Celebrating Women Changemakers Should Be A Concerted Effort

Originally published on The Huffington Post

Recently, Marie Claire introduced a “20 Women Changing the World” magazine section in honor of its 20th anniversary. In a list including Chelsea Clinton, Eva Longoria, and Melinda Gates, Marie Claire spotlighted “20 movers, shakers, mavericks, and badasses who are boldly, bravely, audaciously blazing new paths for women and girls.” From Kimberly Bryant’s founding of Black Girls Code to empower young women of color through technology education, to Rachel Lloyd’s establishing of GEMS to help victims of domestic trafficking reintegrate into society, these stories were nothing short of amazing, wholly affirming my passion and deep sense of purpose in the movement to empower women and girls.

Moved by these women’s untiring efforts to effect positive change, I immediately thought about one of my favorite extracurricular pastimes: running a weekly “Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight” column as a volunteer with Women LEAD, a nonprofit organization that provides girls in Nepal with education and leadership development training. Nearly a year ago, I started conducting interviews for this column on Women LEAD’s blog because I wanted to highlight the efforts of female community and organizational leaders across the world. At the same time, I wanted to know more than what I could find on a biography or a nonprofit website. I hoped to learn, on a personal level, about a woman leader’s philosophy for change, why she believed her toils and struggles to enact women’s empowerment were worth it, and what advice she had to offer current and future generations of women leaders.

I have been able to interview women leaders working in Hong Kong, where I live, and in the US, Canada, UK, Sweden, Laos, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, and Guatemala through Skype calling and emailing. These women leaders include journalists, entrepreneurs, academics, medical professionals, authors, high school and college students, who are all united by a common passion for removing bulwarks to gender equality.

My weekly experiences canvassing these women for their views on issues including reproductive rights, violence against women, maternal health, and gender pay gaps have been so refreshing and enlightening, offering me alternate perspectives that contribute to my overall understanding of women’s issues. I’ve acquired an intimate knowledge of organizations that expedite women’s empowerment in both developing and developed countries, and the various socioeconomic forces that blockade gender equality in the communities where these organizations are based. The words that these women speak and write never cease to inspire me to continue fighting for women’s empowerment worldwide.

Yet, as I interviewed these women leaders, I noticed that beyond the occasional celebrity spotlight in a magazine, there rarely is an active effort to regularly underscore the untiring work of women advocates and changemakers, whether online or offline. Girls’ Globe, a blog I write for that advocates and raises awareness of issues concerning women and girls across the world, frequently features blog posts about organizations and women working to secure a gender-equal future, and even organized a “Women Who Inspire” blog series to highlight the enlightened efforts of women changemakers. And The NextWomen, a women’s business magazine where I am an Editorial Assistant and Regular Contributor, boasts a “Female Heroes” section that specifically accents women leaders pursuing business and entrepreneurship-related paths. But excepting the few platforms that emphasize the power of women changing the world, where is this much-needed coverage?

I call for a concerted and regular effort to celebrate the work of women changemakers for the very reason I love conducting weekly interviews for Women LEAD’s Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight column. Spotlights like those in Marie Claire and on Women LEAD’s blog have the potential to encourage nascent women leaders to fight for the causes that matter to them, irrespective of any discrimination they may face, because they are armed with the knowledge that someone else has been there before them, succeeded, and inspired others. And when someone feels empowered by these personal stories of hope, passion, and resilience, who knows what phenomenal things they may be able to accomplish for women and girls now, or in the near future?

Read these Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlights with our Girls’ Globe bloggers and partners on Women LEAD’s Blog!

 

