A School Project to Remember

My name is Isobel Mathews. I am thirteen years old and I advocate for global women’s rights.

Earlier this year, my English teacher assigned a project that changed me. Every student was asked to research a women’s organization. After some initial browsing, I decided to do my project on Women for Women International (WfWI).

I picked a global organization partly because I grew up traveling. I was born in Australia and my family lived in the United Kingdom for six years before we moved to Massachusetts. Living in different countries gave me the chance to see and appreciate different cultures.

When I researched WfWI I saw that they work in eight different countries and in each of those countries they work with women who are marginalized by poverty, violence, or war. They have a one-year program that gives women vocational and business skills and teaches them about their rights and their health. WfWI’s program allows women to earn an income and stand on their own feet, which is incredibly important during and after war and conflict when people lose their livelihoods.

I have always been passionate about helping people and uplifting other women so the work that WfWI does grabbed my attention right away. 

After doing my research I gave a presentation in my class and I also spoke about WfWI at our school assembly. Now, I speak about the organization and about how we need to remember and work for women’s rights around the world in my community at any chance I get! I feel proud telling my relatives, my friends, and my teachers about the organization I have learnt about and I use it as an opportunity to say that we have a responsibility to reach out to women everywhere. It is not enough to focus on women’s rights here at home. Our rights and our struggles are connected. Women everywhere have had to fight hard for their rights, and progress in one country can help push for progress in another. We also have a responsibility to help each other. We need to come together and demand equality. Together, our voices are stronger.

It is especially important for us to use our voices to support women who are less fortunate than us. During my research, I learned about the tough decisions that women survivors of war must make. Many of them have to leave their homes in search of safety. Some of them have to choose between feeding their families or seeking education for their kids. To rebuild their lives, they need support systems. Everyone needs help. No one can do it all by themselves. And every one of us can do something to make it easier for others.

Some people might say that they don’t know how to help or they are too young, but I learned that you always have power. No matter where you are or what situation you are in, you can do something, even if it is small. You have a say and you can raise awareness. You have the power to make change, whether it is through a sign that you put in your yard, or a tweet that you send out, or a letter that you write to your legislator. You can also write about these issues on social media, or talk to your teachers, classmates and community. Even the little things can help. For example, I am urging my parents to sponsor a woman through WfWI’s program. For $35 a month any one can sponsor a woman survivor of war to participate in WfWI’s program and learn skills that will transform her life. Once you sponsor a woman, you can write her letters and learn about her progress throughout the vocational, business, health and rights trainings. It is one small way to create a big change.

 

Isobel Mathews is a seventh-grade student at Charles River School in Dover, Massachusetts. She’s a proud advocate for women’s rights and Women for Women International.

Denormalizing Female Pain

Every time I go home, my mother cooks me my favorite food. As she makes the saucy cauliflower Manchurian, I often notice burns and cuts on her arm. When I scold her about the scrapes caused while slicing a particularly slippery zucchini, or the recent burn on her index finger from flipping flatbread, my thin-framed mother jokes about its triviality, considering it nothing. When I touch it and ask if it hurts, she winces and shrugs it off, because the pain is expected – a routine and normal part of her life.

There is a telling story in my mother’s cuts and burns that is representative of the everyday female experience.

From a very young age, women are taught to withstand pain; a punch from a boy signals affection, and the cramps from a first period symbolize impending womanhood. Through small steps of socialization, we are led to believe that pain is a necessary component of our lives, that it makes us stronger and prepares us for more pain to come.

As we go through puberty, suffering from more stomach pains, and as we watch our mothers, aunts, and grandmothers, shrug off burns that must hurt, we learn to develop a threshold – a line that we are supposed to cross before the pain becomes more than normal.

Every month, when menstrual cramps make it impossible for us to get up, we are told to nap, and to embrace the pain, as a training session for childbearing. But as soon as the pain from the debilitating cramps tips over into fainting, we panic.

Why is it that we wait until someone faints or worse to take the pain from cramps seriously? Instead of teaching each other to embrace the pain as normal, why don’t we try to hear the stories of the cramps from the beginning and encourage solutions like OTC painkillers and heating pads?

