By Richelle Khor
Women in Modern Society
In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the submission and subjugation of the female characters depict the potential encroachment upon feminism engendered by society’s indifference towards women’s rights. A finding by the UN Women (Facts and figures: Women’s leadership and political participation) proves that while there is progression in the awareness of gender equality, residual patriarchal notions manifest themselves in the underrepresentation of women in political leadership and their vulnerability to physical or sexual violence. While there is a world-wide aspiration to eradicate the prejudiced portrayal of women, the encumbrances faced by them amidst the pandemic underscores the need for them to gain better access to justice. The feminist governance model introduced by Patti Whaley demonstrates the transformative power harboured by men and women to achieve this. The article highlights approaches in which the self-awareness and zero tolerance principles espoused by Patti Whaley can be adopted to ameliorate the representation of women in society and their access to judicial forum.
The Vulnerability of Women
The pandemic impacted men and women differently and brought issues concerning women’s mental health and autonomy to public attention. One of the issues was the disruption to the supply of drugs used for reproductive health when countries went into lockdown. It was reported that women faced significant delays in receiving family planning services, resulting in potentially millions of unintended pregnancies and maternal deaths (Palladium- More than Contraception: Strengthening the Reproductive Health Supply Chain in the Wake of COVID-19). The provision of family planning and other sexual and reproductive health commodities form the kernel of women’s health and empowerment, and the need was addressed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in updating the guidelines that deem family planning as essential. Impeded access to sexual and reproductive health resources disempowers women as they become unable to make informed decisions over their bodies. Hormonal imbalance can also give rise to emotional instability: oestrogen and progesterone, which is found in family planning drugs, have been found to affect neurotransmitters, and the neuroendocrine and circadian systems that have been implicated in mood disorder, and a drop in oestrogen and progesterone resulting from being unable to access these drugs can make women irritable and anxious. With the mental state of women weakened by the abrupt crisis, these reasons call for the implementation of a more resilient protection system during the pandemic.
Lockdown restrictions left females ensnared within unbalanced power dynamics and the domain of abusing partners. The 65% rise in domestic abuse cases reported by the Crime Survey for England and Wales reflects the ramifications of pandemic countermeasures. As mobility was encumbered, some households were subjected to increased pressure, which consequently exacerbated the existing tensions within. Community structures and care facilities that protect females had their efficiencies hampered by the pandemic and were not able to respond instantly to their needs, further disrupting their access to immediate assistance. Even more concerning was the fact that according to the London’s Metropolitan Police, the calls were mainly from third parties, rather than the survivors themselves. Had it not been the intervention of third parties, such cases would not be reported. It illustrated the inability of the victims in seeking help for themselves and the perturbing possibility of the existence of many more who are suffering in silence. Concerns regarding women’s quandary in obtaining legal advice incited zealous discussions, which led to the evaluation of feminism against the backdrop of contemporary circumstances. Women are routinely silenced and ostracised for vocalising their thoughts; the social shackle creates their tendency to internalise the repression. The role of access to justice becomes prominent in issues of female disempowerment as the rule of law buttresses women against discrimination and supports them to reclaim their independence in making strategic life choices.
One of the feminist principles embraced by Whaley is self-awareness- the conscious attempt of accepting vulnerabilities and cherishing personal strengths. Women should recognise that apart from the disparities in physical strength, they harbour the same capacity to contribute to the society through other means. The widespread accessibility of education has engaged more women in intellectually rigorous sectors, which brought about a flourishing phenomenon whereby there are more exemplary female figures breaking glass ceilings. Among the most remarkable is Sandra Day O’Conner, who was the first women to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States and a feminist advocate. As such, self-empowerment is an essential first step. Legislation such as The Equality Act 2010 was enacted to facilitate females to exercise their autonomy in defending their rights. Section 78 mandates the information relating to the employees’ wages to be published and transparent. Such statutory provision provides redress to the issue of workplace sex discrimination and consequently unfetters women from the “sticky grounds” (tendency for women to restrain themselves from opting for better opportunities and modify their ambitions due the unequal treatment in the workplace). Rather than mentally enslaving themselves to the visible limitations, women should strive to emancipate themselves from the social chains that restrain them from exploring their prowess. The picture of damsels in distress is an artefact of the past; improved access to justice is a prerequisite for women to enjoy stronger legal autonomy.
