This smile made you believe that everything was fine, but not today.
For today, my lips have learnt to rest the gentle curves of this fake smile.
These eyes made you believe that the hurt was momentary, but not today.
For today, my veiled eyes have learnt to feel relief for a while.
These hands held yours, ever so tightly to fix your broken pieces, but not today.
For today, my hands have learnt to liberate the pain.
These footsteps followed your path for a long time, but not today.
For today, my steps have learnt to find their way back home again.
This soul filled your deep, black void endlessly, but not today.
For today, my exhausted soul has learnt how to take it slow.
This heart has been your solace all this time, but not today.
For today, my lonely heart has learnt to love itself; also to let go.
These words lit up your darkest days, but not today.
For today, my whispers have learnt not to utter false accolades.
These thoughts craved your delight and safety always, but not today.
For today, my mind has learnt to paint my thoughts in happier shades.
This spirit carried your burdens during bleaker times, but not today.
For today, my kindred spirit has learnt to no longer be enslaved.
This strength in me, fought your battles through long nights, but not today.
For today, my inner strength has learnt that not everyone can be saved.
I gave my mind, body and soul to make you whole;
To complete your being, I gave you unconditional control.
At each mistake, I absolved you of all crimes;
So, today, I head my own way. Today, I let go of past times.
I lied, I made excuses, to justify why your actions don’t match what you say.
I now realize, at first slight I should have walked away.
And you took, and took, and never once thought to give back.
So, for today, I refuse to be my own setback.
This side of yours, my beloved, I did not foresee.
So, from this day on, I’m for me, and only me.
Sin Thi Huong is a rare gem in the bustling mountain town of Sapa, in Northern Vietnam. Ethnic minorities like the Giay and Red Dao live in Sapa, and many women are illiterate and live in poverty. Huong, however, is a 32-year-old Giay woman who has worked as a tour guide for the past six years.
“I can take the opportunity of the work to show and to share about our culture to international guests,” Huong said. “All the guest they come from modern and developed countries; people like to find out [about] what they don’t have and see everyday.”
Huong is not the kind of woman you see everyday in Sapa. She is unmarried with no children and she studied International Economics at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam. Speaking English opened the door for her career in tourism – a decision not supported by her family at first.
“People here are less educated, so we think woman [can] only do selling and buying [and] follow tourists to sell handicraft,” Huong said. “Men can be tour guides, because they are more free; they do not have to take care of the children and clean like the women do.”
In August, Huong began working for Guided MissDirection, an international travel company designed exclusively for women. Leading small-group tours in Southeast Asia, the company hires local female guides who have broken into the male-dominated tourist industry.
Co-founders Danielle Johnson and Sarah Deicke are recent college graduates from America who grew up together in Illinois. In November 2016, the 23-year-old entrepreneurs wanted to create a business where women could support other women and explore cultures in comfort.
“Being uncomfortable is a reason why women don’t want to travel,” Danielle said. “That first step, that first trip is very important. We hold your hand if you want us to; we take the fear away.”
Guided MissDirection’s 11-day excursion from Southern to Northern Vietnam features a bamboo boat tour in Halong Bay, zipping through Hanoi on motorcycles, and haggling at street markets in Saigon. Meals and transportation within Vietnam are included, as well as cooking, zumba, and yoga classes with scenic views. Besides sightseeing, forming intercultural relationships is another guarantee when touring with Guided MissDirection.
“We look for [guides] who are willing to share personal information about themselves and their lives in order to connect to the American women we bring,” Sarah said. “For example, Huong not only tells our women stories about what it was like growing up in the mountains as a minority, but she also brings us to her grandparent’s house for a meal.”
Danielle became in awe of Vietnamese culture while studying History at Rollins College. She wrote her thesis on females who served in the Vietnam Conflict. In May 2016, Danielle attended a field study to the country, where she met local woman like Huong – women she later hired for Guided MissDirection.
Sarah and Danielle also spent three months backpacking in Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Thailand to create their tours and find local female guides. The trip motivated them to make traveling easier for other women.
“It is hard traveling as a solo female,” Danielle explained. “The biggest frustration is having to always be on your guard. We wanted to give women the opportunity to go to places they thought that they couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to go.”
Currently, Danielle and Sarah are finalizing a new 11-day tour to Sri Lanka that will launch in March 2018. So far, the trip includes surfing lessons in Weligama, seeing elephants on a safari in Udawalawe, and volunteering in Galle.
Guided MissDirection has upcoming tours to Vietnam this October, November, and New Year’s Eve. In the future, the travel agency plans to expand their tours to Thailand and Samoa.
The World Economic Forum predicts that global gender parity won’t be achieved until 2133. None of us fighting for it today will be around then to see what it looks like. Yet, each of us needs to take action now to ensure our children and grandchildren experience it.
Educational Empowerment (EE) generates gender parity through microfinance in a village outside Bago in Myanmar. Here, in the dirt covered streets, microfinance creates opportunities for women living in poverty to start small businesses. Women earn household income, and attain increased decision-making power, self-confidence, and community influence.
