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Beyonce’s Homecoming: A Lesson In Black Excellence and Vulnerability

Sun, 04/28/2019 - 07:32

Beyoncé is as close to perfection as one can ever hope to become. She is the face of #iwokeuplikethis. But her new video, Homecoming, released on Netflix reveals a different side of this fierce, feminist icon. Between clips of her 2018 Coachella headline performance, the audience is given a glimpse beyond the effortlessly perfect front we are used to seeing. In this two-hour documentary, Beyoncé reveals another superpower: Vulnerability and authenticity.

We see a woman struggling to get back in shape after a difficult and dangerous pregnancy. A woman who is tired, sweaty, and frustrated as she learns her dance routine and directs a crew of 100+ individuals.

Her voice narrates the video of her first rehearsal post-birthing twins: “There were days I thought I’d never be the same. I’d never be the same physically, my strength and endurance would never be the same.”

She reveals the internal struggles she faced, as well: “A lot of the choreography is about feeling so it’s not as technical. It’s your own personality that brings it to life and that’s hard when you don’t feel like yourself… it took me a while to feel confident enough.” Her vulnerability is refreshing and restorative to women, especially Black women who so often feel the need to project a strong, stoic front to the world.

Black women live at the intersection of racism and sexism. These systems of oppressions work constantly to demean, depress and disenfranchise those it intends to harm. Yet magically, and miraculously, Black women continue to rise like the mythological phoenix, but that doesn’t negate the harm of the fire that burns them. The ashes do not simply disappear once they are in flight. Black women are human, and like all humans, they need space to mess up, grow, fail, succeed, fail again, and genuinely come into their own power.

But Black women are consistently given the least number of resources and receive the most judgement about their decisions.

Many religious institutions admonish them for their bodies and sexuality. White conservatives label them as moochers and welfare queens. Most media paints them into caricatures: Angry, aggressive adversaries and asexual maternal figures with no lives of their own; or overly-sexual beings that only exist for the beck and call of men.

With no nuance provided and minimal honest investigation of their true lives, we are left with few authentic representations of Black woman and the effort it takes to be excellent, which makes watching this documentary even sweeter. In a call-and-response portion of Beyoncé’s performance, she incorporates audio of one of Malcolm X’s speeches amidst her lyrics:

Malcolm X: “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.”

Beyoncé: “I am the dragon breathing fire.”

Malcolm X: “The most unprotected person in America is the black woman.”

Beyoncé: “Beautiful man, I’m the lion.”

Malcolm X: “The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”

By using her own language to counter Malcolm X’s sobering truths, she both acknowledges the oppressive forces they are up against while providing an empowering denouncement of those who deny their power, beauty, and humanity.  However, such responses also contribute to a societal expectation that Black women are able to do anything, but there is no gladness in being the mule of the world. This expectation is hurtful and deadly.  While there is pride in overcoming such immense strugglea and oppression, many fail to recognize the price being paid. “What people don’t see is the sacrifice,” Beyoncé notes.

The Black community has started to connect the dots where Black women are expected always appear strong, thus creating additional stressors that can lead to development of serious mental and physical health issues. Due to stress-related accelerated biological aging, Black women between the ages 49-55 are 7.5 biological years “older” than white women on average, with perceived stress and poverty accounting for 27 percent of this difference. Further, the pain women of color experience in medical situations is often perceived as lower than the pain of white women due to erroneous racial biases that women of color have higher pain tolerance. Having their pain taken less seriously has proven to be lethal in many cases.

Beyoncé, herself, experienced serious complications during her pregnancy, including high blood pressure, toxemia, pre-eclampsia, and an emergency C-section. “I was in survival mode and did not grasp it all until months later,” she notes. Still, she pushed herself to get back to work as soon as possible, driven to use her platform to help “lift up” her people and “put on stage a proud moment for us”.

As the first female African American woman to headline Coachella, she had a vision for a performance that evoked images from HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities): “I wanted a Black orchestra. I wanted the steppers. I needed the vocalists… the amount of swag is just limitless.” Her Homecoming video also includes audio from numerous famous African American scholars dispersed throughout. “I wanted every person who has ever been dismissed because of the way they look feeling like they were on that stage killing it,” she notes.

This centering of “The Other” is a highly strategic move that not only gives the mostly white Coachella audience a Black history lesson they would never forget, but also provides a grand display of authenticity in an industry sometimes filled with thoughtless stage productions. It was a move that only Beyoncé could have pulled off. Her earth-shattering theme came right from her very own Black southern background.

Beyoncé worked hard to provide this experience. Possibly too hard. She admits during her film, “I pushed myself further than I knew I could and I will never push myself that far again.” The power of this comment was not lost on us. Beyoncé is acknowledging how even she, a woman with an extensive staff helping her to maintain a front of effortless perfection and providing many of the resources needed to reach her goals, is prone to breakdowns. It is eye-opening when a person you idolize as ‘having-it-all’ suddenly reveals that she does not. It illustrates the hollowness of this flawless front we are desperately trying to build for ourselves. We see reality more clearly.

In this moment of the film, Beyoncé is recognizing that we need more than superwomen to help move us forward into bigger and better opportunities. We need authentic, sincere women who are willing to be honest about the struggles they faced to get where they are so the other women following them realize they are allowed to struggle, too, and that struggling doesn’t make us any less worthy.

Homecoming ends with audio of Dr. Maya Angelou. The brilliant writer is asked what advice she would give the next generation and the first thing she says is: “Tell the truth. To yourself first, and to the children.”

We as an audience are left to consider that, when you practice radical self-honesty, the pain of the truth gives way to the wonderment of growth. And when that level of vulnerability is displayed, honored, and respected in front of our children, we can raise generations of young people who understand that growth and improvement is always better than inflexible ideals of perfection.

Only when we show up as who we are, flaws and all, no matter how accomplished we become, do we give permission to others to recognize the greatness in themselves.

About the Authors:

Afftene Taylor is a full time web developer and aspiring actress and writer. She currently lends her creative talents to the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company’s daily audio podcast drama, Mercury: A Broadcast of Hope. You can follow her on Instagram at @madebyafftene.

Caralena Peterson is a high school teacher, writer and visual artist. She is at work on the forthcoming book The Effortless Perfection Myth. You can follow her on Instagram at @caralenapeterson or @badasscreative_

Women’s Rights Advocates Condemn DOJ Decision to Not Defend Female Genital Mutilation Law

Thu, 04/25/2019 - 14:40

On Thursday, April 25th, Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney (NY-12) (pictured center) joined elected officials and Equal Rights Amendment advocates to condemn a recent US Department of Justice decision to not  defend a federal law banning FGM/C, to call for Speaker Pelosi to step in to defend the law, and call for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Congresswoman Maloney is the sponsor of H.J. Res. 35, a bill to restart the ratification process of the ERA.

While the Trump Administration has decided not to defend the 1996 law banning FGM/C, the House or the Senate could do so. Accordingly, Congresswoman Maloney wrote a letter today (partial text below) to Speaker Nancy Pelosi to urge her to defend the law in the U.S. Court of Appeals.

In light of a federal district court in Michigan’s November, 2018 ruling that Congress does not have the constitutional authority to criminalize FGM/C, the advocates today highlighted the need to ratify the ERA. Without this constitutional bedrock protecting women’s rights, courts can roll back the laws Congress passes.

“Female genital mutilation and cutting is a grotesque and extremely painful procedure that removes a portion of a woman’s sexual organs in order to exert control over her bodily integrity and sexual autonomy. The Trump Administration’s decision not to protect women and girls from this horrific practice illustrates not only its unwillingness to fight for women’s rights, but also exposes large loopholes in our Constitution that allow for women’s rights to be chipped away far too easily. Activists have been fighting the same battles for decades, and without the Equal Rights Amendment any progress we achieve can be rolled back. It’s time for the ERA to finally be ratified so that the rights of women can be protected, no matter who is in the White House, who sits on the bench, or who is in the majority in Congress or state capitols,” said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (NY-12).

“As a survivor of female genital mutilation, I am deeply disappointed by the decision of the Department of Justice,” added Aissata M.B. Camara, Co-Founder, There Is No Limit Foundation. “This outcome undermines decades of progress made by activists like me to end this harmful practice. It sends a negative message about the value of our bodies and experiences. The time to act is now—protecting women and girls rights must be a priority.  I applaud everyone breaking their silence because FGM affects all of us and it’s a violation of human rights. Ending this practice requires collective action rooted in community education and strong policies. I know we can achieve a world without FGM so women and girls can live to their full potential”

According to Kate Kelly, Program Officer of Women’s and Girl’s Rights at Equality Now, “Simply put, FGM is a human rights violation. It’s a form of gender-based violence and child abuse. The procedure can be fatal, and is always harmful. The decision by the DOJ to not appeal the decision in the Nagarwala case tacitly says that the federal government can’t pass laws to stop human rights violations. This is not true. Congress does have the authority to enact an FGM law. In fact, it is under international obligation to do so. Currently, 19 states do not have laws against FGM. In this very case girls were taken across state lines to be cut. This alarming lack of federal enforcement and gap in state laws is putting American women and girls at risk today.”

