GenPol talks to Let Women In

  • October 15th, 2019
  • Blog

After the tragic death of Sahar Khodayari–an Iranian female football fan who set herself on fire following her arrest for attempting to enter a stadium– the activist group Let Women In  launched a campaign to lobby  FIFA to take concrete actions against this state-wide gender segregation.

On the eve of the first  FIFA match (where 3,500 women were allowed to attend Iran’s 2022 World Cup qualifier against Cambodia at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium),  Let Women In released a call on twitter to remember the “thousands of women could not reserve seats of a stadium which remained almost 80% empty, and hundreds of these women protested outside the stadium.” We spoke to campaign co-founder Mahya Ostovar in the days leading up to the FIFA ruling, and prior to the confirmation of  Gabriella Zaghari-Ratcliffe‘s return to the UK. We stand in solidarity with Mahya and her colleagues, and with all women in Iran tirelessly campaigning for a better future.  We hope that this interview will go some way to turning the focus back on the work that remains to be done (both in Iran and internationally) to elevate voices that have been too long consigned to silence.

We are dedicating  this piece to the memory of Sahar Khodavari who should be still here to read this, and to Nazanin and Gabriella Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who we hope one day will be able to.


What inspired you personally to launch this campaign? Can you tell us a little about your background?

Mahya: I have self-identified as a feminist since I can remember. Women’s right have always been my main concern. The fact that I am coming from a country where gender discrimination exists in its most violent and visible form has been certainly the main reason behind this interest. I have done activist work back in Iran a bit. Also, as a researcher I chose the topic of my research related to women rights campaigns. I know Iran’s context, I am familiar with the feelings of rage and hopelessness that Iranian women experience on the daily basis. And this lived experience, the experience of being a women and living in Iran for 25 years has been my main motivations for activism in this area.

My friends in the campaign and I focused on the stadium ban because we believe this is the issue for which activism outside Iran can be very influential and game changing. And we believe this moment is the best time to do so, since the international community and media are sensitive and FIFA is under the pressure to take action. Today, after Sahar’s tragedy nobody has any doubt that this should be a priority.


Why do you think campaigns like Let her in and White Wednesday hold such potent symbolism in Iran , and why is important out readers be aware of them?

Mahya: The stadium ban and the compulsory hijab are symbols of oppression. They are symbols of an ideology wanting to exclude women from public space. This is what the Islamic revolution has tried to do for over 40 years now. Women have always resisted and these campaigns are only the recent efforts in the domain. Being able to enter the stadium is a symbolic fight for lots of Iranian activists. It is a symbol of fighting against gender discrimination and women’s exclusion. It is a demand to make women and their bodies present and visible in the space that is defined as “masculine” and is reserved only for men.

In recent years, activists have tried to increase international awareness around the issue. This awareness is important and can be affective in some cases such as the case of the stadium ban. International awareness and public sensitivity around this issue can be affective since there is an international institution governing Football that can be pressured and that can pressure Iran to open the stadium doors to women. Moreover, this international awareness which can lead to an international solidarity and ‘sisterhood’ can boost Iranian women’s moral. What most of the recent campaigns are trying to do is to portray this image and echo the voice of Iranian women, so that people around the world can have a sense of who they are and what is happening to them.

Our campaign in particular aims to increase international awareness through getting media coverage and as a result pressuring FIFA to act. And we believe this is the affective approach toward this issue.

Stories like Sahar’s– and the ongoing case concerning Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe who is currently being unlawfully detained in Evin prison– spark huge feelings of distress and hopelessness for so many of us. What are the best ways to lobby the Iranian government and show solidarity from afar?

To be honest, I think that feeling of hopelessness and distress is a true feeling, this is how we should feel in those cases and hearing such news. These people are paying such a high cost for their basic rights. I have felt this way for so long and so much reading and hearing the news about arrests, prison sentences, and deaths. The only way my friends and I in this campaign have found to make this feeling more influential is activism. It is not easy.

