I do love NPR. In the multitude of moments when I am alone in the car, bustling between basketball practice and the grocery store or coming home from dropping a child off at school, my first act, before even putting the car into gear and pulling away from the curb, is to switch the radio from “Kid-Approved Pop Station” to my local NPR station. It is then that I can truly settle in to my seat, breathe deeply, and shift from chauffeur-mom to intelligent adult. Ahhh.
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Occasionally what I hear is disturbing. Most often it is enlightening, educational and informative, but from time to time I am reminded of some of the most difficult details of life in other areas of the world. Last Thursday it was a report on the prevalence of wartime rape in parts of Africa. There are many women whose husbands have gone off to fight civil or tribal wars and are living by themselves, wholly undefended, when rival soldiers invade their villages and brutally rape them, knowing that this is a punishment more profound than death or disfigurement. For the women who have yet to be married, this effectively seals their fate, rendering them unfit for a mate for life. For those who are married, their husbands will be compelled to find another, more suitable mate upon their return home. For the women themselves, they are held in a uniquely painful place of shame for the remainder of their lives. Culturally, a woman who has been sexually violated is forever marked as filthy, used, disgusting. In many cases, these women are forced to leave their villages for fear of bringing shame on other members of their community.
Despite the knowledge that these women are entirely helpless against weapon-wielding rapists, driven by mob mentality and the knowledge that this is one situation they can find themselves in control of, it is the women that are held accountable for the despicable treatment they receive. Not ever having experienced a culture such as this, it is still not much of a reach for my imagination, knowing that so few rape victims in our “civilized” country are loathe to come forward because of shame. For those women who have been ostracized from their own families and communities and gone on to become voices of strength and power and knowledge and empowerment for other women who are suffering similar fates, I am even more impressed. Their strength and resilience and willingness to overcome the barriers in front of them is inspiring and gives me hope and somewhat of a personal mandate to help. I don’t know how yet, but I know myself well enough to recognize the seed of passion for this particular issue that has wedged itself deep inside me and will soon call for action.
*photo from financialpost.com
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“Man is a special being, and if left to himself, in an isolated condition, would be one of the weakest creatures; but associated with his kind, he works wonders.” Daniel Webster
The second part of my dream is that women and girls feel connected. There is nothing so challenging, supportive, inspiring, comfortable, or exciting as a community. Ideally, each of us has several overlapping communities in which we can move as members. We have co-workers or schoolmates, family ties, groups of like-minded people who share our interests in hobbies or passions, and each of these people supports and challenges us in different ways.
So often, young girls who see themselves as ‘different’ are afraid to find community. They are embarrassed or ashamed or simply unsure of themselves and end up isolating themselves to the point where they cannot share their gifts or their difficulties. For many of these girls, this translates into their adult lives and they move through their days without any touchstone of reality except their own, which is often skewed.
In many cases, this makes these women and girls easier to control and manipulate and, whether by conscious effort or not, they are preyed upon by all kinds of people. In the wild, it is the lion pack that picks off the zebra who separates from its group. It is the same with humans.
I would like to see a world where girls are taught that their communities are rich with opportunity for them and encouraged to find their own place in them. I want to see them connect with each other instead of working to alienate those girls who are different from them. It is developmentally normal to want to conform in the teen years, but we need to learn to respect those who don’t. I want us as a society to recognize our strength in connection to each other, in learning from each other and sharing ideas without anger or ownership. I want girls and women to feel as though they are a part of something bigger than themselves and use the leverage of these groups to push themselves farther than they thought possible. Often all it takes is one interested person, one mentor, one like-minded party to spark the connection. And the impact that this simple act can have on the self-worth of a young girl or lonely woman is monumental. Validation is a powerful tool and it is through connection and community that we can nurture each other and, in turn, ourselves.
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At the recent breakfast fundraiser for the Women’s Funding Alliance, each attendee had two 3×3 slips of paper sitting at his or her table setting. At the top read: My dream for women and girls is…
The idea was that everyone would complete this statement on one of the cards and slip it into the envelope at the table to be forwarded to the organizations’ staff. The other card was for us to take home, complete, and share with the other people in our lives; co-workers, friends, family, etc. An evangelistic outreach, a tangible wish that would cause ripple effects in the community and get people started talking about how to realize these dreams.
My dream for women and girls is
- That they feel safe,
- That they feel connected,
- That they feel challenged,
- That they feel as though they contribute,
- and that they have choices.
Each of these concepts is so vast that I have decided to begin with the first one and write about my thoughts until I’ve unearthed every shiny nugget I can. Subsequent posts will explore each of the remaining issues. I hope you stick with me as I explore these issues.
Safety is so basic. Such a central spoke around which all of our other emotions and actions revolve. By safety I mean emotional and physical safety – being free from harm, both inflicted by ourselves and others. Although, it is my opinion that generally we don’t seek to cause harm to ourselves unless we’ve been taught that by others.
Safety is the umbrella under which we fly. It is the basic assumption that allows us to go forth into the world and explore our limitations. If a child knows that they can roam freely within certain boundaries and someone will be looking out for them, they will seek with abandon. If a woman knows with certainty that she can speak her own truth without being ridiculed or physically attacked for it, she will learn to be her own best advocate. We have all seen dogs who have suffered abuse – they shy away from even gentle touch because they have learned that when someone reaches out to them it likely means pain. Women and girls who have been mocked or whose opinions are discarded, whose emotions are labeled as ‘silly’ or ‘ridiculous’ or ‘overblown’ stop thinking for themselves. Women and girls who are physically punished simply for existing on the face of the planet with a vagina have no recourse. We cannot change who we are, so we sink into the background.
I want a world where little girls grow up assuming that they will be watched out for, cherished, protected. One in six American women (as compared to one in 33 men) will be sexually assaulted at least once in their lives.* Add to this that less than half of all sexual assaults are reported to police, and you’re looking at more like one in three women/girls sexually abused. In my neighborhood there are fifteen children. Eleven of them are girls. That means that in my neighborhood alone, at least three of these girls will be raped, molested, or otherwise sexually assaulted in their lives. I am not okay with that.
Nor am I okay with the fact that more than 25% of American women and girls have experienced some form of domestic violence in their lives. There are hotlines, crisis shelters, scores of resources available to victims, books written on the subject, self-defense classes, attorneys whose entire job it is to specialize in this area of the law. I want a world where women are not victimized. By anyone.
I want a world where women and girls feel safe to express themselves and their opinions without worrying about harm coming to them. I want a world where women and girls can go out with their friends at night without worrying about being assaulted. I want a world where we recognize the gifts that women and girls have to provide us with and we protect their voices and their bodies and allow them a safe place to explore their world and share their ideas with all of us.
I don’t think that is too much to ask.
*statistics obtained from www.rainn.org – Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network
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