When The price we pay for dignity & Honour is poverty of the heart
Ingrid Stellmacher speaking at the United Nations
The below includes extracts from her speech
'Excessive patriarchy breeds poverty'…… This was the opening phrase of my speech at the UN last week because sadly, it's true. And everyone in that audience knows it.
They all know the economic poverty that is created when men exclude women from contributing fully to life; keeping their world small; limiting not only the potential prosperity of their wives and their children but also themselves. Limiting the prosperity of their families, communities, their country's economy and ultimately even the global economy. When women lose we all lose.
Everyone in that room knows patriarchy breeds poverty - of choice. When women are excluded from the right to determine who has power over their own body; their own minds and their own lives. When girls as young as eight years of-age, many already butchered by FGM, are sold to pay debts and have no choice over being married off to ancient men to have children when still only children themselves.
Everyone in that room knows that patriarchy breeds poverty - of knowledge. When babies and infants are dying of malnutrition in Afghanistan not just through lack of food but through lack of basic education given to young mothers about nutrition and what babies need to eat to be healthy. Not because that information isn't ‘out there’ but because women are not allowed ‘out there’. Out of their homes to access basic education by their husbands, their brothers, uncles and cousins in the name of dignity and honour. Arriving at clinics so late that when they do get there babies are often too sick to save.
Dying of starvation is tragedy enough, but dying out of ignorance of such basic understanding in 2014 is a crime, because it is avoidable.
Excessively patriarchal cultures breed poverty. But I want to touch on another form of poverty that these cultures create and perpetuate; what I call poverty of the heart.
I want to consider what effects the repeated negative treatment and exclusion of women and girls, so acceptable and widespread, does to our mental development and emotional capacity as human beings. How destructive and violent treatment towards women and girls; negative language, negative silence even, as silence too can be embracing or excluding, creates men who become ‘wired’ for want of a better word in fundamental ways that affect their emotional capacity and development.
How the lack of development to connections in areas of the brain through destructive behaviour limits the ability to exercise compassion, to recognise emotional responses in others, the ability to communicate effectively emotionally and the most basic requirement of all for humanity, limits the connections in areas of the brain that enable empathy.
The way we treat one another, the way we speak to one another, look at one another, or exclude one another affects our mental and emotional development.
The playground phrase ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me' is a lie. While words may not physically break your bones words can wound and neuroscience shows they do hurt us because the brain doesn’t know the difference between real and imaginary. Whether you are hurt physically or emotionally your response to what people say or how they treat you fires the same synapses in your brain as if you had been hurt physically. That’s why we wince when we watch youtube and see someone who isn’t looking where they are going run head on into a post and smack themselves in the face! We wince because we can empathise with them, because we can understand how being hurt feels and how we would feel if it happened to us. Because it has in a sense. The same areas of the brain are active in us as the person running into the post. The difference in what we feel is simply one of degree.
But what if you don’t know what compassion looks like because you rarely see it? What if you don’t know what empathy is because few people in your world ever show it because such feelings are denied? What if you think violence is normal because in your world it is? And what if you are stopped from coming into contact with others who know it’s not?
Studies show that repeatedly using destructive behaviour and negative language towards others arrests natural brain development, not only of the individuals being mistreated but the perpetrators themselves. It is a vicious cycle of destruction for everyone involved. Forever treating a single group or person badly literally leaves those neural pathways to possibilities and capabilities neglected in our brains and our emotions become the 'road less travelled'.
Research also shows that different values activate different structures within the brain and even shows that different areas in the visual cortex of the brain, the area which processes what we see, is activated in different ways according to different cultural values. Creating a fundamental difference in the way we see the world. While the window to our own world is indeed our eyes, it is our brain that makes sense of what we see. And if what we see is imposed on us through cultural norms of violence and inequality we literally become prisoners of that way of thinking, of that way of seeing and that way of behaving. Some call it dignity, some call it honour some call it tradition. Others call it by another name - a crime.
This affect of long-term of negative behaviour of course occurs not only when applied to how we treat women and girls. It can apply to any individual or any group but when that negative treatment practiced against a person or a group is sanctioned by whole cultures and institutionalised it results in destructive learned behaviour that becomes not only acceptable but the norm. It becomes acceptable to impoverish and penalise women and girls for being born female.
I believe it is time for an open and honest conversation about what dignity and honour, shame and guilt really does to us. Which is why today we are lunching a global campaign to explore and redefine what dignty and honour really mean.
The good news is that 'arrested neural emotional development’ can be reversed. Unused emotional areas of our brain can be activated and new pathways to the language of empathy and compassion forged. We can become whole again.
It is time for a sensitive conversation about the impact of sacrificing women and girls on the altar of humanity in the name of dignity and honour. To men as well as women, boys as well as girls, because the question of dignity and honour crosses borders, ages, genders, issues and cultures impacting us all.
In the interview I showed with Ziauddin Yousafzsi, the father of Malala Yousafzsi, the brave Pakistani schoolgirl short in the head by the Taleban for daring to go to school, Ziauddin, now UN Special Advisor for Global Education, vividly describes how 'he did not clip the wings of his daughter in the name of false dignity and false honour'. 'Freedom is her right' he says, underplaying his own bravery in ensuring it.
There is a moment in the interview when his voice drops and he quietly shares how he feels ashamed to be a man sometimes, when he thinks about how badly and how unfairly men have treated women in his culture. It was a moment of deep humility he shared with me. When someone opens their heart you cannot fail to be touched by the pain and honesty you find there. The truth of that moment made me want to cry - and I shared that with him. He said that 'Every daughter is like Malala in wanting an education'. While I am sure that desire is true, sadly every father is not like him.
Ziauddin's family is an extraordinarily strong unit and they are all, from what I can see, a very brave one. He said he had to learn new things in his life and we should all keep our hearts and our minds open. He confessed that before he came to the UK he had never prepared breakfast for his wife or family because it was not the way in his culture. This was women's work and undignified for a man. Sitting at the breakfast table in his house in Birmingham life is different now and all the richer for it. Small things, small changes, small moments perhaps, but it is the small things that make a difference. What is life after all but a series of moments? It's what you do with them that counts. Ziauddin and his family have done a lot.
Entwined with digniy and honour are shame and guilt and again from the Dignity Diaries, Andre Mostert from South Africa, talks movingly about ‘white guilt’ and how it affected him growing up under Apartheid. What touched me most is when he recalls the moment black South Africans finally got the vote and the lines of people waiting were so long, that he and his friend decided not to 'queue'.
"The world had moved on, but us spoilt white boys, to us it was just voting right? So we go to a bar and watch it on TV. And I'll never forget, we were sitting there watching journalists talking to people standing in these lines for hours that went on forever and this one journalist goes up to an old black woman waiting in line and says to her,
'How long have you been waiting in this queue?
She looks at him and says,
'My whole life'
The men and women in the Dag Auditorium at the UN, working to help others affected by the kinds of poverty I touched on, they have been waiting in that queue their whole lives. Waiting and working to get to the front. We all have. The people in that room are all working to change what has always been just because of prejudice and precedent to help make the world a better place. We are slowing moving forward and the good news is there are millions of people in our queue with more joining everyday. The front of the queue is getting nearer simply through sheer numbers alone.
Changing hearts as well as minds has never been so important. Sign up to the campaign and let's talk about the elephant in the room, before man makes discussion about dignity extinct too.
Interviews with Ziauddin Yosafzsi and Andre Mostert can be found under Dignity Diaries by clicking on the link 'New global conversation' under the Dignity and Honour Campaign heading on our home page.