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Monthly Archives: October 2012

Everyone’s daughter.

This is an excerpt from a blog that I truly admire- one that sticks with the soul.  Jane Sloane is the author. You can find the full text here.

“I love being in San Francisco, and especially living in Sausalito – in the area called the banana belt due to it being the sunny side of the city – and feeling so happy to be near water and trees and a yoga studio and hanging out near the boats.  I’ve now found a nearby cafe called ‘Fred’s’ (“been here since 1966”) where I can read the Sunday New York Times over a slow ‘eggs and many cups of tea’ breakfast.

And yet the front page of The New York Times, with its story of a 16 year old Dalit girl in India being mob raped, is a stark reminder of what’s happening to women and girls in the world and what’s at stake as a result.  This girl did not report her rape and it was only due to her rapists crowing about their conquest via images on their mobile phones that her father saw them and committed suicide and the Dalit community rose up in response.  It’s hard to know how much this communal response is due to a father’s shame or to a violation of a girl’s human rights and having her integrity and innocence stripped away.

The progress that has been made has been achieved as a result of three decades of campaigns by women’s groups achieving important changes in the rape law and in the rules governing the police in their dealings with women. However, it is only those women who are organized, and have the backing of a collective to fight the system, that are able to respond effectively.

Here in the US, young women born into more fortunate circumstances, and who go on to a college education, perhaps at one of the highly regarded colleges such as Amherst, also face the possibility of being raped.  The likelihood is aided, in this case, by the cultural laws of the campus where bureaucratic attitudes and red tape have silenced women who have been raped and allowed some to end up in psychiatric wards while their rapists graduate with honors.  The latest Amherst rape victim to speak out, Angie Epifano, ended up withdrawing from her studies and going to Europe.

 

Epifano’s story was a story familiar to many college students. A study by the Center for Public Integrity found that 95 percent of rapes on college campus go unreported to an official. Meanwhile, a 2010 Boston Globe investigative reportof Massachusetts schools that included Salem State College, MIT, Northeastern, Tufts and Amherst from 2003−2008 revealed Justice Department documents of 240 reported cases of sexual assault. Out of those 240 reported cases, only four students were expelled from their respective institutions, according to the Globe’s report.

Before Epifano’s story became public, an underground fraternity at Amherst had printed T-shirts featuring a cartoon of a bruised, bikini-clad woman roasting like a pig over an open fire.   Epifano’s experience, when she finally reported the rape, was of being sidelined by the very people she was told she could trust.  This included a social worker, a counselor and a college administrator.  Epifano was told that it was too late to seek a disciplinary hearing because she had no physical evidence and she couldn’t change dorms because everything was full.  She was asked if she was sure it was rape and then she was sent to the nearest hospital and encouraged not to return. It was while in this psychiatric ward that she finally told her story of being raped at a group therapy session.  She wrote later:

“Silence has the rusty taste of shame,” a fellow survivor once wrote.
I had been far too silent, far too ashamed.
That night I told them everything.
For the first time I told my story and I was not ashamed.
Later that night, as I lay in bed—still in an adrenaline induced state of wakefulness—I heard my roommate whisper my name, and then, a question.
“Are you still awake?”
“Yes.”
“Thought so…”
A long pause. She’d been in the meeting.
What was she thinking? What would she say?

“I just wanted to tell you, I…I know how it feels. My uncle raped me when I was 15. The police never arrested him. Rape “wasn’t their top priority.” It still hurts…You’re incredibly brave to talk about it…I rarely do.”
She was 42 years old.
I did not sleep. That night I realized that from then on I could not stay silent—if not for myself, then for my roommate.”

When Epifano went public with her story, and shared that “silence has the rusty taste of shame,” dozens of other students came forward with similar stories and hundreds more rallied in support of these young women. It is this momentum from these young women speaking out and mobilizing that will likely be the catalyst for real change to a system that has silenced them. Stories of how they were silenced by college administrators ranged from “Are you sure it was rape? He seems to think it was a little more complicated.” to “Why don’t you take a year off, get a job at Starbucks, and come back after he’s graduated?”

