She Chose to be Strong

She knew she could become weak,
but she had the choice to stay at her peak.
She knew she could rest,
but she had the choice to be her best.
She knew she could give up,
but she had the choice to stand up.
She knew she could wither,
but she had the choice to shimmer.
She knew she could hide,
but she had the choice to fight what’s inside.
She knew she could be ordinary,
but she had the choice to be legendary.
She knew she could be another dead soul,
but she had the choice to achieve her goal.
She knew she could always crave,
but she had the choice to be brave.
She knew she could close all the doors
but she had the choice to explore the abandoned floors.
She knew she could be a survivor,
but she had the choice to be a warrior.
She knew she could not withstand the storm; and so she chose to be the storm.
She knew she had the choice; and so she chose to be strong.

Empowering Women Means Supporting Stronger Families

Each and every day, it’s important to celebrate the stories of women who lift themselves, their families and their communities out of economic hardship – women who embody true resilience through their ingenuity, compassion and hard work.

At SOS Children’s Villages, I am inspired by countless women around the world. Women like Sherapy, a young mother from Zambia who grew up as 1 of 10 children on the outskirts of Lusaka. Her family struggled to make ends meet, scraping together a meagre living through small-scale farming. Her parents could not afford her school fees and so she had to drop out after 6th grade. Shortly after leaving school, she got married and started working.

Life was tough for us without a stable income,” Sherapy recalls. “I worked in a salon braiding hair but my real interest was in sewing. I looked forward to the day that I would learn to sew and open my own store. But my dream was fading quickly in the daily struggle for survival.

Sherapy’s story is not unique. According to the World Food Programme, 60% of people in Zambia live below the poverty line and 42% are considered to be extremely poor. For women, the situation is compounded by their lack of educational opportunities and lower level of economic, social and political power. They fight daily to support themselves and their families.

Photo credit: SOS Children’s Villages

However, Sherapy’s story has a different ending. She was accepted into the SOS Vocational Training Center program for sewing and design in Lusaka. This training center is one of many SOS vocational training programs around the world, providing education and job training to nearly 170,000 people each year.

Upon graduation, Sherapy was accepted to an entrepreneurship program, training her in critical skills to set up and manage her own business. She then won a contract to sew 1,000 school uniforms for the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School, giving her the financial freedom to open her own tailoring shop.

Photo credit: SOS Children’s Villages

Fast forward a few years and Sherapy now employs her sisters, who earn a decent income and learn valuable entrepreneurial skills by running the shop. In addition to generating a stable income, Sherapy supports her teenage daughters to further their education and to follow the careers of their choice.

One of my daughters says she wants to be a teacher, and the other one wants to become a doctor. I want to help them achieve their dreams. As for me, I would like to stop sewing one day and instead pass on this skill to other young people. I hope to be a tailoring instructor,” she says.

For me, Sherapy is a testament to how empowering a woman with tools and resources provides opportunities to her family and strengthens her whole community. Studies have shown that when women work, they invest 90% of their income back into their families, creating transformative change within entire communities.

As we acknowledge progress and honor women like Sherapy, let us not forget the need to press forward for women around the world. We must do more and work harder to give women the support they need to not just survive, but to thrive and transform their communities, just like Sherapy has done.

This post is by Anna Safronova for SOS Children’s Villages.

Women are Claiming Back the Streets of Mexico

Three months ago, I was sexually harassed on the street near my university campus. For several blocks, a man followed me as he tried to start a conversation at a very uncomfortable distance with invasive questions. After he unabashedly commented on my looks, I turned around to ask him whether he knew that what he was doing was street harassment. He told me I was overreacting as he was “only complimenting” me.

After that, things got worse. He continued following me, but he wasn’t calling me pretty anymore. Instead, he was thoroughly describing what he would do to me if we were alone. Some people stared at us. I’m sure some of them heard his words or saw my tears. But they did nothing.

When I told my story very few were surprised. In fact, many put the blame on me for walking on my own. When I asked about the possibility of checking CCTV footage from nearby stores, they called me dramatic. According to them, it wasn’t that big a deal. But it was.

Our authorities have made previous unsuccessful attempts to take a stand against the growing rate of gender-based violence in Mexico. However, in February this year the House of Representatives unanimously categorized street harassment as a felony in accordance with the General Law for Women’s Access to a Life Without Violence. It’s currently waiting for the Senate’s approval to come into force.