Featured image photo credit: Gates Foundation Flickr Account

Let's Change Our Perspective

Among many undertakings, Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services (CONNSACS) periodically trains volunteers to operate a sexual assault crisis hotline that is available 24 hours to victims of sexual assault in Connecticut. Volunteers are trained to understand the historical context of feminism, the intricacies and psychology of sexual assault, and basic counseling skills to assist callers in returning to a “pre-crisis” state. In addition to answering calls made to the hotline, volunteers may be required to meet victims at hospitals or police stations to provide support. The CONNSACS sexual assault crisis volunteers empower victims and provide information regarding short-term and long-term resources. CONNSACS consists of a coalition of various sexual assault crisis agencies located throughout Connecticut, whose mission is to “end sexual violence and ensure high quality, comprehensive, and culturally competent sexual assault victim services”(CONNSACS). Through community education such as primary prevention efforts, workshops and trainings, and victim assistance, and policy advocacy such as research, publications, and lobbying, CONNSACS works to ameliorate and end sexual violence (CONNSACS). CONNSACS’ overarching technique for preventing sexual violence is empowering victims. CONNSACS and its supporting agencies do not make decisions for victims, whose decision making power has been removed by their abusers. CONNSACS agencies validate victims, explore options, create safety plans for victims and their families, and provide counseling, resources, and information to assist in healing.

Photo Credit: GEMS

During my Certified Sexual Assault Crisis Counselor training at Women & Families Center (WFC), a CONNSACS community-based agency located in Meriden, CT, I viewed a documentary entitled, Very Young Girls, that depicts the incredible work of Rachel Lloyd, a survivor of forced prostitution. GEMS (Girls Educational & Mentoring Services), located in New York City and founded by Rachel Lloyd, assists girls and women in removing themselves from forced prostitution. Very Young Girls is an account of sexual exploitation in the United States, the work of GEMS, and the stories of multiple girls who were forced into prostitution in New York City. As an individual who is passionate about creating global gender equity, the documentary stood out because it reminded me that, sadly, sexual exploitation and gender inequity still hold a place in the U.S., when many of us chose to believe that it is a thing of the past. Although all of the material from the CONNSACS training is crucial to the success of working the hotline, the information gained from Very Young Girls could be used by anyone to join in the fight for gender equity.Very Young Girls helped myself and the CONNSACS volunteers understand society’s perspective on sexual assault and prostitution, and how we should look at things differently. The news, TV, Facebook, movies, and literature, too often, depict women as vulnerable, acting out for attention, crying rape, and symbolizing lust. It is usually the women’s fault. She asked for it. She’s lying. According to The National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women, only 2-8% of rape accusations in the U.S. are false. The CDC National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, estimated that 1.3 million women were raped in 2009, and the U.S. Department of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey found that the average annual number of rapes that were not reported to the police from 2006-2010 was 211,200. Additionally, Very Young Girls tells us that, at-risk young girls (average age 13) in the United States become victims of forced prostitution more than we think. According to the FBI, an estimated 293,000 youths in the United States were at-risk of commercial sexual exploitation in 2011. Let’s change our perspective. Let’s change society’s perspective.

Photo Credit: Joel Rogers Photography-Northwest Worldwide

In Very Young Girls, two young pimps videotape the abductions and abuse of girls in New York City, hoping to air their footage as a reality TV show. As a result of their poor decision-making, viewers get a real depiction of the characteristic procedure for exploiting and pimping young girls. Typically, the men begin by locating at-risk girls and treating them as their girlfriends. In some cases the girls are as young as 11 years old, and many have run away from home often fleeing other types of abuse. After a dominant abusive relationship is established, in which the girls completely rely on the men for food, clothing, and shelter, the men successfully force the girls to become prostitutes as a way to display their love and make money for the “couple”. The pimps control the mind, body, and income of the girls. The emotional abuse and psychological damage in the victims is clear through the documentary’s heart-wrenching interviews. (Eventually, the two men were arrested and the tapes were used as evidence against them in their trial.) On a more positive note, GEMS works to eradicate this abuse in New York City. Employing the underlying value of empowerment, similarly to CONSACCS, GEMS provides resources and opportunity for girls to escape imprisonment from their pimps. Please visit the GEMS website for more information.

Photo Credit: GEMS

The documentary highlights two important and coexisting themes from the CONNSACS training: the importance of empowering women without judgment and the very real tragedy of human trafficking and sexual exploitation in the United States. My CONNSACS training and the documentary, Very Young Girls, helped instill within me the following ideas that we should all keep in mind: think twice before judging someone, they might need your help; human trafficking and violence against women is STILL REAL in the United States, not only in far away places; we don’t need to let the status quo of gender inequity remain, not even in our colloquial language and jokes; and resources are readily at our disposal to prevent and curb the effects of sexual violence. CONNSACS and the numerous other sexual assault crisis centers across the United States provide us with signs of hope and social change amidst these tragedies. According to Arte Sana, an internationally recognized sexual assault victim advocacy organization based in Austin Texas, there are active sexual assault crisis centers in all 50 states! Even if we are not CONNSACS employees, hotline volunteers, or Rachel Lloyd, we need to remember that small contributions such as simply changing our perspective and reminding others to do so, too, is a big part of ending gender inequity across the world and in the U.S., where this epidemic still lives.