This idea of assuming normalcy in pain doesn’t just impact the way we interact with each other on a daily basis. It translates to concrete consequences on our health as well. In 2014, over 90% of women in chronic pain felt that the healthcare system discriminated against them, and 65% felt that doctors took them less seriously, simply because of their gender. Women struggled to prove to doctors that their suffering was real, which delayed their proper treatment – by as much as almost 20 minutes in an acute emergency situation.

The more I read these studies, the more I realized that no matter what women do, their pain is discounted and largely ignored. And it is because doctors fall for the same stereotypes that we do. When I think of how women are considered to be more tolerant of pain, I think of my interactions with my mother, my grandmothers, my mentors, and my friends. I think about the times I have failed to notice the expression on my mother’s face as a drop of oil from the Manchurian accidentally hits a recent wound on her finger, even when she says it doesn’t hurt. I recall the number of times I, too, have shrugged off my friends’ complaints about their cramps, regarding them as exaggerating or being too dramatic for something that is totally “normal”, something that they should be able to bear.

There are many times I have unintentionally ignored the small calls from help that many women in my life have uttered – due to the stereotypes that have taught me to think of women’s physical pain as simply part of their lives.

Stereotypes, though, no matter how ingrained they may be, can be slowly chipped away. And that’s true for women’s pains as well. We, as women, can help each other by beginning to take others’ accounts and stories seriously. It can be as small as asking a fellow girlfriend about her cramps and making sure she gets a heating pad. Or offering a helping hand with cooking, when our mothers’ cuts and burns are especially visible, so that they can take a break.

The changes may seem minute, but every gesture matters. And if undertaken by many, they could lead to a world where women’s pain is readily believed, their care is fairly delivered, and their silent suffering is justly voiced.

What Would You Say to Your 19-Year-Old Self?

There are moments in life when you simply need to remind yourself that you are enough. In order to do that, you have to have enough self confidence to come up with the words that are both comforting and inspiring.

I’ve been told that nothing is impossible, but also that certain things aren’t meant for me. I’ve been told to follow my heart, but also to always be mindful of others. I’ve been told to say what I really want and to move in that direction, but also to move with caution.

I’ve been told many conflicting things, but I am finding out that the most important words come from within. What do I tell myself when I am not sure of the next step, or when I am scared to articulate my thoughts and turn them into actions? I tell myself to move. Just move. Take a step, and move. Be bold.

Forget your failures and mistakes because they are over. Sometimes we have to fail over and over until our failures are no longer setbacks; they simply push us closer to our goals.

Ask yourself…what are my goals and for how long am I willing to pursue them?

It took me many years to invest in myself and to appreciate my own value. But once I knew my own worth there were no more excuses. I don’t have many profound words of wisdom or a wonderful magic toolbox to fix every unforeseeable problem. But if I could sit down with my 19-year-old self, I would tell her how special she is and that there is no need to be so unsure. I would tell her to just be selfish.

Be selfish, know your worth and love yourself. Wait for no one to validate you, just make sure you have your own stamp of approval.  Stop hesitating and move boldly towards your goals. The world is your drawing board so dream big, hold on tight to those dreams and pursue your passions with unwavering focus and perseverance.

Most importantly, I would tell her: “Some things aren’t that serious. Just smile!”

If you could sit down with your 19-year-old self today what advice would you give?

Cover photo credit: Wynter Oshiberu 

Hello Spring, Hello Sexual Harassment

London is at it’s most beautiful in the spring. After many dreary months the city fills up with candy-floss blossom and slightest breeze scatters pink and white confetti over the pavements. Parks fill with daffodils. Occasionally the sun shines for two days in a row – although this leaves everyone confused and suspicious. Londoners begin barbecuing everything within arm’s reach (and inexplicably wearing sunglasses on the tube).

But one of the very best things about spring is the liberation from the shackles of the Winter Wardrobe it brings. Freed from socks and boots, toes wriggle joyfully in sandals once again. Coats are confidently packed away til next year (or ‘til it randomly snows in June). Legs escape the prison of thick black tights, shoulders are bared, noses are burnt.