We are dealing with a government for whom the life of its citizens is the least valuable thing. But that means we only have each other and we should stay and fight together. What government wishes to happen is that we get numbed and get used to these horrifying news, to forget those who have fought and have paid for this fight with their lives. The way to resist them is to remember them, to remember and repeat their names, to not forget Sahar Khodayari so soon and to be reminded of her wish and her protest every time we watch a football match.

One of the great Iranian authors, Houshang Golshiri, once said in the funeral of his friend who got killed in the Chain Murders of Iran around 20 years ago: “They have fallen so much mourning and death news on us that we don’t have time to mourn and cry anymore”. While that is true, I think that is what ‘they’ want. So, we have to keep those memories alive. We have to remember them.


You can follow Let Women in on Twitter and on Instagram.

Their petition is available to sign here.



Connecting the Dots

  • September 14th, 2019
  • Blog
In a society that doesn’t recognise everyone’s rights, no one’s rights are truly safe. Yet the great struggles towards social, economic and environmental justice, and those in defence of women’s, LGBTQI+ and civil rights are often perceived as conceptually and politically separate. Connecting the dots, and creating synergies between social movements, groups and people committed to these causes is essential to build a fairer and freer future.
At GenPol we see intersectionality as the foundation of our feminism. Following a fantastic event on July 12th, we are proud to be joining forces once again with ALFI (Italian Feminist and Lesbian Association), Zero81 and Radio Siani to host a day of workshops, discussions and exchanges between activists and experts from different movements and activist collectives. Join us in Naples on September 12th, and help us build bridges, learn from one another and rethink together political and mobilisation strategies! Facebook link here (in Italian).

Legislative Approaches To Rape In The EU

  • May 24th, 2019
  • Blog

This post marks the first in a series of three weekly case studies addressing legislative approaches to rape in the EU. They are taken from a report written by our research associate, Nathalie Greenfield, which will be made available on our website (along with a complete list of works cited) from June 17th 2019.  

Violence against women is prevalent in the EU. One in three women have experienced sexual and/or physical violence since the age of 15.[1] A range of legal instruments prevent and punish violence against women in its many forms, from national legislation, to European regulations and international treaties. Understanding the efficacy and scope of these legal instruments provides an important indication of how European countries conceptualise gender-based violence and what remains to be done to safeguard women’s rights to be free from violence in the region.

Violence against women (VAW) takes on many different and overlapping forms. Article 3a of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) defines VAW as “all acts of gender-based based violence that result in, or are likely to result in, physical, sexual, psychological or economic harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” [2] The breadth of the field means that there is a vast amount of legislation that touches the prevention, prosecution, and punishment VAW. Consequently, this paper will narrow its focus to rape and sexual assault. Rape being one of the most extreme forms of VAW, and one which one in 20 of women in the EU have experienced,[3] understanding how a country legislates on rape can be indicative of the stance that a country and its national legislation will adopt to VAW in general.

This paper will map the state of rape legislation in Europe. Part One begins with an overview of international law and agreements as pertains to VAW, and the standards that emerge from these instruments. Part Two then broadly outlines the state of play in the EU Member States on the whole, before concentrating on case studies of five EU Member States in Part Three: the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Poland, and Sweden. Comparison of these countries with international standards illuminates the gap between international and domestic law as regards rape law, as well as the disparities between Member States.

The concept of consent is critical to understanding legislative approaches to rape. Differences in how rape is legally defined can hinge on defining consent, and there are vast bodies of academic, sociological, and popular literature dedicated to developing societies’ understanding of consent. This paper will therefore devote substantial space to examining the differing standards of consent in international and domestic law.

It is important to note that legislation is not the sole solution to stemming the prevalence of VAW. Meeting international standards with respect to rape legislation will not singularly prevent its pervasive presence in women’s lives. Legislation is, however, an important part of the broader fabric of preventative measures at a country’s disposal to tackle VAW. Legislation provides a baseline for prosecution and provides a legal standard applicable to all citizens. In short, legislation is fundamental because it determines what a society seems acceptable, and defines unacceptable behaviours to be punished. Thus, meeting internationally-defined standards for rape legislation is vital to guaranteeing the protection of women’s basic rights.