Background

  • In 1996, Congress criminalized the practice of female genital mutilation (18 USC §116), which is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of women and girls.
  • The World Health Organization states that the procedure has no health benefits for girls and women and can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.
  • In the first federal case (U.S. v. Nagarwala) brought under the FGM/C law, a Michigan federal district court judge overturned the law on the grounds that Congress lacked the authority to legislate in this area.  The judge rejected the idea that either the Commerce Clause or international treaties were sufficient to provide Congress jurisdiction. Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would not defend the law.
  • 5 of the 9 victims in the case had been transported across state lines to undergo FGM/C.
  • More than 500,000 women and girls in the United States have undergone or are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • More than 100,000 women and girls who live in the 19 states that lack laws banning FGM/C are at risk without the federal FGM law.
  • Just 15 states ban transporting a person across state lines for the purpose of undergoing FGM/C
  • Chairman Jerry Nadler announced this week that the House Judiciary Committee will hold the first Congressional hearing on the Equal Rights Amendment in more than three decades on April 30, moving us closer to ratification.

Can Women Save The World?

Wed, 04/24/2019 - 11:45

Can women save the world? By looking at the life Edna Adan Ismail, Somaliland’s former Foreign Minister and former First Lady, the answer would be a resounding, “YES.” Labeled the ‘Muslim Mother Teresa,’ Edna has taken everything she learned through these prominent positions to save the lives of untold numbers of women and children.

Edna Adan Ismail

As the current director and founder of the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital in Hargeisa, her mission is to help improve the health of the local inhabitants and, even more urgently, to decrease Somaliland’s extreme levels of maternal and infant mortality, which are among the highest in the world. This non-profit making charity and midwifery teaching hospital, which Edna built from scratch, is also training student nurses and other health professionals. “I am just doing what needs to be done,” Edna says, reflecting on her decision in 1998 to sell her home and car, as well as donate her U.N. pension, to fund the hospital.

Edna Adan Maternity Hospital

Officially opened on March 9, 2002, the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital was built on land donated to her by the regional government at a site formerly used as a garbage dump. The region lacked trained midwives/nurses to staff the hospital – as most had either fled the country or been killed during the Somali Civil War, which destroyed Somaliland’s entire health infrastructure. Edna recruited more than 30 candidates and began training them while the hospital was still under construction. Now completed, it houses two operating rooms, a laboratory, a library, a computer center and a university dedicated to training nurses and midwives as well as other health professionals. As of 2018, the university hospital has grown to 200 staff members and 1500 students. “Due to our training, our country now has the largest number of midwives per capita, and we have been able to reduce infant mortality significantly,” Edna says proudly. The hospital’s historical survival rate is 75% higher than the national average.

This facility is also the address where Edna calls home, having moved into the only room that had a door and a shower/toilet during construction. “I was born into this,” she says, recalling that, as a child, “the problems of the world came to my father’s door.” Edna witnessed her father, a prominent physician, display compassion, generosity and devotion to his patients throughout her childhood. “His patients came before his own needs,” she recalls. “I brought this level of dedication to my diplomatic career, and now to this hospital.”

The first woman Minister of Social Affairs (August 2002 – June 2003), Edna then became Foreign Minister, and found she was able to more powerfully present the case for supporting Somaliland not only as a diplomat, but as a woman. “Being a woman, I am allowed to be forceful and angry and show sorrow for my people. I am allowed to express pain and sorrow and anger. I can be motherly and I can be tenacious. I can also shed a tear or two,” Edna adds. “I can also share emotions I feel by witnessing the pain and Injustice my country has suffered.” Further, as the Foreign Minister of Somaliland, Edna purposely hosts delegations at the hospital. “I do this so that I can prove to everyone that if this site is good enough for my patients, it is also good enough for me to live in, and it is also good enough for those who wish to associate with me.” As the only woman in the delegation, she has also had to remind other dignitaries that she is the head of the delegation. “If I bang on a table or shed a tear, don’t try to appease me, I tell them. When I express anger, don’t tell me to cool down,’ she continues. “Don’t try to impose a different emotion to what I am expressing at that moment. I will know when I want to cool down, and I will tell you what I need. If I wish to show my emotions, it is because I have chosen to do so.”

Yet one of the most memorable stories she tells is of an experience that occurs time and time again, and often just before a woman is about to die. “Since a woman in our society does not have the authority to sign for her own surgery when requiring a Caesarean section, she must have a male (father, husband, brother or son) do it for her. Sometimes, when we tell the husband that we must have his consent immediately (because of a time-sensitive emergency) or his wife will die, he will refuse, or will want to wait to decide. But we cannot afford to wait. So I summon a policeman, and on the back of the form I write, ‘I want my wife to die, ‘ when she is in danger of dying without the  surgical intervention that she needs. I then ask him if he wants to sign that instead. The husband approves the surgery for a C-section every single time. If not,” Edna adds, “I would have taken the risk and signed it myself, which could cause me to go to prison if his wife did not survive the surgery. Fortunately, no one has ever called my bluff.”

Yet it doesn’t stop there. “My battle against female genital mutilation (FGM) has been the biggest battle of my life,” Edna says. A victim of FGM herself, she was the first woman to speak out against it. “These young girls have survived measles, whooping cough, chronic diarrhea and other life-threatening diseases, and when they reach the age of seven or eight, when they are learning to jump and learn and talk…they are subjected to FGM.” “It is not only cutting. It is total mutilation!” she adds. Edna believes that fathers have to be educated about the dangers of FGM as well, so she is working on publishing an animated book about it since so many in her country cannot read.

Based upon so many of Edna’s accomplishments, one would think there wouldn’t be anything she could fail at. But there is. “I want to get my country internationally recognized. That is my unfinished book,” she says. “The world is losing the presence of a democratic country in Somaliland.  We have managed to demobilize our militia with our own resources, we have a functioning, democratically elected government and we generate all taxes from our own country. While the international community is spending billions of dollars to try to bring peace in Somalia, they are ignoring the peace we have already achieved in Somaliland. We gain from peace and stability,” she adds, “They gain from lawlessness.” 

About the author: Lori Sokol, PhD, is Executive Director and Editor-in-Chief of Women’s eNews. Her book, #SheIsMe: How Women Can Save The World, will be published in the Spring, 2020.

                     

#MeToo in the Garment Industry

Sun, 04/21/2019 - 13:06

Chances are that the clothes you are wearing as you read this were made by a woman. Chances are that she lives in Asia and migrated from a rural area to a big city to work in a garment factory, a job she considers better than anything she could find in her hometown. Chances are also that at this “good” job she is not making a living wage, is experiencing some form of harassment or violence, and fears being fired. 

Approximately 75 percent of the world’s garment workers are women, making the fashion industry a powerful employer with a powerful economic force. Valued at 2.4 trillion, the fashion industry would be the globe’s seventh largest economy if ranked alongside countries’ GDPs. Despite the industry’s profitability, its workers are among the least protected or compensated. A garment worker in Delhi compared their low and inconsistent pay rates “like we are vegetables; our prices vary.”  Pervasive gender discrimination on top of garment workers’ temporary work status leaves women workers vulnerable economically and physically.

Female garment workers sort through fabric in a factory located outside of of Dhaka, Bangladesh on October 2, 2018. According to Human Rights Watch, sexual harassment in garment factories in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Burma, and Pakistan were rife with abuse, legal protections did not exist or were weakly enforced, and efforts to audit factories or monitor for harassment were ineffective.

Six years ago the world awoke to one of the acute dangers in the fashion industry when Rana Plaza – an eight-story building housing clothing factories – collapsed in Bangladesh, killing over 1,000 people and injuring 2,500 others. It was the deadliest garment factory accident in history.

Since the factory housed a number of US and European brands, the magnitude of the tragedy led to a groundswell of activism. Following global protests and outcry, global brands signed two agreements mandating more robust fire and structural safety standards in factories.

Gender-based violence at work

Still, structural building hazards are far from the most pervasive dangers women face in the garment industry. One of the most insidious threats to women garment workers is gender-based violence. This takes many forms, from outright sexual violence and harassment to physical abuse, inappropriate touching, and verbal abuse. Despite the #MeToo movement, however, we yet to hear their stories, but women’s-rights organizations and activists are working to change that.

Organizations of women garment workers are looking to spark change

At Global Fund for Women, we support some of the organizations working with women garment workers through an initiative funded by C&A Foundation and NoVo Foundation, to eradicate gender-based violence and empower women garment workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India and Vietnam. These women-led organizations are creating safe spaces for the women workers to come together to share their experiences, document abuse, and strengthen their leadership to advocate for their rights. Through increasing mobilization and organizing, women are being encouraged to join and lead trade unions; police and labor officials are being sensitized on the issue; and through negotiations with factory managers, mechanisms for safe reporting and response and being created inside the factories.

These organizations, and others are helping to build an understanding and awareness of what sexual abuse and harassment is for both the women workers and factory management. They are gathering documentation of the cases and data on how widespread gender-based workplace violence is for evidence-based advocacy.

