Letter From Myanmar

photo by Whitney LeggeMy colleague, Whitney, and I are walking up seemingly hundreds of steps to the 2,600-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda. This is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, as it’s adorned with 27 metric tons of gold leaf, along with thousands of diamonds and other gems, and is believed to enshrine eight hairs of the Gautama Buddha as well as relics of three former buddhas.

At the bottom of the stairs to the pagoda I collect from a woman at a street stall an armful of gorgeously scented roses and then at the top of the stairs I’m stopped by a guard who places a wrap-around sarong on my dress to cover the bare flesh of my legs. Then suddenly we’re in the pagoda in the twilight of the night and the warm glow of lit candles and chanting.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

People come up and touch our faces, want to  practice their English and snap selfies with us. Monks are walking in their robes, people are making offerings, some are gazing skyward to the top of the stupa. There’s grace and beauty all around and I feel great lightness being here. I’m reminded of the words of Aldous Huxley in his book, Island

 

‘Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.
Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply.
Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.’

photo by Whitney LeggeThe next morning our meetings begin. We meet our colleague, Mi Ki who has organized our meetings and has just a deep feeling for the country and people. Mi Ki is such a gorgeous presence – and her interpreting skills and insights prove invaluable for us.

She escorts us to a meeting with a former parliamentarian from Yangon who was in office for five years until 2016. Now this former parliamentarian is training hundreds of women to support them as candidates for political office at local and national levels. “I trained more than 300 women candidates from different backgrounds and 32 won elections. I’m training women candidates from across party spectrum and women are free to join our trainings however many women unable to join due to pressure from families and local leaders.’

We hear from this former political representative that women comprise 14.5% of all elected Members of Parliament and that the real reform needs to come within The National League for Democracy (NLD) as the governing party and the dominant political force. Beyond getting more women elected as candidates, women also need to be better supported in political office. As she says, “women are often pressured not to speak in Parliament and I don’t see much progress. Political parties track how often women speak to media and monitor their social media. Women are increasingly conscious of the gender divide and there’s even a political party called the More Women Party that was founded three years ago but it’s had little traction to date.”

When we meet with an independent researcher focused on women’s political participation in Myanmar, he says that the first past the post electoral system means that the NLD is going to continue to dominate while this system is in place. This means the major reform needs to be in this party, which is extremely top down in structure and governed by a central executive committee. The researcher observes that at the last election the number of women securing political office doubled however this still only means 14% of women in parliament.

photo by Whitney Legge

One of the main reasons for our traveling to Myanmar is to film the Colorful Girls of Burma. We’re also here to extend an invitation to the organization to accept a Lotus Leadership Award at The Asia Foundation’s Gala in San Francisco in October this year.

I was last in Myanmar over four years ago when I first visited the Colorful Girls of Burma. At that time, I met Nant Thazin Min, a Karen woman and community activist who founded the organization in 2008 with several teenage girls in her neighborhood. While giving the girls free English lessons, Thazin learnt of their struggles at home, in school, in their communities including the violence they experienced, pressure to drop out of school, lack of recognition of their talents, harsh restrictions on their movement and associations.

Colorful Girls evolved as a safe forum for girls to share their personal experiences in an environment where they can build their self-esteem and confidence. Today the organization provides leadership programs for girls ages 13-18 to help them to be strong advocates to end violence and human trafficking and for girls to tap their creativity and leadership potential. The girls chose the name Colorful Girls to reflect the diverse and multi-ethnic makeup of the organization.

photo by Whitney LeggeWhitney, Mi Ki, and I climb the stairs to offices. The door opens to a riot of color, laughter and activity. Girls, mothers, other adults all working on various projects and planning activities. These girls belong to an active network of girls where information, ideas, support and action is abundant.

This is informed by a belief that bringing girls to the fore will raise the overall status of girls and women in communities and a society where military men, businessmen and monks currently hold most decision-making power. As the only organization dedicated exclusively to girls, the organization also works with community leaders and NGO’s to support girls’ leadership and personal growth.