Legislation is only effective if it is upheld. Lawmakers, law enforcement agencies, and civil society are all critical actors making a tangible difference to women’s lives. This paper poses three questions against this backdrop: what are the international standards for legislating on rape? To what extent do EU Member States meet those standards? And what is the impact of differing legislative measures on rape across the Union? In exploring these questions, this paper will illuminate areas for further action in the ever-pressing movement to combat rape and promote gender equality.

[1] European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), Violence against women: an EU-wide survey. Results at a glance. (Vienna: FRA, 2104), p.17

[2] Council of Europe, Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention), Art. 3a <>

[3] FRA, p.10

Why The European Elections Are A Feminist Issue (And Why You Should Vote!)

  • May 7th, 2019
  • Blog

On the 23rd of May people across Europe will head to the poles to cast their vote in the European Parliamentary elections. The results of these elections will greatly impact European policy making over the next 5 years and will see a change in not only the composition of European Parliament but also a change in those holding key decision making positions. Traditionally women have been grossly underrepresented in European Parliament – currently women make up just 37% of its members. The effect of this is not just confined to politics, it trickles down into all areas of public life as the lack of women in positions of political power means that the voices and needs of ordinary women and non-men are more likely to go unheard.

These elections provide us with an opportunity to try to combat under representation and create a more balanced European Parliament. This is more crucial than ever as right wing populism threatens to curtail the advancement of women’s rights, ensuring gender based violence, sexual violence and wage inequality remain prevalent.

Here at GenPol we believe that women/non men need a voice in Europe –  they need a seat at the table to ensure that their rights are considered and taken seriously. The only way this will happen is through going out and voting. For this reason we urge everyone eligible to vote to make sure that they are registered by midnight on the 7th of May so to ensure that they can make their voices heard on the 23rd.

If you would like to learn more about the impact of the European Elections on women’s rights and gender equality we’ve put together a round up of our favourite articles on the EU elections, outlining the specific ways that the European Elections could impact women and the many reasons that you should vote later this month. You can also consult GenPol blogs by our Research associates here ,here, and here, as well as GenPol Research Associate Nathalie Greenfield’s article in the EU observer.


Summary: Women are underrepresented in european parliament, parliamentary elections a chance to change this The US midterms saw a record number of women elected to Congress, women are becoming more vocal in a backlash against trumpThere are also plenty of things to be vocal about in the EU; Brexit, The rise of right wing populism, immigration. It is in everyone’s interest to have more women on the ballot, as this will more accurately reflect the electorate. To shift the tone of the debate and the way we tackle major issues in europe, we need more women in European Parliament

Summary: Technical recommendations are not enough (gender quotas, equal positioning on lists) as there are also social factors contributing to the insufficient representation of women which need to be addressed. These include self exclusion, widespread hostility, sexism and sexual stereotypes in the media and unwillingness on the part of political organisations to foster female talent. This article reminds us that ‘equal presence does not mean equal power’ and that even once elected women face the highly gendered power dynamics of the political system. Ultimately, equal representation is a necessary but insufficient condition for genuine equality in politics, also important what sorts of roles women are occupying once they have been elected i.e. only two European political parties (the greens and the radical left) have a female chair or co chair

Summary: This article outlines the 50/50: Women for Europe Campaign: ‘The European Women’s Lobby wants to achieve parity in the European Parliament but also amongst the commissioners and regarding the top EU jobs. We also want the EU to realise that ensuring equality between women and men and integrating a gender perspective in all policy and financial frameworks is an obligation of the European Union as per other EU treaties’. Offers recommendation through its manifesto (which can be accessed through this article)

  • Women’s lobby manifesto key points
    • A europe that realises women’s equality in political decision making
    • A europe that guarantees all women’s equal economic independence
    • A europe free from violence against women
    • A europe that provides peace, human security and dignity for all women and girls
    • A europe that channels resources for women’s human rights