Social norms and the pervasiveness of gender-based violence can prohibit it from being recognized as such. Further, the shame and stigma associated with harassment, particularly sexual harassment, and fear of reprisals at work prevent women from making formal complaints despite its high prevalence.Still, we know that in India 60 percent of female factory workers reported experiencing some type of harassment. In Bangladesh, 75 percent of women garment workers experienced verbal abuse, and 20 percent experienced physical abuse, according to Fair Wear Foundation.  

Maheen Sultan of Naripokkho, a women-led organization that began working with female garment workers after the Rana Plaza disaster, explained, “This is such an important area to establish women’s rights, with more women coming into the formal sector and with all the different kinds of rights violations taking place.”  She also emphasized that living free from violence is a predicate for establishing other rights. “Gender-based violence is not isolated to factories, or localized to workplaces; it’s woven throughout the lives of women. They experience it when they travel to work on public transit, in schools, and often at home,” Maheen says.

Change in progress

Change is slow, but there are encouraging signs. From grassroots to policy, the number of women leaders and members of the trade unions are growing; India law has mandated Internal Complaint Committees at the workplace; Cambodia is negotiating an industry-wide collective bargaining agreement; factories in Bangladesh are partnering with women’s rights organizations to allow worker trainings on sexual harassment; and a new and pending International Labor Organization (ILO) convention on ending violence and harassment in the world of work – the first international standard of its kind – is expected to be voted on in June. An international universal definition on harassment and violence in the world of work planned at the ILO convention in June) would set the stage for its ratification and the development of national policies and laws.

Change is possible and will require political will, as shown in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse. It will also demand a human rights commitment from consumers, factories, brands, and governments. Above all, it will require the courage and voices of women garment workers and activists.

Sonia Wazed, of the Society for Labour and Development in India, explained, “Developing women leaders to claim their rights and that of their fellow members is a long drawn journey where women need to start questioning their perceptions of patriarchy, how it impacts them as workers, and why they need to challenge the existing norms that repress and violate their rights.”

About the author: Sangeeta Chowdhry is the Senior Program Director for Economic Justice at Global Fund for Women. She has worked on women’s empowerment and rights over the past decade with a focus on economic and environmental justice issues.

The Right Way to be an LGBTQ+ Ally

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 13:32

A few days before summer vacation, I got her text.

“I have to tell you something but I don’t want you to hate me,” it read. My seventh-grade heart started racing. Had I accidentally said something mean about her? Was she about to tell me we couldn’t be friends anymore? What had I done wrong?

We made plans to talk the next day in person. Sitting in the middle of the crowded gymnasium of Pyle Middle School, she leaned in and whispered, “I’m bisexual. I like guys and girls.”

At a loss for words, I just leaned in to give her a hug. I didn’t know whether to congratulate her or thank her. I just knew that she had taken a huge leap of faith, and I wanted to be there for her in any way I could. We had only known each other for one year, but she had become one of my closest friends. Her secret was safe with me, but I felt the need to protect her at all costs. I didn’t yet know against what, but I was about to find out.

As we walked through the school’s halls immediately after, I became hyper-aware of the comments my peers were making around us. “That outfit is so gay,” I heard a boy remark to his friend. “Oh my god stop being such a f*g,” another boy yelled. I felt as though these remarks were aimed directly at my friend, though I knew that none of them knew she was bisexual.

The following fall she approached me with a proposal. “How would you feel about starting a Gay-Straight Alliance here at Pyle?” she asked. I knew that an eighth-grader had attempted to start one a year earlier, but it never took off. “I’m in,” I immediately responded. “What do we have to do?”

We met with our guidance counselor the following week to discuss our idea. She was completely on board but seemed apprehensive about getting parental and administrative support. She organized a meeting for us with the head of the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at our local high school, a strong-willed senior who was ready to help us. We discussed the goals of the club; to create a safe space for queer, questioning, and student allies in our community, as well as providing education about sexuality, which was a taboo topic in our middle school classrooms. We talked about the importance of confidentiality and anonymity in a space like this one. The guidance counselor reminded us that starting this club will be an uphill battle, and we might face pushback, but we knew it would be worth it.

Every day we became more and more aware of the necessity of this club. As word spread about what we were trying to do, a number of students told us they were in support of a GSA and would participate if we succeeded in creating it. A few students even approached us in confidence and came out, while sharing that their orientations did not feel celebrated or valued at Pyle, and that they needed a place to talk about it. A handful of students made snide remarks about the existence of a GSA–why was it necessary, and why did we care–but these comments only further emphasized the need to create this club.  

A few weeks later, we were finally able to meet with the principal. He informed us that he was personally in support of a GSA, but that he was worried about pushback from parents and conservative teachers. He also told us that the meetings would have to be secretive, and information about the existence and logistics of the meetings would have to spread solely by word of mouth. We weren’t allowed to hang flyers or mention meetings in the school’s daily announcements.

This took us by surprise. We knew we’d face pushback, but not to this extent. Yes, gay marriage had only become legal six months earlier at the federal level, but it had been legal in Maryland for over two years! And legality aside, Pyle was a place that prided itself on diversity. Every morning, during the school’s public announcements, a student read our school values, the last two which were: “sustaining a nurturing and respectful environment” and “honoring diversity.” It seemed ironic that these announcements would boast respect and diversity yet could not discuss a club dedicated to preserving these values.

“We can’t have parents getting wind of this,” he told us. He had a point. As middle schoolers we didn’t have much mobility, and widespread parental knowledge about the GSA could potentially put students in harm’s way if they lived in a homophobic household. Yet, at the same time, his demands felt too restrictive. They felt like homophobia veiled as support. His assumption that students would choose to conceal their involvement with a gay-straight alliance demonstrated our school’s lacking support systems for LGBTQ+ students as well as stigma around LGBTQ+ rights and personhood.

We pushed ahead with the GSA, compliant with the principal’s restrictive regulations since we felt that a restricted GSA was better than no GSA. For the first meeting, 25 students showed up. A number of them came out at that meeting, or have since come out as LGBTQ+. Many straight allies showed up as well. The enthusiasm from both groups validated our original goal: We had created a space where students could openly discuss and celebrate diverse sexual orientations.

We continued to hold GSA meetings every Thursday until the end of the school year. We mixed lesson plans with open discussions, careful to honor confidentiality and allow students enough anonymity to remain comfortable. By the end of the year, a group of sixth and seventh graders were attending the meetings as well, to whom we later entrusted the club’s future. The Pyle Middle School GSA exists to this day, and remains a safe space for LGBTQ+ students and allies.

A number of adults have since approached me to remark how brave it was to start this club. Still, I don’t believe I was the brave one in this experience, since I didn’t have anything to lose. The bravery belongs to my LGBTQ+ peers who attended the meetings and opened up about their lived experiences, helping to foster a more supportive network for questioning and closeted students. Bravery also belongs to my good friend and co-founder of the GSA for serving as a role model to our peers and future students. I simply saw a problem that needed to be addressed, and used my ‘straight privilege’ to help elevate the voices of those who didn’t have any. That’s not bravery; it’s responsibility.

About the Author: Emily Axelrod is a member of The Jewish Women’s Archive’s  Rising Voices Fellowship,a 10-month program for female-identified teens in high-school who have a passion for writing, a demonstrated concern for current and historic events, and a strong interest in Judaism, gender and social justice.

From Victim to Victor: Surviving Sexual Assault in Uganda

Sun, 04/14/2019 - 12:53

I am a survivor of a sexual assault that happened in my village in Rwanda when I was just an 11-year-old child.

I thought I had put all that pain behind me until 2015, when I traveled to Uganda to visit my husband’s home—the site of his organization, Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project. There, I learned that a 35-year-old man had raped a nine-year-old girl that weekend. The adults around her knew what had happened, but they did nothing. Instead, they sent her to school the following day, as if nothing had even happened. I soon learned, too, that a five-year-old girl in the same village was raped by her grandfather, leaving her HIV positive. Then I heard about a 14-year-old in a neighboring village who had been repeatedly raped by her father, starting when she was just four years old. The child had attempted suicide twice, and made futile attempts to seek help and safety, but she couldn’t get away.

This is the sad truth about my part of the world: Young girls are frequently sexually assaulted in sub-Saharan Africa, and justice is rarely served. I knew I needed to do something to help.

This turned out to be more difficult than I had thought. While working with young survivors, I learned how hard it is to gain justice in Uganda. Survivors are responsible for completing their own police reports, which often includes walking an average of seven miles to report the crime, and paying $12.00 in legal fees—half a month’s salary for most families—before the perpetrator can even be arrested. The rape victim then has to walk another long distance to a hospital where she has to gather her own evidence to take back to the police. It’s a maddeningly cruel system that seldom leads to justice for survivors. Even worse, a survivor’s case can easily be thrown out, and often is. Survivors must come to court, which often means walking and giving up a full day of work for family members, and court dates are often changed at the last minute. Once in court, the survivor is responsible for presenting the correct paperwork and bringing enough copies for the court. If anything is missing, the case is thrown out.

