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International Women’s Day: Ordinary Extraordinary Women

Yesterday I met with extraordinary women. It was the 100th 99th Anniversary of International Women’s Day and I was invited to talk with women coming from many different countries. There was Betti from Rwanda, Clara from Mexico, Armita from Iran and French women: Fatima, Laurence, Karima, Francesca, Caroline… All had in common a difficult life only because they were born ‘female’. I am usually not into celebration days, and International Women’s Day has lost a lot of its meaning over the years; even more since Clara Zetkin. This is the day when we see female presenters on television, the day some men make stupid sexist jokes and argue they also need their own ‘Men’s Day’ considering how much women are now emancipated… This anecdotal yearly event is more about cliche than bringing awareness about an actual fact: gender equality is still not a reality. Sure, women are emancipated, they can work and earn their own money as well as vote… Many women are satisfied with the level of equality in their country, why shouldn’t they be? In the US, women earn about 18 percent less than men, and they still don’t earn equal pay for work of equal value. They are making up more than half of the U.S. population while occupying only 17 percent of the seats in Congress. Not to mention one in four women is victim of domestic violence… And this is happening in our so-called ‘developed countries’. Imagine how the situation can be in ‘not developed countries’.

I am surely not a fond of celebration days but if you are among the women lucky enough not to be concerned by any of these numbers and facts, maybe you should realize how privileged you are and think of women in other parts of the world who face horrors such as rape, genital mutilation, sex trafficking, death in childbirth… So yes, I am glad my favorite TV Show is presented by a woman, with only women as guests but how does this change anything to the situation of women? Laurence is a French girl, she has a precarious part time job and struggles to educate her 3 children, her boyfriend left home one day and never came back. How surprising. Fatima was married at 18 to a man she didn’t love. She finally got divorced but had to break off all contact with her family. Betti arrived in France from Rwanda when she was 10. Her parents were killed during the 1994 genocide. Armita left Iran in the 1980s, she married a French man and has two beautiful children. All these women are French citizens, they all have different stories to tell and when you cross them in the street, they look like any other women. What they lived is not written on their front head but they have a lot in common: they are resilient and they believe things can change; some of them even fight for it everyday in local organizations to help other women. You will not see them on the front news, they give their time and the money they can afford to support other women in need, and they don’t wait for anything in return. Their commitment in true. Respect.

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People of goodwill against the rest of the world? Maybe…
Tall oaks from little acorns grow

A lot still remains to be done and you don’t necessarily need to go far. It is not either a matter of women helping other women, every man should also feel concerned. If you have no background about women’s issues, maybe it is time to learn more about it. There is a book I recommend: ‘Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide’ by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wu-Dunn. Here is an excerpt from the publisher’s summary: ‘With Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn as our guides, we undertake an odyssey through Africa and Asia to meet the extraordinary women struggling there, among them a Cambodian teenager sold into sex slavery and an Ethiopian woman who suffered devastating injuries in childbirth. Drawing on the breadth of their combined reporting experience, Kristof and WuDunn depict our world with anger, sadness, clarity, and, ultimately, hope. They show how a little help can transform the lives of women and girls abroad. That Cambodian girl eventually escaped from her brothel and, with assistance from an aid group, built a thriving retail business that supports her family. The Ethiopian woman had her injuries repaired and in time became a surgeon. A Zimbabwean mother of five, counseled to return to school, earned her doctorate and became an expert on AIDS. Through these stories, Kristof and WuDunn help us see that the key to economic progress lies in unleashing women’s potential. They make clear how so many people have helped to do just that, and how we can each do our part…’

It is important we are conscious that the world we live in needs gender equality to developp harmoniously. It is about tolerance, understanding and mutual respect. Many organizations work every day of the year to support women, I could name a lot but the first ones to come in mind are Women for Women International and CARE. Some of you already know I am an ‘optimistic-pessimistic realistic-utopian person’, I can be both naive and resigned but I truly think awareness and education about the issues we are facing is crucial if we want to build a better world for the future generation. I may state the obvious here but if everyone was aware about what is happening everyday in the world and would take action, the world would be very different. Well, this is my optimistic side. The pessimistic and resigned one would say people already know and don’t care at all… Anyway. I selected four women I believe illustrate perfectly my point, with very interesting stories: Zainab Salbi (Founder and CEO, Women for Women International), Rose Mapendo (Mapendo International), Malalai Joya (Afghan politician) and Lisa Shannon (Founder of Run for Congo Women). Many men also work to help women, I usually don’t distinguish between but this article is focusing on women (International Women’s Day, remember?). Read, learn and act if you decide to, nobody will ever force your hand. Understanding and commitment elevate your perception of the facts and encourage a critical mind for constructive criticism. Looking away just isolate us from the meaning of the life we are living. ^_^

Related articles:
Haiti: compassion, communication, occupation… Education?
News cycle turnover, our today’s worst enemy?
Darfur: a World Wide Role Playing Game
Burma: Aung San Suu Kyi and a thousand monks. Again.
Darfur: when History is a never ending story…

The four women:

Zainab Salbi
Founder and CEO, Women for Women International
Zainab Salbi is co-founder and CEO of Women for Women International, a grassroots international humanitarian and development organization helping women survivors of war rebuild their lives, families and communities. A survivor of war herself, Ms. Salbi grew up in Iraq, and was sent to America for an arranged but ultimately abusive marriage, in an attempt to save her from Saddam Hussein’s grasp. Stranded in America by the Gulf War, she escaped the marriage and started her life over. She co-founded the organization in 1993, at the age of 23, as a response to the trauma endured by women survivors of the Balkan wars

Rose Mapendo
Mapendo International
Rose and her husband, born in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, had seven children at the time the Rwandan army invaded the Congo and war broke out in August 1998. Four years earlier the Rwandan genocide had claimed the lives of nearly one million people. Now a similar wave of violence swept the Congo. In response to Rwanda’s invasion, Congo’s President Kabila announced that some ethnic groups inside Congo were the enemy. This proclamation was a death-knell for Rose and her family, whose ethnicity had been pronounced “the enemy”. Soldiers and civilians hunted down, beat, jailed and killed fellow Congolese. Men, women, and children from the “enemy” ethnic groups hid in attics, in ceiling compartments and secret rooms; they tried fleeing along dangerous and uncertain escape routes. The survivors’ stories of these pogroms evoke history’s darkest moments.

Malalai Joya
Afghan politician, Author of ‘A Woman Among Warlords’
Text of Malalai Joya’s Historical Speech in the Loya Jirga – December 17, 2003, Loya Jirga Meeting, Kabul, Afghanistan
My name is Malalai Joya from Farah Province. By the permission of the esteemed attendees, and by the name of God and the colored-shroud martyrs of the path of freedom, I would like to speak for couple of minutes. My criticism on all my compatriots is that why are they allowing the legitimacy and legality of this Loya Jerga come under question with the presence of those felons who brought our country to this state. I feel pity and I feel very sorry that those who call Loya Jerga an infidel basis equivalent to blasphemy after coming here their words are accepted, or please see the committees and what people are whispering about. The chairman of every committee is already selected. Why do you not take all these criminals to one committee so that we see what they want for this nation. These were those who turned our country into the nucleus of national and international wars…

Lisa Shannon
Founder of Run for Congo Women
Lisa Shannon is Founder of Run for Congo Women, a global effort to raise awareness and support the women of the Democratic Republic of Congo. After learning about the Congo on Oprah, Lisa did a solo 30 mile run on Portland, Oregon’s Wildwood Trail to raise money for Women for Women International’s work in Congo. On her first lone run, she raised more than $28,000. As women around the world learned of Lisa’s efforts, the run quickly blossomed into an international movement. It continues to grow through Women for Women International […] Lisa lives in Portland, Oregon, where she owns a photography production company. Her 2007 trip to Congo was her first trip to Africa. She made a second trip to Congo in May, 2008. She is presently writing her first book, in her time in Congo (Seal Press, The Perseus Book Group, Spring 2010).

Interesting links (facts, stories…):

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