Executive Director, Equality Now, USA

Published Date: 3rd August 2010

Open Windows | In Conversation

Executive Director, Equality Now, USA

August 3rd, 2010

In almost all parts of the world and every stratum of life, men are raised with the notion that he is superior. With this mindset, he grows up believing he has the right to treat women as second-class citizens. The fact is, if a man's faculties—to extend compassion, respect, and dignity to women—are robbed, he becomes an ally of physical and emotional violence and dismemberment of women.

Equality Now, an advocacy organization, has changed the conversation on equality and women’s rights, and its perception in the international community. Taina Bien-Aimé, the Executive Director of Equality Now, elucidated the challenges that countless women face as they seek to assert their rights to education, opportunity, and even their bodies

Women who have faced extreme brutalities possess incredible courage and strength, qualities that lack in women who have suffered far less. What makes these women flourish with the slightest assistance?

It is true that when you are squeezed against the wall, and you have to protect your family, or you love life so much that you understand that you need to survive and not only survive yourself but also you need to help others get out of a terrible situation, you do have that extra impetus to change.

Women who have not only survived violation, but have taken that pain and transformed it into leadership and action, are leaders.

It is also true that if you have a more comfortable life, the urgency of change may be less. But what we urge is that those who do have a more comfortable life, to be educated about the violations against women and girls around the world and help them in any way they can. You do not have to dedicate your life to human rights to help others. Sometimes it is just signing a check or writing a letter to the government, or picking up the phone and calling the local representative and asking them to pay attention to these issues. So there is enough work to be done for all of us.


What is your opinion on individuals who question the interest and participation of first world countries in the third world and developing countries?

Human rights are not a Western concept. It is very convenient for people who oppose equality and dignity for women and girls, to blatantly say that it is Western. Human rights transcend culture, religion, and regions. In every community where there are human rights violations perpetrated against women and girls, you have outstanding individuals and grassroots organizations that come from those communities. They often are survivors of human rights abuses who are leading the way to end the abuses against women and girls, and who are challenging the political norms of their communities.

What Equality Now (EN) does is help the work done on the ground in such communities, and those communities then challenge the harmful aspects of their religion, tradition or culture. What they do not have is access to the media, access to decision-making, access to the mobilization of the international community to end those abuses. EN works in a way that provides an international layer for the work done on the ground.


So it is our responsibility to effect change when we have access to a platform?

Yes, I think it is the responsibility of those of us who have access and have the power to put pressure on the government to effect change to help those in the ground war to help their sisters and women in their community—to live a life free of violence where they can reach their potential.

I think there are two movements. You have the grassroots movements—the people in their communities who are challenging the political norms. We are talking about politics—and religion and culture play a huge role.

But very often religion is used as a political tool to oppress women. If you go back to the original text, whether it is the Koran or the Bible or the Torah, very often people will take passages that are convenient to oppress women.

So there is the grassroots part that we need to support. There is also the government part. Governments around the world go to the United Nations many times a year where they make commitments to protect the rights of human beings, including women and girls. They have passed declarations and resolutions, and they have signed laws and international human rights instruments, regional instruments and sometimes even national constituents that promote equality. So, the second part for us as a community is to put pressure on the government to implement the laws that they have signed.

And we always say that with political will, women’s rights organizations will be out of business in three months. There is very, very limited political will to ensure that the laws are in place to prevent violence, to protect children and women from violence, and to prosecute those who harm them. So while there has been a tremendous success in certain countries in establishing laws that protect women or appealing discriminatory laws against women, laws such as wife obedience, laws allowing polygamy, or laws that make minimum age of marriage 18, there are still too many countries that have discriminatory laws. Or they do not implement the laws that they have to protect women and girls.


How do you propose to bring about changes to women’s rights where the heads of state have multiple wives and mistresses; where culture is exploited to maintain control?

I think it is part of dismantling the patriarchal system. And it is not just in countries where polygamy exists. Even when you look in the West, it is very hard. On the one hand, we call for the equality of women and to end the exploitation of women, yet, on the contrary, they pay for sex and pay for prostituted women (which happens a lot in the West). So not only are you breaking the law, but you are also perpetuating systems of exploitation. It is very frustrating for our work to have to put pressure on governments that are headed by men who have no respect for women’s rights.


You just answered my next question—dealing with men in power who lack respect for women’s rights.

We always say that culture can change because of the grassroots movement, and we see that for instance in the issue of female genital mutilation. But where we find the most stringent resistance is at the highest levels of decision making, where men in power who have the opportunity to change laws or policies or take action but refuse to do so and blame it on religion, tradition, or cultural practices. In fact, it is very often that they do not believe in principals of equality and are certainly not models of maintaining systems of respect or justice for women in their own lives.


How can progress take place in rural areas where the leadership to select a woman project leader or to promote women’s equality is given to an oppressive local man?

Nobody works on an island, and everybody is part of a political structure. I think it’s really important for central government, or even regional or state entities or other political mechanisms—to ensure that if you are in a position of power, you have to abide by the law and you have to abide by human rights principles.


How does the deteriorating condition of the environment in third world countries—floods, deforestation, and droughts—affect poor women who form a large percentage of the population?