Several thousand girls have undertaken leadership training since the group began and the plan is to take the training nation-wide in the time ahead. We film an interview with Ma Thazin and after that, Whitney gets permission to accompany one of the girls, full of energy and spunk, home to her village.

photo by Whitney LeggeThen Mi Ki and I head out to visit Phan Tee Eain, which means Creative Home in English. The group was established 2009 and in 2010 it began observation and research on women’s political participation and noted the low levels of participation by women. In 2012 it secured funding for a Women Lead program to undertake training with political parties to increase women’s political participation. The women in the group sought to address a political culture that embeds men as leaders and to build on the slight progress re women being given a place in political parties. It’s challenging work since the overwhelming population have more trust in men than in women, especially in rural areas.

One of the members from Phan Tee Eain shares with us, “It’s particularly difficult to change mindset of ethnic women – we must go through the men to influence the women,” says one of the members. When I ask what the group most needs, they respond “We need more core funding as most funding is project based and it’s difficult to sustain staff. We want to focus on three areas: women’s political participation; women, peace and security; women’s leadership and voice.”

photo by Whitney LeggeWe shift focus from women working to get more women into political office to spend time with a Burmese labor rights activist who has spent her life working for justice. This woman invites us into her home where we sit with her to hear her story. Near to me is a photo of two people – a man with a clear-eyed gaze and a very beautiful woman staring out at the camera. These are her revolutionary parents and this is her story.

“We had a lot of women leaders before the British came. My mother died of an abortion when I was t Ki? hree years’ old. My father brought me up to read and then discuss what I had read. Then he encouraged me to join debates with his friends to sharpen her debating skills. My father began using arts and advocacy in Mandalay and then in 1974 my father’s friends were captured by Burmese police and sentenced to life in Cocos Islands. So, my father told friends he was taking me on a vacation and we escaped to Yangon.

“We continued to read political books and formed strong political networks until my father was arrested and then badly tortured and beaten in prison because of participating in social movement action- going to villages, distributing pamphlets and encouraging political action. In 1989 I was captured by police and sentenced to three years’ jail. It was here that I met with many women politicians, with many focusing on labor issues. I was then in and out of jail for many years and my father died while I was in jail.

“Women’s participation started again with CEDAW (The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women) however there’s a level of passivity among women that we’re trying to address. We’re focused on advocating for women’s human rights including ending violence against women, including ending forced labor and ending trafficking. This includes trafficking of children’s body organs which is increasing. Women are also playing a role in the trafficking of other women – while in jail met a woman who had trafficked more than 100 women. She was trafficked herself and knew the business so well that she became a trafficker.”

“There were protests by garment workers in 2013 against violence and forced labor. My organization helped get more than 2,000 women workers back to Myanmar from countries such as Jordan and then committed to help women workers in other countries. This included attending key conferences on labor law and legal rights. It’s important for women to know about CEDAW and to work with labor unions and their members re women’s rights, children’s rights and association law.

“I’ve followed my father’s political path of advocacy and activism. It all began with him teaching me how to read, and how to think for myself.”

While we’re having tea in a gorgeous tea ceremony, I keep looking at the photo of her parents, so alive to the possibilities in life and to the extraordinary beauty of her mother. I want her mother’s vivid story to be told and to be carried on the dream of her parents’ vision for the country and their own life before it ended prematurely due to not getting the right medical support and attention in time.

photo by Whitney LeggeLate afternoon, heading back to my hotel, we pass the Shwedagon Pagoda and I watch as people stream up the steps. Golden light infuses people and place as I watch transfixed.

Satish Kumar, editor of one of my favorite magazines, Resurgence, affirms the precious role of sacred spaces when he says “We have to recognize the magnetic value of a particular space and to approach the ultimate through the intimate.”

The next morning Whitney and I depart Myanmar and fly into Bangkok. We skid across the airport to find our small plane to Laos. A new journey is about to begin.

Jane Sloane
Myanmar

There must be, not a balance of power, but a community of power; not organized rivalries, but an organized common peace.
President Josiah Edward “Jed” Bartlet quoting Woodrow Wilson in the West Wing

All photos by Whitney Legge ( except the Shwedagon Pagoda photo)

Letter from Jakarta


Indonesia has held a special place in my heart for many years. It’s the country of my mentor, the late Ibu Gedong Bagus Oka, who taught me so much about women’s involvement in peace processes and about the theory and practice of conflict resolution. As a member of Indonesia’s parliament and the founder of a Gandhi ashram in Candidasa and a civic world leader engaged in interfaith dialogue at the UN, she showed that you can inhabit many worlds to lead social change.

