Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia: A Counter-Narrative

This past winter break, I visited Saudi Arabia with my family. While there, I noticed that many women were active in the work force, working as police officers, salespeople, and even airport security. Under the preconceived notion that women were not allowed to work in Saudi Arabia, I was surprised to see this. Slowly, I began to realize that the Western perspective about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia was not entirely correct. So, after I came back from my trip, I decided to look into different sources to try to get an accurate portrayal of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

An image of a news broadcast with Bayan Alzahran, the first female lawyer to have her own law firm in Saudi Arabia
Bayan Alzahran, who is the first female lawyer to open her own law firm in Saudi Arabia. Source: Al Arabiya, Creative Commons.

Women’s Rights Narrative

After conducting extensive research, I realized that while there is no denying that Saudi Arabia still has many improvements to make in terms of gender equality, there are several women’s rights that have been historically implemented or are currently being established. Almost always, women in Saudi Arabia are portrayed as oppressed, and again, while there is an undeniable lack of many rights for women, it is not a fair assessment to only discuss what rights are not realized; it is important to recognize the rights that they have as well. While I cannot say for certain why this particular narrative is often propagated, it can be argued that the mainstream media is committed to portraying Islam in a negative light, and because Saudi Arabia is governed by Sharia Law, or Islamic Law, it follows that it will be portrayed negatively. As the media does this, people begin to argue that Islam is in and of itself misogynistic and is thus incompatible with progress and civilization. While I will not be going in too much depth about the rights Islam gives women, I will note that it is important to remember that culture and religion are not interchangeable terms and should not be treated as such; Saudi Arabia may govern using Sharia Law, but many of their restrictive practices are rooted in culture, not Islam. Thus, the purpose of this post is to provide a counter-narrative to show that what the media portrays pertaining to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is not an entirely accurate depiction.

Employment Rights

While there is a dearth of women in the employment sector, seen through the fact that only 22 percent of Saudi womenparticipate in the workforce, there are no legal restrictions on which jobs women are allowed to work in, with garbage collecting and construction being the only exceptions to this. Sharia Law encourages women to work, so the lack of women in the work force is not due to restrictive religious practices, but rather to restrictive cultural practices. Further, Sharia Law allows women to earn and manage their own finances, making employment especially appealing to women who want to be financially independent. While the number of working women is low, Saudi Arabia is currently attempting to further integrate women into the workforce, with a goal of a 30 percent participation rate by 2030. While this is mostly due to the fact that Saudi Arabia wants to replace non-Saudi workers with Saudi Arabian citizens, it is still commendable that women are a part of this plan.

Education Rights

Perhaps most interesting is the emphasis Saudi Arabia has placed on women’s education. Saudi women have had access to education for several decades; women have been attending universities since the 1970s. Recent advances made highlight the country’s commitment to providing opportunities for women in education, namely the 2005 study abroad program, which sends thousands of Saudi women to the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, among other countries, to obtain an education. Another very impressive advancement is Saudi Arabia’s first all-women’s college, Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University, founded in 2010. The purpose of the school is to give women better access to fields that are traditionally male dominated, such as medicine and pharmacology. Due to these improvements and the general importance placed on women’s education, women currently represent 52 percent of university students in Saudi Arabia.

An image showing a Saudi Arabian woman holding up her driving license.
A Saudi Arabian woman holds up her driver’s license. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Recent Progress

Recently, steps have been taken to reverse restrictive practices, such as lifting the ban on women driving and reducing male guardianship. The former, implemented in 2018, saw the legalization of women driving. Thus far, tens of thousands of women have received their driver’s licenses, highlighting the success of this change. The latter, implemented a few months ago, saw changes made to restrictive guardianship laws. Historically, these laws heavily restricted women’s rights, specifically the right to freedom of movement; women were not allowed to obtain a passport or travel abroad without a male family member’s consent. While I could explain how changes to these guardianship laws will have a positive impact on women’s lives, I think it is best to share the perspectives of a Saudi Arabian woman on this issue. In an article for BBC News, Lulwa Shalhoob, a Saudi journalist, wrote that “the new rule means the relationship between a husband and his wife becomes a partnership between two responsible adults, rather than guardianship of a minor.” She also notes that an increasing number of Saudi women “no longer want to be framed as women of special circumstances who lack rights that women around the world take for granted.” For Saudi Arabian women, then, this move not only grants certain rights they were long deprived of, but it also fosters an unprecedented sense of agency and personhood.

Historically, Saudi Arabia has invested in specific spheres of women’s rights, such as employment and education, and in recent years, the Saudi Arabian government has made progress by rescinding many restrictive practices and laws. When Saudi Arabia is included in the discourse pertaining to the rights of women, none of this is mentioned; only the shortcomings are. While I am the first to admit that Saudi Arabia still has much work to do in terms of women’s rights and human rights in general, it is important to acknowledge what they have done right.

Women are Disadvantaged in Female-Dominated Fields

Women and man standing on unequal sized stacks of coins
Gender Pay Gap. Source: The People Speak!, Creative Commons.

What do nursing, teaching, social work, and librarianship all have in common? Those working in these fields are underpaid, under respected, and mostly female. Pink-collar professions, or female-dominated fields, are considered less-respectable than other fields, and history points to the fact that mainly females work in them to be the cause.

Most of these jobs were once dominated by men, and when they were, they were highly respected. For example, before the late 1800s, teaching was a profession for men only; it was highly respected and well paid, but as females began to take these jobs, that quickly changed. This trend is similar for the other pink-collar professions mentioned—with the exception of social work because it is relatively new as a profession—and similar to trends in other pink-collar professions.

To understand why pink-collar professions are underpaid and undervalued we must first understand hegemonic masculinity. This is the idea that society has an ideal form of masculinity that is valued by many but attainable to very few. In fact, the main people who are able to meet this standard are fictional characters: Captain America, Wolverine, etc. In Still a Man’s World: Men Who Do “Women’s Work,” Christine Williams explains that this ideal puts pressure on the men who ascribe to it to push anything feminine away, including the jobs dominated by females. Hegemonic masculinity’s standard changes based on the dominant culture, but one aspect that remains is the need for dominance over femininity.

When women enter male-dominated professions, they experience discrimination and sexual harassment, which could deter them from staying in the field and negatively impact their mental health. However, when men enter female-dominated fields, they experience almost no discrimination. Tokenism is the idea that a minority group in a workplace or academic area will experience disadvantages and harassment. However, where other groups face discrimination, men benefit from being tokens. During higher education for male-dominated jobs, females experience many of the significant disadvantages of being tokens: women studying for these positions have heightened visibility, which can make them feel like they have to succeed because they feel responsible for the advancement of their gender in that profession. Additionally, the dominant group—in this case men—may be threatened by their presence, causing the dominant group to isolate tokens and pressure them to conform to the prevalent culture.

