Cyprus Mail

The discourse of denial on gender equality

Like Sisyphus, how much longer should we keep rolling that rock up to hill?

By Sophia Papastavrou

ON THE long journey towards gender equality, I cannot help but ask are we there yet? And, if we are on this road together who is responsible for getting us there safely and in one piece? My answer arrived with an article published in Paidiea News on November, 23 by a male teacher with the ministry of education.

He got my attention when he shared his frustrations about a series of training sessions for teachers of pre-primary, primary, middle and secondary technical education, entitled: ‘Education and gender’.

In the publication he raises some disturbing points which include concern for organising a conference of that size during a time of increasing budget cuts, that gender issues cannot be solved by teachers and would give public teachers more work, and that the money spent on a conference on gender in education would be better spent on alleviating unemployment and poverty, and address the larger issue of children going to school hungry.

My initial reaction to the article has been that clearly there is more work to be done to address the rhetoric, stereotypes, and assumptions of what gender, gender equality, and women’s rights mean within the education system itself. This also goes beyond education, rather how the people in Cyprus understand and make sense of gender equality within the fabric of our own society.

How does an attempt by the minister of education on addressing the issue of gender become confused with not being concerned with social issues, like poverty? And, why the constant dismissal of gender equality as a non-issue in the overall well-being of the nation-state? The discourse of denial is one that I am eerily all too familiar with while living in Cyprus.

It is here that I should point out that gender equality does not mean sameness, rather it means women and men should have equal rights and equal opportunities in both the public and private spheres.

This includes: equal partners in their home, their community and their society.

How can we say that gender education is unnecessary? While, the international community, researchers, scholars abroad and on the island produce damning research and statistics, most of us are still living in a state of denial or refusal to accept the issue entirely.

In 2010 alone, police received 619 cases of domestic violence. They initiated criminal investigations in 460 of these and filed 197 criminal cases in court. In 78 percent of the cases, the victims were female.

Furthermore, the trafficking persons 2012 report out of the US State Department places Cyprus in the same category as Afghanistan and Liberia where cases of women and children forcibly exploited for sex and slave-like work conditions are prevalent.

Cyprus is the only EU member state to make the watch list, for a second year in a row. These statistics matter because it tells us where we stand both nationally and globally. It screams loudly that work is needed and simply focusing on one item and leaving women to the end is going to keep us on a human rights watch list for many years to come. Yes, those lemons taste bitter, but what if they don’t have to?

According to my former colleague at UNDP, she explains, “gender diversity is the responsibility of the government. Women cannot be solely held responsible for their own human rights because they are not the duty bearers. The constitution of a country defines the broad outline in terms of the rights of the citizen and it is the government and its partners as duty bearers that are responsible for creating systems and an enabling environment to realise their rights.”

However, if you were to ask the government, this responsibility for creating an inclusive and participatory environment rests solely on the women, more specifically the civil society groups and organisations working on a limited budget.

Should we then make women accountable for gaining their human rights? If we are to hold women’s groups in Cyprus accountable for teaching the rest of us including local and national levels of government about gender equality and women’s participation in the peace talks then it appears the onus rests on civil society initiatives.

When addressing gender equality I am pointing out to issues such as security and protection so that governments can provide services and policies in place to protect them and monitor to ensure they function.

It is necessary to point out that while inequalities exist at various social, political, economic, and cultural levels, civil society initiatives on the island have taught us that these issues are not going away anytime soon.

This will demand a paradigm shift, but one I believe once momentum builds and more young women become more involved change is possible. In 2012, for the first time, UN Security Council used women, peace and security language in its resolution on Cyprus.

This was the contribution of the Gender Advisory Team (GAT) whose members are academic scholars and civil society activists. The team has aimed at empowering women from different social levels through raising awareness of the multilayered and complexity of women’s human rights.

Is there a moral to this story? Well, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was damned for eternity to roll the heavy rock up the hill only to watch it roll back down. He did this forever.

The Cyprus problem and the lack of gender equality has garnered much of the same result. As author, Agapi Stassinopoulos suggests “what if, while Sisyphus was up there, he kicked the rock with such force that it rolled all the way down the mountain, into the valley and through the river?”

Perhaps, he could have just stayed at the top and enjoyed the view. How much longer should we keep rolling that rock up the hill? Old habits are hard to break not to mention a country that is seeing one of the toughest times in its history. It is necessary therefore to look beyond the rhetoric of denial in order to begin creating long-lasting change.

The lemons do not have to remain bitter. Better still what if we squeezed those lemons added some honey and made emonade instead?

Sophia Papastavrou, PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto

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