Ma Thet and Lei Lei Win spend many hours together every day sitting on one of their porches rolling cigars. They love to laugh and reminisce about when they were young and growing up in their village. Ma Thet, a widow with five children, took a loan for $70 to help her continue her small cigar business. While this may not seem like much to us, it is enough to allow her to run her cottage industry by herself, which then enables her children to stay in school rather than work to supplement the family income.
Ma Khin Cho runs a home shop, selling kitchen items, produce, and rice and coconut soup. She has taken out and repaid two loans and is now using her third loan to build her business and invest in her shop. These low-interest loans empower Ma Khin Cho to significantly contribute to the family income and be an active participant in the village economy.
When a woman needs a haircut or a bride needs make-up for her special day, she goes to see Mu Mu Sein. Her first loan was $40, her second was $50, and her third was $70. She’s working to grow her business and buy more supplies and equipment. The income helps her support her family and her young niece adopted after the girl’s mother disappeared on a business trip to Malaysia.
What do these women and the 400 other households who have taken out loans have in common? 100% payback! Educational Empowerment is proud to support this loan program and empower these women. This model also puts money back into the community by using some of the interest income to support the local school and health clinic. Like these women, it’s beautiful.
Throughout the world, microfinance is acclaimed as THE answer to poverty and empowerment. However, if not done properly, it’s only a temporary fix. Educational Empowerment’s partner in Myanmar utilizes a model that is sustainable for the recipients. Women learn to stand on their own rather than being dependent forever on the ‘next loan’. And, their daughters are able to stay in school, rather than being pulled out to earn family income. Educational Empowerment is honored to be an essential part of creating gender parity in Myanmar through this investment.
You too can make a difference in the world’s fight for gender parity:
Educational Empowerment was created by women and for women and girls. EE promotes literacy and education for children, families and communities severely affected by poverty and injustice in Myanmar. By empowering women and girls through education, we position women in Myanmar to attain their equal rights.
On Monday, December 7, Vital Voices hosted their annual Voices of Solidarity awards to honor five men “who have shown courage and compassion in advocating on behalf of women and girls in the United States and around the world.” The five honorees were Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, former peacekeeper and diplomat; Gary Barker, founder of Promundo and global leader in engaging men to prevent violence against women; Sadou Lemankreo, a police officer and human rights defender in Cameroon; John Prendergast, activist and author working to support women survivors of conflict in Africa; and Tom Wilson, chairman and CEO of The Allstate Corporation.
The five honorees have impressive experience working to empower women and engage men to change their attitudes and behaviors towards women. They are rightly honored for their work and should be held as models for how men should act worldwide. But my thoughts on the event, and the issue of violence against women in general, can be summed up with six words from Cindy Dyer early in the night:
“Violence against women is a men’s issue” Cindy Dyer, Vice President of Human Rights, Vital Voices
When I looked around the room on Monday night, it was filled with an overwhelming majority of women. This gender imbalance has been the norm in my experience of attending similar events and herein lays the problem; women, who are victims and allies to victims of male violence, bravely come together while the perpetrators are disengaged from the conversation. This needs to change.
Violence against women stems from a daunting web of social norms, patriarchy, power dynamics, greed and injustice. For example, rape is used as a weapon of war and justice systems around the world drastically vary in their efficiency. With these larger structural barriers in the mix, can one individual make a difference in these issues? The answer is yes.
Dyer and Barker acknowledged the many men who would never hurt a woman and are champions for equality in the workplace and the home. However, when these men remain silent or refrain from participating in gender equality conversations, their actions (or inactions) have an impact. Speaking on her experiences with female victims, Dyer said that the “silence of male leaders speaks louder than women’s actions.” Men can be tremendous activists in the fight to end violence against women by actively taking a stance against the injustice.
So, to the men who believe in gender equality and justice, but are possibly unsure about how to engage in this conversation, I’m here to say: speak up! As a woman I welcome your voice to this discussion! A few conversation starters are below based on my own experiences and reported successes from the Vital Voices event this week.
Men, how can you get involved?
Ask questions: do you feel safe walking down the street? What resources are available for women who have experienced violence? Speak with the women in your life and ask about their experience.
Share news articles. Use the news as a way to start the conversation, learn about the nuances of the issues and take a stance.
Be a mentor. Young boys who witness violence growing up are more likely to exhibit those behaviors as an adult. As a positive influence in a young boy’s life, you can have a lasting change.
Women, how can we engage the men in our life?
Speak openly with the men you trust. For example, if you experience harassment in the workplace, debrief with a trusted male friend.
Invite your male friends to any conferences or events you attend on issues related to violence against women. Let’s get more men at the table.
As the 16 days of activism to end gender based violence comes to a close, I challenge you to speak with the people closest to you about the atrocities committed against women every day. It is time to end the silence surrounding violence against women and hold men accountable for their actions.