In a special trauma ward in Birmingham, England, Malala Yousafzai, the 15 year old Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban for championing her right, and that of all girls, to get an education, is slowly recovering.  Her dream is to be a politician and she will realize this dream only if she is protected from the Taliban which still intends to kill her.

Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai said “They wanted to kill her. But she fell temporarily. She will rise again. She will stand again,” he told reporters, his voice breaking with emotion.  Malala has become a powerful symbol of resistance to the Taliban’s efforts to deny women education. Public fury in Pakistan over her shooting has put pressure on the military to mount an offensive against the radical Islamist group.

“When she fell, Pakistan stood and the world rose,” Malala’s father told a press conference. “This is a turning point. In Pakistan, for the first time, all political parties, Urdus, Christians, Sikhs, all religions prayed for my daughter.”  He added, “She is not just my daughter, she is everybody’s daughter.”

Malala’s father is standing strong with his daughter in her fight for an education and in facing down the violent acts of the Taliban.

I reflect on all this, from my quiet and lovely space in Sausalito. And I’m more convinced than ever of the importance of investing in women’s rights organizations and movements in order to strengthen women’s collective leadership to advance women’s human rights.

The message from these stories is that we are stronger together. Movements build social change.  Women’s collective leadership and movement building helps to drive and secure social change. Movements that are led by the brave, brave, brave Malala Yousafzai’s and Angie Epifano’s of this world.

Leaving Fred’s, my new favorite coffee shop, I returned home to a hula hoop I’d recently bought myself to reinstate that mind-to-hip meditation I began when I was a girl.  I spun my hoop down to the shared garden space outside my apartment and, as I was practicing, a girl in red Dorothy shoes ran over to watch.

‘Can I do that?” she asked, her eyes sparkling.  “Sure you can,” I said smiling and handing her the hoop. And soon she was wheeling and flowing and laughing with such grace and confidence that I hoped she never had cause to falter and lose that beautiful, fluid sense of life in all its possibilities by virtue of being a woman.”

Girl, that’s crazy.

Last friday was the premier of GIRL EMPOWER sessions, a movement which I hope will be sweeping elementary, middle, and high schools all over Jackson, Mississippi.  The classroom was brimming with thirty energetic, third grade girls.  We started with a simple question:

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“A doctor!” “A fashion designer!” “A lawyer!” “A veterinarian!”

I wrote these dreams on the board and had trouble keeping up!  What a wonderful feeling listing to the abounding plans of these nine year olds….

In preparation for this program I met with several local teachers to hear about the needs of the girls in their class.  The need was clear: girls tear other girls down.  I wanted to stress to these girls that there is value in empowering and uplifting one another; when we do that we all succeed.   So, we discussed methods of empowerment and how through encouragement we can reach our dreams together.  The girls brought up how they have been put down in the past, and then put empowerment in to practice by writing anonymous notes of encouragement.

“You are kind.”

I asked the students, “How will you achieve your dreams?”  They answered in a unanimous, “WE WILL GRADUATE!”

Then I said, “Did you know that there are millions of girls in the world who can’t go to school?”

“NO way!”

“That’s crazy!”

Yes, it is.  Global inequality is CRA-ZY, and we have a communal call to take action.

I explained some of the reasons that girls have a difficult time going to school in the developing world, and promptly learned that breaching the subject of global inequality is difficult.  To help teach a global perspective we all went on a little trip.  Well, we all pretended we had plane tickets then zoomed around the classroom for a solid minute (P.S. it was really cute.).  The teacher picked two students to play girls in the developing world, and I dressed them up accordingly- a sari for “Awon” from India and a Palestinian shirt for “Radia.”  When we “arrived” in these countries, our world traveling girls read from scripts that explained what their average day looked like.  They were in third grade just like these girls, but had to walk to school for two hours each day and are the first to learn to read in their families.   

After hearing about the status of girls in other parts of the world, these third graders were moved to action.  They wanted to help. .   I can’t wait to see what these girls do.  Updates on this third grade classroom coming soon…

Millsaps in Action!

Thursday was the United Nations first ever International Day of the Girl Child.  With thousands of other committed women and men around the world, Millsaps College hosted an awareness day for the 77.6 million girls in the world who cannot go to school because of their gender. With the girl power of the Spice Girls and […]

Shock. Anger. Hope for a better world.