Indonesia is one of my last stops on my first tour of visiting The Asia Foundation’s country offices. My heart is drawn to the work of our Jakarta office and our local partners, and the phenomenal leadership of Sandra Hamid, The Asia Foundation’s country representative for Indonesia.

Our work in Indonesia is addressing many important issues including efforts similar to an Emily’s List approach to get more women into political office; supporting religious and faith based leaders in their approach to honor women’s human rights through their interpretation of scripture and collaborating with local partners to support indigenous and local communities to retain their stewardship of forests and territory in the face of encroachment by mining companies.

Sandra proposes we take a train ride from Jakarta to Cirebon, West Java to visit the Fahmina Institute, one of our local partners and a place that is ground central for the growing movement to open space for dialogue between religious leaders in support of women’s human rights.

K.H. Husein MuhammadI join Sandra and two feminist scholars who are longtime friends of The Asia Foundation as we board a train to travel to Cireban in West Java.

Fahmina’s approach is to develop social and religious dialogue on issues such as ending gender based violence and ending human trafficking. When Fahmina witnessed an upsurge in domestic violence its leaders encouraged the establishment of the Women’s Crisis Center.

The institute’s four strands of work include interfaith dialogue designed to influence attitudes through a close reading of Islamic texts; a school with an intentional focus on peace and conflict resolution; the institute’s work on reproductive health, and its women’s crisis center.

Fahmina has a 15-year strategic plan to contribute to a regional conversation in South East Asia (with Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand) and it has maintained a strong relationship with Imams and other religious leaders in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

 

SETAPAKLegal rights, and law of the land, takes on a different meaning in another part of Indonesia, in East Kalimantan. Some of my colleagues in The Asia Foundation’s Jakarta office are working on an environmental governance program called SETAPAK.  One of the areas the program is focused on is recognition of forest and land rights for local communities and indigenous peoples. This recognition is also crucial for sustainable forest governance, biodiversity, food security, poverty alleviation and reduction in deforestation, climate vulnerability and land forest conflicts. Local communities and indigenous peoples lay customary claim to most of the forests in Indonesia (and across Asia) however most governments have been slow in acknowledging these claims.

Even in countries which have taken important steps towards recognizing rights of local communities and indigenous peoples, the actual implementation of rights recognition has been difficult and challenging. The Indonesian government has sought to distribute land and forest to marginalized people in and around the forest, through social forestry and agrarian reform programs. In the last six months, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry has provided 202,722 ha of forest to be manged by the 32,561 families, both in the form of village forest, community forest and Customary forest. The SETAPAK program has played a significant role in making this possible.

In East Kalimantan, which is one of Indonesia’s most heavily mined provinces, women who are protesting mining face death threats to themselves and their families. It’s a challenging situation where there is no reclamation of land by mining companies even though children are swimming in contaminated lakes and mud sucks (like quicksand) that have caused 28 children to drown in Kalimantan alone. Citizens have won a lawsuit against government for reclamation of land and a judge ordered the government to comply however implementation of this order is still weak.

I learn during my visit that even in the last few weeks two more young people have drowned. One mother of a child who drowned was offered USD10,000 from the mining company to be quiet but she declined. Her husband wanted her to accept but she said “I didn’t want other children to die because of my silence.” Instead, the mother traveled with her three-year old son to Indonesia to meet with the Minister for Environment and Forestry and to demand action. The government has taken some action, including revoking the permits of 11 mining companies.

SETAPAK partners have been working as a coalition of NGOs to press for improved government regulation of post-mining land reclamation and rehabilitation and the provincial government has now issued a new bylaw on post-mining cleanup in response to this advocacy.

Supporting the rights of marginalized people in Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia is essential if we’re to alleviate poverty, actively affirm dignity and see a transformed world. In this respect, getting more women into political office is essential. The Asia Foundation was part of the movement that helped ensure the adoption of a quota system of 30% women to be nominated for national election.