Please visit the CONNSACS, GEMS, Arte Sana, and Women & Families Center websites for further information and ways to show your support! A schedule of television airings for the documentary Very Young Girls can be found via the GEMS website.

The Freedom Center: Bridging the Past and Present of Slavery

As we approach the end of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month here in the US, I want to take a moment to highlight an institution that is making strides in raising awareness about the reality and horrors of slavery and human trafficking. And, it just so happens to be located in the modest Midwestern city that I live in, Cincinnati, Ohio!

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The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is situated on the Ohio River, which was the dividing line between slavery and freedom in the US up through the late 1800s, in the heart of downtown Cincinnati. The Freedom Center is commonly and erroneously referred to as a museum. But, it’s really more than an institution dedicated to objects and ideas of the past. The Freedom Center is an active symbol of consciousness, a platform from which voices can be heard, and a bridge linking the past and present. Oh yes, and it has the first permanent exhibit in the world dedicated to modern-day slavery and human trafficking.

This exhibit, Invisible: Slavery Today, truly gives a comprehensive view of what slavery and trafficking actually look like around the world today. The exhibit is a sensory experience, made to make you feel like you are a part of slavery, from dim lighting to the wooden crate walls to the mattresses with ‘Sex Trafficking’ scrawled across the bed springs and the miniature brothel models underneath. It’s a haunting homage to the dirty, seedy, exhaustive underbelly of an underground trade and the lives that are lost to it. The true personal testimonies of children forced to work in Indian rug factories, young women sold to Eastern European brothels and men forced to work in African mining fields will long stay in the back of your thoughts. In fact, the experience will haunt you long after you’ve left the building.

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Modern slavery and human trafficking takes many forms: domestic servitude, sex trafficking, forced labor, child soldiers, indentured servitude, child slavery. Together, they are a global injustice affecting an estimated 12-27 million people at any one time, a range so broad due to the clandestine nature of the trade. It also just so happens to be a multi-billion dollar business, generating $44.3 billion dollars each year.

Slavery and trafficking affect people of all ages, all backgrounds and ethnicity  and both sexes. It occurs in developed and developing countries alike, and particularly in times of instability like armed conflict.

Women and girls are most vulnerable to being trafficked and forced into slavery. Consider the statistics from the 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report :

  • 55% of forced labor victims are women and girls
  • 98% of sex trafficking victims are women and girls
  • 4.5 million victims are sexually exploited

The 2012 UNODC Global Report of Trafficking in Persons reports that:

  • Trafficking of girls accounts for 15-20% of the total number of victims from 2007-2010
  • The number of detected women victims has declined somewhat in recent years, however the number of girls has risen

Trafficking is a crime with a strong gender bias towards women and girls.

If you happen to end up in the area, come by and check out the Freedom Center. It’s an amazing learning experience that will educate you, depress you, but most importantly inspire you to take action to fight slavery and trafficking in your own community. Don’t miss the slavery and trafficking exhibit, and if you get there before March be sure to check out the Half the Sky temporary exhibit! Oh yes, you read that correct. There is an exhibit there devoted solely to the Half the Sky movement (and if you know anything about Girls’ Globe, you know we’re BIG fans of Half the Sky)!

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If visiting isn’t an option any time soon, the Freedom Center website offers a wealth of useful and practical suggestions on how you, no matter where you are in the world, can become a modern day abolitionist. If you haven’t yet watched the recent Google+ hangout, covered by our Girls’ Globe founder Julia Wiklander, featuring our heroes against slavery and human trafficking Nick Kristof, Somaly Mam, and Rachel Loyd. You may have notice that the moderator was Luke Blocher Director of Contemporary Slavery Initiatives at the Freedom Center!

