Yemen, Feminism & Power with Lina Abirafeh

“The challenge with Yemen is this: it is a forgotten emergency.”

Lina Abirafeh is the Executive Director of the Arab Institute for Women. She is an expert in gender issues in emergencies, with 20 years experience working in conflict, post-conflict and natural disaster settings around the world. She’s also an author, researcher, and influential voice in the global gender policy sphere. You can hear more about Lina’s work in her Ted Talk.

At the Women Deliver 2019 Conference, Girls’ Globe’s Ashley Lackovich-Van Gorp had the opportunity to sit down with Lina. She shares her expertise on the situation facing women and girls in Yemen today, explaining that they remain disproportionately vulnerable, despite all of the rhetoric around preventing violence and protecting women.

“We literally don’t put our money where our mouth is, and I think Yemen has been the most stark example of that.”

Ashley asks Lina to explain how senior leaders like herself can ‘pass the power’ to the next generation of activists. Her answer? They already have it.

“I see that power already, what I do is hold up the mirror and show them the power they have. I think they don’t know what they’re capable of, they don’t see it.”

Lina’s voice is strong, clear and inspirational. Her final words are an important reminder to all those who feel passionately human rights and gender equality:

“Everyone has a voice, but not everyone has that microphone.”

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 Maverick Collective: Bringing Cancer Screening to Uttar Pradesh

At Women Deliver 2016, Girls’ Globe attended the launch of The Maverick Collective, an initiative by Population Services International (PSI) and the brainchild of HRH Crown Princess Mette-Marit of Norway, Melinda Gates and Kate Roberts. Borne of frustration about a lack of follow-through on ideas for change, the collective aims to bring philanthropy to a new generation of donors, those who are actively engaged with their projects on the ground.

Girls’ Globe was able to talk to some of the inaugural members of the Maverick Collective, which has projects spanning across the globe. The following is an interview with Kathryn Vizas, who tackled the issue of cervical cancer in one of the poorest and most populous regions of India. 

GG: How did you hear about The Maverick Collective?

KathrynVizasKV: It was 3 and a half years ago, I was at  a women’s conference in New York which I sort of decided to attend on a whim because some of the topics seemed interesting. My husband and I had recently relocated at that point, so I hadn’t gone back to work, and I was taking a gap year, or so I thought. So as I said, on a whim, I thought it would be fun to go to this conference. And Kate and Her Royal Highness were there talking about this ‘Maverick’ concept.

It was an idea then. It had some funding from the Gates Foundation but they had no members. An email went around the conference attendees saying if you’re interested in a novel philanthropic initiative, we’ll be meeting with people one on one, and you can sign up, so I did. And after I talked with them, I left the meeting room sort of scratching my head thinking – what can I bring to a global health organization?

I thought the work was fascinating but I sort of didn’t get the concept so I spent the next 6 months in conversation with Population Services International trying to understand the idea, and I was invited to go to Myanmar on a learning journey. So we were in the slums, schlepping around, dying in the heat together. And that was where I got an insight into how PSI works on the ground, it was quite impressive.

GG: Can you tell me what your project is about?

KV: My project is a cervical cancer screening project. I chose that because my father was an oncologist. He had always been a strongly against smoking, so I grew up having a father who was not only a physician but an advocate. So cancer is something that I felt strongly about joining the fight in, and I particularly resonated with the cervical cancer project.

“It seemed like a justice issue, really – that in the developed world we have screening that’s readily available and we’re educated about it and the women in these other countries don’t. And because of that, they’re dying, and they die in a really painful, awful way at an age where their children and their families still need them.”

Typically, a woman is still exposed when she’s a teenager to the HPV virus for the first time, and then it takes 20 years or so because it’s very slow-growing, but once it reaches a certain point, there isn’t a good treatment, so they’re dying in their 40s. It just seemed so unfair and so wrong that we had a solution but had not, as a global community, been able to scale it to reach the millions of women who need to be screened.

Our project is in a state called Uttar Pradesh, which is one the poorer states in India, and also the most populous. It’s over 200 million – and just for comparison, the US population is a little over 300 million. We work in the private sector, but because the government of Utter Pradesh is very interested in fighting non-communicable diseases, particularly for women’s health, they have partnered with us. We have trained their people and helped them launch a program to do cervical cancer screening. 


GG: Did you imagine your project would be successful when you started? 