The process is frustrating, grueling, and embarrassing for survivors. One young survivor had become suicidal after facing threats from her perpetrator’s family and taunts from local boys. Without support of any kind, she came to believe all the evil lies claimed about her. I therefore created the EDJA Foundation, to help survivors heal by helping them at every step, beginning immediately after an assault and staying by their side long after the criminal trial. Working with the community, we added a Rape Crisis Center within the hospital to support survivors immediately after being attacked. Since then, every survivor is given a rape exam, medical attention, and life-saving medicine that can prevent HIV contraction.

As we know, however, a sexual attack causes more than just physical pain. To address the level of psychological healing every survivor needs, we also established a Sexual Assault Program to provide free counseling. We began with individual counseling, and have since added support groups to accommodate the increasing number of survivors coming to us for help.

Additionally, our Legal Advocate assists the police by first locating many perpetrators, and then providing the police with a ride to arrest them. He also provides transportation for survivors to court, files the police reports, and handles other issues with the court. He is a guide for families through this painful process, while offering them legal counsel so they know their rights.

Finally, I knew we needed to do more than just react to sexual assault; we had to change the culture — fighting for a world without violence. Now EDJA educates the entire community through a monthly radio show and group sessions about girls’ rights, sexual assault, and how to get help for survivors. We also teach the community’s boys about standards of behavior that respect the rights of girls, which we hope will begin to put an end to the enduring rape culture.

Best of all, we witness positive changes every day. Over 50 rape survivors—some as young as four years old—are receiving life-saving support from EDJA. And, appropriately enough during April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month, that grandfather who raped his own granddaughter and infected her with AIDS received 32 years in prison. Today, over 30 perpetrators have received prison sentences.

Change like this is important for many reasons, including keeping the community safe. But most importantly, it’s a message to girls and women that they matter, they are valued, and they can fight for their dignity and for justice.

As a survivor myself, I can tell you that there is no greater gift to rape survivors than being believed and validated. That’s the message that EDJA intends to deliver to survivors worldwide, beginning with those in East Africa where women have accepted their fate of abuse for too long. Today, EDJA is saying in a loud and clear voice: Those days are over. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!

About the author: Tabitha Mpamira-Kaguri is the Founder/Executive Director of the EDJA Foundation.To learn more about the EDJA Foundation to end sexual violence in Uganda, please visit their website, www.edjafoundation.org. To view the trailer of their film, Victors, click here.

What ‘Career Barbie’ Really Needs

Thu, 04/11/2019 - 10:04


Barbie first hit the toy market 60 years ago in March, 1959. Her creator, Ruth Handler, believed that by playing with this new toy, “little girls…could be anything they wanted to be.” This message continues to be a clear winner.

In 2018, the Barbie brand “generated gross sales that amounted to about 1.09 billion U.S. dollars, up from about 955 million U.S. dollars the year before.” Mattel hit the jackpot with Barbie, both here and across the globe . The website Statista reported, “The commercial success of Barbie has allowed Mattel to become the ninth most valuable toy brand worldwide as of 2018.”

It is not surprising that to commemorate her diamond anniversary, Mattel introduced a glamorous Barbie who, according to the company’s product website, “wears a cascading ball gown twinkling with silvery sparkles. Paying homage to the original Barbie® doll and her iconic fashion heritage, Barbie® 60th Anniversary doll wears a dramatic ponytail with an elegant twist, side-eye glance, hoop earrings and wrist tag.”

The original Barbie was unrealistically thin, blonde and built with impossible to obtain proportions. Critics noted that she was stereotypically, the “dumb blond.”

That conclusion was reinforced when, in 1992, Mattel introduced Teen Talk Barbie. A doll with a voice box programed with such phrases as “Math class is tough.”, “Will we ever have enough clothes?”, “Let’s plan our dream wedding!”, ”Wanna have a pizza party?”, “Want to go shopping?”, “Okay, meet me at the mall”, and “Let’s have a campfire”.

With very few exceptions these phrases added to the picture of Barbie as a air-headed girl who could only think about enjoying today. She personified the stereotype of the day; a female who had no dreams of a future career, only thoughts about fun and marriage.

Since then, perhaps in response to changing demographics, Mattel has done a 180, and has embraced Ruth Handler’s message of choice, who once said, “Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.” Mattel’s recent focus has been on Barbie’s choice of career. One report on the popular website TwentyTwoWords claims that Barbie has had “over 200 careers… she’s been everything from robotics engineer to journalist; a few more of her careers include a U.S. Air Force Thunderbird Squadron Leader, a paleontologist, a fashion editor, a sign language teacher, and a presidential candidate!”

Barbie was around when the percentage of women entering the labor force shot up dramatically., and Mattel’s decision reflected this change. “In 1970, about 43 percent of women ages 16 and older were in the labor force. By 2000, 61 percent of adult women were in the labor force ,” reports the Population Reference Bureau.

In another move to recognize women’s outstanding contributions, Mattel honored a number of female heroes (Sheros) with their own Barbie dolls, including filmmaker Ava DuVernay , tennis champ Naomi Osaka, fashion executive Eva Chen and Olympic fencer  Ibtihaj Muhammad.  The list of continues to grow by recently introducing big wave surfer Maya Gabeira; Kristina Vogel, a disabled Olympic Gold Medal cyclist from Germany who has gone into politics; Tessa Virtue, a Canadian Olympic gold medalist in ice dancing; Yara Shahidi , co-star of the popular sitcom Blackish; Vogue cover model Adwoa Aboah; Dipa Karmaka, an Indian visual artist; Chinese photographer Chen Man and Ita Buttrose, an Australian journalist and editor. And, in 2016, “Mattel went a step further and released a range of dolls with different body types, more hairstyles and seven skin tones, to better represent the world we live in.”

Mattel has also incorporated other changes to reflect the diverse world of today. As of 2016, Barbie is no longer universally slim, blonde, and pale skin. She is now brown, black, and Asian. She also mirrors society by featuring some dolls in wheelchairs and even wearing a prosthetic leg.

So Mattel is clearly getting some things right, but there is one glaring omission. Barbie may have Ken, but she certainly doesn’t have children. In that way, she is just as one-dimensional as the original Barbie. Apparently, she can choose to have a career, but she cannot choose to have a career and children. Yet the choice of being a working mother is the overwhelming choice of her target audience. In an important way, Mattel is sending the age-old message: Women cannot have it all.

But young women are ignoring that advice. A 2014 large-scale Gallup poll concludes, “There doesn’t appear to be any evidence that millennials — both married and single/never married — are putting off having children. Even among the small percentage (2%) of married 18-year-old millennials, less than half (44%) have no children, and the percentage decreases with age to just 17% at age 34. And while few single 18-year-old millennials have children (4%), that percentage rises to almost half by age 34. Essentially, almost half of the oldest millennials who have never married nonetheless have children. In 2000, the comparable number for Gen Xers aged 30 to 34 was just 30%.”

Regardless of whether they delay marriage or decide not to marry, millennials are definitely choosing to become parents. In fact, working mothers are now the norm, according to a 2017 report from the Department of Labor. Indeed, “Seventy percent of mothers with children under 18 participate in the labor force, with over 75 percent employed full-tim Mothers are the primary or sole earners for 40 percent of households with children under 18 today, compared with 11 percent in 1960.”

Women are clearly are opting to have it all, while Barbie is still stuck in the days when that option was not available. She may look different, she may not be tied to the house, but she is clearly out of touch with the life most of her target audience envisions for itself.

Maybe Mattel needs to add working mom Barbie to its cast of characters. She could be wearing a suit for the office, scrubs for the operating room, a police uniform or work clothes for the building site.

She would also come with a detachable snugli with a baby in it.

Dr. Rosalind C. Barnett is a senior scientist who has directed studies for the National Science Foundation, NIMH and the Sloan Foundation and Caryl Rivers is a professor of Journalism at Boston University They are the authors of The New Soft War on Women (Tarcher/Penguin) 

Brothels of Bangkok

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 14:04

(An excerpt from Beautiful Justice: Reclaiming My Worth After Human Trafficking and Sexual Abuse)

I was invited to speak at a conference in Bangkok sponsored by the United Nations to address members of Parliament from more than forty Southeast Asian countries. While I was there, I knew I wanted to visit the local red-light district and connect with young women recovering from sexual exploitation.

I was honored to speak to world leaders, passionate women and men, devoted to ending human trafficking and gender violence. I shared how to empower survivors to become leaders, as well as strategies for integrating survivor expertise into policy making.

Legislators from India, Tibet, Japan, and many other countries from the surrounding regions resonated with my message: those who are most impacted by a human rights issue should shape the policies that will directly affect their communities.

As we discussed this essential approach to political change, I knew that a few miles from the luxury hotel where I stayed, teen girls were openly being sold out of brothels. Many of them, born into generational poverty, migrated from rural areas and experienced violence and exploitation after seeking better jobs in the city.

When I walked down one of the main streets of the red-light district with my friend Constance, I witnessed bar after bar filled with white Western men, holding their drinks and checking out the merchandise. Every time I saw a new neon sign advertising girls or heard another wave of men laughing with their crew, I was filled with disgust.