Summary: Progress is slow on Europe’s endeavour to achieve gender equality. The EU estimates that improving statistics for gender equality could create more than 10 million jobs in the next few decades. Key area of concern are: Gender pay gap, ‘The Glass Ceiling’, Violence against women, Work Life Balance. The European elections offer opportunity to encourage and empower women in leadership roles and shape policy so that it can tackle issues important to women

Summary: Even though women have achieved the right to vote/stand in elections they are still grossly underrepresented in most of the power and decision making in parliament. Current political climate makes this question especially pertinent as increased support for populist and far right parties does not benefit gender balance

Emma Snell
Communications Intern

The Emancipatory Potential of Feminist Pornography

  • April 5th, 2019
  • Blog

Pornography and feminism are often seen as antithetical to one another, and it’s not hard to see why. To say that the consumption of pornography contributes to gender based violence is an oversimplification. Yet, it seems undeniable that constant exposure to violent or degrading images of women, churned out by an industry which grossly under-represents them in creative roles, is going to be at odds with a movement concerned with autonomy and equality. This has lead to many in the feminist movement giving up on pornography all together by calling for its censorship. However, there are two reasons as to why I think that this is a misguided approach.

Firstly, writing pornography off as irrevocably damaging furthers the idea that the porn industry is something that cannot change – and if it is viewed as something that cannot change, then it will not change. The impact of this deterministic attitude can be clearly seen in the way that inclusivity and non-discrimination in pornography has been severely stunted in comparison to other industries. For instance, within the mainstream pornography industry it is still not uncommon for white women to be offered more money to perform in scenes with black male performers, a decision that is not only an example of flagrant workplace discrimination but also serves to bolster the view that interracial sex and relationships are justifiably considered extreme or taboo.

By viewing the porn industry as purely ‘bad’ you remove any tools for sifting out instances of blatant discrimination, instances that in other, less stigmatised industries would almost certainly result in legal action and media coverage. The result of this is an atmosphere where performers are held fully responsible and the injustices they face are seen as a standard occupational hazard than a serious breach of their entitlements, not only as employees, but also as people. By furthering the stigmatisation of the porn industry we rob the people working within that industry of the ability to claim their rights, and to be listened to and respected when they do.

My second reason for thinking that a totally dismissive approach to pornography is wrong stems from the reason that pornography is viewed as damaging by many feminists in the first place. Pornography has been seen as a detrimental influence due to its ability to promote sexual norms. However, if its unique power lies in its ability to shape the way we think about sex and sexuality then surely it could also be harnessed to shape sexual scripts, promoting equality in the sexual sphere rather than maligning it?

My research focuses on whether a more ‘empowering’ re-calibrated pornography is possible, and indeed, whether it exists. In order to establish this, I have looked at production companies with explicitly political and ethical agendas[1]. Self proclaimed ethical or feminist pornography tends to have a number of features in common. Firstly, the companies responsible for this kind of pornography employ women as scriptwriters, producers, directors, editors and so on, rather than simply as performers. They also tend to have an explicit focus on the enthusiastic consent of the performers, and pay performers equally irrespective of gender, sexuality, race or sexual act performed.

When expressed like this the idea that pornography made for women by women could be liberating is seemingly uncontroversial. Working in the porn industry may make a woman financially independent or increase their confidence, giving them new freedoms to do things that previous generations of women would have been unable to do. Furthermore the emphasis on equal pay and enthusiastic consent in the production of feminist pornography helps to decrease the exploitation of women in the industry.

However, this kind of pornography is not only liberating for the individual women directly involved in its production. Feminist pornography also coaxes its audience into viewing the women it depicts as full moral agents, rather than simply objectifying them. Many feminist pornographers film ‘real life’ couples and make this explicit in the films. Although they may be engaged in similar acts to those depicted in mainstream pornography, the fact that the performers are real couples invites us to view them as we know they view each other, with respect. Furthermore the films tend to be more developed, with the sex act being part of the narrative but not the whole narrative. By not encouraging the viewer not to sexualise the performers throughout, the audience is made more easily able to view actors as more than just sexual objects.

