Walk In Her Shoes – from charity to activism

People marching with Walk In Her Shoes placards on the International Women's Day march

CARE’s Women’s Day walk in London kick-started our Walk In Her Shoes campaign – a month of awareness-raising and fundraising for women’s empowerment work in developing countries, writes Howard Mollett, CARE advocacy advisor.

As part of the campaign, people are invited to walk 10,000 steps a day for one week in solidarity with women in the developing world who do precisely this, every day, just to fetch water. All of this is important, but in the midst of the biggest global refugee crisis since the Second World War, what about the politics of poverty, women’s rights and the journeys made by many millions of women from Syria, Iraq, Somalia and elsewhere?

Well, what made the Walk In Her Shoes women’s day march really special this year was precisely the random and brilliant ways in which the politics came out.

Natasha Walter, Leyla Hussein, Annie Lennox, Sofia Sprechmann
Natasha Walter, Leyla Hussein, Annie Lennox, and Sofia Sprechmann

A highlight for me was author and activist Natasha Walter’s appeal to support a petition and action on International Women’s Day organised by Women for Refugee Women calling on the UK Home Office to protect the rights of refugee women. Many female refugees that end up in the UK have suffered unimaginable horrors, including rape, forced marriage, slavery and sexual violence as a form of ethnic cleansing. Yet how do we treat them when they get here?

According to Asylum Aid, the UK government still does not guarantee that refugee women who have experienced rape or gender-based violence will be able to have female interpreters when telling their stories at their asylum interview, or childcare so that they don’t have to expose their children to the trauma of hearing about the abuse they have suffered. This can mean they don’t tell their full story, which can lead to wrongful detention or refusal of right to remain.

Natasha told the story of one woman, a mother, she named ‘Margaret’ from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Snatched from her home one night on suspicion of supporting rebel groups, ‘Margaret’ was thrown into a Congolese jail and raped repeatedly by state security officers. Escaping only thanks to the intervention of a pastor, she fled the country and ended up in the UK. On arrival, ‘Margaret’, like so many others, was then detained at the UK’s Yarlswood Detention Centre. As Natasha put it:

Grieving for her children, left behind, traumatised. And what did we do here in the UK? We locked her up in a detention centre for six weeks.

“She couldn’t recover from her trauma. She could get no help... Luckily the story does have a happy ending. With the support of us and other organisations, she was freed from Yarlswood. She’s now found her kids, who were in Rwanda.

So on Mother’s Day, I’d like us to think about the strength and resilience of women like that. And I’d like us to think about what we can do here in the UK to help them.

Kim Sledge at the Walk In Her Shoes event
Kim Sledge performing at the women's day march

Legendary disco band, Sister Sledge, closed the rally with some of their lyrics reworked as a feminist call to action. But one of most truly gob-smackingly brilliant and unexpected turns to the day was that Kim Sledge, one of the band’s singers, opened their set by performing the 1851 “Ain’t I a woman” speech by Sojourner Truth, a famed former-slave and women’s rights campaigner:

I want to say a few words about this matter. I am women's rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?

And on it went, a magnificent, dignified howl of rage about race and gender inequality. I’d never read, nor heard this speech before. And it certainly wasn’t what I expected at a disco gig. But it’s the first thing I looked up when I got home.

Sister Sledge
Sister Sledge performing at the women's day march

Sister Sledge’s greatest hits then followed and it was awesome. The sight of, amongst others, a granny dressed up in a 19th century suffragette costume, a woman in a hijab, a trans activist, some teenagers down from the Isle of Sheppey, my mum and the Sledge Sisters belting out “We are family!” is something I am not going to forget very quickly.

It’s also an image of the kind of UK and the kind of politics I’m proud to be a part of.

Later, over lunch, my mum tells me and my sister for the first time the story of her own experience as a refugee. In 1946, she and her parents fled Innsbruck in Austria at the onset of the Russian occupation as all non-nationals were forced to leave.

One year old, her own mother carried her in a washing basket. That aside, they could only take what they could fit into two suitcases. They lost almost everything they owned and walked on foot through a landscape devastated by war. Ending up in Germany, they were the first refugee family in a tiny village named Hausen close to the lake of Constance (later displaced Polish families would also arrive).

She recalled how they were initially welcomed, but in time started to feel subtle forms of stigma and resentment from the local community. Her mother, for example, became subject to sexual harassment by local men who assumed a single refugee woman should be available and grateful for the attention.

She also remembered receiving a CARE package in 1947 – including the first orange she’d ever tasted. In her own words:

We say the word ‘refugee’ and we look at them as objects, not people with a history. People cannot imagine what it is like when your perfectly ordered life just ends. It simply doesn’t exist any more.

For my family, like many others I suspect, Mother’s Day usually features a last-minute dash for flowers and a gift. There’s nothing wrong with the standard Mother’s Day formula, but I’m glad that we and several hundred others ended up somewhere altogether odder – the Walk In Her Shoes rally and march.

What next? Well, I’ve got to walk 10,000 steps a day for a week, which if I’m honest is as much about losing the pounds gained at Christmas as it is humanitarian motivation. But to better address the rights of women fleeing violence in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, while funding for life-saving aid is obviously critical, we need political action to guarantee the rights of refugees wherever they are, here in the UK or in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and so on.

Right now, it looks like many governments are busy trying to unravel the UN Refugee Convention and falling far short of their legal commitments to provide safe and legal routes for women and girls fleeing countries torn apart by crisis. CARE is already working with others to both support women in contexts like Syria and Yemen, as well as to promote new commitments by governments to empower disaster-affected women at the UN World Humanitarian Summit in May.

Advocacy by local women’s groups, supported by CARE and others, has led to UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, tabling proposals towards the Summit on empowering women and reaffirming the UN Refugee Convention. Now, will David Cameron and other world leaders attend the Summit in person and make those commitments, or not?

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