Each one reminded me of my trafficker and the men he sold me to, callous men ruled by their cravings, disconnected from the truth of the suffering they left in their wake. They refused to see what their desires, divorced from the reality of other human lives, ultimately cost.

Although technically it is not legal for the bars in Bangkok to directly sell the girls, they facilitate the transaction and benefit financially. In most of the visible commercial establishments, a buyer picks a girl and then pays the bar an “exit fee” to take her somewhere to perform sexual acts.

To the uneducated eye, it might appear to be consensual. But the histories of abuse, coercion, and poverty tell a different story. There is an illusion of a constant party with copious drinks, loud music, and young smiling girls. Some have numbers pinned to their clingy dresses so they can be quickly identified by a buyer. This ploy conceals the reality of rape, complex trauma, and economic vulnerability. It also hides the fact that many of them are underage.

A few blocks from the bars, a safe house for survivors of sex trafficking shelters girls in their teens and early twenties. Over a beautiful homemade dinner of Thai stews and rice dishes, I spoke to the girls about their experience in recovery.

“What do you love most about being here?” I asked the girls at the dinner table. One of the staff members translated for me. When it was her turn to speak, the shy, slender girl sitting next to me smiled and said, “What I like most about being here is learning about the love of God.”She beamed as she shared this, her face illuminated from within.

“That is beautiful.Thank you for sharing that with me,” I replied, in awe of her response. After walking past all the buyers, all the sellers, all the girls still trapped in poverty and exploitation, her answer pierced through my disgust and gave me hope. God was in the red-light district. I saw her in the faces of these radiant girls.

“My favorite part of being here,” another young woman said, “is our Christmas parties. Every year during Christmas, we host a party and invite all the girls from the bars to come, so we can give them presents and show them love.”

One of the staff members explained, “We pay the bar owners a fee for any of the girls who want to come. It’s the only time of year when they can receive. People are always taking from them.”

The girls were excited to show me the rest of the house. When we went upstairs, the gentle one, who talked about the love of God, walked with me.

“What are you passionate about?” I asked.

“I make art,” she said excitedly. “Want to see?”

“Absolutely!” I said.

She led me over to her collection of drawings and held one up for me to see, smiling with pride. “That is gorgeous. You are a talented artist.”

“Thank you,” she said with quiet confidence. She spoke like a person who had started to grasp her own worth.

I left my dinner with the survivors of Bangkok filled with hope. After all they endured, they are living with the joy of loving and being loved. They are learning the truth of their spiritual identity and purpose.

Love found them in one of the most loveless places on earth. In the past, they were told they were nothing more than sexual commodities to be consumed by men with greater power and privilege. Now, they were preparing for college and spoke with excitement about their dreams for the future.

As I watched the sunrise over Bangkok the next day, I could see that the light within these young survivors was far fiercer than the violence that was forced on their bodies.

Brooke Axtell is the Founder of She is Rising, a healing community for survivors of gender violence and sex trafficking. Her work as a writer, performing artist and human rights activist led her to speak at the 2015 Grammys, The United Nations and The U.S. Institute for Peace. She is the author of Beautiful Justice: Reclaiming My Worth After Sex Trafficking and Sexual Abuse.

I’ve Witnessed Women and Girls Being Raped in Uganda

Mon, 04/01/2019 - 12:44

Rape, Rape, Rape – Rape has become a problem in Uganda. Almost 40% of women and girls have been raped in my village. Rape is a rampant issue. We find that the perpetrators are often the husbands or the boyfriends of the victims.

In my village, there is a known story of a man named Ngobi and his wife. One night, Ngobi wanted to have sex with his wife but she refused because she was not feeling well. Ngobi just forced her into sex (raped her). His wife tried to scream but no one helped her because no one could hear her. She cried and cried as her husband raped her. In the end, the wife died and the man ran away to another district. That is one of the ways women are being mistreated and abused by their husbands in Uganda.

I have also witnessed this happening with my own eyes to girls in my village. One day, there was a girl named Hope, who was going to Ruamutumba town. On her way, she came across an old man named Mukisa. Mukisa started calling her but Hope refused to reply. The old man started to chase Hope and raped her. The man was HIV positive, which means that Hope is now also HIV positive.

Because of this, I want to study hard in order to help those who have been mistreated. If my parents are able to continue supporting me in my studies, I will fight hard so that women can also be respected in Uganda.

So, I ask the government to continue to fight for women’s rights and for its leaders to believe women and to raise our issues in Parliament. The government should aim to teach equality and to tell men and boys not to rape women like that. I also request my fellow young girls to start moving in groups in order to save their lives.

Nakagolo Elizapraise (16 years old) is a participant in the Teen Voices @ Women’s eNews program at Standard Secondary School, Busembatia–Uganda.

NASA Cancels All-Women Spacewalk

Mon, 03/25/2019 - 14:09

(Updated 3/26/2019) On Friday, March 29, the world was going to experience a watershed moment with NASA’s first all-female spacewalk in history. Unfortunately, it was cancelled a few hours ago due to the lack of properly-sized spacesuits. This small step for women would have been a gigantic step for womankind. When flight engineers Anne McClain and Christina Koch were planning to step outside the International Space Station and into history, it would have been thanks to several decades of women and people of color who introduced diversity into space travel.

Diversity in Space

A report from SatelliteInternet.com on diversity in space travel found that gender diversity continues to rise but still has a long way to go. In the 1970s, approximately 8% of astronauts worldwide were women and only 8% of those who were active in space travel were people of color. By the time Sally Ride became the first American woman to travel to space in 1983, those numbers had risen steadily. Racial diversity rose dramatically during the ’90s to over 18%, but it wasn’t until 2010 that significant strides in racial and gender diversity were made, bringing the number of astronauts worldwide to nearly 24% people of color and 31.5% women.

While these rising numbers are encouraging, space travel still has a long way to go before the industry can put real equality in orbit. Since the ’50s, roughly 88% of astronauts have been white and an overwhelming majority have been men. While the USA has some catching up to do in terms of diversity, space programs in Japan and Canada lead the way with the most gender diverse teams of astronauts.

Why Diversity Matters

Beyond the symbolic importance of having those in space reflect the diversity of humanity, research has shown that diversity can drive innovation, becoming a compelling source for ‘outside the box’ thinking that’s essential in science and technology.

Kelly Johnson, professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia, argues that increasing the number of women in the science workforce should be mission critical. She writes, “Progress in science is fundamentally dependent on having a mix of backgrounds and experience in order to think about problems in new ways and come up with innovative solutions. Progress also depends on having people with both technical expertise and the ‘soft skills’ to build successful collaborations and maximize efficiency.” Certainly astronauts, who are often required to multitask and take on several different kinds of roles in space, could benefit from the insight diversity brings.

Momentum behind equal representation in space travel is mounting. In 2013, NASA announced that the new class of astronauts—who might be the first to lead an expedition to Mars—would be 50% women, and it has encouraged more diverse leadership among teams applying for space missions. Commercial space travel organizations have followed suit, with Virgin Galactic cosponsoring a symposium on increasing diversity in space travel in 2016.

Making History Again

As the all-female crew prepared for their walk outside the International Space Station, they would have done so almost fifty-six years after Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963. Since then, fifty-nine women have gone into orbit as astronauts, cosmonauts, scientists, and specialists.

Just Watch How Women Build Peace

Sun, 03/24/2019 - 14:43

In a year when American women mobilized, ran for office, and were elected to Congress in unprecedented numbers, the documentary series Women, War & Peace returns today, Monday, March 25 and Tuesday, March 26, 9-11 p.m. on PBS with powerful stories of women’s role in dramatic conflicts and peace settlements across the globe.

Series II demonstrates how some of the biggest international stories of recent memory are shaped by women. An all-female cast of directors present four never-before-told stories about the women who risked their lives for peace, changing history in the process: Wave Goodbye to Dinosaurs (Eimhear O’Neill), The Trials of Spring (Gini Reticker), Naila and the Uprising (Julia Bacha), and A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers (Geeta Gandbhir and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy). Women, War & Peace II is executive produced by Abigail Disney and Gini Reticker for Fork Films and Stephen Segaller for THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET. The original groundbreaking documentary series Women, War & Peace premiered on PBS in 2011. “We are at a very fortuitous moment,” says Abigail Disney. “We are starting to feel the changes of women in power.”

“Women play a central role in ending conflicts and building peace, but their stories are often left untold,” adds Stephen Segaller, vice president of programming, WNET. “As women continue to gain political momentum in the U.S., with more women elected in this year’s election than any point in U.S. history, Women, War & Peace II, shares four remarkable stories of brave women facing tremendous obstacles to pursue significant political change.”

About Women, War & Peace II

If today’s movements signal a future marked by gender equality, Women, War & Peace II looks to the past to see exactly—and how effectively—women can make that happen. The first two films look at two movements: one in Northern Ireland, the other in Palestine, in the late twentieth century.

