How to Change the World: Stop Harming Women
Dexter Dias QC is a human rights barrister and a researcher at the Gender and Social Justice Centre at Cambridge University, where his focus is modes of violence against women, a theme he explored during a research residency at Harvard. He chaired and co-wrote the influential Bar Human Rights Committee report to the Parliamentary Inquiry into FGM that was instrumental in changing the UK’s FGM law. He has and continues to advise the UN on gender-based violence and FGM. He sits part-time as a Judge in the Crown Court specially authorised to try cases of Serious Sexual Offending.
His new book, The Ten Types of Human, is a pioneering examination of human nature. It looks at the best and worst that human beings are capable of, and asks why. It explores the frontiers of the human experience, excavating the forces that shape our thoughts and actions in extreme situations. It begins in a courtroom and journeys across four continents and through the lives of some exceptional people, in search of answers.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Dexter talks about how we can change the course of the 21st century if we can stop harming women.
Author photo © Nicola Bensley
The UN is right. It is not always. But on this it absolutely is.
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, Goal 5: ‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’. Sounds grand, but remote, unreachable. I want to argue that these should not just be goals for the ‘Developing World’, but also for here.
I am a human rights lawyer, but also sit part-time as a judge. In one court centre I work in almost 50 per cent of the contested trials are now sex cases. Very, very often the victims are women. Women and girls are primarily the victims of human trafficking. We have 65,000 girls in our country at risk of FGM, deliberate gender violence, at this very moment. I see case after case of domestic violence: the vast majority of the abused are women. Post-Savile, victims are finally coming forward. They are being taken more seriously. We are beginning to see who we are and what we have been doing.
UN research indicates that of females between 15 and 49 (in 52 countries), one in five has experienced physical or sexual violence. One in five. And often from an intimate partner. And often within the previous 12 months. With such statistics we begin to grasp the scale of the problem. What is happening to women and girls – and why? All this connects with the simple, central question my book asks: why do human beings hurt other human beings – and what can we do about it?
The desire to understand what causes us to commit acts of violence, acts of cruelty, drove me to begin The Ten Types of Human. Trying to identify ways to stop these acts drove me to finish it. One of the swiftest and also most effective ways to achieve the UN’s goal number 5 is to combat the ways women are held back and hurt. Fight structural inequality against women; fight practises like FGM, forced and child marriage, honour killing, domestic violence, revenge pornography, the early pressure to sexualise teenage girls. Stop harming women and girls economically, educationally, financially, physically, psychologically, sexually. That’s how, as the UN says, we can meaningfully ‘change the course of the 21st century’. But …
But it’s not as simple as that, people will say. I’m not sure that anyone who is actively engaged in combatting Violence Against Women and Girls believes that it is. There are, however, enticing signs of hope. Let me give you one from my research. The book explores ten deep evolutionary drives in us, ten ‘types’ of human behaviour, that have shaped our species - and still do. One of them I have called the Tribalist, our deep desire to form groups and belong. To understand the Tribalist, I visited Haiti. And you probably already know the first half of Haiti’s story.
It happened at seven minutes to five in the afternoon. Offices were about to close. Schools were emptying. It was one of the busiest times of day for humans on the isle of Hispaniola, which contains Haiti and the Dominican Republic. There were people everywhere. First it came like something slithering through the grass. Like a snake. Its tail reached 8.1 miles below the surface of the earth. And then suddenly it was there. At Leogane, 15 miles south-west of Port-au-Prince, the subterranean thing centred and surfaced. It unleashed hell. It was savage, merciless. The earth quaked. It literally did.
But it didn’t last long, somewhere between 30 seconds and one minute. It doesn’t seem very long. Unless you were in it. And it is what happened in that short period of time that changed everything. At 4.53pm on 12 January 2010, an earthquake registering 7.0 on the Richter scale hit Haiti. More than 250,000 people were killed. Port-au-Prince was destroyed. Leogane, the epicentre, was levelled. Much of the southern part of the country was wiped out. The UN building, a six-storey administrative complex in the capital, was instantaneously squashed into a single storey as pile after pile of concrete smashed down. One hundred people were inside.
Kenneth Merten, the US Ambassador to Haiti, gave the best description of what had happened to the country. ‘It looks,’ he said, ‘like an atomic bomb went off.’
The state disappeared, the country almost did. More quickly than it takes to boil a kettle, there were no courts, no police, no protection. In desperation, with buildings crumbling around them, people built makeshift tents. As Naomy, one of the incredible women I met in Port-au-Prince, said, ‘Suddenly – BOOOOM – there was no rich and no poor. Everyone was in tents in Place St Pierre, and it was a time for us to understand that we are nothing more than creatures. I saw a boy in the street bleeding. I tried to help him. I saw one of the teachers from my school lying in the street flat out. His back was broken. And I began crying. I didn’t know what to do, and I was crying. And then there was a hand on my shoulder from behind. It was a woman I’ve never seen before or since. And she said, “Don’t cry. We must not cry. We all have work to do.”’
That was on Tuesday. On Thursday the predators came. Masked men rampaging through the tented cities as mothers cowered with their children by candlelight. It was almost Year Zero, as if the world were starting again. What was coming out? What kind of dark rage and desire? A fractured world fractured again into two groups, two ‘tribes’: the hunters and the hunted. With no one else to protect them, women started protecting one another. They taught themselves self-defence. They equipped themselves with whistles. One CNN reporter witnessed a whistle in the camp. Dozens of women came running to attack any possible assailant. But in the coming weeks, as life slowly started to reassert itself, something incredible happened. Women kept using the whistles. When men raised their hands to them in the home, when there was domestic violence, the women whistled. They’ve kept on whistling.
But social change is not easy. At one of the intrepid women’s rights centres I visited in the capital, masked men abducted a receptionist and threatened the life of the director. She is now in hiding. And so it is not easy. It is hard. And that is one of the things I’ve learned during my 25 years of social justice work: we only get the justice we are prepared to fight for. Because justice is not a default condition. It does not fall out of the sky like gentle rain. Aristotle taught us 2,000 years ago that we become just by doing just things. That justice is also a verb. And 200 years ago, Edmund Burke, rising to the great Greek’s theme, penned his immortal line: all that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good people do nothing. But I want to flip that. In the book I ask a different question. Imagine what we can achieve when good people do good things.
My book is about offering solutions to change some of these things. The book supports three amazing social justice NGOs (Unicef, ActionAid and INQUEST). The whole purpose of this work, and my legal practice, is to find new ways to reduce the sum of human suffering. But first we have to know and understand - the human brain, ourselves. My hope is that this project, that spans ten years’ research and brings together human rights, human psychology and neuroscience, will offer a fresh place to start. Those issues I mentioned earlier – FGM, forced and child marriages, honour killing, domestic violence, revenge pornography – they are not just women’s rights issues. They are fundamental questions of human rights. The rights of almost one half of the population on this planet.
The remarkable women of Haiti feature in just one of the stories in the book, but they remind us that if we want to change the world, or at least the course of the 21st century, if we are serious about it, fighting the abuse of women is one of the best possible places to start.