A weapon against half the world

To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, Julie Bindel calls for a global movement against sexua

Inside the walls of a coastal town in Morocco, several women crouch at the roadside selling bunches of herbs. One of the women catches my eye. She is nursing a baby but looks at least 60 years old. I try to see her as a woman with whom I share substantive experience. I have no children; I am not poor. As a lesbian, I do not require access to safe contraception. I do not need to worry about my rights as a married woman. Yet there is one thing that all women share - something that shapes our lives and partly determines the way we live and the choices we make - that is, the threat and reality of sexual violence.

It is this commonality that is taking me to the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations headquarters in New York this month. In the past 15 years, the women's movement has become truly global, a development kick-started in an unlikely place: Beijing. In 1995, 23,500 women and 5,000 government representatives of 189 counties gathered in the Chinese capital for the UN Conference on Women and formulated a Global Platform for Action (PfA), through which governments should address gender inequality, including measures to end violence against women. The PfA remains the most wide-reaching international commitment to women's equality. At this year's catch-up conference in New York, many of the delegates will be asking how far we have come and what still needs to be done.

As I write, women and girls all over the world are being beaten by their husbands, raped, burned and mutilated in the name of "tradition", forced into marriage, sold into prostitution and murdered for transgressing a twisted code of "honour". Violence against women is an international epidemic. It has been identified by the World Health Organisation as a grave health issue, affecting more people than HIV and Aids.

Globally, at least one-third of all women and girls will be beaten or sexually abused once or more throughout their lives. In Kenya, 70 per cent of those asked by the Women's Rights Awareness Programme admitted they knew neighbours who beat their wives, and almost 60 per cent said that the women were to blame. The news is not much better in the UK. A recent survey on Londoners' attitudes to rape found that almost half think that rape victims are at least partly to blame.

The poorer the woman, the more vulnerable she is to exploit­ation and sexual violence. If a woman has to fight for clean water, she may be pressured to swap this for sexual favours. If there is no work in her town or village, she could be targeted by traffickers promising her a better life overseas.

Under attack

In most countries, women have won the right to vote only within the past 50 years. There is still nowhere in the world where women have access to political or social power equal to that of men. I spoke to Rachel Carter, head of policy and advocacy at the UK-based NGO Womankind Worldwide. She believes that the main achievements of the Beijing conference have been the formation of a vibrant international movement and the development of legislation against violence towards women in countries that had no prior public awareness of the issue.

“However, the massive gap left to be plugged is implementation," Carter says. "There is a tendency for some governments to see their country strategies, legislation and policies as an end rather than a means to an end."

Do we need to create a new formal agreement, as we did in Beijing? "I would be reluctant because, if anything, in today's climate, I think we would go backwards. Climate change and the rise of fundamentalism have made it worse for women. Women's rights are being eroded. Women's freedom was used as an excuse for the invasion of Afghanistan, but now women's rights are being traded out and it is worse in some ways for them."

Baroness Gould is chair of the Women's National Commission, which provides a link between the UK government delegation to the conference and NGOs. She is similarly cautious: "If we had another Beijing, we might go backwards in terms of reproductive health, in particular abortion and contraception. There are very few countries in Africa where abortion is legal."

There is evidence to back up Carter and Gould. Zimbabwe has long had a vibrant women's movement, but women have borne the brunt of the recent turmoil there, and growing numbers of cases of both sexual and domestic violence are being reported. In countries experiencing conflict, or which have recently done so, violence towards women tends to have increased.

During the Beijing conference, representatives of uncompromising Catholic and Muslim countries refused to sign in support of women's rights to abortion and contraception, or a right to sexual self-determination, and yet these are the very issues that lie at the root of women's vulnerability to domestic and sexual violence. "If a woman lives in a country where rape in marriage is not a crime, and domestic violence is viewed as perfectly acceptable, how can she ever leave?"asks Hilary McCollum, a UK-based anti-rape activist. "And if there is no option for a woman not to marry, how is she ever going to be free from the control of men?"

South Africa is one country that is suffering from a surge in sexual violence, even though it has one of the best constitutional and legal frameworks in the world for human rights, including violence against women. After the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, and during its transition towards democracy, South Africa experienced a rapid increase in reported rapes. South African rape statistics are now among the highest in the world. In 1997, the Human Sciences Research Council released a report claiming that child rape in South Africa had reached "epidemic proportions". One-third of reported rapes between January and September 2001 were of children between zero and 11 years of age.

According to rape crisis groups in the country, many of the rapes committed are akin to those experienced during the anti-apartheid struggle, with victims suffering extreme violence, often by multiple perpetrators. "While the history of apartheid and conflict must play a role in this," Carter says, "I think we must go back again to the root causes of power imbalances between genders, patriarchy, and women's bodies being used as both personal and political territory upon which wars are played out." It has been recognised since the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict that rape is a tool of war. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, for example, up to half a million women were raped by combatants.

Women in rich countries are also vulnerable to pimps, rapists and wife-beaters. Dowry deaths, honour killings and female genital mutilation all happen in the UK. Girls are taken to Harley Street clinics by their Somali-born parents to be mutilated in the name of culture. Pakistani families send girls "home" to marry a cousin they have never met, often before puberty. Women born into Turkish families can be killed by their male relatives for daring to love an unsuitable man.

Heroine Harman

Honour crimes also happen to women of British descent. Wives who dishonour their husbands by leaving them or being unfaithful often die for stepping out of line. The Deputy Prime Minister, Harriet Harman, much derided for her outspoken feminism, has fought hard to prevent men from pleading provocation in such cases, a defence that can be traced back to the Middle Ages.

But the global women's movement is making a difference. A recent Unicef report found that female genital mutilation in one region of Ethiopia had fallen from 100 per cent to 3 per cent, largely as a result of innovative public education programmes run by Kembatti Mentti Gezzima-Tope, a women's self-help centre in the township of Durame. Meanwhile, the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, Minnesota, has saved the lives of countless women and been replicated around the world. By developing a multi-agency approach that involves the courts, prosecutors, probation and refuge workers, it has brought about a sharp fall in the number of women killed as a result of domestic violence.

“In the UK, we have made enormous progress in terms of sexual violence," Gould says. But we live in difficult times. For Carter, relying on what she calls "paper rights", such as those outlined in the PfA, will not translate into women's lives being saved or sexual violence being eliminated. We need concerted action, she says, and her hope is that the conference at the UN this month will inspire just that. "We need to be able to tell men what they will gain if they give up power, which will be no easy task.

“Right now we don't have enough mechanisms to hold governments to account, despite the PfA. Fifteen years after Beijing, and we are struggling to hold up the damn walls."

Julie Bindel is co-founder of Justice for Women

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Game on

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Game on