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Monthly Archives: April 2012

Finding solidarity from halfway around the world

Jet lagged and overwhelmed with gratitude for last week in Turkey, I come back to Jackson, Mississippi.  Last week at the AWID Forum on Women’s Rights and Development was a time when women from around the world discussed the many obstacles they face in creating a more safe and just world for women.  Fellowship, dialogue, story telling, brain storming, and great exposure to our sisters in the world was what I experienced in Istanbul, Turkey, but now its time to return to our corners of the world and get back to work.  As I struggle to process this amazing experience into words, my new friends from the conference are putting their passions into action all over the world.

One day in the Young Feminist Corner I was introduced to a woman named Nicole: a sharp woman in her early 20s from Kenya whose passion and energy was infectious, and who works to empower girls who live in the slums of Nairobi through soccer.  Growing up, she knew that the lack of open, safe space for her and her friends to commune lead to the detriment of some and the isolation of many.  She has since become the Assistant Program Director for the Young Women’s Leadership Institute in Nairobi, Kenya.  Five years ago she started the “Young Mother’s Initiative,” and as a young mother herself, she works to provide girls with comprehensive sex education.  As Nicole was talking to me about the state of teen birth (very high) and lack of access to opportunity for the young women in her organization, I was struck by the similarities between Mississippi and Nairobi.  Both have high teen birth rates, both groups of youth spread the same fallacies about sex that result in pregnancy (“You can’t get pregnant if you are standing up…” etc. [which by the way, you can]), and in both societies it seems that parents are not talking to their kids about sex.

As people living in the United States, sometimes it is easy to think of ourselves as very “other” to those in other parts of the world; that somehow, we are “done” with developing.  But this interaction with Nicole proved that we ALL have much work to do.  As I shared with her that my state is dealing with many of the same problems as she faces in Kenya, the solidarity and encouragement I found in her was humbling.  Nicole and the Young Women’s Leadership Institute are growing a group of leaders in Kenya who are changing the world by embracing their potential and power!

Whether it is working towards reducing teen births with honest conversation and education, or empowering girls through community, we have so much to learn from one another.  I hope we can realize our global sisters are much closer than we think they are.

“I hope to one day see a society where a man will not look at me because of the length of my skirt, my physical anatomy or my beauty but look at me because he can see the vibrancy, confidence and power that I hold as I walk past him. Young women and girls have so much power and potential to make a positive change but need the support and information to bring out their full potential. We are the change: here and now!”– 

Nicole Khanali

For more information on the teen birth prevention effort in Mississippi visit: http://www.womensfundms.org

and for more information on the teen birth prevention and sexuality education effort in Kenya visit: http://www.ywli.org

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Nine Year Old Feminist Inspires Us To Act

The AWID forum 2012 was awash with young, passionate feminists, ready to engage in conversation and collaboration with anyone and everyone they came across.  I spent much of my time at the forum at the Young Feminist Corner, which acted as a space for the under 35 set to meet and share.  I first met  Paulini from Fiji, who helped organize the “Corner.”  At 24, Paulini is about to open Fiji’s first gymnastics facility.  Apparently, in Fiji there are not many outlets for community and fun for girls; Paulini wants to change that and empower those girls with a sport she loves.  What a smart girl living out loud!

Also in the Young Feminist Corner, I met two friends my age whose moms were also at the forum; one was from California, one from Paris, France.  Our conversation revolved around the extreme shock that we felt as westerners at the forum.  Every day we heard stories of women dying for their rights or of women who being raped for sport.  What do we do as women from such privileged countries?  How do we respond?  It is a tough question to answer, and is a conversation we are not searching for alone.  Young feminists like Aaliyah are responding by writing newspaper articles on activists working towards justice- showing all of us that you are never too young to have a voice!  I am responding to this overwhelming call to action by listening and sharing these stories in hopes that others will be inspired to action, too.


Women for Women in High Conflict

Today’s post is about four inspiring individuals who represent millions of women.  Women in high conflict areas.

Heleena is an intelligent, beautiful woman of 22 from and working in Afghanistan.  She has received her bachelors degree in Computer Science from a University in Kabul, and is working on her Master of Business Administration diligently online because her country does not have masters programs.  She is also working for the government as a planned policy specialist.  I asked her how she received such a good education, and she responded, “For women to get a good education they have to be risk takers.  They have to be willing to change something.”  She informed me that on April 17, 2012, just days before, some conservative radicals (the group has not been officially identified) poisoned 150 school girls.  Some were able to go home with some treatment, some were in critical condition.  Please click here for the article on this poisoning.  During the rule of the Taliban from 1996- 2001, education for women was declared “un-Islamic” and therefore, illegal.  Girls have legally been allowed to go to school since 2001, but have faced extreme opposition from conservative radical groups.