Directed by Eimhear O’Neill, Wave Goodbye to Dinosaurs follows the all-female political party in Northern Ireland, where years of violent strife compel a group of Catholic and Protestant women to demand a seat at the negotiating table for the Good Friday Agreement—a deal that stands to this day.

Emmy®-winning and Oscar® nominated filmmaker Gini Reticker then transports the series to Egypt in 2011, where the euphoria of the Arab Spring quickly runs into headwinds. In TheTrials of Spring, the film follows the journeys of three Egyptian women as they fight for the goals of the popular movement: “bread, freedom and social justice” for all. But caught between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, the women soon find themselves being pushed backwards.

Peabody-winning director Julia Bacha takes us to 1980s Gaza, where, as shown in Naila and the Uprisinga non-violent women’s movement formed the heart of the Palestinian struggle for freedom. The film revolves around the tragic and remarkable story of Naila Ayesh, a student organizer and activist who joins a secret network of women in a movement that brings together the disparate organizations protesting Israeli occupation.

The second two films of contemporary women activists and organizers chart the path forward for international peacebuilding and security. A Journey of a Thousand Milesdirected by two- time Primetime Emmy® winner Geeta Gandbhir and two-time Academy Award® winner and two-time Emmy® winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, follows one of the world’s few all-female peacekeeping units. As 160 Bangladeshi women embark on a UN peacekeeping mission to Haiti following the devastating 2011 earthquake, they confront extreme poverty and devastated healthcare systems in their effort to build peace.

Seven years after the original debut of the award-winning series, Women, War & Peace II premieres at a critical political moment where women are calling for a seat at the table. In uncovering untold histories of those who have made that possible, the series reveals their transformative power and the long road ahead for contemporary peacebuilders around the world.

Women, War & Peace II – Four New Episodes / Documentaries
Discover how some of the biggest recent international events have been shaped by women in a showcase of four, female-directed films that tell never-before-told stories about women who risked their lives for peace, changing history in the process.

Wave Goodbye to Dinosaurs – Debuts Monday, March 25 at 9:00 p.m.
Discover the story of the Catholic and Protestant women who come together during Northern Ireland’s bloody conflict to form an all-female political party and fight to ensure that human rights, equality and inclusion shape the historic Good Friday Agreement peace deal.

The Trials of Spring Debuts Monday, March 25 at 10:00 p.m.
Follow three Egyptian women as they put their lives and bodies on the line fighting for justice and freedom. The film tells the story of Egypt’s Arab Spring, the human rights abuses that came to define it and the women willing to risk everything.

Naila and the Uprising – Debuts Tuesday, March 26 at 9:00 p.m.
Discover the story of a courageous, non-violent women’s movement that formed the heart of the Palestinian struggle for freedom during the 1987 uprising, known as the first Intifada. One woman must make a choice between love, family and freedom. Undaunted, she embraces all three.

A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers Debuts Tuesday, March 26 at 10:00 p.m.
Embark on a risky year-long UN peacekeeping mission into earthquake-ravaged Haiti with an all-female Bangladeshi police unit. Leaving their families behind, these police officers shatter stereotypes as they rise in the name of building peace.

It’s a Booming Business: Trafficking Myanmar ‘Brides’ to China

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 08:31

Nang Seng Ja was just 19 and living in Myanmar’s northern Kachin State when her aunt invited her on a trip to see her three cousins who live in China. About a month into the visit, Nang Seng Ja fainted. She awakened in a strange house surrounded by a Chinese man and his family. “I heard from them that I was trafficked,” she told Human Rights Watch.

Nang Seng Ja, whose name I’ve changed for her protection, fled to a nearby police station, and begged for help. “The police then took 5,000 yuan [$800] from the family,” she said. “Then they sent me back to the family.”

They locked her in a room where the man raped her repeatedly. They forced her to take what they said were fertility drugs. “The family’s mother and father told me, ‘We bought you. You must stay here,’” she said. After 14 months, one of her cousins, angry that she received a smaller share of the “bride” money, told Nang Seng Ja’s parents where she was. They paid another trafficking survivor half of the family’s property to recover her.

Each year, traffickers through deceit or force, transport hundreds of women and girls from northern Myanmar to China and sell them to Chinese families struggling to find brides for their sons due to the country’s gender imbalance.

Myanmar’s internal armed conflict in the North has been ongoing since achieving its independence in 1948, but dramatically escalated in 2011 when the government ended a 17-year ceasefire. More than 100,000 people, predominantly ethnic Kachins, have been displaced. Many trafficking survivors said that they live desperate lives in displaced people’s camps, with little opportunity to earn a living. The Myanmar government blocks aid to the camps. Women and girls often become the sole breadwinners for their families, with their husbands and brothers away fighting.   

Across the border in China, the percentage of women has fallen steadily since 1987. Researchers estimate that China has 30 to 40 million “missing women.” The imbalance is caused by a preference for boys, exacerbated by the “one-child policy” in place from 1979 to 2015, and China’s continuing restrictions on women’s reproductive rights.

Trafficking survivors usually said that trusted people—in some cases their own relatives–promised them work in China, then sold them for amounts ranging from $3,000 to $13,000. Survivors said buyers often seemed more interested in a baby than a bride. The women and girls were typically locked in a room and raped repeatedly.  After giving birth they could sometimes escape, but usually only by leaving their children behind. Several women said they were so desperate to see their children that they returned to China to the families who had held them captive.

Law enforcement officials on both sides of the border make little effort to stem trafficking and, as Nang Seng Ja’s story illustrates, are sometimes complicit in the business. Families of trafficked women described begging the Myanmar police for help repeatedly and being turned away. The families—and experts—described police demanding bribes to act. Police operating as part of the opposition force, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), were no better.

Women who escaped and made it to the Chinese police were often jailed and deported, while their traffickers and buyers remained free. There is little effective coordination between police in Myanmar and in China, and even the most essential tools to facilitate such cooperation— interpreters, for example—are not in place.

Back in Myanmar, survivors have little access to services and grapple with stigma as they try to rebuild their lives. The Myanmar government provides a few services, but these are narrow in scope and miss most of those who need them. A number of civil society groups help survivors, push for justice, and work—with or without law enforcement help—to recover victims, but they have few resources.

All three police forces in the region should do more to prevent trafficking, recover and assist victims, and pursue both the traffickers and the buyers. International donors should fund nongovernmental groups’ efforts to help women and girls caught between Myanmar’s abuses against the Kachin and China’s war on reproductive rights.

Heather Barr is acting co-director for women’s rights at Human Rights Watch and author of a new report about bride trafficking in the region.

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Gender-Fueled Fraud in the Auto Industry

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 04:13


According to recent news reports, car insurance companies are charging women higher rates than men for no reason other than gender. The report states that in several cases women were paying $500 more than men for identical policies.  However, this rampant gender discrimination doesn’t start with auto insurance; it starts the moment you walk onto that giant lot of shiny new vehicles. The auto dealership industry, even after the 2018 “The Year of the Woman,” is still riddled with widespread gender discrimination and gender-fueled consumer fraud.

Studies dating back to the mid-90’s found that women buyers were consistently quoted higher prices than men in over 300 audits at new car dealerships. In the 2000’s, studies found women were quoted higher prices for auto repair as well.  Although further studies need to be conducted on auto dealerships, the “pink tax” is still utilized and costing women a reported 7 percent more on consumer products than men in the United States.

In 2014, for example, American consumers bought more than 16 million new cars and light trucks at an average price of nearly $33,000 per vehicle.  With women holding 60 percent of the personal wealth in this country and making the majority of the buying decisions, car-buying fraud has become the newest bad business in gender discrimination. The Bureau of Labor statistics sited transportation as close to 20 percent of the total household expenditures for consumers in 2016. If that expenditure continues to rise, especially with corresponding fraudulent pricing and advertising, it may have effects on the financial stability of the entire American family.

Growing up in the rural southeastern United States, automobiles were a part of the everyday culture, and I spent many summer nights at the Beech Bend street car drag races.  From the age of 17, I knew how to change the oil and spark plugs in a small block Chevy engine. Recently, earning a science degree and being a financially successful woman with a hard-earned credit score, I had the opportunity to buy the car of my dreams, an ultimate driving machine. Negotiations with a local salesman were going well; the salesman had the car I wanted at the price I could manage, but when I showed up that morning the monthly price had mysteriously increased by over 55 percent of the original quote.  The salesman showed me all the very “generous” rebates, discounts, and comps I was receiving, but the newly inflated price remained.  My male partner had made a similar purchase, just months before with the same salesman, and had presented at the dealership paying exactly the quoted price.  Even after pointing this out I walked away still paying over 30% more than I was quoted.  I, an educated and independent woman, was left feeling bewildered, ultimately used, and another victim of a bait-and-switch dealership tactic.