For the 2009 national elections in Indonesia, the foundation supported the adaptation of an approach similar to Emily’s List  with both party and community service organization lists being used to reach out to potential candidates. It proved an effective means of presenting proposed candidates to political parties. The foundation plans to develop a more comprehensive approach to support more women candidates for the next national elections in 2019.

What’s also important here is a focus on getting more women into provincial level political positions and so the foundation is working with academics and activists to make this possible. Equally important is to diversify the type of women running for national office beyond those who are privileged and who bring this mindset with them into office, so adopting an intersectional approach to this work is critical.

Influencing Indonesia’s political parties to adopt inclusive policies to ensure greater representation of women both within the party system as well as candidates for office is also vital. Tied to this is advocating for increased public funding for political parties in return for an agreement that the parties undertake recruitment based on merit and with the commitment to recruiting talented women and men.

By paying attention to political finance reform to level the political playing field there’s a genuine opportunity for diverse candidates to be elected, including more women. If this level of reform can be achieved, then it will help safeguard Indonesia’s still-young democracy from elite interests.


Back here in Sausalito I learn that the legendary Record Plant recording studio in Sausalito has been bought to restore it to a recording studio and museum. This is the place where artists including Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Wonder, Prince, the Grateful Dead, Linda Ronstadt and Warren Zevon recorded and participated in a live radio program called ‘Live from the Plant’.

So, it seems the spirit of the Grateful Dead rises again in Sausalito with this new development. At a recent lunch, I was talking to a woman who works for an organ transplant organization and she told me that organ donations are the highest in the country in Marin County, where I live.

Apparently the theory for why this is the case is that the Grateful Dead’s use of body parts and skeletons in their visual imagery socialized the idea of our body parts being separate from our spirit (musical selves) and made it easier for people to imagine donating their organs to save lives. If it’s true, then it speaks to the power of the arts (and Deadheads) as a potent means for social change and changing norms.

Mr B's Emporium of Reading DelightSomething else happened while I was away, too. An independent bookstore called Book Passage opened in Sausalito after our only bookstore closed almost four years ago.
I go rushing in with a list of books and the suggestion that they do something like my favorite bookshop in the world, Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights located in Bath in the UK, where they have a book spa, a bibliotherapy room and so much more. There’s a renaissance going on – of books and ideas and movement building and I’m so glad to be part of it.

In the morning, I wake to a rosy dawn after a tumbling night on my boat weathering stormy weather and seas. Now the sea is calm again and, as I’m watching the glow of a new day, I see a rumbling in the water and then presto! the face of a sea lion – bright black eyes, whiskery and aware. We look at each other and then, just as suddenly, that face dives deep and I’m left with the buzz of momentary connection.

The now-ness of now evokes e.e. cummings and his leaping greenly spirits and blue true dream of sky (‘and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes’). Whatever I experience in my work in the world, my touchstone remains my boat, the natural world and my own continuing songs.

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) / it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.
~ e. e. cummings

Jane Sloane
San Francisco

 

Letter from Dili

 

lead-pic-jitw-timorleste-pottery-pride-821x548After a long plane flight, and after too many years of almost getting here, I finally land in Dili, capital of Timor Leste. Stepping off the plane, I feel such emotion as I remember my friend, Harry Burton, who wrote of his arriving here to open the first Reuters office just before a newly independent Timor Leste was declared, and who was later killed in an ambush by insurgents in Afghanistan.

jitw-timorleste-aguida-fatima-amaral-520x780I remember, too, welcoming the first Olympic team of a newly independent Timor Leste when I was managing one of the media centers for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Andrea Bocelli sang to us in the Green Room while the Timorese athletes spoke of training with bags of rocks in the absence of any training equipment. A team of four Timorese athletes took part in the Opening Ceremony in Sydney including marathoner Aguida Fatima Amaral as the only woman in the team. The Olympic flag was carried by boxer Victor Ramos. “I was happy to carry that Olympic flag into the stadium,’’ he said. “But I carry my nation and my flag in my heart.”

kirsty-sword-gusmaoI remember hearing Xanana Gusmao, the first President of Timor Leste speak in Sydney. The room was filled with emotion as he spoke of what it meant to be living in and leading a newly independent nation. And then Kirsty Sword Gusmao, his wife, spoke as she held their baby son in her arms. Her courage, commitment and humanity was so evident, a sign of all that was ahead including her creating the Alola Foundation.

