and the vote of the youth. The Republicans’ “War on Women” could have been “just” a final push, but it was a strong one. Todd Akin, for example, was defeated by Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill on Tuesday.

However, for women the journey is still not over. We can certainly cheer for the all-women delegation of New Hampshire but we should keep in mind that the state’s governor, Maggie Hassan became the only female Democratic governor starting office in 2012. (Moreover, nearly half of the states never actually had a female governor.) Likewise, we should applaud the Senate’s record on the number of female senators, but we should not forget that 19 female senators only make up for less than one fifth of the U.S. Senate. Far from a gender-balanced composition.

On November 6th, the election day, Chloe Angyal, one of the editors of feministing.com published a blogpost on the Guardian stating that “regardless of this election result, women face a long struggle to reverse Republican attacks on abortion and contraception rights.”

Let’s hope that this struggle will not last too long.

Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia

This video went around the globe, and rightfully so. Julia Gillard, the Prime Minister of Australia gave a heated speech in the Australian Parliament on sexism and misogyny, targeted at opposition leader Tony Abbott. Jezebel gave some insight into the history:

“Abbott demanded that Peter Slipper, the Speaker of the House, step down for allegedly sexually harassing an openly gay male staff member in a series of text messages, one of which apparently compared female genitalia to mussels. I know. Juicy already. Abbott then implied that if Gillard defended Slipper, she would be just as sexist as a gay man who talks shit on vaginas. Abbott said, “And every day the prime minister stands in this parliament to defend this Speaker will be another day of shame for this parliament, another day of shame for a government which should already have died of shame.””

Gillard’s reply is epic. You rarely see something like this in parliaments (unfortunately, because there would be room for some lecturing on our side of the planet as well). My favorite quote: “If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia he doesn’t need a motion in the house of Representatives, he needs a mirror.”