As I soon discovered, auto dealer fraud is considered the number one most common type of consumer fraud.  Auto dealerships swindle buyers out of fair and honest pricing with misrepresentations, misleading advertising, and bait-and-switch tactics. Bait-and-switch is a technique where one car price is advertised or quoted but the dealership, upon your arrival, substitutes a more expensive vehicle. If you added all the additional unquoted charges and packages, I ended up walking away with a payment doubling my current monthly car payment.  Being a solitary provider for my two small children, this was less than an ideal situation regardless of my finances.  With women spending over $20 trillion globally on consumer purchases, this should not be occurring; it’s just bad business.  According to JPMorgan Chase, at least 65 percent of all automobile purchases are being made by women, so why is this still occurring? 

Organizations such as the Federal Trade Commission and National Automobile Dealers Association take great efforts to regulate theses activities, and there is more hope still on the horizon. Sites such as Women-Drivers.com are now offering auto dealerships the opportunity to become certified as a “women and family trusted dealer”, but even with this there is still much work to be done. 

Having access to a vehicle is not only an American essential, but for many American women it is a necessity to carry on with their daily lives. Since March 8 was recently celebrated as International Women’s Day, remember that on this day and on every day, as you’re commuting to work or taking your children to school, the words of Aristotle Onassis: “If women didn’t exist, all the money in the world would have no meaning.” From the first licensed female drive in 1899 to the over 105 million women drivers today in the United States, women deserve an honest and fair car-buying experience. 

Dr. Garling is Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy and a UT Austin Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.

I’m Scared of Success

Thu, 03/14/2019 - 10:27

I’m not a victim, vindictive or angry…

I’m just scared shitless of success.

There are times I self-sabotage in life because the ‘Ghosts of Christmas Past’ haunt me. On my chest is a black scarlet letter that I carry around with me. A plus-size Black woman with the audacity to try and make it into the club, that room has been defined by White America since the first Black slave stepped onto these shores. The exclusive club that has brought a plague to my career walking into rooms as the only minority. A victim I’m not; because I still sashay in with my street smarts defined by a hardened childhood of poverty, drugs, alcohol, domestic abuse and physical violence — but also a college education. My comfort drinking a 40oz. bottle of beer outside some housing projects is the same when walking into a boardroom filled with millionaires. Having street smarts and college degrees prepared my militant maneuver within corporate America. There’s a calmness in me when there’s chaos around me. As a natural born leader, I’m able to walk into a room and align teams back to the prize — the profit and success of the business. However, with this revelation came a target so big on my back that I feel an itch before they pull the trigger. What they don’t know are the layers that define me, so it’s a steady aim that needs to topple my kingdom of fun. Yet, no matter what’s been done to me I still have the courage to try again.  

During my teen years in New York I had no confidence at all. A lot of it was beat out of me, so the pavement became my world. I’d stare at the cracks and divets trying to navigate around crack needles and trash that rats scurried out to claim. I recall, one day, a grouchy teacher in high school who grabbed my hand and spoke to me. She was known to ‘bust your balls’ with a smile on her face. Back then I carried anger as a best friend so no one would bully me, lashing out at those who wanted to test my nature because I’d been tested so many times at home. Looking back I see myself as a feral animal that dressed nicely, covering up bruises and working around the soreness my body endured from abuse. So when she grabbed my hand and looked straight at me asking something like, “Are you okay?” I was shocked, No one had ever asked me that before. Tears sprang to my eyes so quickly, but that split second of care was brushed away in an instant. My Incredible Hulk masquerade slammed back onto my face. I shrugged her hand away from me and screamed venomous anger from my throat. ‘Now someone cared?,’ I thought to myself. ‘Where were they when the terror claimed my soul and made me into a reluctant warrior?’

That warrior remains in me but she is a lot nicer now. Time has faded the shakiness in my hands and turned me into steel. The courage I bring forth now comes from my lack of knowledge by not seeing the right enemy. ‘Is it I or they that sabotage my success?’ I now ask. When I walk into work the faint whisper of many cycled moons still asks “are you ok?” and the Incredible Hulk looks up slowly to say — “Yes I’m fine.”

Still, it’s not fine when I’m brave enough to ask the questions that everyone else in the club has said before. “Is my work not enough?” “Is there room for growth, can I learn more, how can I support the team and would you mind if I tried this option?” Those questions only bring forth a tilt to others’ heads and a smiling mask to their faces. Never reaching their eyes, of course, replying, “No everything is ok.”  All anyone can say is “manage up,” but how about managing alongside? Should a Black woman not challenge the status quo in order to be promoted? Currently there are only three Black CEOs on the Fortune 500 list. All of them are men, and that figure is down from six in 2012. Those stats are disheartening when fighting to climb the corporate ladder. Should I not play a victim to the Gender Wage Gap that pits my work ethic against men? Statistics show women are paid $.80 to every $1 a man makes. However that figure is even lower for Black women at $.61. Does the world compensate us for that by offsetting a lower cost to mortgage, daycare or travel expenses? Additionally this makes me fourth in line to white men, white women and black men. Have you ever tried running a track meet where the gun goes off last for you?

I’m still sitting here with a smile on my face and courage in my heart to never give in to anger. I want to worry less about the figure in my bank account that’s accruing no interest from the lack of a fair salary. The goal for me remains the same, which is to do a great job and help maintain profitability for my employe, but in my heart I know it’s the bravery that bothers them most. The hard handshake I give that used to be for the boys club only; the eye to eye stare that has them blinking and averting their eyes. Could it also be the dimples in my cheeks carved out from the tears of my oppression?

Also, my strategy of acceptance in corporate America has changed over the years. When I first began this path, I told myself to get the highest degree I could hold in media so no one could never say I am not qualified for the job. Guess what? I still ain’t qualified for the job. It’s not that privileged white people have said that to me, they just don’t know what to do with me. I smile big even with the ugly I carry inside. I’m optimistic, even though I’ve watched countless other people move onward and upward in their careers. Out of 100 people in the division of a major TV studio, I was the only black person. Before that, when I worked at one of the top five motion picture and television studios in Hollywood, there was just me and one other black woman, out of 200 employees. When I went to grad school I was just one of two black women in the graduate school program. Then there are also the friends I’ve met along the way who invite me over to their homes, where I’m usually the only black person in the room.

I always pause in the doorway and I say – “Forget it.” If I’m meant to be dragged in the street and lynched, at least I carved out a lane for those behind me. To stroll into that door again and challenge the Matrix just one more time, what’s the worst that could happen? Nothing has, except stagnation. In my career, it’s become exhausting hearing the word ‘No.’ But how can other people really see my sacrifice? Who wants to be known as the angry Black woman? I’m writing this so the world can know how much I love each and every person. That little girl who used to be balled up on her bed crying into the wall, praying for the pain to stop, is gone. As I see it, we only get one round on this roller coaster called life; one chance to hand in our ticket to fun. So when I shake your hand, look you in the eye and smile at you genuinely, please know it’s taken me a long time to wear my courage.  

Welcome into my world.


Vonti McRae is an alumni and since 2017 a  Film Instructor at the Academy of Art University. She is an up and coming screenwriter who has worked tirelessly in the media industry for over 10 years. Her writing is inspired by her childhood plus travels across the USA, and hopes to one day see her stories on the big screen. 
Contact her at msvontimcrae@gmail.com for writing inquiries. Follow her on:Instagram the_real_vonti Blog: therealvonti.com Follow her blog therealvonti.com and IG the_real_vonti

Lost in Space: Women Scientists in the Workforce

Sun, 03/10/2019 - 05:18

As a woman, mother, and astrophysicist, the recent study published in Nature hit me in the gut; 40 percent of women with full-time jobs in science are lost from the work force after having their first child (compared to 23 percent of men). This percentage is right on target with the general workforce, in which 43 percent of women leave their careers after having children, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the numbers in science. Yet, somehow this number caught me off guard. For virtually all of the women scientists I know, being a scientist is far more than a career, it is part of their identity. Yet young mothers are still leaving in droves. If we are disproportionately losing mothers from science, what skill sets, talents, and ways of thinking are being lost from the workforce along with them?

Progress in science is fundamentally dependent on having a mix of backgrounds and experience in order to think about problems in new ways and come up with innovative solutions. Progress also depends on having people with both technical expertise and the “soft skills” to build successful collaborations and maximize efficiency. “Social skills reduce the cost of coordinating with others,” David Deming, a Harvard education economist said to the Harvard Gazette.

Parenting relies on an in-depth working knowledge of essential soft skills. Keeping another helpless human being alive does require some technical proficiency, but learning how to change a diaper is easy compared to determining when to let a baby cry at night. In a study published in Scientific American, Robert Epstein distills the 10 most important parenting skill sets for raising children.  I would argue that these 10 skills, adapted for a professional setting, also have an important role in science.  These parenting skills include: stress management, relationship skills, life skills, and behavior management. In my experience, we can use a lot more of all of these in science.

I am not saying that people who aren’t mothers can’t or don’t have these skills, nor am I arguing that all women in science should have children. It is also true that fathers have stepped up their parenting contributions over recent decades, but mothers still carry the bulk of the workload. It seems to me that if mothers are preferentially lost from the workforce, we are ultimately doing science a disservice.