However, when men begin schooling for female-dominated professions, they generally don’t experience these challenges. Male professors tend to take male students under their wing, which gives them a boost in their classes and professionally—an advantage that most token groups wouldn’t regularly receive. Having a mentor is a great advantage to anyone training professionally, so the advantage these men receive over the women in these female-dominated fields is exponential. Additionally, while most tokens experience sexual harassment, men don’t experience sexual harassment in female-dominated fields. In fact, the group that typically experiences harassment in female-dominated professions is females; even though it’s at lower levels in high-wage female dominated fields, sexual harassment is still a big problem in female-dominated professions. Most tokens are the group discriminated against, but in the case of female-dominated professions, females still experience disadvantages starting in professional school.

Women continue to experience disadvantages after professional training as well. Most people have heard of the glass ceiling: the invisible force keeping women from reaching executive and other higher-up positions. While there is a higher proportion of women in executive positions in female-dominated professions, women still face a barrier: the glass escalator. The glass escalator is the invisible force pushing men—sometimes despite their wishes—to executive and administrative positions. This, in turn, leaves women with more experience in lower paying and lower ranking positions. Some men would rather stay in positions considered low-ranking, like children’s librarian, geriatric nursing, or lower elementary school teaching, but feel pressure to move up because of stereotypes of the work men should be doing. Others realize they will move up quickly and enter these fields with the goal of quickly becoming a reference librarian, ER nurse, principal, or other high-ranking positions. Regardless of the male employee’s intention, they are pushed past women into higher-ranking positions or specialties.

While there are more women in these professions, there is still a significant wage gap. This is not necessarily directly due to implicit sexism: because men often occupy the higher status—and therefore higher paying—jobs, men in female-dominated professions earn more than women. This is compounded by the problem that these jobs are underpaid to begin with. Regardless of the pay when men dominated these professions, when women began to dominate these fields, they immediately had lower wages. When professions like teaching and librarianship first became feminized, single women were those that flooded the fields. It was rarely the intention of these women to stay in the field after they were married, and women typically had someone else to rely on for financial support, so employers paid them less because they could. However, even when the attitude towards working women changed, the pay didn’t. Women in female-dominated professions are underpaid, while men are pushed to the positions that have higher pay.

The problem is not men; it is society’s view on women and “women’s work”. As a society, we underappreciate emotional labor and care-work, and many of the jobs involving this are female-dominated. There is the perception that anyone can do these types of jobs, even though most require education beyond high school. Because our culture values aspects of masculinity over femininity, men are pushed into more highly respected, masculine areas of female-dominated fields, which keeps equally qualified women out of those positions. As a society, we must work to value female-dominated professions based on their impact and importance rather than the perceived value of the person doing the work.

Examining Period Poverty

A worker trims and stacks sanitary pads before they are lined and sewn at the Afripads factory.
A worker trims and stacks sanitary pads, Source: Yahoo Images.

Period poverty is the lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, handwashing facilities, and or waste management. The term also refers to the increased economic vulnerability that women and girls face due to the financial burden posed by menstrual supplies. In least-developed and low-income countries, access to hygienic products such as pads, tampons, or cups is limited. This means that girls will often resort to using proxy materials such as mud, leaves, or animal skins to try to absorb the menstrual flow. As a result, such women are at a higher risk of developing certain urogenital infections, like yeast infections, vaginosis, or urinary tract infections. This becomes an issue because while the majority of women are of reproductive age, the majority of these women and girls are unable to practice proper hygiene practices. Consequently, women and girls around the world, especially in developing countries, face numerous challenges in managing their menstruation. Furthermore, some/many women are forced to approach this normal bodily function with silence due to stigma, as some communities consider menstruation to be taboo.

What causes period poverty?

One cause is that pads and other supplies may be unavailable or unaffordable. This means that women are often forced to choose between purchasing sanitary pads and different basic needs, or they may live in areas where there is no access to hygiene products at all. More importantly, young girls may lack access to toilet facilities with clean water to clean themselves while on their periods. In addition, discriminatory cultural norms make it challenging to maintain good menstrual hygiene as women often have to hide, or the community may not put enough effort into establishing hygiene facilities or practices around them. Also, some women and girls lack the necessary education and information about menstruation and good hygiene practices because topics around menstruation and proper hygiene practices are rarely discussed in families or schools.

What is more, other girls may experience menstruation with little or no knowledge of what is happening. This makes it harder for women to adopt sanitary practices because most remain unaware of recommended hygiene practices. In many communities, menstruating girls and women are still banned from kitchens, crop fields, or places of worship. There is also the issue of forced secrecy in communities where girls are exposed to ‘menstrual etiquette.’ This etiquette encourages the careful management of blood flow and discomfort and the importance of keeping menstruation hidden from boys and men.

A Human Rights Issue.

It is important to consider gender inequality, extreme poverty, and harmful traditions as the source of menstrual hygiene deprivation and stigma. This often leads to exclusion from public life, heightened vulnerability, and creates barriers to opportunities such as employment, sanitation, and health.

Some of the human rights that are undermined by period poverty include,

  • The right to human dignity– When women and girls cannot access safe bathing facilities and safe and effective means of managing their menstrual hygiene, they are not able to manage their menstruation with dignity. Menstruation-related teasing, exclusion, and shame also undermine the right to human dignity.
  • The right to an adequate standard of health and well-being Women and girls may experience negative health consequences when they lack the supplies and facilities to manage their menstrual health. Menstruation stigma can also prevent women and girls from seeking treatment for menstruation-related disorders or pain, adversely affecting their health and well-being.
  • The right to education  Lack of a safe place or ability to manage menstrual hygiene as well as lack of medication to treat menstruation-related pain can all contribute to higher rates of school absenteeism and poor educational outcomes. Some studies have confirmed that when girls are unable to manage menstruation in school properly, their academics and performance suffer.
  • The right to work  Poor access to safe means of managing menstrual hygiene and lack of medication to treat menstruation-related disorders or pain also limit job opportunities for women and girls. They may refrain from taking specific jobs, or they may be forced to forgo working hours and wages. Menstruation-related needs, such as bathroom breaks, may be penalized, leading to unequal working conditions. And women and girls may face workplace discrimination related to menstruation taboos.
  • The right to non-discrimination and gender equality Stigmas and norms related to menstruation can reinforce discriminatory practices. Menstruation-related barriers to school, work, health services, and public activities also perpetuate gender inequalities.

What is being done?

In spite of the issues presented, it is essential to acknowledge that a lot is being done around the world to help eradicate period poverty.