KV: When we started, to be honest, I was a little clueless. I didn’t know what we were up against, I didn’t know how difficult it was. I felt more like, “the solution’s so obvious, this will work.” But actually, training the physicians on how to screen was pretty easy for us to do with our expertise, but the communication piece – convincing women and their families why they needed to be screened when they’re perfectly healthy and don’t have any symptoms – was really hard.

GG: What’s next for your project?

KV: The thing I’m most excited about right now is I’ve built into the project design hiring an outside firm that specializes in scaling projects. And they’re going to analyze our project, which was just a pilot, and put together guidelines on how to scale this, so I want to take that to big donors and big foundations.

GG: If you could give any advice to someone wanting to get involved with TMC, what would you say?

KV: Not to be shy about lack of experience in global health, because all of us bring experience – particularly those of us who have had careers – that can help with project management, can help to be a voice that is slightly outside the process and thinking about things a little differently, and not to be shy about having a hand in helping design the project.

I know some of the newer Maverick members think, ‘well, these guys do this every day for a living, it’s sort of presumptuous for me to be like ‘well what about x and what about y?’” but each of us has a lot to offer to the project design.

“It really helps to feel engaged in it, because if you’re engaged, you’re a better advocate.”

And I think that’s something we can really do well, we can advocate for these initiatives, because we’ve actually been involved.

Girls’ Globe is present at the Women Deliver Conference, bringing you live content straight from the heart of the action. If you can’t be there in person, you can be a part of Women Deliver through the Virtual Conference, by hosting an event in your hometown, and by engaging online using #WDLive and #WD2016.

All photos courtesy of PSI / The Maverick Collective.

Empowerment as a Luxury Item

‘Empowerment’ has become a buzzword in feminist circles, a rallying cry to improve the lives of women in rural developing countries as well as those trying to shatter glass ceilings in Fortune 500 companies. Four syllables capture the very abstract, but vital goal that feminists and organizations worldwide are trying to accomplish.

Like anything that has gained traction in the public consciousness, many have capitalized on ’empowerment’. A search for ‘feminist products’ will bring up novelty items like a mug with the words ‘male tears’ emblazoned on it, and Etsy has multiple pages worth of accessories and apparel dedicated to wearing feminism, quite literally, on your sleeve.

This isn’t a problem in and of itself, but it encapsulates the increasingly cosmetic standard of the word. This doesn’t just redirect our attention to how we’re using feminism to make ourselves look, rather than think. It spills over into a bigger phenomenon of a superficial feminism, one that steers clear of the messy, unattractive and painful problems beneath it.

For example, Hilary Clinton should be a resounding victory for feminism, as a woman who has managed to be a serious candidate for presidential nomination not once, but twice. And during her tenure as secretary of state, she was a champion for women’s rights. However, in her campaign, where she sells herself hardest, she’s ignored basic, but crucial, policies that have an indelible impact on American women.

One often-cited example is her stance on the minimum wage. Truthout reported she supported a $12 minimum wage rather than the hoped-for $15 that Sanders endorses. Women are among the lowest paid workers, and that $3 would have a huge impact on their quality of life.

Additionally, Wal-Mart is the US’ largest private employer, and also staunchly against unionization. This doesn’t immediately strike one as a feminist issue, but labor issues and feminist issues are often tightly intertwined, and unionization is said to protect women, to an extent, from discrimination in the workplace. Clinton was, at one point, on the board of Wal-Mart. While she promoted gender diversity in terms of numbers of workers, she did little to enable unionization.

In another high-profile case of feminism-for-purchase, the controversy around Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In‘ showed the holes in an upper-middle class movement. The book spent months on bestseller lists, encouraging women to spend time pushing themselves ahead in their careers, engaging their spouse in child-rearing, and not worrying about being liked.

While it sounded empowering, some were rankled by Sandberg’s privileged assumptions. The Washington Post noted:

Sandberg is the Harvard-educated chief operating officer of Facebook and a self-avowed feminist who wants to transform the role of women in the workplace. She is also incredibly wealthy — reportedly worth hundreds of millions — and is too often tone-deaf to her voice of privilege. This makes it hard to close the distance between lucky her and the women who could most benefit from her advocacy….By the time she describes the pangs of guilt as a mother working outside the home — some of her most poignant passages — it is impossible to forget that she, like many of the female friends she quotes, is a wealthy, white, married woman with a “vast support system.” Surely she could have included a story or two about successful women who are more likely to have been born to nannies than to hire them. Or at least more who didn’t graduate from the Ivy League.”