But flash so much as a bit of ankle in springtime and it won’t be long before you’re reminded of a far less welcome consequence of the warm weather. Not absent in winter by any means, just rarer – and more subdued. Welcome back, spring. Welcome back, regular sexual harassment and verbal abuse from total strangers in the street. How I have not missed you.

This year seems particularly bad. For the past couple of weeks my body has felt like it must have a sign that says Open for Public Review. Only I didn’t write that sign. I don’t know who did.

First came the standard whistles/smirks/”alright darling“s that are so frequent that they blend into the fabric of daily life as a young female in the UK. Then, two men in a van drove in circles round the streets to follow me as I walked home from work. On circle one they blew kisses and winked at me. Circle two was an observation on my appearance. Circle three was an obscenity and on the fourth they called me a miserable slut.

I wanted to feel angry and indignant, but mainly I felt very frightened. I wanted to keep my head up and walk tall or to shout something cuttingly clever back at them, but I was shaking and my mouth was dry and I was looking around for the reassuring sight of strangers. The only people I could see were construction workers at the building site at the end of the road. They sat talking in a row on a wall and fell silent as I approached, having watched the whole thing.

I put my head down. Their eyes bored into me as I passed and I suddenly felt very, very sick of feeling like a sad gazelle being eyed by lions. Very, very sick of being looked at in that way that can only be described as predatory. Under his breath, one of them said: “lighten up, for f**k’s sake“.

It’s not a special story and it’s certainly not a rare one. I don’t know exactly how often things like this happen to my friends because it’s difficult to talk about it. There is stigma attached to saying you’ve been whistled at in the street, because it still holds some awful suggestion amongst women that you’re implicitly describing yourself as good-looking. It’s difficult to talk about it with men because it doesn’t happen when they’re with me.

A friend once told me a story from his childhood. He told me that he’d been playing football but had scored an own-goal, causing his team to lose the entire match; a devastating humiliation for any 8-year-old. Determined to cheer this little boy up, the football coach let him sit in the front seat of his van and they went for a drive. The extra special treat? Honking the horn at the women they drove past.

I was disturbed by this the moment I heard it, but the more times I am thrust into a public conversation about my body that I didn’t choose to be in, the more it disgusts me.  I don’t ever want to have a son in a world where little boys are taught that abuse is entertainment. I don’t ever want to have a daughter in a world where being leered and shouted at is normal, and obscene threats of sex are quotidian and shrugged off.

London really does look beautiful in spring. I just wish the season didn’t declare my body open for judgement, simply because I’ve taken off my tights.

International Day for Maternal Health and Rights: A Call for Action

Post written by Serra Sippel and Bergen Cooper.

The International Day for Maternal Health and Rights was launched in 2014 by the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) with other global sexual and reproductive health and rights organizations with support growing every year since.

On behalf of the International Day for Maternal Health and Rights Steering Committee (including the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, Ibis Reproductive Health, Maternal Health Task Force, Pathfinder International, and The White Ribbon Alliance) we are calling on the United Nations to support universal, comprehensive, respectful, and rights-based maternal health by officially recognizing April 11th as International Day for Maternal Health and Rights.

Maternal rights violations continue to persist and the United Nations’ recognition of this day would bring much-needed attention and funding to address health and rights challenges so many women face.

Approximately 303,000 women die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth each year, and most of these deaths are preventable. Over the past decade the evidence for how women too often experience disrespect and abuse during childbirth has grown. Women’s experiences in pregnancy and childbirth are complex. Where they live, their provider experience, local laws and customs are all factors in what makes up each woman’s unique experience. These factors can negatively affect women and we must stand with them and their right to respectful care.

Supporting maternal health and rights not only empowers women but their children and communities too. The Zika virus, to take just one example, is a threat to women, children, and families around the world. It threatens women during pregnancy, childbirth, and post-partum. However, the World Health Organization no longer classifies it as a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” There is good cause for concern that Zika will soon be ignored, leaving women without critical information and care. Official recognition of the International Day for Maternal Health and Rights would help alleviate this problem.