And I remember the women’s group we funded when I was Executive Director of International Women’s Development Agency – they bought a truck to drive round the country using theater to help educate and engage communities on breaking the cycle of domestic violence in the country.

I’m welcomed at the airport by Susan Marx, The Asia Foundation’s dynamic country representative responsible for managing the foundation’s work here. (You can follow Susan on twitter @ TAFRepTimor)

We travel to Pradet, one of the community partners in an important program funded by the Australian Government called The Nabilan: Ending Violence Against Women program as an eight-year intervention aimed at reducing the number of women who have experienced violence, and improving well-being for women and children who have been affected by violence.  In developing the program, The Asia Foundation undertook a baseline survey of over 1400 women and 800 men and, of those surveyed, 59 percent of women aged 15-49 in Timor-Leste have experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime, and 47 percent in the 12 months before the interview.

This confirms the urgent need for sensitive, women-centered services, free of stigma, that address the physical as well as mental health needs of women, and also of children who have experienced or witnessed violence in the home. Nabilan supports local partners to increase the quality and reach of services for women and children affected by violence.

jane-dili-2When we arrive at Pradet we’re greeted by local staff including  Manuel dos Santos, PRADET Director, Luisa Reis Marcel, the Coordinator of Fatin Hakmatek and Susan Kendall AM, an Australian social worker who has worked as International Mentor with PRADET since 2002, visiting three times every year for approximately 5-6 months to help sustain the momentum of the program.  Susan reminds me of a humanitarian Lucille Ball in her sassiness and willingness to shake things up in order to secure both funds and justice.

PRADET stands for Psychosocial Recovery and Development in East Timor and the organization provides quality services and psychosocial support to people who experience domestic violence, trauma, sexual assault, child abuse, abandonment, imprisonment and human trafficking, and people living with mental illness in Timor Leste. We hear cases of women who have been incarcerated due to defending themselves from rape and also from miscarriage cast as murder due to leaving the dirt track site of the miscarriage and consequently being jailed for years.

The program works toward long term institutional and behavioral change including working on prevention, services including psychosocial and forensic evidence, and access to justice. This aligns with the national government’s own holistic framework – the National Action Plan on Gender-based Violence. Nabilan cooperates with government, and civil society organizations, and is now developing its work at the community level, which will link prevention and access to support.

In this context, building a movement of women and men working to end violence against women and standing in solidarity with those who come forward is so important.

jitw-timorleste-pottery-young-and-okd-960x639While women occupy 38 percent of seats in parliament in Timor-Leste, women’s engagement is very low at a rural level, with women only accounting for 2 percent of local leaders. In the countryside, women do most of the agricultural work and much of their work is unpaid.  Women rise early, gather the family’s daily water, light fires, cook meals, look after their children and prepare them for school, clean the house, work in the fields and then continue to cook and clean into the night.  In such circumstances time for political representation or any other form of activity has to be fitted in late in the evening, or in rare time off.  

On average, Timorese women have six children, and almost 20 percent of girls are married by 18. Here the groom’s family may pay the young woman’s family in gold, silver or cows, in a way that suggests they are purchasing the young woman. Early marriage further isolates these young women from the opportunity to play an active role in the community and to gain the education and opportunities that will help them realize their potential. Instead, a number will die in childbirth in a country with the highest level of maternal mortality in Southeast Asia while others will suffer from poor nutrition or tuberculosis fueled by cooking over open fires.  Add to this a perpetual state of violence, especially domestic violence. While domestic violence was outlawed in 2010, many men and women still don’t see wife beating as a criminal act.

jitw-timorleste-pottery-group-625x960The following day, at a women-only gathering I attend, the women present share their stories about their own empowerment journey. Some women talk about their awareness of their rights as a result of working with the foundation flowing into their home environment and the counsel they give their friends who are exposed to violence. Others speak of the challenges of feeling such freedom to be fully themselves at work as compared to the traditional roles they are expected to occupy at home, often reinforced by their mother-in-law or other family members.  “When I’m sleeping, my mother-in-law scolds me and says “you should keep awake to give your husband his coffee.” Family interference often triggers conflict, so finding ways to support the development of conflict-resolving communities is important.