Globalization has positive aspects and very, very negative aspects. One of the tragic consequences of globalization is the feminization of poverty globally. We know that one of the root causes of prostitution is poverty. People have always been poor—granted the levels of poverty in the 21st Century have exceeded any forms of poverty before—yet the market for exploitation of women in the sex trade just exponentially increased. It is a breakdown of acknowledgment that women are full human beings.

When we talk about trafficking, we should also talk about early marriage, child marriage. Even in communities where there has been a tradition of early marriage, it used to be 15 or 16. Now those same communities have girls as young as 8, 9 or 10 being sold into marriage or sent into married situations. And people from the community will tell you that we have never seen this before.

In a way, globalization has accelerated abuse of women and violence against women in many ways because there is a sense of despair. And people look around and say, “What can I sell? What can I sell to survive?” And unfortunately, what they sell are their girls.

Globalization has also disenfranchised agricultural communities that have no way to support themselves. And they either go to larger cities with no means for sustainability, or they stay in their community dealing with cash crops, not being able to sustain their livelihood. Or have their environment respected, and have their natural cycles of agriculture and means of economics just dwindle before their eyes.


Should individuals in developed countries go beyond their surroundings—be more conscientious of what we consume—to lessen the detrimental effects on other parts of the world?

I am not an expert in that, but as a citizen, I see a lot more discussion about the need to put a shift in global trade and make sure that communities can sustain themselves with the resources they have. I think there are a number of movements that are making the connections between geographic sustainability or community sustainability and global trade and the effects of agencies like the IMF (International Monetary Fund), or the World Bank, and how negatively it has affected economies.


The worldwide trafficking of women is growing as we speak. We continue to believe these women lack feelings and dignity. We think women who end up in brothels, and as sex and labour slaves are manufactured in remote factories. These are our daughters, sisters, and mothers.

I think that is probably true. I believe that people who are in a certain comfort zone are overwhelmed by that news. It is just too overwhelming for your average person to even step into the shoes of someone who is brutalized every day, such as girls and women who are being trafficked both for labor and sex.

Regarding sex trafficking, we at EN believe that prostitution or sexual exploitation in the sex trade is a form of gender-based violence and discrimination. As long as we as an international culture don’t see it that way, you will have sex slaves, you will have women in brothels, in massage parlors, in strip clubs. People do not see the brutality and the power, the control and coercion, the violence and the threats in the everyday life of women in brothels. So the misery and the exploitation is what can be defined as hidden in plain sight.

Until we have very serious conversations about the demands for prostitution, meaning that we still think that it is acceptable for men to purchase women’s bodies as if they were objects for their sexual pleasure and the fact that we are talking about a multi-billion dollar sex trade that involves a lot of very complex agents and elements to sex trafficking. The governments should look at it as a form of slavery, and you do not have to be chained to a radiator or locked in a basement to be enslaved.

Regarding labor trafficking, especially with girls, you have elements of harmful cultural practices. So for instance, domestic servitude among girls is rampant in many, many communities because it has been done for generations. Where a rural girl will be sent for supposedly a better life, to a city or to an upper-class home, where often she is being abused and violated and sexually exploited. So with every anti-violence movement against women, whether it was the domestic violence moment or the anti-rape movement, you needed to break the silence to have conversations about it. And you need to engage the community, to persuade them that the laws need to be in place to protect, prevent and prosecute those who hurt them.

In terms of trafficking, we are not there yet. We have not made the link between sex trafficking and exploitation in the sex trade, including prostitution. And until we do so, sex trafficking will get far worse than it is now.


When one thinks of trafficking one usually associates it with pimps and prostitution. Why do we ignore diplomats, economists, and influential individuals who traffic women to exploit as labor slaves?

I know that in New York City and elsewhere the United States, there have been a number of very high-profile cases of diplomats or very, very wealthy people who traffic these young women or girls into their homes and treat them as domestic slaves. There is also a case we are working on in Pakistan, where a 12-year-old girl was allegedly murdered by the former President of the Lahore Bar Association, in whose home she worked. I think we are starting to have these conversations. But again, because of diplomatic immunity, there have been significant challenges. There should be no diplomatic immunity when it comes to labour trafficking or rape or other forms of domestic violence—or any violence against women and girls in those households.


Sex trafficking becomes a massive enterprise around major sporting events fueled by the demand for sexual services. Governments, organizing officials, and advertisers are willing to look the other way so long as it adds to their revenue. What is profoundly disturbing is that women, in leadership roles and spouses of sports persons and organizers, indirectly support trafficking. “Men will be men” is all they have to offer.

You think the term patriarchy is a very heavily loaded term. But we all live in a system that tells us that women need to be subservient to men, and women need to be in relationships where they are taken care of, and if comfortable enough, it is okay for them to be second-class citizens. And a lot of these women, who I would characterize as having no real consciousness about the status of women in society or the status of men in society, actually believe that men will be men, and there are certain power structures they would rather not challenge. And that is where you see this, what I call “complicity” in the oppression of women.

How very damaging—to hold negative views of prostitutes but embrace a man who seeks out prostituted sex.