Finally, I would argue that feminist pornography’s commitment to representing a variety of voices and the idiosyncrasy of human desire is also instrumental in encouraging the viewer to rethink the way they view sexuality. Much of the content produced by self proclaimed feminist or ethical pornographers is crowd sourced, meaning that the films are often based on the fantasies of real people who are encouraged to write in to the production company. This ‘bottom up’ approach to content creation breaks down the traditional hierarchies between director and audience – whereas traditionally the directors vision is represented on screen this approach relies heavily on the voice of the would be consumer. This non-hierarchical approach to production invites the viewer to consider how a variety of perspectives can co-exist within the sexual sphere. This notion of sexual equality is bolstered by this kind of pornography’s tendency to represent atypical beauty and diversity. The conscious decision to move away from generic portrayals of female beauty has the dual effect of reminding the audience that women are not fungible commodities, but rather individuals with agency and desires.

In creating these associations between women as sexual beings and women as deserving of respect, pornography is able to play a role in establishing a new place for women within the sexual sphere. In humanising the depiction of women in pornography feminist pornographers are able to recalibrate the sexual power relations such that women are given a voice. The sexual scripts established by feminist pornography positions women such that they have equal sexual authority to men, insofar as their sexual desires are viewed and listened to as the desires of autonomous equals rather than interchangeable objects.

Emma Snell
Volunteer Intern

[1] Examples include Bright Desires, Pink and White Productions, and many of the studios featured on Shine Louise Houston’s platform

Takeaways from #MeToo On Campus

  • March 29th, 2019
  • Blog

We were delighted to welcome so many of you to our conference with Westminster Briefing ‘#MeToo on Campus: Ending Sexual Misconduct in UK Universities’. Our panels provided some fascinating dialogues, and opportunity to reflect on responses to into institutional responses to the movement,  as well as shared best practice procedures and ways to support survivors in universities. To paraphrase GenPol CEO Lilia Giugni’s opening words:”Beyond critically reviewing what has been done so far on this issue” we came together to identify how initiatives can be incorporated into policy for on sexual misconduct on campus.”

Our excellent Comms Team took to twitter to document the day, where you can find some of the main takeaways from our superb array of speakers. Broadly speaking, the conference pointed towards a pressing need to address the normalisation of sexual violence in university culture, as well as providing better provisions to support and aid survivors within the system. As Professor Janice Kay, Provost and Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Exeter put to the audience in her opening panel: ‘We live in a society in which sexual harassment against women is normalised systematic issue. The focus of this work had to be on pushing back on harassment against women, changing social norms. We must have public spaces which are safe.” As Janice pointed out, universities are forgetting where students have come from which is a structured secondary school system. clearer guidelines and disciplinary procedures are needed to help support this transition, and to make it easier and clearer for students to disclose.

However, Dr Nina Burrows rightly highlighted that part of reforming this culture of disclosure requires the creation of better systems for survivors, as ‘there are not enough trauma experts to help one-on-one the number of people who have been through [sexual violence]’. The creation of what speakers largely referred to as a ‘culture of sexual respect’ must be mindful (and inclusive) of a range of voice and perspectives, and seek to empower and inform all students who come through universities. Interventions by University UK, Good Lad InitiativeHollaback! among others gave us some vital food for thought to consider innovative ways in which to do this.

Ultimately, although conversations surrounding sexual violence can (and should) be infuriating and depressing, an excellent day of exchanges, contributions and showcasing best practices left us hopeful and optimistic for all of the vital reforms that are underway. We are excited to see what new findings will emerge at our next event ‘MeToo on Campus, Manchester: Next Steps for Universities’ on May 22nd.  We would love to see as many of you there as possible, so don’t forget to register!

The GenPol Team

How Violence Disempowers Women: Spotlight on Mexico City

  • March 14th, 2019
  • Blog

At present, there are about 45 civil wars going on across the globe. 10 out of these 45-armed conflicts alone have resulted in over 1,000 fatalities. Whilst these figures might not be entirely surprising, we rarely stop to think about how violent conflict can act as an impediment to gender equality. Nor do we think about its impact on female labour force participation through fear, or the lack of public transportation usage due to neighbourhood distrust. The Sustainable Development Goal 5 have identified the need to ‘enhance women’s ability to participate in intra-household decision-making processes’ as one of the necessary factors needed to achieve gender equality by 2030. In order to do this, I suggest we need to look closer in to the impact of precarious living conditions on female decision-making power.