In 2017, Mexico City – ranked sixth worst megacity for women in the world – hosted UN Women’s global forum on safe cities for women and girls. Mexico City’s government has also gradually invested more in the subway’s ‘pink cars‘ program and launched the app ‘ViveSegura’ so that women can report where they’ve been victims of sexual violence in order to map risk-areas.

And so although the authorities are taking some action, it is still not enough. It’s important to keep in mind that Mexico City has a privilege that no other Mexican city has: it’s the capital, and therefore, it’s the center of attention. It’s one of the few cities in the country, if not the only one, that has studies on both sexual harassment and street harassment.

I believe part of the problem is that sexual violence is normalized to the point that it seems like an intrinsic way of thinking among many Mexicans. The ease with which perpetrators can commit these crimes is the result of a culture of normalization that includes victim blaming and telling women to fear public space because we are not safe there.

So, what’s missing when it comes to street harassment?

“I think authorities are trying to stop street harassment. But a real change would require a major structural change, and no one is doing it,” said Ana Pandal, co-creator of Organización Genera, a Puebla-based association that seeks to raise awareness of gender-based violence in Mexico. “We must focus on letting people know what street harassment is as well to ensure that both our society and authorities fully reject it.”

With this in mind, they launched the initiative #YoNoAcosoYoDenuncioYDefiendo (#IDontHarassIReportAndSupport). “We’re trying to support victims and to claim back public spaces. They’re not alone and their voices matter. We also want to encourage privileged groups to stop normalizing street harassment and to create a society of active bystanders who won’t remain silent,” added Sara Achik, co-creator of Organización Genera.

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Credit: Sara Achik

The way the campaign works is very simple. After creating a network in a city, the group can access files on Genera’s website where they will find stickers of the campaign’s logo and a girl walking confidently (designed by Mexican artist Valeria Chairez), as well as pamphlets that define and explain street harassment. The members of the group then put these stickers in places where women feel unsafe and post pictures on social media using the hashtags. The goal is to show that they’re not afraid and that public spaces are for everyone who wants to make use of them.

I walked by myself on the street where I was sexually harassed so that I could put up these stickers. I felt no fear. I stopped hearing the words of my harasser. All I could hear was a sentence in my head that repeated itself like a mantra: “the streets are ours”.

Time to Talk Numbers

Women play a key role in the reconstruction and development of a country’s infrastructure, in particular after a political or economic crisis, as well as during the aftermath of a natural disaster. In recent years, this has been most notably observed in post-genocide Rwanda, where women have a significant presence within the parliament and other legislative bodies.

Although the presence of women in decision making positions throughout the government is important, it is just as important for women to play a key role in the financial and daily operations of the household.  In a recent Foreign Committee Affairs Hearing entitled Beyond Micro-Finance: Empowering Women in the Developing World, the CEO of Women’s World Banking, an Associate Professor of Applied Economics and the Executive Director of Georgetown Women, Peace and Security discussed the importance of economic inclusion, national security and innovation.

It has been statistically shown that women have a higher tendency to invest in education, health and the general well being of their family and community members. As a result, providing economic independence, resources and education to the women in a community has the potential to lead to high levels of sustainability and prosperity.

It’s clear that women have an important role to play in the reconstruction and developement of infrastructure and socio-economic institutions, and these are critical towards creating greater stability and eventual prosperity within a country. Selly Kerim, an economist and research engineer, points out the importance of health, education and employment among individuals from varying socioeconomic backgrounds.

Why is it important to focus on human stories when we discuss economic, political and social global issues? Can’t we simply rely on statistics and analysis to provide accurate measurements? After hearing Selly explain one of her many projects in the sparsely populated country of Mauritania, I was intrigued by the level of passion in her voice as well as her clear explanation of the intertwining roles of human development and economics. She is a Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) fellow, holds a PHD in finance and development economics and has a sincere passion for empowering women and children through education. Selly explained why she decided to create the first academic survey of governance and living conditions in Mauritania, and for a brief moment economics made complete sense to me.

I decided to follow up on my interest in the sphere of economics and watch the Council on Foreign Relations Women & Foreign Policy Facebook discussion on Inclusive Economies. Rachel Vogelstein, Director of CFR’s Women and Foreign Policy Program and Jeni Klugman, a development economist, discussed the report entitled Building Inclusive Economies. They highlight some of the major benefits of the full participation of women within economies as well as various indicators which influence this such as employment, pay range, types of work, education as well as cultural, religious and legal barriers.

Women not only shape the economy. Women are economists with a unique ear for the human voice and a mind to measure what matters.