Yes. We Still Need a Safe Space for Women.
by Margherita Sgorbissa
*The following material contains information about sexual violence and violence against women.
Last week I attended a fantastic conference in Brussels, the Gender Equality Academy, hosted and organized by the Coppieters Foundation. There I had the chance to listen to many female activists who work for and with women’s networks, organizations and associations- especially against discrimination and sexism. One of the sessions was held by Anna Zobnina, Strategy and Policy Coordinator at the European Network for Migrant Women. Before she began her lecture, she split the audience in four smaller groups and let us work on single study cases about young migrant women from all over Europe. Our task was to discuss about their situation and background of migration and then to give a suggestion about what they should and should not do - according to our point of view. I read a case study of an Ukrainian young woman escaping violence and poverty whose mother became victim of prostitution after arriving in Europe.
When we came back together to discuss the case studies, Anna underlined a very important point: no matter what kind of solutions or suggestions we could have come up with, no matter what kind of migration experiences the women mentioned in the stories had, we still could have agreed on one point: we could all feel a strong sense of empathy because we were women learning about other women. She waited for us to suggest our solutions and after listening to some of them, she pointed out that before we take into consideration the single cases, we must look through the point of view of being women to women, women for women. Anna let us reflect about our ability of giving a suggestion to another woman even though we didn’t personally know her. She claimed that this ability is very often coming from the fact that as women we share a common existential experience: the one of being a woman.
She then kept talking about her organization and what her work there looks like everyday. She is in charge of influencing the policy- and decision-makers of the European politic about rights and protections for migrant women. She described some of the community sessions and activities they host and organize for the network and she mentioned how emotional and often overwhelming they turn to be. There are lots of hurt and feelings circling around as women learn how to cope with the deep pain and devastating experiences that involve not only being a women but also being migrants. The intersection of both categories impacts their experiences of discrimination, violence and life struggle.
Furthermore, in many of their stories, male figures within their family and friends networks played a crucial role in the experience of violence, rape, trafficking and decision of migration. Not only male individuals but also the structural and patriarchal systems within institutions lend women migrants’ lives into a dimension of broader difficulty. This is why Anna and the European Network of Migrant Women are especially focused on creating a safe space of women for women. She believes the power of sharing common experiences and a sense of solidarity and mutual support based on both sisterhood and sympathy can become a key model in working for an emotional empowering and supporting system.
We from the Women Writing Berlin Lab are very often asked why we address our activity exclusively to women. In an era in which the discourse about gender equality claims a spirit of inclusion rather than a separation or a segregation between the members of different gender categories, in an era in which the categories of gender are discussed and almost deconstructed, we end up asking important questions: Why do we still need to build spaces only for women? By doing this are we reinforcing a system of inequality? Are we not giving them the chance to have a space to create equality together? Not to mention including non-binary, transgender and intersex individuals in the attempt?
As founder of the WWBL, I sometimes struggle to build up a proper answer to the questions asked above. Also, as a Gender Studies student, I found myself in front of many theories and ideas not always very easy to put together. Our community operates in a media field trying to promote women writers and to help them gain confidence and experience in what they do, creating a space for their writing to be exposed and shared with other women.
We listen to a broad spectrum of personal and professional experiences, getting the chance to meet and talk with female writers coming from very different backgrounds. We tried to explore which kind of pain points women face while approaching their writing activities and key words such as confidence, money, fear of judgement, sexism in the working or private sphere emerged quite clearly. I have many women who approached me to say thanks for organizing a space that was only made for women. That it made them feel safe and protected by potential attacks especially when it came to writing (and then reading) about personal - and very women-like - experiences.
So, I concretely realized how certain experiences are only lived by women. Women today and across the whole world still fight the ‘same old’ battles. They still tell ‘the same old’ stories about how our social, working and often private systems tend to discriminate against them and keep them out of the public and decision-making spaces.
