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
Patriarchy breeds poverty. Excessive patriarchy breeds not only poverty, but polarisation of power, exclusion and discrimination, contributing levels of violence that become the norm. We see this happening all over the world and everyone in this room knows it. But poverty has many faces, many facets and there is one more aspect of poverty that I consider to be crucial to humanity that is not spoken about, that many in this room will not about. Poverty of the heart. And how it shapes the way we think and the way we see the world because if we live in a world without compassion, how will we know what it looks like? And what does being unable to recognise it do to us?
We are all familiar with economic poverty, when women are excluded from contributing fully to life; keeping their world small. Limiting not only potential prosperity for them and their children but ultimately men and boys of the family as well. Limiting the contribution of women, limits prosperity for families, communities, limits the economic growth of not only their own country, but ultimately effects other countries by way of the global economy. When women lose we all lose.
Everyone in this room knows patriarchy breeds poverty of choice. When women are excluded the right to determine who has power over their own body; their own minds never mind their own lives. When girls as young as eight years of-age, many already maimed by the pracice of FGM, are sold to pay off debts, with no choice over being married off to ancient men to have children with, when still only children themselves.
Everyone in this room, knows that patriarchy breeds poverty of education, access and opportunity including basic health education for their children. When babies and infants are dying of malnutrition in Afghanistan not just through lack of food, but through lack of the basic education allowed to young mothers on baseline nutrition and what babies need to be healthy. Not because that information isn't ‘out there’ but because women themselves are not allowed ‘out there’. Out of their homes to access education for themselves and their children, by their husbands, their brothers, their uncles, cousins, in the name of dignity and honour. Arriving at clinics sometimes so late in their child's illness that when they do get there babies are often too sick to save. Dying of starvation is tragedy enough, but dying of delibrately created ignorance and access to the right to health is a crime - because such deaths are avoidable.
And poverty of the heart - what is it? It's what happens to us inside our heads, when neural pathways in our brains, typically fired in the process of every day activies are fired in the process of repeated negative behaviour or activities instead. Like continual discrimination, continued exclusion or violence most frequently against women and girls. Repetative negative behaviour, repetative negative speech - or silence - a powerful weapon of exclusion; negative actions and thoughts, limit the range of those neural pathways. The terrain of that way of thinking and acting become ‘wired’ into our brains in profound ways that affect emotional capacity and brain development itself. What we believe is normal, framed as the values we hold, research shows, means that we see the world that way. Through the values we hold and that others control in society as a whole.
That 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, slows the ability to communicate effectively, emotionally, and the most basic requirement of all for humanity, limits the connections in areas of the brain that enables empathy. The way we treat one another, 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 certainly wound and neuroscience shows they do hurt. 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 see someone 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 in some sense it has. Hurting others, even institutionalised, hurts us. The same areas of the brain are active in us, the viewer, as the person slamming 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 - such feelings are simply denied? What if you think violence is normal because in your world it is? And what if you're stopped from coming into contact with others who do know it isn't?
Studies show that repeatedly using violent or 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 in our heart.
Research also shows that different values activate different thought structures within the brain and even show 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, act in it and act towards others.
The window into our worlds are indeed through our eyes - making sense of what it is left to what our brain sees. 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 being. 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 negative behaviour of course occurs not only when applied to how we treat women and girls of course - that's just the group we are focusing on mainly because the rate at which violence occurs is mainly with the group, women and girls over others, but applies to any marlinalised individual or group. And when that negative treatment is practiced by whole cultures and institutionalised in law and political then destructive learned behaviour becomes not only acceptable but the norm. It becomes acceptable to impoverish and penalise women and girls for being born the wrong sex.
I believe it is time for an open and honest conversation about what dignity and the lack of it does, and honour means. And what the feelings of shame and guilt really do to us. Which is why today, we are launching a global conversation to explore and redefine what dignity and honour really mean.
The good news is that 'arrested neural emotional development’ can be reversed. Your world can grow bigger and more beautiful. Unexplored emotional areas of our brain can be activated, due to pasticity and new pathways in the language of empathy and compassion forged. We can become whole again.
Surely it's time for a sensitive, insightful conversation about the impact of sacrificing women and girls on the altar of humanity in the name of dignity and honour. For 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.
I have been collecting conversations on this in a series of interviews which is now a programm called the Dignity Diaries. In one of these interviews that I'll show you today, 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 unfairly men have treated women in his culture. It was a moment of humility, revealed with tenderness and honesty. When someone opens their heart you cannot fail to be touched by the pain and truth you find there. The vulnerability of that moment made me want to weep. He said explained 'Every daughter is like Malala in wanting an education'. While I am sure that desire maybe true, sadly every father is not like him.
Ziauddin's family is an extraordinarily strong family unit. Zauddin had to open his hear and learn new things in his life when he came to the UK and we should all keep our hearts and our minds open. He confessed that before he came to he had never prepared breakfast for his wife or family because it was not the way in his culture, not dignified behaviour for a man. This was women's work. Interesting how dignity was attributed to men rather than women. Sitting at the breakfast table in his house in Birmingham life is very different now, so is he and all his family. Life is richer when shared. 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 dignity and honour are shame, guilt and humiliation, and 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 for us spoilt white boys, 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?
'My whole life."
Everyone here today, in this Dag Auditorium, here at the UN, working for years to help others affected by the kinds of poverty I touch on, have been waiting in that queue their whole lives too. Waiting and working to get to the front. We all have. Everyone in this room is working to change what has always been just because of prejudice and precedent, to help make the world a better place. We are slowly 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 closer simply through the sheer weight of numbers.
Changing hearts as well as minds has never been so important. It changes our actions and who we are. What will your legacy be?
Sign up to the campaign and let's talk about the elephant in the room, before the discussion about dignity becomes extinct too.
Interviews with Ziauddin Yosafzsi and Andre Mostert can be found by clicking on the link 'New Global Conversation' Dignity and Honour Campaign on our home page.