Not only are we shooting ourselves in the foot by losing the skills finely honed as a parent from the workforce, but long-term productivity is also lost. A 2014 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that a mother of three will lose the equivalent of four years of research productivity before her children have reached their teens. However, over a 30-year career, there is a “motherhood bonus” of roughly 10 percent in research productivity. In other words, if a mother’s career can survive until her children are teenagers, evidence suggests that her efficiency will blossom beyond that of her childless colleagues for the remainder of her career. If the primary metric we use to evaluate scientists is research productivity, we are systematically undervaluing the capabilities of mothers with young children. Given that evidence shows these very same mothers ultimately overperform in the long-term, we are shooting ourselves in the other foot too.

Not surprisingly, my own career trajectory dramatically leveled off after having children. If I’m being honest with myself, I am disappointed that my career is not what it might have been, and that I wasn’t “good enough” to keep up my productivity while having children. Yet, I would make the same choice again and again and again. Trying to understand our place in the universe as an astrophysicist and my unfathomable love for my children each give my life rich meaning and purpose in their own way. Experiencing these together is even more powerful. Having children helps me to see the universe through their eyes, peeling away assumptions and long-held “truths” and encouraging me to simply play.  Their constant sense of wonder and awe is refreshing in contrast to a professional world of mostly incremental advances and paper drafts. I have convinced myself that the perspective my children nurture in me is of value to science.  

After I had my third child, a senior male directly above me in the food chain at my university asked me if I was “done yet.” The guilt, external and internal, just settles in and makes itself at home. I have come close to leaving academia more times than I can count, so I empathize with the mothers we have lost from the workforce, and I understand their choice. But I bet that if that senior childless male had instead been a senior woman with children, she would have instead asked how she could help. And that is one of the soft skills that is being lost from the workforce. 

Kelsey Johnson is a Professor of Astronomy at the UVA and director of the Dark Skies Bright Kids Program. She is on the board of the American Astronomical Society, and vice president of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Johnson is a 2018 Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

It’s That Women’s Time of the Year Again

Fri, 03/08/2019 - 05:03

I have always felt somewhat ambivalent about Women’s History Month, that one month out of 12 when we honor women’s contributions to history; as well as International Women’s Day, the one day of the year (March 8th) when we honor women’s accomplishments around the globe. I guess it’s because I run an organization devoted to reporting on women’s goals and accomplishments every day of the year, and know that true gender parity will not be fully achieved until women no longer need one designated month, or day, to honor our work.
 
But what if, I thought, both girls and boys were taught about women’s achievements, alongside that of men’s, as early as grade school? How would this influence young children’s minds about what they, too, could realize for themselves and others? This year’s Women’s History Month theme, “Visionary Women: Champions of Peace & Nonviolence,” honors women who have led efforts to end war, violence and injustice, and pioneered the use of nonviolence to change society.” Imagine if boys, as well as girls, learned about the effectiveness of historical nonviolence to make change, instead of memorizing the names of each country’s presidents and dictators who led their countries to war, as well as the number of casualties that resulted for those who both won and lost.


Perhaps they would learn that in France, in 1789, while protesters stormed the Bastille, a number of Parisian women gathered in the square in protest of the surging price of bread, and then peacefully marched on Versailles, where King Louis XVI held court. Ultimately, many men joined the women as they made their way to the city, in a crowd which was said to have numbered in the thousands. This ultimately forced the King to move the royal family out of Versailles.
 
More recently in 1975, 25,000 Icelandic women peacefully protested by striking (called ‘Woman’s Day Off’), to demonstrate against being underpaid and underrepresented in government. Further, 90% of the female population did not go to work, cook, clean or take care of children. As a result, Finnbogadottir became the nation’s first female president five years later, and credits that day with helping her get elected.
 
Later that year in Poland, when politicians sought to further restrict abortion access by proposing a ban on abortion in all cases and a prison sentence of up to five years for women who undergo the procedure, thousands of women dressed in black and boycotted their jobs and classes. About 30,000 also gathered in Warsaw’s Castle Square, chanting. Their efforts resulted in the parliament backtracking and overwhelmingly rejecting the total ban.
 
And just imagine if women’s inventions and creations were taught in schools, alongside those of Thomas Alva Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, and Alexander Graham Bell. As we celebrate today’s International Women’s Day theme, “Think Equal, Build Smart,” we would have already known about Grace Hopper, who invented computer programming in the early 1960’s, and Maria Telkes, who designed the first 100 percent solar-powered house, and Katherine Johnson, the African-American mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics at NASA were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. manned spaceflights, without having to first learn about her from a major motion picture release decades later.
 
Achieving a gender-equal world requires social innovations that work for everyone… leaving no one behind. It also demands that women have equal opportunity to shape them, and be recognized for their work, every single day!

As Katherine Johnson once said, “It’s not parallel, so I’m going to straighten it. Things must be in order.”

In solidarity,

Lori Sokol, PhD
Executive Director & Editor-in-Chief

To ensure women are in the news EVERY MONTH OF THE YEAR, please support Women’s eNews by clicking here

I’m Vegan, But That Shouldn’t Stop You From Reading This

Tue, 03/05/2019 - 13:42

My identity consists of many different but overlapping sub-identities. Some were given to me — Jewish, female, etc. — and some I’ve chosen. Four months ago, I chose a new one for myself: Vegan.

My veganism has already become a defining part of me and is based on one of my core values: Saving the environment. Adopting a vegan, vegetarian, or even semi-vegetarian diet is the best way to take personal action to save the environment. Animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than every transportation system combined. The livestock industry is responsible for 65% of human-produced nitrous-oxide—a chemical that has 300 times the global warming potential as CO2—and 67% of the total human-generated methane, which is 23 times as warming as CO2. In fact, one study shows that if the entire world ate beans instead of beef, our climate problems would be entirely solved. Kind of crazy, right!?

I went vegetarian in March of last year, mainly because it is a fairly common choice among my peers. As I continued my research, I realized eating meat was not worth its detrimental environmental impact. Although I was vegetarian, supporting animal agriculture through consuming eggs and dairy also ate away at my conscious; I knew it was wrong. The guilt I felt was immeasurable, and I went vegan in October, in pursuit of what I call a “guilt-free diet.” Now, I can’t imagine not being vegan. Every day I am thankful that my life led me to this amazing cause, and subsequently, the immense passion I have for it. I recognize that for many, however, my lifestyle simply isn’t an option.

Veganism is hard to uphold, mainly because of issues related to accessibility. For American families living in poverty, fast food—comprised of cheap animal products—is often the only affordable option. I’m extremely grateful that I’m able to maintain a vegan lifestyle, but I also recognize that it’s a privilege.

I have parents who are willing to change their habits and lifestyle to accommodate mine. I have the time and money to experiment with new foods and meat alternatives. I also have access to grocery stores, and money to buy groceries and, because of all this, I can be vegan. I can help save the world in this way, but I also have a responsibility to do so.

I have the means, the passion, and the determination to be vegan. Therefore, I must be. I must be for all the people who don’t have the same opportunities as I, those who can’t alter their lives, like I can, to help the planet. The fact that not everyone can be vegan makes it even more vital I continue my veganism; and, it makes it even more vital that people like me, with similar privilege and power, take real steps to decrease their carbon footprint.

Let’s use the audience of this blog post as an example. To read this post, you must have access to a phone or computer, which already presents a certain level of privilege. In addition, you must have some free time; time not spent earning money to provide for yourself. I can comfortably say that if you’re reading this right now, you probably have the ability to shift your diet in some way. Maybe try “meatless Monday,” or eat onlyone meat meal per day. Try cutting out red meat, fish, or chicken. You can even help with a simple swap to a non-dairy milk option like soy or almond. No effort is too small!

I recognize that adopting a vegan diet isn’t easy for many reasons—time, cost, accessibility, nutrition, allergies—but I’m here to say it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. By implementing small changes to your diet, like the ones I just mentioned, you can help our planet. Earth has given us so much, yet we give her so little in return. We abuse her and we disrespect the living beings with whom we coexist. You have the power to change this. You have a responsibility to change this.

There are infinite ways to make your diet better for the planet, and I’d like to help you make some of those changes! To let you in on a secret, sometimes it’s really fun! I run a food account on Instagram under the name @plantbasedlila. I began the account to show people the realities of a vegan diet. Yes, I do get protein in my diet and, no, I don’t only eat salad. My posts are meant to debunk prevalent myths surrounding veganism/vegetarianism. I don’t expect every person reading this to become vegan immediately. My goal is for everyone to make one sustainable choice in the near future, whether it’s a pescatarian diet, one vegetarian meal, or even just a soy latte instead of regular latte.

Do what you can, because you can.


The Jewish Women’s Archive’s  Rising Voices Fellowship will be honored as Teen Voices’ ’21 Leader for the 21st Century’ on May 6th, 2019. It is a 10-month program for female-identified teens in high-school who have a passion for writing, a demonstrated concern for current and historic events, and a strong interest in Judaism, gender and social justice. The Jewish Women’s Archive is a national non?profit devoted to documenting Jewish women’s stories, elevating their voices, and inspiring them to be agents of change. Founded in 1995, JWA is the world’s largest source of material about and voices of Jewish women.