Listening to what many women told me during our meetups and writing sessions, I concretely realized how far are we still to achieve equality, not only as a number but also as value. Discrimination against women is alive from West to East, from North to South of Europe and around the world.
I read some reports about gender equality in the EU and about the status of women in media to get a better idea about real data and trends currently going on. The results are still far from being positive and confirmed my assumption about women still facing issues like discrimination, sexual harassment and underrepresentation:
Women are more likely to experience gender discrimination than men in most of the social settings, especially in the workspaces.
The Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work states that “Given these advances, however, women in Europe still earn less than men. Throughout the EU, the difference in average gross hourly earnings between women and men has remained high at 15%. According to the European Commission, the difference in earnings levels between men and women results from "non-respect of equal pay legislation and from a number of structural inequalities". Gender discrimination is also visible in other aspects of employment. In the United Kingdom, for example, a recent report by the Equal Opportunities Commission states that 30,000 women each year lose their jobs because of their pregnancy, and only 3% of those who experience a problem lodge a claim at an employment tribunal”.
Women are still victims of sexual harassment and abusive behavior especially where dynamic of powers intersects patriarchal system like in the workspace.
According to the European Parliament resolution of 26 October 2017 on combating sexual harassment and abuse in the EU “Sexual harassment is a form of violence against women and girls and is the most extreme yet persistent form of gender-based discrimination; (...)some 90 % of victims of sexual harassment are female and approximately 10 % are male; (...) according to the EU-wide FRA study of 2014 entitled ‘Violence against women’ one in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence during their adult lives; (...) up to 55 % of women have been sexually harassed in the EU; (...) 32 % of all victims in the EU said the perpetrator was a superior, colleague or customer; whereas 75 % of women in professions requiring qualifications or top management jobs have been sexually harassed; (...) 61 % of women employed in the service sector have been subjected to sexual harassment; (...) 20 % of young women (between the ages of 18 and 29) in the EU-28 have experienced cyber harassment; (...) one in ten women have been subjected to sexual harassment or stalking using new technology”.
Women are more likely to experience inequality within work and employment spaces, considering the current European situation in regard of gender pay gap and the number of women occupying top management position.
Considering the Women Writing Berlin Lab as a space to promote women’s voices across the media, we did a research about how the situation currently looks like and it emerged that - according to the Review of the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action in the EU Member States: Women and the Media — Advancing gender equality in decision-making in media organisations - in the media organization of the European State Members: “The data show that overall, in the selected media organisations from the Member States, across all management levels, women constitute around one third (30 %) of senior staff placed in decision-making positions. However, when this composited figure is disaggregated into its component parts, it is clear that at the most senior strategic level (Chief Executive Officer), women comprise a mere 16 % of such positions; at the most-senior operational role (Chief Operating Officer) women comprise a slightly higher proportion at 21 %, but this still means that less than quarter of positions are occupied by women. At the level of board membership, which often comprises individuals who are appointed or nominated from outside the organisation, women constitute a mere quarter of all such members”.
All of these points are only a partial and superficial overview of the struggles women still have to face in our society. It would take me months to narrow the single aspects mentioned above, especially considering how most the sources I used for my articles are far from including an intersectional approach and involving more specific situations where, for examples, plural inequality sections (as race, class, disability, age, ethnicity…) produce an even deeper system of discrimination.
Women are still experiencing a spectrum of issues based on the fact that they are women. Acknowledging that means, at least for me, acknowledging that we still need to create a safe space for women to feel supported. We still need to have a room where women's’ voices don’t get neglected and don’t fall into a toxic dynamic of power. We still need to build an environment where we as women can learn sisterhood rather than competition with mutual support and solidarity. By bringing together shared experiences, we learn how to help each other and how to understand where we are and where we want to go, what kind of values and principles, missions and feelings we need to embrace to achieve inclusion and equality and to take back our spots in a system that wants to cut us out.