For example, UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), has various approaches to promoting and improving menstrual health around the world. Some of them include,

  • UNFPA reaches women and girls directly with menstrual supplies and safe sanitation facilities. In humanitarian emergencies, UNFPA distributes dignity kits, which contain disposable and reusable menstrual pads, underwear, soap, and related items. (In 2017, 484,000 dignity kits were distributed in 18 countries.)
  • The UN organization also promotes menstrual health information and skills building. For example, some UNFPA programs teach girls to make reusable sanitary napkins. Others raise awareness about menstrual cups.
  • Furthermore, the organization aims to improve education and information about menstruation as human rights concerns. This is done through its youth programs and comprehensive sexuality education efforts, such as the Y-Peer program.
  • UNFPA also procures reproductive health commodities that can be useful for treating menstruation-related disorders. For instance, hormonal contraceptive methods can be used to treat symptoms of endometriosis and reduce excessive menstrual bleeding.
  • Similarly, UNFPA is helping to gather data and evidence about menstrual health and its connection to global development. For instance, UNFPA supported surveys provide critical insight into girls’ and women’s knowledge about their menstrual cycles, health, and access to sanitation facilities. A recent UNFPA publication offers a critical overview of the menstrual health needs of women and girls in the Eastern and Southern Africa region.

 Further Recommendations

While there exists a lot of support to help end period poverty, there is still a lot that can be done to improve access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, handwashing facilities, and, or waste management. Human Rights Watch and WASH United recommend that groups which provide services to women, evaluate their programs to determine whether a woman or girl has,

  • Adequate, acceptable, and affordable menstrual management materials;
  • Access to appropriate facilities, sanitation, infrastructure, and supplies to enable women and girls to change and dispose of menstrual materials; and
  • Knowledge of the process of menstruation and options available for menstrual hygiene management.

Practitioners engaged in programming or advocacy related to menstrual management should also,

  • Have an awareness of stigma and harmful practices related to menstruation in the specific cultural context where they are working.
  • Support efforts to change harmful cultural norms and practices that stigmatize menstruation and menstruating women and girls;
  • Address discrimination that affects the ability to deal with menstruation, including for women and girls with disabilities
  • Be aware of and incorporate human rights principles in their programming and advocacy, including the right to participate in decision-making and to get information.

Moreover, women and girls must have access to water and sanitation. This will allow the establishment of private areas to change sanitary cloths or pads, clean water for washing their hands and used fabrics, and facilities for safely disposing of used materials or drying them if reusable.  It is also imperative that both men and women have a greater awareness of menstrual hygiene. This means that training and learning courses should be made available for women and young to teach them the importance of menstrual hygiene and the proper practices. Likewise, educating boys on the challenges and struggles girls face could help reduce stigma and help them become more understanding and supportive husbands and fathers. Less work has been done in this area, but the benefits of educating boys about adolescence for both themselves and female students are increasingly being recognized.

It is essential to acknowledge that there is still limited evidence to understand women’s use of sanitation and menstrual management facilities. Therefore, there is a need for individuals to pay special attention to the needs of women and girls all over the world.

Gender Based Violence

by Grace Ndanu

A photo of a woman crying. Her face is bruised.
Source: UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Creative Commons

It is believed that Gender Based Violence existed from long time ago as a result of male dominance and power, meaning women were left inferior. Generally GBV stops girls from reaching their potential, where by there is a lot of working to transform attitudes towards girls and women that perpetuate violence against them. That is why women are trying to negotiate with the men that they can be equal, but men want to maintain their dominance, which causes an increase in GBV cases.

GBV occurs almost everywhere now, and the girls and women are the victims. Stating at home, children’s vulnerabilities to violence stem from the fact that they depend on their parents or caregivers for their development health and wellbeing. Girls and young women often experience violence at home, from physical punishment to sexual, emotional or psychological violence. Acceptance of violence as a private affair often prevents others from intervening and prohibits girls and young women from reporting in the name of keeping the family name clean.

In primary and high school the violence rate is low unlike in the college and universities. This is because there are strict rules and supervision, which is not the case in colleges and universities around the world. While in college a girl is considered to be an adult. Also, her parents are far away, so anyone she has the freedom to do whatever she wants, including engage in sexual relationships. In these relationships the boys often want to take charge of girl’s life. At this point most of the girls already know their rights and hence they will never accept to be dominated. Unfortunately, this makes them vulnerable to gender based violence because the boys will still fight to maintain the “man’s “position in a girl’s life.

In the work place the top positions are designed for men, including the managers, directors and supervisors, while women are secretaries and cleaners. Gender based violence is likely in situations where a qualified female is expected to perform sexual favors to management in order to get a promotion.

Gender based virulence is also a rising issue in online spaces with girls and young women reporting harassment and abuse. For many girls, there is a pressure to leave online platforms. I am opposed to this because these are the places where most girls and young women get to know their capabilities and strengths through interaction with different types of people. But girls need to be careful in these spaces.

Gender based violence occurs in all parts of the world, but the risk is higher where violence is normalized and where rigid concepts of gender exist. In many cultures, especially the developing countries, violence towards girls and young women is accepted as a social norm. Here comes a saying of an African woman who is strongly tied to culture “a husband who does not beat his wife does not love her”. And the woman herself will ask her husband to beat her. This must be challenged as a matter of urgency, the blame, shame and stigma faced by victims must be eliminated.

Violence should never be a private matter and everyone should be aware of this starting from the youngest to the oldest. So that it can be challenged. Ending GBV will involve action at all levels; strengthening legislation and criminalizing the violence, challenging social norms that condone violence and prosecuting the perpetrators.

Children should learn about gender equality at school, just as it is important to promote integrational dialogue on violence against children. Community dialogue can challenge dominance that brings about gender based violence.

Everybody has a responsibility to promote and strengthen values that support nonviolent, respectful, positive gender equitable relationships for all children and adolescents, including the most vulnerable and excluded.

Young girls and women are encouraged to speak up about the issues they face which embolden them to speak up for change. On the other side young men are encouraged to identity and challenge harmful and negative masculinities that perpetuate discrimination and violence.

Women in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is in the Middle East and occupies about “four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula”. It is home to Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. When thinking of Saudi Arabia, most people associate it with religion, petroleum wealth, and tribalism. Although, throughout the years, Saudi Arabia has become more urban while experiencing vast technological, educational, social, and economic changes. However, in terms of women’s rights, Saudi Arabia has received much backlash.

Women’s Rights Timeline in Saudi Arabia

In 1955, Saudi Arabia’s first school for girls was created and, in 1970, the first university for women opened its doors. In 2001, women were allowed to get personal identification cards as long as they had permission from their guardian. Furthermore, it was issued to the guardian, not the women. Until 2005, it was cultural practice for women to be forced into marriages even though it was considered illegal. Four years later, in 2009, the first female government minister, Noura al-Fayez, was appointed. In 2012, women were allowed to compete in the Olympics on the national team for the first time. Before the 2012 Olympic Games, there was a possibility that Saudi Arabia could be banned due to gender discrimination. A year later, women could ride bicycles and motorcycles in recreational areas but only if they wear the full Islamic body covering and have a male relative present. That same year, 30 women were sworn into the consultative council, the Shura. In 2015, women could run for office for the first time, which resulted in 20 women being elected to municipal roles in the absolute monarchy. Beginning just last year, women can now go to the sports stadiums and drive. Furthermore, in order for women to get their driver license, they do not need permission from a male guardian and can drive by themselves. Finally, in 2019, there a new law established where women would receive a text message if they got divorced, whereas in the past, their marriage could end without their knowledge. Additionally, they can check their marital status online or in court, but only if she has her husband’s approval or if he has harmed her. Many of these policy reforms still include male supervision. While persecution is a high risk, women are willing to fight for their freedom.