Heleena is the President and CEO of Third Thought Organization and they have created Afghanistan’s first feminist weekly paper… a huge victory for women in Afghanistan and for women around the world (To find the paper, type “Ruidad Weekly” into facebook).    After our interview on camera, she revealed that Ruidad Weekly has been threatened.  They have been forced to shut down their offices.  They are keeping their new location secret.  I asked,

“Are you scared? Are you going to stop?”

“I must write or do nothing.  Once I made this step, I did not want to turn back, and if that means that I die, that is ok.”

I interviewed three women from the Balkan region yesterday who all work in a feminist network to empower women, young and old, to know their rights and to be confident in themselves.  One woman from Bosnia, the others from Serbia, they have faced enormous hardship after the civil wars in the 1980s and 1990s that destroyed the solidarity and friendship that most people in different ethnic groups enjoyed.  These now polarized societies create a dangerous landscape for the work of empowering women.  These strong, courageous women face discrimination and ignorance every day of their work.  Their stories are visceral and humbling.

As a westerner, I knew before coming to the AWID 2012 forum that violence against women was a problem.  I had read about and had seen documentaries about how war disproportionally effects women.  However, hearing the stories from the girls and women themselves, has impermeably changed this westerner’s perspective.

Breaking the Silence in Egypt

“Women deserve to have dignity. Women deserve to be safe.”- Engy

Sum of day two at the AWID forum: Young Women Rule the World.

The first breakout session I attended yesterday was “Bringing Gender to the Streets: Young women amidst the Arab uprisings.”  What the 50 women in the room were able to hear and experience was incredible: four young women’s stories of resistance against oppression and hate in the face of extreme discrimination.  They spoke in Arabic, French, and English, but their message was clear no matter what the language spoken.  These women were bringing awareness and change for gender justice during and after the uprisings.

One of these activist was Engy, a woman in her early 20s who helped found Harassmap, an interactive website and community action campaign to help end street harassment. Out of 1,500 people surveyed, 70% said at one point they had sexually harassed a woman.  Sexual harassment to most women in these regions has become an inescapable reality of venturing out to the street alone.  These cases range from catcalling to groping to worse, and these four Arab women rejected this seemingly accepted norm.  Women in all parts of Egypt are able to text in to Harassmap when they experience different kinds of aggression or violence on the street, then Engy’s program notes where the harassment took place on an online map for all Egyptians to view.  Harassmap then connects those women with free psychological and legal assistance.  They have taken this idea offline by creating community groups in all parts of Egypt and have given training to business owners and other individuals on how to stop the street harassment. They also learn how to file a police report when they see the harassment happen or experience it.  Harassmap has effectively helped create a network of solidarity and support for women harassed, and this network includes women and men.  Their number of volunteers continues to grow.  At 300 committed individuals so far, they are “breaking the silence” associated with harassment and are well on their way to abolishing it as a cultural norm.  Here is a video of Engy talking about “breaking that silence.”

Much more to come soon!

“I am a feminist and so can you!”

“This is a fierce new world.  A world where people break social contracts; new players have emerged and the old ones are not ready to give up.  There is enormous growing inequality, and we can’t be free until all of us are free… that implies solidarity.” – AWID speaker

Enter day one of the forum: overwhelming, exciting, beautiful, inspiring.  At the beginning of the day, all 2,000 of us AWID participants gathered in one big room and listened to four women speak on development of nations and what women’s involvement should be.  The program was translated into six different languages simultaneously.

This forum is huge… a little walk down from the main Halic Center hall is a Young Feminists Corner, a Francophone Village, a market place that sells fair trade goods including rugs, jewelry, etc., and dozens of conference rooms where women are passionately discussing the best solutions to empower, aid, and utilize the women of the world today.

As I am sitting here in the conference center overlooking the Bosphorus River, I see about a dozen AWID participants, including my mom, from all over the world doing Tai Chi on the sidewalk so close to the river one could jump in, and I am joyfully reminded of the peace and clarity that women can bring with them into power.  This conference is about discussing problems and solutions.  There are more of the former than the latter, but it is moments like this one where I am given hope that innovative solutions are possible when women are involved.