Check out these Freedom Center partner organizations around the world who are working towards freedom:


…and learn more about slavery and trafficking with these book suggestions:

  • Half the Sky
  • A Crime So Monstrous
  • The Road of Lost Innocence

Consider how slavery has looked in your country in the past and how it compares to today. Does your country/ state/ city have a history of slavery? What about those around you? Who were the victims? Have you seen any signs of slavery today? How do the victims compare to those in the past? How does the work compare? Use the Freedom Center and these resources to start educating yourself and raise awareness in your community today.

Pictures taken by Sally Pope at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Google+ Hangout with Nicholas, Somaly and Rachel to discuss Slavery and Sex Trafficking

Google+

Today some of us at Girls’ Globe joined the Google+ Hangout with New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof, GEMS founder Rachel Lloyd and Cambodian anti-trafficking advocate Somaly Mam. The topic of discussion was modern-day slavery and sex trafficking and was moderated by Luke Blocher from The Freedom Center.

The group discussed domestic sex trafficking, factors contributing to the international sex trade and ways to help combat the problem, from high-level to grassroots actors.

Regarding what governments and state actors can do, Nicholas spoke about the importance of ending impunity. In most places there are laws in place that should protect trafficked victims and victims of sex slavery, the problem is that these laws are not being enforced. He mentioned the importance of putting pressure on governments to ensure that laws are followed and enforced. One example of this is Naming and Shaming. Through international shame, governments feel pressured to make a change, and this can actually have an impact on enforcing the legal framework in the country.

How do we decrease demand? When working to end sex slavery it is not often discussed how to address the demand side of the market. The Google+ Hangout crowd asked the panelists this question.

Rachel pointed out that it is critical to change attitudes and the way we view men who buy sex. We need to eliminate the boys are just being boys attitude and raise awareness of the crime that is being committed. She said that we need to socialize boys and young men differently, in a way that does not give them the right to buy other people. It is not a victimless crime. Rachel highlighted that we need to see and hear more from the men who do not buy sex, in order to change other men’s perspectives. Men need to rise up too!

Also to address the issue of demand, Nicholas said that there is a delusion that prostitutes are there on their own free will. He asserted that men need to understand what trafficking is really like and that people need to learn what is actually going on. Through education buying sex will become less sexy and more shameful, and thus decrease demand.

Should we distinguish between voluntary prostitution and trafficking? One thing that often arises when discussing sex trafficking is the statement that there are women who sell sex voluntarily. When talking about the modern-day sex trade I think this statement usually steers the conversation in the wrong direction. Instead of talking about how to help trafficked victims, people start arguing for the rights of women to sell their bodies. When this question was brought up by the audience, I think the panelists had some good arguments.

Rachel agreed that there are some women who voluntarily sell sex, but she argued that this is not where the global billion dollar industry is actually earning its money. She said that these women are really a minority.

To have a choice you must have options. Most of the women, children and men in the sex industry do not choose to be a part of it. They have no option. What we need to do is bring options to these people – the majority of “sellers” in the global sex industry are victims.

Nicholas pointed to the evidence that has shown that legalizing the sex trade does not necessarily minimize the black market trade that is still going on. That regulating the market does not ensure that underaged girls are not being forced into the trade. Also, when discussing the nature of prostitution, he said that the amount of people who do it voluntarily are minimal. He stated that those who enter into commercial sex in the US are usually underaged girls and those who enter into this market in India are usually coerced.

Somaly really underscored the importance of giving victims an option. By educating the girls in the brothels, protecting them from violence and supporting them with health care, we can make a difference. She emphasized the importance of education and raising awareness. We cannot change the practice if people have wrong perceptions of what is going on. There are victims in this world that need our help and Somaly stressed that if we want to do something we need to have patience and compassion.

Do you want to learn more and get involved?

Visit somaly.org, GEMS, and Half the Sky Movement, and read our related posts.

Or read the memoirs…

Girls’ Globe is all about education and raising awareness for change.

We want to encourage you to make a difference and we want to highlight the organizations that are dedicated to changing the lives of women and girls around the world.
Do you want to join us?
Send us an email: girlsglobe@gmail.com.

See the whole Hangout here: