3 Books to Turn You into a Women’s Rights Fighter

I have a whole stack of books which motivated me to dedicate my life to my biggest passion – fighting to end gender-based violence. Here are my top 3 recommendations:

1. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Be taken on an odyssey through Africa and Asia, meeting some extraordinary women along the way, in this fascinating book by two Pulitzer prize-winning authors. They portray the lives of different women –  survivors of forced prostitution, gang rape, acid attacks – and educate us about the abuse faced by many women around the world.

From the Cambodian teenager sold into sex slavery, to the Ethiopian woman who suffered devastating injuries in childbirth, the reader is shown not just these horrendous experiences, but also a glimmer of hope. The Cambodian girl eventually escapes from the brothel and, with the assistance of an aid group, builds a thriving retail business that supports her family. The Ethiopian woman has her injuries repaired and in time becomes a surgeon. The main message of this book is that the key to economic progress lies in freeing women’s potential. After all, “women hold up half the sky”!

2. From Outrage to Courage by Anne Firth Murray

This book is a bible in the world of women’s rights. In fact, it’s such a detailed study of women’s health in poor countries, that it became the blueprint for a course in international women’s health at Stanford University – which the author now teaches. The book features shocking but true stories about unequal access to nutrition and health care, demographic imbalances and the culture of son-preference, early childbirth and maternal death, all types of gender-based violence, the effects of war and refugee status on women, and the feminization of ageing.

What makes this book unique is that it does not simply state grim statistics. At the end of each chapter, the reader is introduced to positive stories of change grouped into countries, and short summaries of the work of NGOs. Anne Murray has travelled to majority of the places she is writing about, and knows her stuff – I once emailed her a question regarding a specific problem in Sri Lanka, and she replied to me with a list of people who could help!

Anne Firth Murray understands each and every problem down to the grassroots level, and has systematically organised this information into an invaluable textbook of the most urgent female health problems, which women face from birth till death.

3. Share: The Cookbook that Celebrates Our Common Humanity by Women for Women International

This feels like travelling the globe and popping into your head into different people’s kitchens – with a powerful story behind each recipe. Produced by Women for Women International, with recipes donated by many celebrities (such as Annie Lennox and Paul McCartney), the book also gives information on women’s lives in many war-affected countries, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Kosovo.

It is such a gentle but powerful tool to bring the story of a sister from another part of our planet close to our hearts. “Like so many good things, this book began at a kitchen table” say the editors, and by reading we feel ourselves sharing a table with many women, and it is an empowering connection.

It doesn’t matter what kind of book makes your heart beat faster and encourages you to stand up for women, the important thing is that you do stand up.

My hope is that female oppression will be something our daughters only ever read about, and never actually experience.

Not Today

This smile made you believe that everything was fine, but not today.
For today, my lips have learnt to rest the gentle curves of this fake smile.
These eyes made you believe that the hurt was momentary, but not today.
For today, my veiled eyes have learnt to feel relief for a while.

These hands held yours, ever so tightly to fix your broken pieces, but not today.
For today, my hands have learnt to liberate the pain.
These footsteps followed your path for a long time, but not today.
For today, my steps have learnt to find their way back home again.

This soul filled your deep, black void endlessly, but not today.
For today, my exhausted soul has learnt how to take it slow.
This heart has been your solace all this time, but not today.
For today, my lonely heart has learnt to love itself; also to let go.

These words lit up your darkest days, but not today.
For today, my whispers have learnt not to utter false accolades.
These thoughts craved your delight and safety always, but not today.
For today, my mind has learnt to paint my thoughts in happier shades.

This spirit carried your burdens during bleaker times, but not today.
For today, my kindred spirit has learnt to no longer be enslaved.
This strength in me, fought your battles through long nights, but not today.
For today, my inner strength has learnt that not everyone can be saved.

I gave my mind, body and soul to make you whole;
To complete your being, I gave you unconditional control.
At each mistake, I absolved you of all crimes;
So, today, I head my own way. Today, I let go of past times.

I lied, I made excuses, to justify why your actions don’t match what you say.
I now realize, at first slight I should have walked away.
And you took, and took, and never once thought to give back.
So, for today, I refuse to be my own setback.

This side of yours, my beloved, I did not foresee.
So, from this day on, I’m for me, and only me.

When Women’s Rights Are Not Enough

Ninety-eight years ago, the women’s suffrage movement kicked off a century of progress for women’s rights in the United States. The 19th amendment. The Equal Pay Act. The Civil Rights Act. Title IX. The Gender Equity in Education Act. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The Violence Against Women Act. And many more pieces of legislation designed to thwart discrimination against women.

So when millions took the streets during the Women’s March, some people dismissed the event as a pointless political stunt. After all, the battle for women’s rights in our nation was fought and won already, right? Not quite.

For every women’s ‘right’ there is a shadow side of women’s ‘reality’. Lack of enforcement, power imbalances, social stigmas, and inequity – simply having so-called equal rights is not enough.

The reality is most women have – at some point – felt silenced, ignored, disrespected, or unsafe, just for being a woman.

Women in the workplace are undercompensated and overlooked, and their intelligence is routinely discounted. At home, women are saddled with the second shift of housekeeping and caregiving. Women are catcalled and harassed. Women are physically and sexually abused, trafficked, and murdered.

Women are more likely to live in poverty, overpay for everything from razors to mortgages, and carry student loan debt longer than men. Women’s choices about their bodies – how they care for them, dress them, use them – are judged and policed. Women are underrepresented in STEM, and told they can’t succeed in politics.

This list represents but a small sample of the dark side of #WomensReality.

Rights matter, of course, and many people – including men, women, and non-binary folks – still do not have them. We ought to continue to push for full rights for individuals of every gender identity, race, ethnicity, age, ability, class, income, religion, marital status, parental status, sexual orientation, or nationality. But we also must acknowledge that human rights do not guarantee equality if people and institutions continually fail to enforce them.

Ending violence against women, closing the wage gap, achieving fair representation in leadership and politics, deconstructing harmful stereotypes – these issues can’t be boiled down to a simple matter of human rights.

What we need is a culture shift to examine our reality. We need to wake up to the discrimination that’s happening on a daily basis, to our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, friends, and colleagues. The work of gender equality is global and local, too.

That’s why LiveYourDream.org has launched an awareness campaign called #WomensReality. In the spirit of similar social media movements, we want to expose the gap between stated rights and the harsh realities women face.

Our theory is that if all the women who have experienced hardship simply for being a woman could talk about their experiences, it might illuminate how big this problem truly is. The #WomensReality campaign is a rallying cry to acknowledge that gender inequality happens in complex and nuanced ways that the promise of ‘equal rights’ can’t and won’t solve. We have a long distance to go before we actualize full gender equality.

Join the conversation by sharing a time when you felt silenced, ignored, disrespected, or unsafe just because you’re a woman, and tag #WomensReality.

Together, we are a force for truth.

LiveYourDream.org is a movement – an online community of nearly 100,000 volunteers and activists addressing some of the most serious challenges women and girls face today, such as gender-based violence and lack of access to quality education. LiveYourDream.org is powered by Soroptimist, an international nonprofit of volunteers that economically improves the lives of women and girls through its Dream Programs. Learn more and join the community!

‘She’ by Kiirstin Marilyn: an Anthem for all Women

Since the release of her EP Ghosts with Spectra Music Group, Kiirstin Marilyn has embarked on a new independent musical journey with her latest single, She.

She, co-written and co-produced by Justin Ardolino, with additional instrumentation by Benny Reiner, expresses Kiirsten’s vulnerability as an artist as well as a citizen of the world.

While Ghosts began to expose Kiirstin’s true social and political beliefs, She considers not only the tenor of our current times, but also the history of nations as well as the personal history of generations of women.

She began as an homage to Kiirstin’s grandmother, Linda Liholm, who fled Soviet oppression and the occupation of Estonia in 1944, after Germany lost World War II. Boarding trains and boats that were beyond capacity, Linda, with her 4-month-old child, Ulo Kuhi, narrowly escaped a future in a Siberian concentration camp or death.

Through the process of writing this song, Kiirstin discovered a profound empathy for her grandmother and a deep connection to her that she had never felt before:

“I always knew my grandmother came here as a refugee of World War II, but her story was always more of an abstract idea without any real understanding of the history behind it.”

“My grandmother and I did not speak the same language. I was a very American kid, and growing up I just couldn’t connect with my immigrant grandmother. I wished she was ‘normal.’ I wished she spoke English. I wished she was everything other than who she was, and only as I’ve gotten older and educated myself beyond the American education system, have I realized how short-sighted that mentality was.”

“My grandmother endured so much hardship and heartache to allow for me to have what has been a fairly easy life here in the United States. I’ve never known war. I’ve never known hunger. I’ve never known true fear.”

As the song began to really take form, Kiirstin realized that She had morphed from a song just about Linda to a song for all women empowered by the generations before them who fought for equal rights. In our current political climate, just after electing a misogynistic ‘leader’ to the highest office in the land, Kiirstin felt she needed to raise her voice for women and use her music to encourage others to demand their voices also be heard.

The official video for She, shot and edited by V4V Productions, features images from the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D.C., which Kiirstin attended with her mother, Valerie Kuhi, along with a million other like-minded women. While being a song specifically inspired by and about Kiirstin’s grandmother, She aspires to be an anthem for all women who continue to fight for liberation and equality.