International Women’s Day 2017: Women Serve, Women Solve, Women Lead

I have seen countless strong women hold up their families, and their communities.
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When it comes to women’s empowerment and equality, the past year has given us plenty to think about. On the one hand, we’ve seen sexism’s persistence and prevalence, even in so-called “advanced” societies—from Donald Trump’s boasting about predatory sexual behavior to gender-based discrimination in Silicon Valley to the finding that 85 percent of UK women aged 18-24 have experienced sexual harassment in public.

Meanwhile, UN Women reports that “in 22 out of 34 countries with data, women are more likely than men to be in low-paid jobs.” Worldwide, women earn 24 percent less than men overall. The World Economic Forum projects that at current rates of progress, it will take 170 years to close the gap. That’s 170 years too long, and at least as many years too late.

According to UNICEF, about one in seven adolescent girls is a child bride. Women make up nearly two-thirds of the estimated 781 million illiterate people over the age of 15. Estimates suggest that more than one-third of women will be the targets of sexual or physical violence—or both—in their lifetimes. And certain groups face particular risk. In Canada, for example, Indigenous women represent four percent of the population and 16 percent of female murder victims.

Women who are affected by poverty, violence, and lack of access to either education or opportunity are especially vulnerable to social isolation—a double punch in an already unfair fight, and one that compounds disempowerment. As my friend Zainab Salbi once suggested to me, freedom isn’t simply the ability to speak; freedom is the ability to be heard.

Yet, the past year has also reminded us of women’s resilience, ingenuity, and strength. The day after President Trump’s inauguration, millions of people marched across the United States and around the world to express their support for women’s rights and equality—a massive show of force conceived of, organized, and led by a diverse group of women who came together via social media. Since then, 13,000 American women have expressed interest in running for elected office. And around the world, I have seen countless strong women hold up their families, their communities, and, in turn, their nations. Women who, despite poverty, war, and seemingly insurmountable odds, are shouldering the weight of giants.

So today, on International Women’s Day 2017, I want to celebrate some of those heroes and the organizations they represent, even as we recognize the obstacles that still limit the lives of women around the world. In the words of Canadian poet Rupi Kaur, “Our backs tell stories no book has the spine to carry.” Telling women’s stories reminds us that we are not alone.

In Tunisia, for example, 24-year-old Nawres Chriti is offering human rights training to marginalized youth, focusing on the rights of women, people with disabilities, and young people who’ve been criminalized for using drugs. In her words, “My dream is to fight against discrimination in the world, against gender inequality, against gender-based violence.” I learned about Chriti at an event exploring “How the Activism of Women is Building Connectedness and Community,” held as part of my ongoing forum series on social isolation with the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation in Montreal. The event was inspired by the women’s marches worldwide, and, in particular, the organizers’ mission statement, “We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.”

In that regard, consider Women for Women International (WfWI), which nurtures compassion, hope, and opportunity in communities devastated by conflict. WfWI uses an innovative direct sponsorship model, one woman—one sister—to another. Today, they are in Northern Iraq, providing safe spaces, job training, and psychosocial support for women struggling to overcome the horror and trauma of war. Over the next three years, the organization will aid 3,000 Syrian and Yezidi women, equipping them with the tools, skills, and confidence to rebuild their shattered lives.

In Nigeria, Hafsat Abiola-Costello and her inspiring organization Kudirat Initiative for Democracy, or KIND, are teaching adolescent and university-aged women how to combat gender-based violence, promote sexual and reproductive health, and unlock economic opportunity. Additionally, in partnership with sister organizations, including IAMCHIBOK, KIND has helped keep the world’s eyes focused on Boko Haram’s kidnapping of over 200 Chibok schoolgirls in 2014.

Maverick Collective, which launched last year under the leadership of Crown Princess Mette-Marit of Norway, Kate Roberts of Population Services International, and Melinda Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to “create a new generation of strategic philanthropists and champions for girls and women.” The initiative deliberately seeks to unlock members’ intellectual capital as well; as Roberts has explained, “Money doesn’t solve problems. People do!” Already, they’ve mobilized $60 million to fund new health support for girls and women—everything from cervical cancer screening in India to injectable contraceptives in Mozambique.

And in the United Kingdom, Members of Parliament launched the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness in January of this year; chaired by two female MPs of different parties, the commission aims to foster connections as an antidote to social isolation. Labour MP Jo Cox, who was tragically murdered by a constituent in June 2016, envisioned the commission before her death to tackle an issue she described as a matter of national urgency. Now, her friends and colleagues Rachel Reeves and Seema Kennedy are taking the baton, in collaboration with 13 community organizations. Anyone can take the pledge to start a conversation about loneliness and then follow through with concrete actions. As Cox herself said, “young or old, loneliness doesn’t is something many of us could easily help with. Looking in on a neighbor, visiting an elderly relative or making that call or visit we’ve been promising to a friend we haven’t seen in a long time.”

These examples underscore several characteristics of women’s leadership that offer hope and inspiration in our turbulent, fractured world: Women use their voices to lift all voices. Women use their power to strengthen others. Women forge coalitions on behalf of the common good. Women concern themselves with helping others to connect and belong.

So this International Women’s Day, let’s remember the words of 19th century abolitionist and activist Sojourner Truth: “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right-side up again.”

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