The Right to a Glass of Milk – and to Live Life Fully

Adapted from OGP CEO Sanjay Pradhan’s opening remarks at the “Women and the Right of Access to Information Conference” at the Carter Center, Atlanta, February 14, 2018

I want to share with you a story from a remarkable woman, Lavalina Sogani, from Rajasthan, my home country of India, that moved me deeply.  Lavalina’s daughter used to play with Sangeeta, the daughter of her household help.  One day as they were playing, it was snack time and Lavalina got a glass of milk for her daughter.  She saw the little girl, Sangeeta, eyeing the milk from the corner of her eyes, but then quickly turn away to fight off temptation.  Lavalina was very moved seeing this, so she quickly brought a glass of milk for Sangeeta.  The little girl peered at the milk but then said, “Girls don’t drink milk.  Milk is only for my brother, since among my three sisters and him, he is the only one who goes to school.”  This single episode outraged and propelled Lavalina to launch EduGirls, a foundation to enable girls to go to school in South Asia – for which I volunteer as Ambassador.  

The little girl felt she did not have the right to a glass of milk!   Our collective imperative is to ensure that the right to information we discuss in this conference today will ultimately deliver for little girls like Sangeeta the right to milk, the right to proper nutrition, the right to education, and much more!

Unfortunately, despite some significant gains in recent decades, there are countless such stories of how women and girls are still hugely disadvantaged from birth through life.

  • Starting with early childhood, little girls in many countries are stuck in systems that deny them proper nutrition and healthcare.

  • Girls face many barriers in going to school, including school fees, the cost of supplies and uniforms, or long distances from home to school.  As girls get older, the fight to stay in school gets harder.  At least 130 million girls are out of school.

  • At home and in society at large, gender-based violence remains a global epidemic, affecting more than one in three women over the course of a lifetime.

What makes these inequities all the more outrageous is that there is overwhelming evidence that investing in women generates among the highest returns for society.  A woman’s wages increase by 10 to 20 percent for every additional year she spends in primary school, and she invests 80 percent of that back into her family.   A child born to a literate mother is 50 percent more likely to survive to celebrate their 5th birthday. Investments in women’s education and health demonstrably improve outcomes for children, households and society.   Despite this, entrenched power asymmetries and repressive social norms have prevented the realization of these gains.

So how can women’s right to information can address these daunting challenges.  A couple of examples demonstrates the possibilities:

  • In Bangladesh, Rezia Khatun, a destitute widow, kept getting denied basic income support due to her, because these benefits were being distributed instead to party members for political patronage.  Only when she submitted a right to information (RTI) application with the help of an RTI activist was she able to compel local authorities to comply.

  • In the remote jungles of the Mexican state of Chiapas, and the marshes of Tabasco, through access to information workshops by Article 19 and Casa de la Mujer, women were empowered with information, voice and confidence to ask for absent doctors and missing medicines in health centers, to know that their social programs did not depend on who they voted for, and to participate in local decision making.  It gave women like Alma Rosa the confidence to speak and challenge in a culture where men are heard – in her words, “There are risks, but we need to go out there and find information for us and our children.”

So the right to information empowered these women and helped redress power asymmetries.

But there are many challenges that women face in accessing information. Also in Bangladesh, another young woman, Shamima Akter, kept getting stonewalled by local officials on her RTI, only succeeding when a fair officer prevailed.

When we ask women why they don’t exercise their right to information, they cite fear, mistreatment from local authorities, lack of transportation and a lack of toilets for women.  Having a right to information is only half the job done! We must work to ensure women are able to access information.

In this struggle, open government approaches – including the Open Government Partnership or OGP – can be one part of the solution.  OGP is no panacea by any means, but it can provide a platform to empower women and redress some power asymmetries in a world that is still dominated by elites and men.   