Some Timorese women are only now learning that rape is a crime, as a result of the work undertaken to ensure that women are aware of their rights. Even with this awareness there is still hesitancy by many women in taking action due to attitudes by others, including the police, and hence there is a separate community policing program to engage police in attitude change.  Beyond women having access to laws and services that protect them from violence, and to deal with the aftermath, is the need to have access to economic opportunities that give them the income they need. This is crucial so that women have the independence they seek and the funds to keep themselves safe and to provide their children with access to education and health services.

img_3887One of the programs that The Asia Foundation is supporting, thanks to funding from the United States government, is a Women Weavers Program developed with local partner, Empreza Di’ak, an organization founded by a wonderful woman, Ariana Simoes de Almeida and her husband, Filipe Alfaiate.

This program supports Tais weavers to build sustainable livelihoods for the traditional cloth that they weave into an array of garments and products.  By undertaking such work, the women can earn an income which helps them to leave and avoid abusive relationships, secure an education for themselves and family and increase their economic independence.  This work also helps to promote the cultural traditions of Timor-Leste through development of collectives for traditional tapestries across seven of the country’s thirteen municipalities.

jitw-timorleste-passing-traditions-480x320The staff at Di’ak tell me the story of an archaeologist who found remains of an ancient pot and asked around and found these old women who could explain the origins. These women were 92 and 94 respectively and they were asked to teach some of the younger women how to make old pots, and thus reclaim a lost tradition that was on the cusp of being lost forever, a program now called Turning Traditions into Livelihoods. Making these pots and woven garments provides a welcome source of income for communities as well as kindling their self-esteem and pride in what their communities can make and sell. Some of these women have gone from no income to up to USD300 per month and the program has so far positively supported 75% of the women who have participated in the program.

jitw-timorleste-products3-639x960These women artisans in Timor Leste face real challenges to create markets for their products. These include the difficulty and expense of transport, especially for women living on less $1 a day and also the challenges of getting raw material and packaging as well as the high cost of postage. The women are experimenting with creating local products for local markets to augment the more expensive items they create for tourist and international markets. Products for local markets include small bags of compost as something that they can easily train and engage other women in creating.  Other women’s groups create products such as cassava chips to sell at local markets in Dili.

jitw-timorleste-weaving-process-960x638The women weavers program also teaches the women how to sign their names, as 84% of the current members are illiterate, and then there is the opportunity to undertake numeracy and literacy training and to involve other members of their family. Importantly, Di’ak is working to improve the financial and management skills of these women members to support the sustainability of the collectives. Di’ak also earlier created a business community center for training in sewing, music, English, compost and coconut shaping.  It also leads the work to test and pilot new products in small batches – we’re shown the latest test products – seaweed, as a high nutrition food, and bamboo straws, which are both elegant and practical.  I also try on one of the hats the women have made. I instantly feel like I’m some magical being so I buy it on the spot to smiles from the staff.

I share with Susan and some of the D’Ak staff the idea of taking a group of these women to the Santa Fe Folk Art Fair where thousands of artisans and buyers from around the world attend each year to build buyer markets for artisan products. It’s an opportunity to have direct contact with buyers and to learn from other artisans about how to build sustainable markets and supply chains for their products. We also discuss the potential for having an Asian women’s artisan alliance and fair in order to create pipeline buyer markets for women artisans and cooperatives in Asia.

Later, I also reflect on the opportunity to learn from a program in Australia called Desert Knowledge, that is a research and action program designed to learn from remote desert Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia and to help them secure economic opportunities to be sustainable.  For instance, Desert Knowledge helped broker a partnership between Aveda and a desert Aboriginal community to grow some of the ingredients for Aveda products. Imagine if there could be an Island Knowledge program that similarly documented the advantages of island communities in creating key products and then did a similar kind of matchmaking between communities in, say, Timor Leste, Tonga, Samoa, Tuvalu and Kiribati.