Last night Millsaps College was buzzing with excitement in anticipation of Half the Sky.  In our auditorium that holds 200 people, students, faculty, staff, and community members where having to scavenge for seats- we even had people sitting in the stairs!  With approximately 20% of our student body represented, this was the most diverse group of people I had ever seen assembled at Millsaps.  I was SO EXCITED.

Not full yet!

Upon arrival, everyone in the audience received a blank sheet of paper and a marker.  “You will see things tonight,” I said, “that may shock you.  That may anger you. That may move you to action. This piece of paper is there for you to vent.”  We collected all of them at the end of the night and will put them into a reaction book to chronicle the lives effected by Half the Sky and its message.

Carol Penick, the director of the Women’s Fund of Mississippi, was in attendance, and she opened by telling us that our state is the worst in the nation for women, as determined by the Women’s Policy Institute.  She wisely reminded us that we needed to not only be aware of the status of women in the world, but in our community as well.

 Then the film began.  Commence the sounds of minds being blown.
There were audible gasps when the audience discovered with Eva Mendes on screen there were two and a half month old girls being raped in Sierra Leone.  Then we all watched, horrified, as we witnessed a 14 year old girl kicked out of her house because she was raped.  In this world, the rapist’s act is forgivable, but those who are raped must be punished. Amie Kandeh who works to stop gender based violence in her country through the International Rescue Committee, brought hope that there were solutions: “Gender based violence must stop because it can stop.”

One viewer’s response to Half the Sky

When in Cambodia, the audience was shocked right alongside Meg Ryan when meeting girls ages 10, 14, and 3 years old who were sold into sex trafficking. These girls have been rescued by Somaly Mam, who runs a foundation by the same name; a survivor of sex trafficking herself, she offers a home to survivors where they learn how to recover, how to support one another, and how to be children again.  Her young students now courageously provide condom demonstrations to local men and host awareness events at police stations to teach them how to rescue children forced to work in brothels.

One viewer’s response to Half the Sky.

Our final stop on this painful but necessary journey was to Vietnam with Gabrielle Union, where the organization, Room to Read, is giving girls the opportunity to attend school.  In this developing country a girl is more likely to work in a rice patty or to be a child bride than to finish secondary school.  One girl from a school highlighted is the daughter of a single father who does not support her education.  Who beats her.  Who makes her work selling lottery tickets to support their family.  She meticulously saves the little money she earns to pay for her tutoring and spends hours studying every day.  She hopes to go to a university.  Her family situation is far too common in the developing world.

The first comment after the documentary came from a guy in the 7th row.  “Wow.  I had absolutely no idea that this was happening in the world.  No idea.”

Response.

“I’m angry.  Why girls?  Why is it ok to treat them this way?”

“What can we do? Do we have a responsibility to help?”

Resounding yes.

“So what now?”

Half the Sky is a call to action.  My goal is to send at least 10 girls in the developing world to school.  Approximately $4,000.  The Millsaps student body will choose which school will receive the money.  When this goal is accomplished, these scholarships will have a direct impact on those girls, their families, and their communities.  These investments in girls have infinite returns: peace, justice, and hope for a girl, for a community, and for a nation.

In high school I made hundreds of shirts with several awesome friends to raise money for victims of human trafficking in Birmingham, AL.  The shirts will now be used to raise awareness and funds for girls in the developing world.  These shirts say, JUSTUS, which embodies the idea that the world needs JUST US FOR ALL.  100% of the profits go to educating girls in the developing world.

“JustUs for all” tshirts for education for girls!

Response.

Response.

This one time in math class…

Last Thursday I was sitting in math class while simultaneously on twitter.  What can I say? I am a multi-tasker.  I saw that the organization, Half the Sky had recently undated its tumbler, which is a simpler version of a blog where you post mostly pictures and some text.  There was an advertisement for a contest to win two tickets to a pre-screening of the documentary, Half the Sky, and a discussion with the author and journalist, Nicholas Kristof, actress, America Ferrara, and two advocates featured in the film.  Did I mention that this was in New York? And did I mention that the event was in the coming week?  All you had to do was enter your email address, and I did.

