Speaking the Unspeakable to Advance Human Rights

At the 2019 Women Deliver Conference, Kate Gilmore, the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said, “the silence with which they would enshroud the story of the unspeakable must be broken.”

And all of a sudden, I think of pink flipflops. I think of a young girl who stared at her pink flipflops as she spoke.

The girl was 13 and forced to marry a man in his 30s. She was suffering from malnutrition. I could have wrapped my pinkie around her wrist. Although poor, they had a farm that produced fresh milk, eggs and vegetables. But she was starving because she was not permitted to eat that nutritious food. She ate only the scraps left on her husband’s plate.

We worked with her on self-esteem, ultimately hoping to empower her to sneak bites of food while she was preparing her husband’s meals. I wanted her to get a divorce and an education. But all I could do was teach her to sneak handfuls of barley.  

This memory became personal. I still can’t let my daughter wear pink flipflops. And I don’t want to tell the story. How can I describe this girl’s physical and psychological torture? What words can I apply to child marriage – a practice that Kate has called “marriage not worthy of the name”?

At Women Deliver 2019, Kate Gilmore confessed that she doesn’t want to tell these stories either.

But, she argued, we must. Because if we do not speak the unspeakable, there will be “no end to slavery, no life-saving drugs for people living with HIV, no exposure of sexual violence at the hands of high priests, culture, church and commerce, no land rights for indigenous peoples, no independence from the colonizer, no marriage equality, no universal suffrage, no protection of rights for women in marriage, no protection of rights for children within the family, no Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

I feel a metaphysical camaraderie with Kate because her emotion and conviction reveal that she too has been there. And so, Kate knows how to muster the impossible when encountering the unspeakable. She can conjure smiles for children whose circumstances sicken her. She can focus on the eyes of mutilated women. She can comfort people there and then, and afterwards, almost miraculously, she can put the unspeakable into words.

I was first touched by Kate through a blog post about an encounter with a 14-year-old girl who, married at age 10 to a man aged 60, developed an obstetric fistula that left her incontinent. The girl’s family abandoned her, as did the husband. When Kate met her at a hospital, she longed for human connection, “just as would any of us who has nowhere to belong, no one to belong to, and nowhere to go.”

I felt this particular story in my bones because it brought up memories of mine. No matter how many times I encounter suffering, the tragedy never becomes normal. Rather than becoming desensitized, each encounter feels more and more personal. Each story feels harder to tell.

Kate, though, pulls it together. For years I’ve thought that there must be something she knows, some trick she has, to make it all bearable. I thought she must somehow be able to recover.

And so at the Women Deliver Conference I asked her to share her secret. She told me:

“I hope that each and every one of us who has had any exposure to those stories never recover until such time that those stories diminish in number, diminish in gravity, diminish in their global presence.”

Back at my hotel that evening I cried over her words. I did nothing to deserve my privilege, just as others did nothing to deserve their suffering. And yet our destinies are interwoven. Their stories are a part of mine.

This is my greatest takeaway from Women Deliver, my greatest learning from Kate Gilmore, and perhaps one of the most important lessons of my life. It is our responsibility to carry pain because without it we couldn’t speak the unspeakable.

The Power of Your Story: a Guide for Advocates

To kick off the Women Deliver 2019 Conference in Vancouver, Canada, Girls’ Globe & Say It Forward co-hosted The Power of Your Story: a Guide for Advocates. Our interactive session brought together advocates and storytellers from around the world to demonstrate just how powerful stories can be.

https://twitter.com/SayItForwardNow/status/1135225607908802560


To begin – a panel, moderated by Girls’ Globe blogger Sanne Thijssen. We heard moving personal stories from Alaa Al-Eryani, who talked about her experience of marriage and divorce as a young woman in Yemen, and from Paula Espinosa Valarezo, who described herself as a ‘legacy advocate’ thanks to the powerful women who came before her.

https://twitter.com/juliasglobe/status/1135312675804766209


Blessing Timidi, an SRHR advocate from Nigeria, took to the stage to explain how her story influences and strengthens her advoacy. She told us: “your story is never stagnant. Stories evolve all the time.”

https://twitter.com/SharonDAgostino/status/1135325529664565249


Julia Wiklander, Girls’ Globe’s Founder & President reminded us why it is so important to share your story, and went on to share her advice on building the confidence you need to do so.

https://twitter.com/SanneThijssen_/status/1135318147517599745


Next up were some practical tips from Girls’ Globe Editor-in-Chief Eleanor on writing your story down. Here are her top 5:

– Keep your inner critic in check
– Choose your publishing platform wisely
– Keep a journal
– Be personal
– Read as much and as widely as you can

https://twitter.com/GirlsGlobe/status/1135323969819676673


Finally, Emmy Award winning filmmaker Elisa Gambino shared loads of advice for filming your story:

1. Hold your phone steady
2. Decide if you want to look directly at the camera
3. Don’t fight the light
4. Invest in a small microphone
5. Don’t give too much or too little headspace

https://twitter.com/SharonDAgostino/status/1135327843485933570


Strengthening the ways you communicate your vision, skills and experiences can inspire others to invest in your work locally, nationally or internationally. Your personal narrative can be as compelling as your advocacy message.

Your power is in your story.

Join the conversation with #ThePowerOfYourStory.

Amy’s Second Birth Story: advocating for yourself

In Episode 13 of The Positive Birth Story Podcast, we hear once again from Amy. She tells the story of giving birth to her twin sons, explaining that she had to become a birth rebel to get the vaginal birth she so strongly believed in.

“My brain is silently screaming to my body: come on baby, come on baby, come on baby!”


The Positive Birth Story Podcast features empowering & positive stories about birth. Swedish midwife Åsa Holstein shares her in-depth knowledge of birth and speaks to brave women who share their personal stories. This is a podcast with women, for women about the super power that resides in all of us.

Find all episodes of The Positive Birth Story Podcast here.

Amy’s Birth Story – breathing in & breathing out

The Positive Birth Story Podcast is taking a road trip to the US! In this episode we talk to Amy about giving birth to her first child at home. Hers is a powerful story about owning your options and fully trusting birth.

“Get that solid foundation and team in place for you to have a birth experience where you feel heard and understood and listened to and respected and safe.”


The Positive Birth Story Podcast features empowering & positive stories about birth. Swedish midwife Åsa Holstein shares her in-depth knowledge of birth and speaks to brave women who share their personal stories. This is a podcast with women, for women about the super power that resides in all of us.

Find all episodes of The Positive Birth Story Podcast here.