I’m asked to convene a session on approaches to gender with a group of donors, leaders and community representatives.  I say that it’s clear that we need a different way of thinking about gender so that men don’t see it as a zero sum game. Men can’t see women’s empowerment being at the expense of men otherwise we’re never going to gain the buy-in needed by men to achieve the dramatic shifts needed to realize gender equality.  We need to lift up positive models of male leadership as well as female leadership and show how men can benefit by spending more time with their families, and learn new skills as well as creative pursuits.

In this session we talk about the power of the arts and of film to challenge stereotypes and to show women ways to be powerful advocates for change as a way to support strong movements for change.  There is real energy around a regular film event, and even a film festival as an advocacy and influencing forum.


Film is also a powerful medium to capture Timorese women’s own views and voices of their experiences. One such film on the ‘mermaids of Timor Leste’, follows a group of fisherwomen striving to make a living in the coastal village of Adara, West Ataúro in Timor-Leste. The film captures the women’s daily lives and the challenges they face from others in the community as a result of their work as underwater fisher-women. The film depicts the women’s underwater dancing in a context of dramatic social change, where the women are being drawn to different livelihoods not linked to the sea and facing social expectations that challenge their independence from four generations of women doing this work.

I return to the hotel and, in my own mermaid skin, I climb to the rooftop and slip into the pool. Fat drops of rain are falling from a sky streaked crimson and I’m so happy to be here. I splash in the warm water and lie back against the ledge, attuned to the vibrations of life – and also the torpor, that constant tension. And then, kicking off from the shallows, I swim.

Jane Sloane
Dili

A footnote for those who don’t know about Timor Leste?

Timor-Leste, formerly known as East Timor, was a Portuguese colony for more than 400 years before Indonesian forces invaded in 1975. That move led to one of the 20th century’s most brutal occupations, which claimed the lives of 200,000 people—a third of the population. Timorese men and women fought side by side in the decades-long struggle for independence, which was finally achieved in 2002.

 

Letter for the Janes in the World

Suzanne French, Jane McKeever, and Mary Joan Schmidt holding banners and signs in an ERA march on 05/14/1977

Suzanne French, Jane McKeever, and Mary Joan Schmidt holding banners and signs in an ERA march on 05/14/1977On the eve of my birthday I want to celebrate the Janes in my life.

scientistQuotesGoodallClipped to a pin board in my bolt hole boat kitchen is the image I wake to each morning – of Jane Goodall with a baby chimpanzee – perhaps it’s Fifi. This image is above a wooden figure with moveable body parts, which I’ve fashioned with arms akimbo and dancing feet to remind me to embrace opportunity and possibility with an open mind and heart. I continue to be inspired by Jane Goodall’s work in sparking and sustaining a movement for young environment activists through her Roots and Shoots network.

Jane LeuWhen I moved to San Francisco I mentioned to a donor at an event that I was a big fan of Jane Leu and the woman laughed and said she was happy to introduce us. Jane Leu created Upwardly Global after being outraged that skilled migrants such as architects, accountants, engineers migrate to the US and end up working in chicken factories or behind a bar. Jane forged a partnership with Fortune 500 companies to get people jobs in the profession in which they were trained. The donor said Jane was a good friend and she’d be happy to introduce us. So that was the beginning of my conversations with Jane, which most recently led to a brainstorm design session with a phenomenal group on a global system for migrant integration.

Jane Tewson

Dr. Simon Longstaff, international ethicist, introduced me to Jane Tewson, the co-founder of Comic Relief and more recently the creator of Igniting Change, and whom I also wrote about in my book. Jane became an important mentor for me in her fierce advocacy to create a space for people most affected by situations to speak for themselves rather to have others speak on their behalf.

Jane AddamsJ

Jane Addams advocated fearlessly for women’s human rights, labor and civil rights, free speech and world peace. She was the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. At the age of 29 she co-founded Hull House, the nation’s first settlement house which offered educational and social opportunities for immigrants, and she also co-founded the first national women’s labor union and two major civil rights groups.