Women2Drive. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons.

Their Stories

Rahaf Mohammad al-Qunun fled from Saudi Arabia to Canada; she was seeking a place where she can be free. Even though she left her family behind, now she can make her own decisions. She said, “I don’t have any contact with my family, but I think that’s good for me and for them. I feel like this is my home now. It’s better here.” Two girls, Reem and Rawan, escaped from Saudi Arabia to Hong Kong. Reem claims, “Our rooms were the prison cell and our fathers and brothers were the prison keepers. Saudi Arabia is one big prison.” However, they cannot stay in Hong Kong for long because they are at risk of being possibly removed or prosecuted. If they are forced to return to Saudi Arabia, the outcome could result in imprisonment or death. Cases similar to Reem and Rawn’s tend to often be covered up.

Why Women Run  

One of the most common reasons women flee Saudi Arabia is due to the restrictions placed on where women can travel. Women are not given the right to leave the country without their male guardian’s permission. Furthermore, a woman’s ability to choose her marriage partner is solely dependent on the permission of their male guardian. In January 2019, the country set the minimum age of marriage at 18, but girls aged 15-18 can still become married without the court’s approval. Other reasons include but are not limited to domestic violence, discrimination in employment and healthcare, and inequality in divorce, child custody, and inheritance.

 Technology and its Effect on Women’s Rights

 With every technological advances comes benefits and drawbacks. The benefits can include a platform where people are given a voice to share their thoughts and an accessible platform from anywhere in the world. However, the drawbacks comprise of undesired scrutiny which can make one an easy target. As a result, one of the biggest questions now is “whether it is the responsibility of technology companies to make sure their platforms are not used by governments to repress their citizens.”

In Saudi Arabia, there is an app called Absher, which the government can access. The purpose of the app is for men to approve or deny women to go abroad. As mentioned earlier, some women have tried fleeing the country and must do this secretly due to not having permission from their male guardian. In this case, technology is detrimental for women’s rights because it places a limitation on their freedom. Technological advancement makes it easier for men to have power over women by “policing” the women’s movement. Whenever a woman wants to go to the airport, she cannot leave without the government and her guardian knowing because they receive a text alert; people have gotten around this system. For example, Salwa left Saudi Arabia by getting her father’s phone and replacing his information with her information. Thus, she was able to make consent for her sister and herself, although risking legal consequences. People believe that these apps are causing discrimination to become more normalized. Unfortunately, even though the companies are aware of the circumstances, removing the app would not solve women’s issues in Saudi Arabia. The government in Saudi Arabia has a website that comprises of the same functionality as the app does.

 

Free. Source: Max Pixel, Creative Commons.

The Future

During a session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, leaders of Saudi Arabia discussed their goal of developing the country by increasing participation from women. In fact, the number of female diplomats has expanded steadily over the years. While the future for Saudi Arabia’s women is unknown, there is “cautious optimism” in regards to women having a bigger role in society and politics.

Sexual Assault on College Campuses

A woman who is talking to someone.
Beautiful woman. Source: Henry Söderlund, Creative Commons

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three women and one in six men have experienced sexual violence .  The term sexual assault refers to “any type of sexual activity or contact that happens without your consent.”  Though, the most obvious examples of sexual assault are physical, such as rape and unwanted touching, it can also be found in verbal and visual forms, such as sexual harassment or exposing oneself.

Sexual assault is a particularly significant concern on colleges campuses.  It is experienced by one in five college women, and the majority of survivors are women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four.  For men between 18 and 24 years old, being a student increases the likelihood that they will be assaulted by 78%  in comparison to those of the same age who are not students.  Due to the breadth of its impact, sexual assault on college campuses is an issue that urgently needs to be addressed.

Intersectionality and Sexual Assault

When discussing this problem, it is important that we recognize that not all groups experience sexual assault at the same rates.  The people who are most at risk are those from minority communities that typically have less social and political power than majority communities.

This is an intersectional issue.  Women of color, for example, experience sexual assault at higher rates than white women.  According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, Native American women are twice as likely to experience sexual assault when compared to people of all other races.  People with disabilities are twice as likely to experience sexual assault  in comparison with people who do not have a disability.  Members of the LGBTQ+ community are also at a greater risk.  According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 47% of transgender individuals are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives .

Title IX

Title IX is part of the Education Amendments of 1972 and prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded schools.  Colleges must have systems in place to deal with sexual assault, since it can have a serious impact on an individual’s educational experience.  They should investigate every reported incident and make any necessary accommodations to make sure that the education of assault survivors is negatively impacted as little as is possible.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has proposed some changes for exactly how colleges are to handle reports of sexual assault, but, at the moment, students still have the rights set forth by Title IX and the Clery Act, which include the Campus Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights.  Under the Clery Act , survivors have “the right to receive written explanation of their rights and options,” and colleges must have “a policy on campus disciplinary proceedings” for sexual assault.  In these proceedings, both the survivor and the accused have the rights to equal opportunity to have each other present as witnesses, the accompaniment of an advisor of their choosing, and “simultaneous written notification” of any updates.

If you have experienced sexual assault on a college campus, you can report it to your school, get to know your Title IX coordinator  and school’s policies, and file a police report.

College students walking across campus.
College student. Source: Yuya Tamai, Creative Commons

Rape Culture

Exacerbating the problem of sexual assault on college campuses is the prevalence of rape culture.  Rape culture consists of the behaviors, language, and beliefs through which sexual violence is “normalized and excused.”  This can range from victim blaming, to the use of phrases like “boys will be boys,” to sexual assault itself.  This is especially impactful on the relationship between women/girls and sexual assault.  Rape culture leads to people asking female sexual assault survivors questions about what they were wearing and whether or not they were drinking, as if those factors are the reasons why people are attacked.  As girls grow up, they are taught what steps to take to help them stay safe.  The responsibility to prevent rape and assault is primarily placed on the people at risk of experiencing these things rather than being focused on teaching people not to be perpetrators.  Rape culture is a huge part of why many survivors do not report their assault .  Among survivors on college campuses, more than 90% do not report.

Rape culture is also perpetuated by phenomena such as toxic masculinity, which emphasizes the gender expectation for men to be aggressive and dominant.  Many people use this traditional view of what it means to be a man to minimize the significance of sexual assault to simply “men being men.”  This idea, as well as rape culture as a whole, frames sexual assault as something that is inevitable or a normal part of life rather than a serious problem that needs to be stopped.  This also leads to the assumption that men are always the perpetrators and survivors are always women, which is completely untrue.  Men and non-binary individuals can be assault survivors. Women and non-binary individuals can be assaulters.  People can be assaulted by someone of the same or a different gender.  Sexual assault does not always fit the stereotypes we have been taught.

Safety Precautions

If you are one of the many people who worries about their safety and about assault on a regular basis, here are some things you can do that will hopefully help you feel a bit more comfortable.  If you are not someone who feels the need to think about these kinds of things, this may be an opportunity to broaden your perspective and learn more about the things many of us have do to in order to feel even slightly safe.

  • Try to avoid walking out alone at night.
  • If you have to walk alone at night, consider calling someone and staying on the phone until you reach your destination.
  • Do your best to walk in and park your car in well-lit areas.
  • Carry pepper spray with you.
  • If you are out at night, try to make sure that someone knows where you are going to be and at what times.
  • Check the back seat of your car before getting in.
  • Make sure you have a reliable form of transportation if you are out at night.
  • Avoid jogging alone at night.
  • Always be aware of your surroundings, especially if you are alone.
  • Consider taking some classes in self-defense.
  • If you get a drink at a party or bar, watch them make the drink and do not leave it alone.
  • Consider downloading an app like Noonlight, which can make it easier to contact emergency services if you feel unsafe or if you are unsure if you should call 911.

Sexual Assault Is A Human Rights Issue

It is vital that throughout the conversation about sexual assault we recognize it is a human rights issue.  It is an issue of equality for people of all genders, sexualities, races, and abilities.  Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states, “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit,” but many college classes do not end until it is already dark outside.  Safety concerns prevent some people from taking these classes, while other people are able to take any of the available classes they want. According to Article 27 of the UDHR, “…everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community,” but many cultural events, such as concerts and educational events, happen at night.  If someone fears going out that late and/or has no safe mode of transportation, how can they enjoy this right?  How can they use their right to freedom of expression if they are afraid (Article 19)?  How can someone live in an environment that supports their mental health and wellbeing if they are afraid (Article 25)?  How can they enjoy the equality that all people share if they are afraid?

Resources for Sexual Assault Survivors

Fast-Fashion: Unethical and Unsustainable

Garment workers working at sewing machines in a factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh.
Bangladesh.Gazipur BIGUF.2015.Solidarity Center. Source: Solidarity Center, Creative Commons

Prior to the 1960s, about 90% of the clothes purchased in the United States were also made here.  Since then, it has been reduced to only about 3%.  Over the years, companies have increasingly chosen to outsource their labor to countries with lax labor laws (or a willingness to overlook them) to pay less for the work that is necessary for clothing production.  The purpose of this blog is to highlight the negative impacts of these choices based on the information given in the documentary True Cost.

The term “fast-fashion” refers to the shift in the fashion industry that has resulted in faster production with lower costs.  At first glance, this appears to be an extremely beneficial change, especially for the general United States consumer.  We can buy more clothes and spend less money in the process.  However, it is important that we take time to ask how it is possible to the industry to have changed the way that it did.  What does it really cost?

Garment Workers

When discussing the costs of the fast-fashion industry, one of the most well-known examples is the Rana Plaza building collapse of 2013 that occurred in Dhaka, Bangladesh. At the time, the building was being occupied by garment factories for western companies such as Children’s Place, Joe Fresh, and Walmart.  Workers in the factories told their managers that they had noticed cracks in the building but were told to go back to work.  At one point, the managers were even given an evacuation order (which they ignored).  Nothing was done.  As a result, 1,129 workers died, and even more were injured.

Outside of the tragedies that have occurred in the industry’s factories, many of the factories cut corners on a regular basis to reduce production costs.  Work areas are frequently found to have poor lighting, which can be damaging to the workers’ sight, and toxic chemicals, which can be harmful to their respiratory systems.  As of 2016, the minimum wage in $67 dollars each month, which is far less than fair compensation for the labor of these workers, especially in such poor conditions.  More often than not, these workers cannot simply quit and find work with better circumstances.  They must be able to provide for themselves and their families and lack the education and qualifications for more favorable employment.

Environment

Fast-fashion is also an incredibly unsustainable industry.  Eileen Fisher, a high-end fashion retailer who aims to use sustainable and ethical production methods, has called the clothing industry “the second-largest polluter in the world.”  It’s easy to see why.  In 2013 alone, 15.1 million tons of textile waste were created.  The majority of this waste ends up piled up in landfills.  These piles release methane as they decompose and are a noteworthy factor in global warming.  Even if their relationship with global warming were not an issue, the amount of land required to store of all this waste is simply unacceptable.

Leather tanneries are also a significantly harmful part of the clothing industry.  The chemicals used in the tanning process are extremely toxic and are often disposed incorrectly.  This leads to the pollution of the drinking water, soil, and produce of the communities surrounding the tanneries.  These chemicals lead to serious illness and diseases.  People living in these areas are facing skin problems, numbness of limbs, and stomach problems.  The chemicals are poisonous to both the environment and the health of human beings.  Not only do climate change and pollution have harmful effects that we can see today, but they are also severely damaging to the world and resources that future generations will have access to.

People in the street in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Wide avenue in Old Dhaka. Source: Francisco Anzola, Creative Commons

Human Rights

The issue of fast-fashion is one that impacts many different areas in human rights.  Regarding employment, Article 23 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that every person has the right to “just and favourable conditions of work,” as well as the right to “just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity.”  The harmful work environments and low-wages involved in the clothing industry prevent workers from accessing these rights. Additionally, Article 25, the UDHR depicts the right to a standard of living that is sufficient to maintain an individual’s health and well-being, which requires an adequate income.

Fast-fashion also has a connection to gender equality.  In the garment industry, 85% of the workers are women.  Often, these women are single mothers without any other real employment options, due to a lack in access to education and other similar resources.  They continue to work in poor working conditions because they want their children to be able to go to school and have better job opportunities in the future.

What You Can Do 

It is easy to fall into feeling like there is nothing you can do on this side of the counter and ocean.  Fast-fashion seems to be a very distant issue.  However, there are changes you can make in your own life to be a part of the transformation of the fashion industry.  First and foremost, it is important that you make an effort to stay informed on the issue and inform others as well.  A problem cannot be solved if no one acknowledges that it exists. Second, if you can afford it, buy from brands such as Eileen Fisher and People Tree who work to produce clothing through sustainable and ethical methods.  Such companies are generally more expensive than what we have become accustomed to because of the fast-fashion industry, but the products are typically of a higher quality.  If you need more affordable options, try to get clothes second-hand, whether that be through clothing swaps or going to thrift shops.  Apps like Depop and Poshmark, make it possible to buy clothes directly from other individuals, or sell your old clothes directly to other people.  Selling your unwanted clothes through apps like these, you can help keep clothing out of landfills.  Donating clothes can be a great option when you want to clean out your closet, but it is best when you can come relatively close to directly giving clothes to the people who will receive them.  Of the clothes that are donated to “mission stores” like Goodwill, only about 10% are purchased in those stores, and the rest have the potential to end up in landfills.