Soon after, it was discovered the Sandberg wasn’t paying interns at the Lean In Foundation. The implication being that you were welcome to Lean In if your parents could support you during an unpaid internship.

As women, we have to be careful not to let ’empowerment’ become a luxury good, to be distributed to those who can afford it, with only a lucky few further down the social ladder maybe benefiting from the work of NGOs and outreach programs. Physical displays of solidarity are indeed encouraging, but make minor – if any – impact. Real empowerment does not fall solely on the shoulders of our politicians or foundations, but asks for active effort from ordinary citizens, in ways both big and small.

Empowerment can be as simple as donating the $3 you’d spend on a necklace to a charity, or buying ethically sourced products (though that’s out of reach of many’s budgets). In that case, it may mean volunteering your time or mentoring young women, or something as simple, but beautiful, as babysitting your neighbor’s kid a for an afternoon a week so she can take a course or do some errands or simply take a breather.

Empowerment isn’t a product, and often isn’t sexy. It is more in actions and thoughtfulness, and done right, shouldn’t be raking in profits for any one person. In the lead up to the Women Deliver Conference, we should remember who needs to be empowered most – not Sandbergs, not Clintons – but the working moms living in our buildings, struggling to get through the day; our countrymen, scraping by on minimum wage; our fellow women worldwide, eking out existences and enduring brutality, all while many of us browse Amazon to proudly display our sense of feminism.

Girls’ Globe will be present at the Women Deliver Conference, bringing you live content straight from the heart of the action. If you can’t be there in person, you can be a part of Women Deliver through the Virtual Conference, by hosting an event in your hometown, and by engaging online using #WDLive and #WD2016. 

Featured photo credit: Carlos Alfaro / Flickr

The Quest for Gender Equality: Get Angry About the Present and Keep Going!

I can’t forget the day I met Gloria Steinem. Having barely recovered from the flu, I rolled out of bed too late to wash my hair. Behind on a work deadline, I was preoccupied by Everything-I-Had-To-Do later in the day. The babysitter had to leave earlier than originally planned, which meant that either my partner or I would be rushing out of the event early. As I downed my cough medicine and blew my nose I had second thoughts about going.

Still, I went. Realizing I would have the opportunity to speak with Gloria, I planned to tell her about my work as an activist for girls and women. But when I actually stood next to her, I surprised myself by thanking her for her own tireless work that spans decades. “Gratitude,” Gloria once said, “never radicalized anybody. I don’t care if they recognize the past, I just want them to get angry about the present and keep going.” This quote ran through my mind as I spoke to the feminist icon who said it. I felt young and silly.

Later I realized I wasn’t actually expressing gratitude, but recognition that my activism is connected to hers just as her activism is connected to mine. When talking with Gloria, I realized that every person who raises her/his voice for our rights is a vital piece of the equality puzzle.

Meeting Gloria Steinem taught me that we are in this together. 


Next week, I will arrive in Copenhagen for the 2016 Women Deliver Conference, which will bring together world leaders, advocates, policymakers, journalists, young people, researchers and leaders of the private sector and civil society to showcase what it means and how it works when women and girls become the focus of development efforts. I’ll be with women and men older than Gloria and girls and boys younger than my babysitter.

This conference looks to the future and recognizes that our current momentum is a result of both past and present activism. There is even a plenary, Learning and Working Across Generations, that will explore intergenerational collaboration and impact.

As I write I’m thinking about the connection between Katherine Switzer and Kiran Gandhi. Katherine was the first woman to run the 1967 Boston Marathon, and during the marathon a race official even tried to physically stop her from running. She broke a taboo, challenged gender stereotypes and ran for equality. Kiran, who will be giving TED-style talk at the conference, ran the 2015 London Marathon while menstruating without wearing a pad or tampon. Breaking a taboo and advocating for girls and women without access to menstrual supplies, Kiran also ran for equality. Their actions represent two different generations and two different points in the struggle for equality, and yet these are two equally important pieces in the equality puzzle. Gloria Steinem’s work also represents a piece of the puzzle, and so does mine- and yours.

Girls’ Globe will be present at the Women Deliver Conference, bringing you live content straight from the heart of the action. If you can’t be there in person, you can be a part of Women Deliver through the Virtual Conference, by hosting an event in your hometown, and by engaging online using #WDLive and #WD2016. 

Featured photo credit: Ms. Foundation for Women / Wikimedia Commons