Hard times happen. They can happen anytime and anywhere. They can happen on a scale as small as a community or family or as large as an entire region or country. The causes range from economic crises to armed conflicts and everything in between. In fact, the one thing that seems to be universal about hard times is that they lead to less respect for women’s rights.
In Nepal, girls are essentially sold into slavery when their families are struggling with debt. The ethnic Tharu practice a form of indentured servitude known as “kamlari”. Tharu families struggling with extreme poverty ease their debt burdens by leasing their daughters to higher caste landlords to use as servants for as little as $30 a year. Girls as young as six enter the system and are forced to do menial labor. These girls suffer a wide range of abuses, including beatings and rape, and are not allowed to go to school. Activists have been struggling to free girls from the kamlari system but the system has persisted in isolated parts of Nepal.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, girls are traded as a form of dispute settlement. Daughters are given to rival parties to settle disputes in a practice known as “swara” or “vani”. Swara is used to settle crimes such as murder, adultery, and kidnapping. A daughter from the family of the perpetrator (usually the girl’s father or brother) is forced to marry into the family of the victim. The girls are often quite young and the men they are forced to marry are often significantly older. Swara brides are treated terribly by their in-laws and husbands. They are treated like servants, constantly taunted, frequently beaten, and sometimes even killed.
In Niger, there is a tradition of marrying girls off at a very young age. Niger has the world’s highest rate of child marriage with approximately 50% of girls marrying before the age of fifteen, with some as young as seven. Girls are married off in exchange for dowries, including livestock and cash, which can be very helpful for families struggling with poverty. The country is currently in the middle of a hunger crisis resulting from a severe drought. Therefore, families that were already poor are now finding it even more difficult to put food on the table and there is a legitimate fear that families will begin marrying off their daughters with greater frequency and at younger ages if the crisis continues. Child brides in Niger lead difficult lives. They are often married to men who are much older, they are unable to attend school, forced to have sexual intercourse, denied freedom, beaten, and often abandoned when their polygamous husbands take younger brides. Additionally, child brides tend to be impregnated long before their bodies are ready to bear children, which often leads to serious health problems and even death.
In Madagascar, girls are frequently forced into prostitution when their families don’t have enough money to survive. In the southern region of the island, they have what is called “tsenan’ampela” (literally girls market). Families send their girls to market towns without money, forcing them to prostitute themselves at the tsenan’ampela until they have enough money to buy food and supplies for the family.
In times of conflict, rape and sexual assault are frequently used against women as weapons of war. This is currently happening in Syria in the conflict between President Bashar al-Assad and anti-government forces. Women Under Siege has documented 81 instances of sexual assault since anti-government demonstrations began in March 2011. There is evidence that forces are targeting victims related to the Free Syrian Army as a way to punish the rebels with reports of soldiers going into houses looking for male members of the rebel forces and then raping the women. Many of the women have been killed after being assaulted, which is a tactic used in conflict zones to show complete control over the enemy.
The situations described above are just a handful of examples of how women and girls suffer disproportionately in times of hardship, and the list could go on and on. The list of excuses for these types of discrimination is equally long and includes explanations blaming culture, tradition, inevitability, and ignorance. However, the truth is that there is no excuse for sacrificing women’s rights in hard times. According to Article 1 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), “discrimination against women” shall mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” This broad definition of discrimination against women means that for at least the 187 countries that are a party to CEDAW, there is an obligation to ensure that women’s rights are respected and that women do not suffer disproportionately in any circumstance, including times of hardship. As such, women and girls should never be turned into a commodity and sold off when their families need food and money, and they should never brutalized for crimes they have not committed or battles they have not fought. When times get tough, women should be given an equal say in finding a solution.