In just six years, OGP has grown rapidly into a partnership of 75 countries, more and more local governments, and thousands of civil society organizations.  At its core, OGP elevates civil society, including women’s groups, to an equal seat at the table with government, so they can table their asks and co-create commitments to make government more open, participatory and responsive to ordinary citizens, including women and other historically marginalized groups.  

The gender focus in OGP is very nascent and grossly insufficient at the moment, but it is also poised to greatly scale up because our incoming Government Co-Chair - Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, with a feminist foreign policy, and Canadian Minister Scott Brison - with Civil society Co-Chair, Nathaniel Heller, who is here with us today, have placed the highest priority on empowering women through open government to drive sustainable development outcomes.  On March 8, OGP will also be announcing our new Feminist Open Government commitment to mainstream gender in open government. Through a new partnership with IDRC in Canada, we will launch a call for proposals for civil society groups to support research and advocacy on gender and open government.  We encourage all interested organizations to participate.

All this offers an unprecedented opportunity for the gender community and the open government community - brought together today, thanks to Laura Newman and the Carter Center - to join forces to engage 75 OGP countries as well as various local governments at the highest political levels to make ambitious commitments on women’s empowerment.   

So what could this look like – we invite you to shape this vision.  One possible vision could be that over the next 2-3 years, 30-40 countries make at least one major transformative commitment to use OGP to advance gender equality, for instance enhancing women’s access to information.  

Three ideas on how the gender and open government communities can join forces get there:

First, let us collectively ensure that women’s groups fully participate in the OGP co-creation process of every country, as they have recently in Afghanistan, Argentina, Costa Rica and Colombia.  The women of OGP are pushing to mainstream gender through movements like #MujeresOGP and #OpenHeroines, but this is just a start.  Please approach us so we can connect you to the co-creation process in your country for you to table you concrete asks for government.

Second, through this, let us ensure that a set of OGP countries – developed and developing - commit to tackling the epidemic of sexual and gender-based violence and the movement #MeToo.  For instance, Sierra Leone has committed through OGP to publish data on gender-based violence, and provide free health services for victims of sexual violence.  Colombia has committed to a participatory evaluation of the system of violence against women. In the Americas, OGP women are creating a database on femicides in 2017.  Let us join forces to scale these up to forge a countervailing force against the epidemic of gender-based violence.

Third, let us ensure that another set of OGP countries commit to enhancing women’s voice and participation in shaping policies and overseeing service delivery.  Through its OGP commitment, Bojonegoro, Indonesia has trained community women to monitor gender-disaggregated data on services.  In Liberia women’s participation in land mapping enabled them to protect their lands.  In Nigeria, civil society is monitoring whether young boys and girls are receiving school feeding programs, including milk. Cote d’Ivoire has committed through OGP to engaging women’s groups in participatory budgeting so they set priorities and fund public services that respond to their needs. Let us not stop at woman’s right to information alone: let us go further to ensure their right to participate and shape public policies, their right to public services.

I began with a story of a little girl who was denied the right to a glass of milk, to illustrate a pattern of systematic exclusion that women confront from birth through life.  Let me end with a story from the later part of life.  Four days ago, my mother turned 83 and she was delighted when I called her this morning to tell her that I will celebrate her birthday with this extraordinary audience.  She is confined in bed as I speak, battling ailments and old age, yet is still full of life.  But when she reminisces on her life, she says, I really wanted to be a lawyer, but could not.  She would have been a fantastic lawyer - very bright, feisty and wonderfully argumentative.  So I have always sensed the void she feels due to a life of unfulfilled potential.  Each one of you may know a mother, a sister, a friend who similarly rues a life of unfulfilled potential.

We must ensure that the likes of Sangeeta have a right to milk, nutrition, education and much more, that the likes of my mother have the right to a full life, and that the right to information, right to participation and right to public services enables them and all our fellow human beings – not just half of them! – to realize these precious and inalienable rights, to realize their full potential.  Our future rests with young girls born today who will be the doctors, lawyers, teachers, peacemakers and, if I may underline, presidents we all need.     

Authors: Sanjay Pradhan