One of the many incredible things we participated in yesterday was a showing of Abigail Disney’s film, I Came to Testify, and then to a talk back with Ms. Disney and two other activists.  The film is about the first case in a war tribunal where rape was individually prosecuted as a crime of war.  This film documents the stories of the women and girls that were held prisoner in rape camps during the Bosnian civil war in the 1990’s.  Tens of thousands of women were held in such camps.  After the film, the room was silent.  One of the first things said at the talk back was “These films are very difficult to see, but they are not fiction.  They call us to accountability.”   Women in the audience stood and talked about the similar atrocities in their countries that they have experienced. One Afghan woman said that she has counseled women who know their rapists because they are on the Afghan high courts: “How can they trust their government and obey when the men in power are the same that raped their mothers, that raped them?”  Then a young woman from Chechnya stood and courageously told her story of the war crimes experienced by her family, her close friends:  “My close family members were killed.  Some of my friends.  I have friends, family members who were raped and tortured in the same way as the women were in this film.  Watching this movie and having experienced it is a different feeling all together.”

The word feminist is very interesting. It is one that people, especially in the south, are afraid of.  But why?  Here at the conference, most of the 2,000 women when asked (or not asked) would identify as feminists.  Here, feminist does not mean “manly,” or “violent;” it means one that works for justice.  The word feminist means thinking of the world in a way that utilizes women as the part of the solution.  I am a feminist because the stories of these women tortured with rape need to be shared and these women deserve justice.  I am a feminist because girls all over the world deserve to be educated.  I am a feminist because these women are our sisters.

The beginning of a wonderful week!

From the moment my mom and I stepped off the plane in Turkey, I felt the conference had started.  We took a shuttle with half a dozen other AWID participants to our respective hotels, and in the course of that trek through mind numbing Istanbul traffic, I knew through the conversations already happening that this forum would be world changing.  On that one shuttle was the program director for the Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute, two women from the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (among many other accomplishments, they started the protest and march on Craigslist when the site would not take down ads for sexually trafficked persons), an Amnesty International Secretariat, and the executive for social justice at United Methodist Women.  Wow. What a crowd!

When my mom and I went to the center to register, I became drunk with all of the conversations I was overhearing that were full of hope and change, from women literally from all over the world!  We sat outside next to the beautiful Bosporus River over looking the crowded and colorful hillside covered in little houses, talking about the days ahead and wondering what lay in store when a beautiful group of incredibly diverse women drew our attention.  All name tags that the participants have to wear identify their country of origin, and these women were from Bolivia, Brazil, Kenya, South Africa, India, and many more.  Mom, Nancy, immediately reached out to them and we all became fast friends.  I discovered that this group was a coalition of different grass roots female organizers and “game changers” from all over the world, who were coming to AWID to have their voices heard.  GROOTS (Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood) is speaking several times during the conference.  A  woman from Kenya named Petronilla Busieka, and I talked for a long time… as she lovingly held my hands she said to me, “The women of Kenya need the right to own property. They need the right to keep their children after a husband’s death or divorce.”  In addition to being a grassroots organizer, Petronilla is running for national governmental office for the next elections… which are soon.  She and I share the sentiment that if more women were in power in government we probably would have better lives.  I would definitely vote her in, and told her I would pass along her story with all of you.  Please keep her and the other women opposing powerful men for legislative seats in Kenya, in your thoughts and prayers!

Walking back to our hotel, we ran across an inspiring professor from Sarah Lawrence College, and then a few Egyptian women.  Their reaction to the question “what do you do in Egypt?” did not elicit an expected response, but the one liner given is instead a wonderful encapsulation of what I know this conference is going to encourage and revel in: girl power.

Turkey here we come!!!

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Hello Smart People!

In less than two weeks I am going to Istanbul, Turkey for the 12th AWID Forum on Women’s and Development!  I have this opportunity because of an incredible woman I met in New York at the Women in the World conference… Jane in the World.  Jane is a woman living fearlessly out loud who told me about the forum and encouraged me to go.  She said that when we as women put ourselves in inspiring places and around other women doing inspiring work, good will come-  “Immerse yourself in the movement building there, where the global south is strongly represented and where you’ll find yourself in the company of such a rich diversity of individuals and organizations.”  And that is exactly what I am going to do!

I want the young, passionate, inspiring SMART GIRLS OUT LOUD to be immersed in this transformative experience as much as possible, so I will be constantly reporting back from the forum in the form of blog posts, videos, and other forms of social media.  You can follow me at @LilyWomble for live tweets from the conference.  I am looking to include as many organizations and other blogs as possible in this endeavor to give even more exposure to this conference and the amazing women that will be presenting, so if you have a blog or organization that would be interested in the SMART GIRLS OUT LOUD reports from Istanbul, please contact me!

I am SO excited about this opportunity to grow our global awareness and opportunity!

More to come soon!