Gender equality begins at a micro-level of society: in the home. The ability to participate in intra-household decision-making empowers women by increasing their standing and significance within the family. It also provides them with a medium for expression in issues that affect their lives. Drawing on the example of the ongoing Mexican Drug War, I examine the ways in which such a socially distorted environment impacts home and day to day life, and how that can influence the relative decision-making power of a woman.

The Mexican Drug War began in December 2006 when the newly inaugurated President, Felipe Calderón initiated the fight against drug cartels. Since 2007, drug-related violence has escalated dramatically, claiming over 80,000 lives to date as a result of the aggressive clashes between the Mexican government and drug trafficking syndicates. According to a 2014/2015 national survey on victimization and perception of public security, more than half of the over 18 population considered insecurity and crime to be the most pressing issue at the state-level. The increasing number of homicides and other drug-related crimes has therefore undoubtedly hampered public safety, and the experience of women in both public and private space.

In my research, I draw on longitudinal data from the Mexican Family Life Survey (MxFLS) which interviewed more than 35,000 individuals in over 8,000 households across Mexico. Using information provided in the household decision-making questionnaires, I constructed a relative decision-making power index (defined as the absolute number of decisions a woman made in her household, minus the absolute number of decisions her husband made). A negative index consequently indicates lower bargaining power compared to her husband, and a positive index signifies higher relative decision-making power. To gain a more specific overview of the types of goods and services that couples bargain over within a household, I further divided decision-making questionnaires into four different categories: a woman’s private goods and services, her husband’s private goods and services, goods related to household expenditures and her children’s goods and services like health, education and food.

The results from my analyses revealed that the effect of homicides on a woman’s relative decision-making power was salient for only one particular type of good –  expenditures on children’s goods and services. This finding is nonetheless unsurprising since women have been documented to have a greater preference in allocating larger income shares or resources to their children compared to men. Any negative shock to women’s incomes can be manifested by a decrease in their children’s expenditures considering the sensitivity of their bargaining power over this specific category of goods and services.

To provide additional insight into the possible mechanisms that govern the relationship between violence and a woman’s decision-making power, I also examined the impact of homicide rates on fear, neighborhood distrust, the modification of public transportation routes and the probability of employment. A case in point would be that a woman may limit her labor market participation due to the fear of being exposed to violent surroundings, or, she may have less social capital as a result of higher levels of distrust which could hinder employment prospects. Likewise, the dearth of security on public transportation routes compels women to commute on alternative paths to work that may take much longer, reducing the time they are able to dedicate to income-generating activities. Since income is typically used as measure for bargaining power, a reduction in wage earnings subsequently weakens the power a woman has to partake in intra-household decision-making processes.

My study underscores the importance of providing women with greater protection during times of susceptibility in order to safeguard their autonomy in making independent decisions that impact them and their children’s well-being. It is imperative for policy-makers to consider the possible disproportionate effects of civil wars on women when formulating policies that strive to achieve greater gender equality. In Mexico City for example, women-only train carriages and buses are offered on metro lines, and the city of Puebla has also introduced ‘pink taxis’ operated by female taxi drivers that take on only female passengers. While efforts to implement systems that offer women greater protection cannot be discounted, more has to be done in streamlining and normalizing such gender-specific structures across the country as the provision of such services still remains woefully inadequate.

Audrey Au Yong Lyn

PhD Candidate
Department of Economics
University of Munich

Happy International Women’s Day!

  • March 8th, 2019
  • Blog

Happy International Women’s Day from all of us at GenPol!

As you know, we are committed to using education as a tool to tackled sexual violence 365 days a year. Last year we’ve published the policy paper Can education stop abuse?, a comprehensive piece of work mapping sexual education policies in the European Union and offering recommendations on how to use them to prevent violence. In September 2018  we released the report Consent training and sexual violence prevention in UK universities, which focuses on the British Universities sexual abuse problem and explores the effectivness of consent training to address the problem.