Personally, I do not know of any woman who would accept it but look at our former Governor of New York. His wife decided to stay with him despite the fact that he allegedly purchased $80,000 worth of prostituted sex. It is hard to look into people’s relationships, as you do not know what the dynamics are.


It is the manner in which the issue is addressed, the action of the man is not questioned, but the fact that he could seek out “sex with a prostitute” is looked down on.

What happens there is that they dehumanize women in prostitution. In society we have objectified women so when they go on the market, so to speak, and sell themselves as if they were commodities, there is this process of dehumanization and objectification that you are no longer a woman—you are just someone who sells herself.

If we want sex trafficking in particular and even domestic servitude to stop, we have to look at these women as human beings. And I think we have lost the ability to do so.

Women in prostitution are ostracized, marginalized, and criminalized. And often they are vulnerable girls and young women who are sold into it and who have no way to escape.


What makes us desensitized to the increasing brutalities against women?

I think there are many elements. One of them is the increased role of media and the Internet. Thirty years ago we had limited information. Today we are bombarded with images from every part of the world. People with cell phones can record someone being stoned or someone being shot in the head by the military, or girls being transported to brothels from one country to another. I think that as a human being if you are in a comfortable setting it is very, very difficult to absorb all of these images—you feel overwhelmed. Which is why you have to give people very specific actions to follow, so that they can turn the anger, outrage or anxiety into concrete actions toward change. I also think that Hollywood and the media, in general, have contributed to desensitizing the public. It is not just in movies but also in video games, the corporate media, and the video world where violence is just a game.


I came across one of your interviews where you talk about a video game in Japan. It is horrific.

Yes, and the interesting thing about our campaign against Rapelay was that Equality Now started in 1992, and we had had a number of controversial women’s actions and campaigns, so when we started our campaign against Rapelay we just thought it was another action that we are calling on these video makers to stop making videos that promote sexual violence against girls and women, but the response was so overwhelming. We have had death threats, rape threats, and bomb threats.

And if you look at the language of the people who wrote the threatening notes, who are claiming their first amendment rights to play these games, that they are allowed to have rape fantasies. The language was very similar to the language you hear abusers in domestic violence use. They demeaned us, called us stupid, worthless and made threats.

Interestingly, we believe that most of these people who wrote to us were men, and most were probably middle class and likely with an average age of 40 or so. It was very sad to note that these same men who have no excuse not to consider women as equals and allegedly have some level of education were, in fact, saying that we want to keep women as objects. Saying that we want to have the opportunity to play a game where you can control women, where you can rape, gag and torture them, enslave them for their sexual fantasy. It just underlines the enormous amount of work that we have to do at a cultural level to talk about equality, about what that means because if women were considered equal and were equal, this would not happen. And if you look at a game like Rapelay, if you had changed the women to a different particular ethnic group or racial group or someone from a particular religion, there would have been an outrage about a game like that.


How and where does one begin to identify the wheat from the chaff in charities, to work for, partner with or support?

I think going on their website is a good start. Some people want to engage in advocacy, and other people want their money to go to something specific, like sponsoring a woman in post-conflict countries or sending a cow to a women’s farm. I think first and foremost, find out how you would like to help. Some people prefer working with children and others with adults. There are a number of websites that can give you guidance on how the charity is doing. For instance, Charity Navigator. Some people want to give to international organizations and some want to give to something closer to home. Whatever it is that a person chooses there are plenty of places where one can reach out.


With Equality Now, how do you ensure spending is managed and invested in areas it is intended?

Equality now is a worldwide organization with only eighteen people, and we only spend 11 percent of our budget on overhead and management. The remaining budget goes into programs. We are a pretty lean organization in that way.


Toward what path are you steering Equality Now?

Our goal is a lofty one—to end violence toward women and discrimination toward women and girls. There are many, many barriers to that but 20 years ago, women’s rights were not considered human rights, and now they are. Now the media is talking about violence against women. You have an increasing number of women in positions of power who are sensitized to issues that affect women. So we see progress, and though there is an enormous resistance to change, we are hopeful, and there is movement forward toward ensuring that women live a life free of violence. And governments are more aware of it, and there are a lot more pressures that they have to reckon with; we have to stay hopeful. Even when there are significant setbacks at the level of governments or at the level of war, we have to stay optimistic.


Are there aspects of your journey that are frustrating?

Yes, I would say that the most frustrating part is the lack of political will to address women’s issues as urgent. To me, it is one of the most urgent human rights crises, the way women and girls are being raped, mutilated, sold, abused and tortured every day with impunity.


Given the nature of your work, how do you energize yourself?

I think priorities from the ground of hope and resilience, courage and success are what keeps us going. The fact that we know international globalization and pressure does work. Sometimes it feels like it is a drop in the ocean. But still, if you can save one girl, create one law that can have an effect on thousands of women, that is hope enough for us to continue. It tells us that we are not alone in this struggle and moving in the right direction.


Do you feel a greater sense of fulfillment and accomplishment now than you did as a woman practicing law?

Oh yes, without a doubt.


To learn more about Equality Now visit their website.