Finally, though the aforementioned options are wonderful and should warrant consideration and use, it is imperative to recognize that we do not need to purchase clothing nearly as often as we do.  Advertising glamorizes things that we do not really need so that we will spend more money.  New trends come out nearly every week, so we feel the need to buy more stuff just to keep up.  Society has become very consumeristic, and this contributes to industries, such as fast-fashion, that disregard the health and safety of their workers to allow people in countries like the United States spend as much money as possible.  By purchasing less of what we do not need, we can avoid supporting these harmful practices while also saving money ourselves.

You may not always be a part of large-scale change, but you can make small, daily changes that, when combined with the efforts of others, can truly make a difference.

Black Panther: A Game-Changing Film

A laughing boy.
Child laughing. Source: cheriejoyful, Creative Commons

On February 16, 2018, the revolutionary movie, Black Panther, was finally released for the world to enjoy.  The film provides the audience with a much-needed source of representation for the black community, both on and off-screen.  Black Panther is part of a revolutionary change in an industry that has historically disregarded people of color.

Depiction of Black Characters

It is easy to see that Black Panther is a game-changer in the film industry in relation to its production, but it also includes a much-improved depiction of black characters.  They are multi-dimensional and have their own personal histories and experiences.  They are not forced into any one single role, challenging the idea that people of minorities are limited to the surface-level narratives that society usually expects.  They are real people who have struggles, fears, and triumphs.  It lacks the stereotypes that films often use to create characters of color.  The normative roles given to black actors are often of dangerous criminals with limited education, such as drug dealers and con-artists.  These kinds of characters worsen the incorrect and harmful perception that much of society has of black men.  When black roles are actually given positive characteristics, they are still generally given littles depth, and are used as nothing more than support for the white main character.

The Black Panther himself, T’Challa, is not just a superhero (though his being a superhero is significant in itself).  He is the king of Wakanda and acts as a diplomat, representing and speaking on behalf of his country at the United Nations.  He is respectful of women and recognizes their value and strength, as seen through his female bodyguards, the Dora Milaje.  He does not let toxic masculinity impact his actions and has a strong connection to his family.  T’Challa is brave, intelligent, and compassionate, making him a well-developed main character and hero.

Even Eric Killmonger is given depth and undeniably human experiences.  If one seeks a traditional villain among the movies’ characters, most signs point to him.  All of his actions are focused around defeating the Black Panther and taking over the throne, and he does not care what it takes to do so.  However, if we look closer, the circumstances are not so black and white.  His anger towards T’Challa stems from the death of his father and Wakanda’s years of ignorance of the suffering of African Americans.  His primary goal in defeating T’Challa, is to send Wakandan resources to people facing oppression.  His methods were misguided, but his motivations are fairly easy to understand.

The development of Killmonger conveys the idea that we all think of ourselves as the hero in our own stories.  T’Challa sees himself as the hero, fighting to save the country he knows and loves.  Killmonger sees himself as the hero, trying to correct the wrongs of the past and seek what he believes to be justice.  The only thing that changes is the framework of the story, the perspective through which you are experiencing it.  In real life, the vast majority people make the choices they make because they believe they are doing the right thing (even when they are wrong).  While this does not excuse actions that harm other people or mean that everyone is concerned with doing the right things, it does suggest that wrongdoings are not independent events.  Every experience we have impacts the choices we make.  If we want to make the world a better place, we have to address the causes and events that have led to different negative situations.

People are complex.  The fact that this concept is explored in a film about characters of color is indescribably important because it goes against the stereotypes and archetypes that are often used to create such characters.  It gives the characters dimensions which reflect the human experience that connects all people.

Depiction of Women of Color

The film’s use of well-rounded characters does not end with those who are male.  The character stereotype of black women in films is loud and dramatic and is perceived as having an attitude problem.  They are considered bossy, aggressive, and sometimes even mean.  The female characters in Black Panther defy traditional expectations and radiate empowerment.  Black Panther depicts numerous powerful black women without objectifying and over-sexualizing them as many movies do.  They are just normal women.  Realistic, intelligent, kind, and brave. These characters stand on their own and serve a greater purpose than supporting the development the male characters.

Shuri, T’Challa’s half-sister, is a sixteen-year-old genius who leads the development of Wakandan technology.  She offers representation for increasing number of women and young girls, especially those of color, who aspire to be part of the STEM field.  She is not limited to being “the smart one.”  When the time comes, she is ready and more than willing to be part of the fight to protect her country.  In addition to her brilliance and strength, she is also equipped with a vibrant personality.

Okoye is a member of Dora Milaje, the group of women who act as bodyguards for the Black Panther.  She is a fierce warrior, dedicated to serving her people to the best of her ability.  She is strong and loyal, ready to sacrifice her relationship to do what is right for her country.  She would do anything to protect Wakanda.

Nakia is a Wakandan spy, who goes undercover in an effort to undermine human traffickers in the beginning of the film.  She takes action and puts herself in dangerous situations in order to help others.  Her work is her passion and main priority, and she refuses to sacrifice it for the sake of romance. She also encourages T’Challa to share the resources of Wakanda with the rest of the world.  She is driven and wants to make the world better place.  She is a world-shaker.

A smiling boy.
Jamaican. Source: Ashley Campbell, Creative Commons

Watching Black Panther as a White Woman

This film is not just important for the black community, or even just for minority groups.  It is important for white people to watch the film as well.  As a white woman, I originally went to watch Black Panther to simply support a film I knew was important for people of color and to enjoy the experience.  However, as I sat in a theater full of children of color, listening to their reactions to the dialogue and every plot twist, I truly believe that I gained a deeper understanding of the film’s importance.  The kids were excited and absorbed in every moment.  I realized the extent to which I am privileged to have characters I can identify with in just about every movie and television show.  It is something that I have taken for granted for a long time.

I also realized how important it is that black people have an increased opportunity to speak.  White people need to be close allies of course, but we should not dominate the conversation.  We need to support the creation and maintenance of platforms from which they can represent themselves.  We have a history of making everything about us, and we need to ensure that that does not continue.  In the past, white people have stolen land, enslaved entire nations of people, and destroyed families for their own selfish gain.  We now need to be a part of fixing the damage that our ancestors have caused and work to empower people of color in every way possible.

Why Does this Matter?

There are some people who question the importance of representation in the media.  They do not understand why it is so vital to have well-developed characters of color and female characters.  Dr. Christopher Bell provided a thorough explanation of this in his TED Talk, “Bring on the Female Superheroes!”  In his talk, Bell explains public pedagogy, or “how societies are taught ideologies.”  This involves concepts such as what it means to be a member of the different genders, how to behave while in public, and how to be polite.  According to Bell, we now live in a 100% media saturated society, meaning every part of our lives, including public pedagogy, is influenced by what we seen on television, in films, and on social media.  The characters and the people that children see through the media are key in their understanding of the world.  When children are unable to see people they identify with as leaders, scientists, or artists, it is difficult for them to see a future where they are doing those things.  The media you consume impacts your outlook on who you can be.