This International Women’s Day we’re doing things a bit differently. We are delighted to share a video we have put together about the harmful Sex Ed stories many of us learnt growing up, and the ways we can set about tackling them as adults. We strongly believe that when Sex Education is inadequate, dangerous myths about gender and sexuality are left to go unchallenged. We hope that this video encourages you to reflect on your own Sex Ed, and the things that you would like changed for future generations of feminists.

Whatever you do and wherever you are, we hope you have an inspiring International Women’s Day 2019. If you’ve not booked your place on our upcoming conference #MeToo on Campus: Ending Sexual Misconduct in UK Universities’ (which will be hosted  in conjunction with Westminster Briefing on Wednesday 20 March), don’t forget to do so! This conference is your chance to explore the next steps in embedding cultural change on campus, and creating the safe, positive learning environments that we all desperately deserve. View the full agenda here and don’t miss out by registering now. Right now, GenPol followers and partners can get a 20% discount by entering the code METOOGP19 at registration.

Here is to another year of fighting gender inequality in all of its forms, and to all of the amazing women- in this life and beyond- who have helped us along the way. We are more grateful for you than you will ever know.

In solidarity,

The GenPol Team

Why Women’s Mental Health Is A Political Issue

  • March 1st, 2019
  • Blog

The mental health of women living in poverty is a growing public health concern. In economically developing countries like India there is both a large burden of mental illness among women and an acute shortage of services and trained professionals. The majority of women suffering from mental illnesses do not receive the care they need [1]. The Movement for Global Mental Health, launched by academics and activists in 2007, has brought attention to the need to improve mental health services for women in more economically disadvantaged countries. The movement has succeeded in bringing mental health onto the global agenda and should be praised for this achievement. However, it has also been criticized for taking a narrow medical approach to women’s mental health and failing to “highlight or tackle the social conditions that create distress for women” [2].

We live in societies and communities where “health” and “mental health” are not distributed equally.  I know this all too well because I grew up in the city of Mumbai in India where close to 50% of the city lives in “slum areas” without access to clean food, water, shelter and all the basic necessities for a dignified life [3]. India is one of the countries with the highest levels of gender inequality and notorious for high rates of crime against women [4]. Women living in poverty in India report significantly more distress, and are more likely to attempt suicide than men [5]. As a social psychologist, these gender differences were striking to me. There is no obvious biological reason for women to suffer more. So I decided to explore this question sociologically as part of my Master’s studies at Cambridge in 2015. I spent six weeks interviewing women across various slum communities in Mumbai. I wanted to understand how they talk about their mental health, what the causes of their distress are, how they cope with stresses in their lives, and what they think researchers, health practitioners and policy makers can do to support them better.

Across discussions, women spoke to me about the “tension” in their lives. Women used the term with such ease that initially I thought they were being slightly flippant and using it in the same way that English speakers might talk about being “stressed” by anything and everything. I tried hard to understand the social and cultural significance of the word to them. Was it a local way of talking about mental illness? Would tension map onto what in the West might be called depression or anxiety? It finally clicked when during one of my discussions, a respondent remarked poignantly: “Ma’m, a woman’s life is tension”. I realized that the tension these women were speaking about was more than an illness. Instead, they were using the word as a metaphor for the varied and intense social challenges they face in their lives: food insecurity, extreme poverty, domestic violence, sexual abuse, lack of status and humiliationn.

To improve mental health for women in marginalized settings we need to take what they are saying seriously. We need to have more conversations around the social drivers of their distress. I believe that medical efforts alone will be limited in their impacts in these settings without parallel attempts to create structural change and supportive social contexts. Michael Marmot poignantly summarizes this in his book when he says: There is no point treating people if we send them back to the very conditions that made them sick. I hope that the global mental health community will pay greater heed to this statement.

Saloni Atal
PhD Candidate in Psychology, University of Cambridge






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