On the other hand, the principle applies equally to men. Men should acknowledge women as their counterparts on equal grounds to dismantle the bias that women belong to an inferior class. Particularly in male-dominated sectors like the legal profession, initiatives such as The Women in Law pledge was launched by The Law Society UK to champion positive changes for equality in the industry. Apart from solely advocating that women are equally competent to make informed and analytical decisions, another avenue worth pondering would be the source of institutional privilege in the hands of men. As all modern societies find their roots in agrarian civilisations, men’s higher endurance and physical strength was directly and fallaciously translated into power. The injustice implicit in the belief should be exposed – it is tyranny to exploit advantages constructed upon gender alone. Women’s rights are a human rights issue that requires men to question their power dynamics and consider their roles in widening women’s access to justice. This is resonated by the UN HeForShe movement that encourages men to involve themselves more actively and maintain long-standing support in order to spread the awareness.
The second zero tolerance principle to be discussed projects the collective responsibility of various social groups onto the blueprint. Reni Eddo-Lodge, in Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, remarkably illuminates the all-encompassing nature of the movement- “Feminism, at its best, is a movement that works to liberate all people who have been economically, socially, and culturally marginalised by an ideological system that has been designed for them to fail.” Perceiving it as women’s vehement expression that is fomented by men-rancour is a misinterpretation that usurps the essence of feminism. It is an evolution that celebrates the social paradigm where mutual respect is peacefully and seamlessly incorporated into the power dynamics between genders. Participation of law firms in Pro Bono work has increased alongside their heightened willingness to devote their expertise to empower people in need to assert their legal rights. Free legal advice to victims enmeshed in discrimination and domestic abuse cases attempts to erode the cost barrier to justice. Pro Bono legal work reaches out to marginalised groups who are not well-informed of their rights due to the lack of legal education. Access to justice is broadened significantly when more women possess the awareness to vocalise the disturbance they had experienced rather than internalising it and indirectly contributing to the vicious cycle. Availability of legal remedies injects the realisation that the conduct in question is held to be reprehensible and should not be tolerated. There is also a thriving trend among young people and student communities to engage in Pro Bono work through internal opportunities such as Lawyers without Borders (LWOB) and Junior Lawyers against Poverty (JLAP) that are propelled by the mission to nurture liberalism among younger generations to dauntlessly call out abusive and discriminatory actions. More young people should be invited to speak at international conferences about their visions of the future because they stand at the frontline of revolutions.
We have a dream. The dream can only be realised in an egalitarian society, whereby the conduct of everyone is guaranteed to be free from harassment and coercion. The pandemic has undoubtedly generated unfavourable ramifications that aggravate the social stigma and plague the agencies’ ability to ensure the protection of women. Industries where women are overrepresented such as hospitality, retail, and manufacturing suffered the most severe economic blow. The pile-on effects of work pressure and childcare responsibilities force women to consider leaving the workforce, according to a study conducted by Lean In. Even if they wish to return, they are likely to receive an offer 7% less than other candidates (The US Bureau of Labour Statistics), reflecting the inherent problem of the lack of support given to working mothers. Humanity must exercise its capability to demonstrate active resilience in the face of unforeseen perturbations. Women networks are powerhouses that fight for wider representation to embolden the community to inspire and create their impact. More significantly, women ought to possess the full awareness to love and appreciate oneself, acknowledging that their mental and physical well-being are within their control. Where violence threatens, justice prevails. All individuals should rejoice in equal access to justice; the rule of law remains central to our legal system that progressively awakens to the influence of women.