The film shows traditional gender roles being smashed through all its characters.  Women can be warriors, scientists, and world-changers. They can be protectors and leaders. Men can be compassionate and emotional. They do not have to fit into ‘traditional masculinity’.  People can support each other in their choices, regardless of how it fits societal expectations.  In the film, the country of Wakanda contains a society in which gender roles do not seem to apply.  The proposal of a woman becoming the leader and Black Panther is not questioned.  The king’s guards are women, and no one tries to fight it or questions the Dora Milaje’s ability to protect their leader.  All people are equal and are offered the same opportunities.

In addition to its being a huge leap in representation, the film also acts as a proof that change is possible.  More representation, better opportunities, and a better future are all within reach for marginalized groups.  It is crucial that we maintain this momentum.  The Black Panther film is an immense milestone, but there is still more to do.  There still needs to be more representation for the black community and similar representation for other people of color.  We need to work towards a future where such a representative film is a norm rather than an anomaly.

 

Be a Real Man: Toxic Masculinity

Man turning his head to face the camera.
He-Man. Source: Reddy Aprianto, Creative Commons

What does it mean to “be a man”?  The traditional response would involve being dominant, physically strong, and emotionally closed off.  Some might see someone who is tough and intimidating, who never cries in front of others, and say that he is a “real man.”  Men in our society are pressured to fit perfectly into this traditional depiction of masculinity.  If a man fails to be strong enough or shows too many emotions, he is often shamed by others.  When a man’s masculinity is questioned, he might make a point of acting more masculine, which could lead to harmful or even violent behavior.  It can have a negative effect on his mental health, contribute to the occurrence of intimate partner violence, and marginalize certain groups.  When masculinity is forced upon individuals and is significantly harmful, it becomes toxic.

For the purposes of this blog, toxic masculinity refers to masculine traits, attitudes, and behaviors that are harmful, yet continue to be encouraged by much of society.

Impact of Toxic Masculinity on Mental Health

Masculinity is often associated with not sharing one’s feelings with other people. Men are not expected to be emotional individuals.  When they are emotional, they are often chastised.  The suppression of emotions is a negative thing for anyone to do.  Bottling up everything does not make one’s feelings go away and can have long-term consequences.  In a meta-analysis of 48 studies, there seemed to be a relationship between the suppression of emotions and an increase in negative changes in mental health, such as depression and anxiety.  There also seemed to be a relationship between the suppression of emotions and a decrease in positive changes in mental health, such as life satisfaction.

The negative effects of societal expectations of masculinity begin in childhood.  One study, which used a sample of 280 middle schoolers, found that the boys in their study began to conform to traditional expectations of masculinity between the fall and spring of their first year of middle school.  The results of that study also suggest that there is a relationship between the presence of depression and conformity to traditional masculinity.  The study defines traditional masculinity as, “a dominance-oriented ‘bravado’ with which individuals posture for social dominance through fundamentally maladaptive behaviors, such as physical toughness and emotional stoicism, that project social power and invulnerability.”  Many of the behaviors that traditional masculinity supports are “socially dysfunctional,” such as suppressing emotions and being physically aggressive.  Considering the fact that middle school is a critical point of development, one can see that long-term harm can be caused by being held to standards that relate to depression and dysfunctional social behaviors.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for boys, which suggests that there are serious mental health issues and factors that need to be addressed.  Boys who fail to fit into the norms of traditional masculinity are often bullied by those who adhere to norms well.  Bullying is associated with symptoms of depression, which has the potential to lead to the occurrence of suicide.  One study, which used a sample 236 students, found that individuals who had experienced bullying had more symptoms of depression and suicidality four years after initially being surveyed than those who did not report that they had experienced bullying.  In addition to depression, bullying that relates to failure to meet gender norms can lead to violence against others.

Intimate Partner Violence 

Not only does toxic masculinity harm men themselves, but it also harms the other people in their lives.  One study, using a sample of 570 married men in Bangladesh, suggests that increased norms of gender equity are associated with a decrease in the use of “coercive control” over men’s partners.  The men in the study were presented with a list of coercive behaviors, such as, “when I want sex I expect my partner to agree,” and, “I have more to say than she does about important decisions that affect us.”  The majority of the men reported using most of the behaviors.  On average, the men agreed with 5.7 of the 8 traditional gender attitudes, such as, “a woman should obey her husband,” and, “a woman’s most important role is to take care of and cook for her family.”

Another study, which surveyed 600 men, looked to test the presence of a relationship between “masculine discrepancy stress” and intimate partner violence.  The study defines masculine discrepancy stress as, “a form of stress arising from perceived failure to conform to socially-prescribed masculine gender role norms.  Intimate partner violence is mental, emotional, or physical violence towards an intimate partner.  The results of the study suggest that “masculine discrepancy stress” was significantly effective in predicting a man’s history of committing intimate partner violence.  If a man felt that their masculinity was being questioned, then they felt the need to perform strong acts of masculinity, such as acts of violence.

Men standing by a wall and talking to each other.
Men Gathering. Source: Eleni Papaioannou, Creative Commons

The Marginalization of Groups

If a boy or a man is considered to be too feminine, people might call him a girl or say he’s gay in an attempt to make him feel bad about who he is. This depicts being feminine or being gay as being a bad thing, like it is shameful to be anything other than a straight man. Why are entire groups of people being marginalized in order to demean another person?  What is wrong with possessing traditionally feminine qualities?

One might suggest that it is only a problem when someone possessing those qualities breaks traditional gender roles. However, that does not explain it.  Women are frequently supported for displaying certain characteristics, such as being strong, or participating in certain activities that are traditionally masculine, such as enjoying sports, hunting, and fishing.  In other situations, their positive “masculine” characteristics are twisted around into negative “feminine” ones.  For example, if a woman is very confident and has strong leadership skills, she is likely to be called “bossy”.  If a girl is more logical and is not very emotional, then she may be considered cold-hearted and mean.  A man and a woman can act in the exact same way, but they will not receive the same response from other people.

Toxic masculinity also has a significant impact on transgender men.  Violence against the transgender community has been on the rise.  In some situations, trans-men experience “defensive masculinity,” where they conform to traditional ideas about masculinity, whether they identify with them or not, in fear of violence.  Toxic masculinity harms their mental health and puts them at risk of violence if they do not meet traditional gender norms.  It is more than a matter of people not agreeing with non-traditional ideas about gender.  Toxic masculinity has the potential to be an issue of life and death for transgender individuals.

Why Is Toxic Masculinity an Issue of Human Rights?

Ultimately, traditionally masculine traits themselves are not bad, but they become negative when they are expected and forced upon people.  Toxic masculinity has the potential to violate human rights.  It can be harmful to mental health and lead to intimate partner violence, both of which are public health and human rights issues.  According to Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”  Toxic masculinity can also act as a barrier to gender equality and harm the LGBTQ community.  Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that all people are entitled to the rights given in the declaration, “without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

For years people have tried to explain away toxic masculinity as “boys just being boys” and simply “the way men are,” but that is not fair to anyone.  The way people act is hugely impacted by the way people expect them to.  Societal expectations need to change to support boys and men in being kind and being open with their emotions.  Violence and aggression cannot be accepted as granted parts of masculinity.  Men do not have to be strong and domineering to be men.