A new threat to maternal health and rights is President Trump’s global gag rule, also known as the Mexico City Policy. The new policy prohibits foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive U.S. global health assistance from using non-U.S. funds to counsel, refer or provide women with information or services related to abortion. Studies of past global gag rules have shown that the policy is associated with increased unsafe abortion and decreased access to contraceptives. With the new global gag rule expanding across all global health assistance, we anticipate that the health impact on women trying to space pregnancies safely and those who are pregnant could be dire.

The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and other countries have already stepped up to help fill the funding gap that Trump’s global gag rule has left when it comes to life-saving reproductive health services. By recognizing April 11th as International Maternal Health and Rights Day, the United Nations would signal to the world that it also intends to increase its attention to the health and rights of women globally.

The United Nations has the power to amplify the voices of women worldwide. This year, as we commemorate the fourth annual International Day for Maternal Health and Rights, we look to you for timely, necessary, and permanent official recognition.

Break Barriers to Maternal Health and Rights from CHANGE on Vimeo.

Cover photo credit: Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE)

Who Says I’m a Bad Mother?

Women may often be described as goddess-like, but perfect we are not. When my daughters were born I was ill-prepared and scared, and I momentarily felt like I lost a sense of myself.

Don’t get me wrong – my little miracles were precious to me from the first hint that I was pregnant, but it was a major life change. Sharing these mixed emotions seemed to perplex people, as though I should have been ever-joyous, selfless and nurturing, even despite sleep deprivation and my body being transformed beyond recognition.

I was a working mother who also attended school but I wanted to ensure the girls were my first priority. I made sure I was home most days after they were dismissed from school. We spent our afternoons doing homework, laughing and talking as they eagerly told stories of their day. Each night, I was thankful that I was able to read to them, pray with them and tuck them in. And as soon as they dozed off, I cracked my schoolbooks open.

Everyone familiar with my dreadful schedule would wonder, “You’re so hard working and brave. How do you do it?” I didn’t think I was either of those things. I just knew I wanted to show my children what determination looked like and how love felt.

The girls quickly moved into their teenage years, which brought on some unexpected challenges. I suppose that’s the art of being a teenager, doing the unexpected. And this is when everything shifted. I was no longer seen as hard working or brave.

Instead, people began to insinuate that maybe I had done something wrong. No one seemed to consider the neurological and hormonal changes all teenagers go through. No one seemed to remember how hard it was to navigate friendships and relationships in high school.

Well, maybe if I were around more, they’d hint, maybe if I didn’t go to school. Maybe I should have been a stay-at-home mother. Maybe I should have been more attentive, they’d imply, maybe more emotional. Some wondered whether I should have allowed the girls to have more freedom, while others said maybe I shouldn’t have allowed them to have so much. And slowly over time, I too began to question my abilities as a mother.

I also wondered why people judged me so harshly. Yet, in my heart, I knew the reason why. Society has developed an unattainable definition of the role of mothers: all sacrificial, never tiring, never stopping and relentlessly giving. We are supposed to raise our children perfectly, to get them through their many milestones seamlessly and to maintain composure gracefully, all the while pretending that none of this is detrimental to our own well-being.

There were times I locked myself in my bathroom and wept until my brown face turned a shade of deep red, wondering what I could’ve done to turn things around. I considered quitting school or sleeping less to get more done. Guilt rippled through my body, leaving knots in my stomach and tightly wound blood vessels throbbing in my temples.

Despite all of this, I knew that teenage hormones are powerful, that raising children isn’t linear, and that despite sometimes succumbing to guilt, everything wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my fault that my children sometimes had a hard time in class or that boys were sometimes crass and girls were sometimes mean. It wasn’t my fault that they sometimes felt depressed, as heartbreaking as it was to witness.

My responsibility was to be there to help them when they fell, and sometimes even to catch them when I knew the fall would be too hard. It was my responsibility to listen, to love and to share my wisdom. And knowing this reassures me that although I’ve made mistakes, every imperfect thing in their lives was not due to my inadequacies, and things happen even despite my attempts to protect them. Being a mother is not about perfection. In fact, it is an imperfect art and a glorious blessing.