About a month ago I became a campus ambassador for the Half the Sky movement, and for those of you who do not know about Half the Sky, it is a research based book, written by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn which has been turned into a documentary, which focuses on the women turning oppression into opportunity worldwide.  The documentary follows celebrities like Diane Lane, America Ferrera, Meg Ryan, and Olivia Wilde as they venture into the developing world with Nicholas Kristof.  These women go into the brothels of Calcutta where they meet 13 year old forced prostitutes, they see the three year old girl that has been raped in Sierra Leone.  They also see the progress that is being made by local women fighting these injustices.

As a campus ambassador my job is to raise awareness about the status of women in our world and to move people in our community to action.  Get ready, Jackson!  Nation Public Television is showing the documentary October 1 and 2 at 8pm central time.  Millsaps is hosting a screening of Half the Sky on Monday at 7:45 in Academic Complex 215.

So I entered my email address into this contest.  I enter my email address to win many things like free t-shirts, free trips, free music, and most of the time my odds of winning are so low that I forget about the contests seconds after entering.  I forgot in the same way for the Half the Sky promotion.

Two days later I got an email saying I had won.  What???  So, a few days later I was on a plane to New York.  Thursday night was the event, and with the help of some awesome women from Half the Sky, I was able to meet Nicholas after the film; he asked about what we were doing at Millsaps for our movement!  He was so personable and kind- it was obvious that he cared deeply about the message of Half the Sky and that he was working tirelessly to see justice brought for women in the world.  

Shaking the hand of a man who is on the cutting edge of development was incredible, and it was an honor to tell him about the passionate people in Jackson who are helping this movement happen.

After talking with Nick for a few minutes I met Urmi Basu, an advocate for girls in Calcutta, India.  She is featured in Half the Sky for her organization, New Light, which provides education for girls in the red light district who would otherwise be sold into prostitution.  She is beautiful and strong.  In her traditional, colorful sari and shining her bright, brown eyes, she exuded passion and peace.  It was humbling to be in her presence.  We sat together and she shared her hopes for New Light: “I want to build a flower shop for the girls to work in, and I want to build a home for these children.”  She needs funds to make these dreams into reality.

Through her organization, Urmi is literally changing the status of girls and women in her community.  When she convinces a family to send their daughter to school instead of sending her to a brothel, she is not only changing the life of that individual girl, but she is offering hope a new reality to hundreds of families who are faced with the same choice.  School or the sex trade.  Once that girl is sent to school, she is more likely to master skill and obtain a good paying job.  She is more likely to be able to choose when she marries.  She is more likely to break the cycle of poverty.

Feel like helping this movement?  So did I.  The next days were filled with meetings with women, all of whom I admire greatly, who are working to engage this country in education and action for women.

My last meeting of this whirlwind trip was with Maz Kessler.  This New Yorker from the UK has started an online crowd funding organization through Women Deliver called Catapult.  She created this organization in response to the gross underfunding of women’s organizations world wide.  So here is how it is going to change the world: When someone goes to Catapult.org, they choose what issue they feel most passionately about relating to women and girls.  Is it gender based violence? Education for girls?  Innovation?  You decide.  The site then shows you a list of projects going on around the world that are directly impacting that issue.  And you can fund your chosen project wherever in the world it might be.  This innovative approach is making giving easy, fun, and effective.

The reality that hit me this weekend is that I too often glamorize the aid world.  When I read stories of women making great impact like Urmi, or Maggie Doyne, or Edna Adan, they become like celebrities without need.  I am endlessly inspired by them, but I did not realize until recently that with that inspiration comes an obligation to give.  It is not enough to hear the stories of innovative change makers and to appreciate the good they are doing in the world.  We must give because the reality is that most projects working to uplift women and girls in the world are egregiously underfunded.  This message became clear when looking into the eyes of Urmi as she earnestly shared her dreams for the girls in her community and as we both teared up at the incredible task she faces.  Like Maggie Doyne, founder of Kopila Valley children’s home and school, shared at the Social Good Summit this past week, “The end of poverty is going to happen in our lifetime is we invest in children,” if we invest in girls and women.

I cannot wait to share Half the Sky with Jackson tomorrow night.  We are about to start an incredible journey of empowerment.  Buckle up.