Diagnosing ADHD: Mental Health and Human Rights

Playground adventures. Source: BrownZelip, Creative Commons

Mental health is a topic that is becoming increasingly recognized as an important public conversation.  It is usually focused on depression and anxiety and is often overlooked in the context of human rights. It is important to recognize that mental health is a public health issue, and therefore a human rights issue. Mental health has an irrefutable impact on an individual’s physical health and their quality of life.  It can also harm their ability to receive an education. This blog will discuss Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and the issues created by the stereotypes and stigmas related to mental health.

Conditions like ADHD are frequently given a specific popularized depiction. Though the depiction may not be entirely incorrect, it is rarely inclusive of all the individuals experiencing these conditions.  When people think of ADHD for example, they often think of a boy with a lot of behavioral problems and poor grades.  The fact of the matter is that people with ADHD can be any gender and can have any kind of experience in school. Using stereotypes to inform our ideas about the people who have certain conditions impacts if and when people who have these conditions are able to receive a diagnosis and treatment. Because of this, girls with ADHD are frequently unaware of what they are experiencing.

What Is ADHD?

ADHD is a disorder that results from the way the brain develops.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood.”  It is very important to understand that ADHD is not merely a behavioral issue.  It is a condition that cannot be punished away.  ADHD brains work differently than brains without ADHD.  ADHD brains lack a sufficient amount of dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters that transport signals in the brain.  They are like filters for your brain.  Dopamine helps to regulate the reward center of the brain, movement, and emotional responses. Norepinephrine strengthens signals that are relevant and important while blocking information that is unnecessary.  Medicines that treat ADHD typically aim to support the circulation of these neurotransmitters in the brain.  These medicines decrease the frequency of the symptoms of ADHD, though they do not eliminate them.

In addition to the symptoms related to impulsiveness and inattentiveness, the lack of filter ADHD causes in the brain can lead to sensory overload, which can cause a lot of stress and anxiety.  When this occurs, one becomes overwhelmed by all of the noises you hear, the things you see, and the things you feel.  You notice everything around you, including the things that are unimportant.

Depending on an individual’s personal symptoms and experiences, they may have one of three different types of ADHD. One type of ADHD is the “Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Presentation”.  This type can involve a lot of fidgeting, feelings of restlessness, and an unusually large amount of impulsive behavior, such as interrupting people.  Another type of ADHD is the “Predominantly Inattentive Presentation”.  This type often involves forgetfulness and difficulties in fully absorbing new information.  The third and final type is called the “Combined Presentation” and involves experiencing the symptoms of the other types equally.

Differences Between Boys and Girls With ADHD

Girls are significantly less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than boys are, though they are not less likely to actually have it. One study, using data from the Danish National Birth Cohort, found that children whose parents reported ADHD behaviors and who were undiagnosed were girls more often than boys.  Because of this, girls with ADHD are more likely to go untreated than boys are.  The differences in how boys and girls experience ADHD contribute to the underdiagnoses of girls. Another study, which combined the results of 8 prior studies to have a sample of 772 boys and 325 girls, suggests that boys with ADHD are more likely to display symptoms of impulsivity that girls with ADHD are, based on the children’s performances on “Continuous Performance Tests”. Symptoms of impulsivity are often easier to recognize than inattentiveness and result in behaviors that catch people’s attention.  Inattentiveness, which girls more frequently experience, does not lead to behaviors that are as disruptive as the behaviors of impulsivity.

Children in a classroom reading with their teacher.
students-in-class-with-teacher-reading. Source: Ilmicrofono Oggionom, Creative Commons

Why It Matters

ADHD is highly connected to the issue of mental health. According to one study, girls with ADHD are more likely to experience comorbid disorders such as depression, anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder, and conduct disorder than girls who do not have ADHD. Individuals with ADHD may internalize what they are going through, blaming themselves and feeling like what they are going through is their own fault.  They may externalize what they are going through, impacting the way they interact with other people and their environments.  Internalizing and externalizing behaviors occur in individuals with ADHD regardless of the existence of a diagnosis but being undiagnosed can make the situation more difficult.

The possibility of being diagnosed with ADHD is also impacted by many social determinants. Social determinants are defined as “conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age.” They lead to avoidable health disparities. It is important to recognize social determinants when it comes to mental health and human rights, because they highlight the fact that people of different backgrounds do not have access to the same resources. Factors that are out of an individual’s control impact their ability to access their human rights and maintain a good quality of life. By identifying social determinants, we can begin to identify changes that can be made to diminish injustice in the world. For example, even the country that someone with ADHD lives in can impact the chances that they will be diagnosed.

In France, 0.5% of children are diagnosed with ADHD, while about 12% of children in the United States receive a diagnosis. Different countries around the world have different views of ADHD, affecting their rates of diagnosis and the methods of treatment. The treatment of ADHD in France frequently involves prioritizing methods such as therapy and family counseling over medicines. In Germany, it is likely that students with ADHD benefit from the “outdoor component” of their education, as being outside can be more favorable for them than a traditional classroom. The United States relies more heavily on using medicinal methods to treat ADHD.

Another social determinant that impacts treatment is socioeconomic status. Even if a child in poverty has received a diagnosis, it is still possible that they cannot afford treatment. If they are uninsured, it would be difficult for them to access medication or therapy. Race also acts as a social determinant. The results of one study suggest that there is a large disparity in ADHD diagnosis and treatment that negatively impacts African-American and Latinx children.  According to the study, it is more likely that the disparity is due to African-American and Latinx children being underdiagnosed and undertreated than white children being overdiagnosed and overtreated.

Social determinants like nationality, socioeconomic status, and race can be barriers to a child’s diagnosis and treatment for conditions like ADHD. These factors are out of the child’s control and create disparities that cause further harm.  Even if an individual knows what a problem is, they cannot work towards alleviating it if they do not have the resources they need. If a black girl is born is born into a New York family in poverty, she may lack the ability to spend time outside, receive certain medications, or go to therapy. She would not have access to the same resources as children from families with higher incomes or different geographical locations. This injustice feeds into comorbid disorders and has a negative impact mental and public health, as emotional issues can develop from being able to understand the injustice.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to education (Article 26) and the right to an environment that promotes health and wellbeing (Article 25), along with many others.  Access to these rights is limited when individuals with conditions like ADHD are unable to seek treatment, whether that treatment be medicinal or a form of counseling.  The effect that these conditions have on one’s mental health makes a significant difference. Education is one of the human rights that is fundamental to growth and flourishing in life.

We, as a global society, must recognize the relationships between mental health, public health, and human rights. They are not isolated issues. The way we approach one impacts the outcomes of the others.  Mental health is a part of public health, impacting an individual’s physical health and their quality of life. Both mental health on its own and public health as a whole are largely influential in one’s ability to access their human rights. Everything is connected.