Ayesha Hazarika: The place where feminism is a life-or-death issue

Tomorrow is International Women's Day. And for all the hilarious blokes out there going 'When's International Men's Day? Arf. Arf' '“ that's the other 364 days of the year.

Women march against the illegal human trafficking and violence in Lagos (Picture: AFP/Getty Images)
Women march against the illegal human trafficking and violence in Lagos (Picture: AFP/Getty Images)

But we have a female First Minister and Prime Minister I hear you cry. We do and good for them. But two women having the courage, commitment, talent and good ­fortune to get to the top does not a feminist revolution make. Out of the four great offices of state, only five women have ever held them.

Women still have a hard time in this country because of gender ­inequality. That’s not to say that many men don’t – but there are particular and unique issues that women face because of our ­gender, biology and stuff we really can’t do anything about, short of ­getting a sex change – and believe you me there have been times when I’ve been tempted.

Thousands of working women are discriminated against because they are pregnant; rape convictions remain stubbornly low; one in four women will experience violence in their lifetime; men earn more ­money than women and get promoted to power; and women have borne the impact of austerity and cuts – with some women and girls not even being about to afford sanitary protection.

So International Women’s Day is an important reminder of the achievements we have made – ­particularly this year as we mark the centenary of some women ­getting the vote – but it must also be a call for action to do more. Much more. And while we must keep questing to make things better in the UK, it is also a moment to reflect on what women face in lands far away. Last week I was lucky enough to meet CNN journalist Nima Elbagir, who bravely went undercover in Nigeria to expose the ­horrific truth about what happens to people who try and make the journey to Europe but who end up in the hands of people smugglers.

Of course, it is particularly grim for women travelling alone. Edo State is Nigeria’s trafficking hub and one of Africa’s largest departure points from which thousands are smuggled every year. They are refugees fleeing conflict or economic migrants in search of a better life in Europe and most have sold ­everything they possess to fund the journey, often leaving their ­families behind. But as Nima ­discovered, most never get beyond Libya because when they arrive there, the smugglers demand more money which of course they don’t have. Because they don’t have the money, they are held in grim conditions, starved, beaten and abused. The men are sold as labourers in slave auctions and the women are forced into prostitution.

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Nima went undercover as a young woman who wanted to travel to Italy. She met the traffickers who promised her safe harbour and negotiated a fee of $1,400. For that amount of money, the traffickers offered her a “VIP” package.

What that translated into was shocking by anyone’s standards – we’re not talking a lavender eye mask and a nice hand cream here – the ‘VIP’ package meant that she would be given condoms for the journey as a gesture of “kindness and care”. The smugglers told her they were giving her contraception to “help” her because if she made sure the men in Libya were “kind” to her, she could maybe get on that boat across the Mediterranean faster. The final piece of casual “kind” advice the undercover journalist got was sickening: “Don’t struggle if you’re raped.” Remember – this was meant to be the ‘VIP’ treatment.

The horror that women and men face on these dangerous journeys is unimaginable – violence, psychological trauma, the desperation to do anything to get to a better land for a better life and, of course, the fear and anxiety about what the traffickers will do to your family back home if you don’t comply with what they demand. Of course, rape, prostitution and sexual violence loom large. According to a 2017 Unicef report, nearly half the women and children interviewed had experienced sexual abuse during migration – often multiple times. Nima is an incredible, fearless journalist and a braver woman than I will ever be, but even she said she felt terrified when the doors of the packed overnight bus that she was put onto for the first stage of the journey were locked and she knew there was no turning back.

She was incredibly lucky that she was to able to escape her undercover assignment to safety when the bus made a stop on the outskirts of the city. She knew that if she hadn’t, a grim story lay ahead when it reached its destination in Libya.

She would have been marched off the bus at gunpoint, abused and sold into sexual slavery. She was lucky; for the others on her bus, it would become their destiny. When I spoke to Nima on CNN Talk, she told me that many young girls try to get a contraception injection before they make the journey to make sure they don’t fall pregnant.

People smuggling is one of the ­oldest and most wicked of all trades. Since the dawn of time, where there is conflict, disease and famine, unscrupulous people will try and exploit their fellow human beings’ misery. We’re a lovely bunch, aren’t we? People are no longer allowed to be individuals with names, rights, hopes or dreams, they become ­commodities – like livestock. Those men and women are so desperate for a better life, they are forced into being complicit. It’s how the business model of human trafficking works. Slavery and violence become part of the price of admission to the place you hope (and pray) will give you “a better life” – except you probably won’t ever get there. Of course, rape and sexual assault area used as weapons against women and girls in the most desperate of situations, although we know it can be used in the most affluent parts of the world too.

So, as we head off to our parties, panels, dinners, debates and comedy nights to mark International Women’s Day tomorrow and we all furiously tweet and post selfies on social media with the right fun hashtag, remember that while our many struggles are absolutely important and vital to us here in the UK, some of our sisters throughout the world are living in the most fragile and dangerous conditions on Earth. To quote a lyric: “Tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you.”

And also, please raise a glass to brave, pioneering female journalists home and abroad like Nima Elbagir. It’s easy to attack the press and yell “fake news” about the media and they don’t always get it right. But when journalists are ­prepared to be as brave as Nima and shine a light on stories such as this, they can also get things very, very right. Happy International ­Women’s Day to one and all – apart from the sexists obviously.

Ayesha will perform her stand-up show about politics, ‘State of the Nation’, at 8pm this Sunday at Oran Mor as part of the Glasgow Comedy Festival.