Noordam-delegates-1915Jane Addams also lobbied for an eight-hour workday and an end to child labor. She was a committed pacifist who campaigned to end WW1, and she was part of the group of women who created the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, that phenomenal organization that has done so much to advance women’s role in peacemaking. The biographies on her life American Heroine and Spirit in Action give life to the depth of Jane Addam’s courage, commitment and legacy.

Jane Austen was audacious in her approach to writing books such as Emma where she experimented with form and character. Jane Austen’s creative genius as a writer is ours to discover for she only wrote for those who have “a great deal of ingenuity themselves”, as she confided to her sister, Cassandra.

jane eyreJane Eyre is a character who upends the social order in terms of how women should act and behave. As a girl rebel she says “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am free human being with an independent will.” In this call to action she shares “the strangest sense of freedom” that comes from making a stand – “it seemed as if an invisible bond had burst.” While the plot is akin to a fairytale, the substance in this book is the world of work and wages where Jane-as-Cinderella breaks free of traditional ties and identity and, in the process, transforms herself.

jane bolin

Jane Bolin was the first African-American woman to graduate from Yale Law School, the first to join the New York City Bar Association and the first black woman to serve as a judge in the United States when she was sworn into the bench of the New York City Domestic Relations Court in 1939.

Her mother died when she was eight and, inspired by her lawyer father and profoundly affected by the images of black southerners being hanged, Jane fought prejudice throughout school and college to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer. Jane Bolin also went on to become a life-long activist for children’s rights including working to racially integrate child services.

 

SeeJane

See Jane was created by Geena Davis as a programming arm to her Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media designed to challenge and transform stereotypes of women and girls in the media.

See Jane engages film and television creators to dramatically increase the percentage of female characters and reduce gender stereotyping

 

curious jane 3Curious Jane is a Brooklyn based organization focused on ‘building a community of inquisitive, confident girls who like to make things! We run camps and classes – focused on science and design and engineering – and we publish a magazine full of projects to try at home.’ Curious Jane was founded in 2008 by Samantha Razook Murphy to give her daughters, and all young girls, a place to be creative and to tinker and experiment in a fun, high energy environment in order to ignite girls’ creativity, leadership and innovation.

jane jacobs

Jane Jacobs was an urban planning activist who championed new, community-based approaches to planning for over 40 years. Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, became one of the most influential texts about how cities function, rise and fall, inspiring generations of urban planners and activists. Jane Jacobs’ translation of theory into place-based activism to protect and cherish local neighborhoods fueled community led activism to stop downtown expressways and other initiatives that would erode the unique identity of cities and citizen participation in the life of cities. Jacobs’ activism was informed by her deep belief that “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

jane fondaActress Jane Fonda is renowned for her activism and advocacy on environmental issues, human rights, and the empowerment of women and girls. In 2000 she traveled to Nigeria and produced a film, in collaboration with the International Women’s Health Coalition, entitled “Generation 2000: Changing Girls’ Realities.” Jane Fonda is a member of the Women & Foreign Policy Advisory Committee of the Council on Foreign Relations; the board of Women’s Media Center, which she co-founded in 2004; and she sits on the board of V-Day: Until The Violence Stops, a global effort to stop violence against women begun in 1998 by Eve Ensler.

Jane-CampionJane Campion is a New Zealand screenwriter, producer, and director who was acclaimed as director of the film, The Piano. She was the first woman to win a Palme d’Or and only the second ever to be nominated for the best director Oscar.

Campion has said “Women are going to tell different stories – there would be many more stories in the world if women were making more films.”

jane scottJane Scott was one of the artists in a collective I belonged to who created a public campaign to highlight the situation of asylum seekers and to advocate for justice and policy change. Jane also used her own money to pay a pilot to take to the skies on a weekend when many people were out and about. Drawn to the noise and swirl, many tipped their heads to the skies as the cloud banner message appeared: Show Mercy.

calamity jane

astronautJane Briggs Hart, almost an astronaut, took part in NASA’s pilot to test women for fitness to enter NASA’s astronaut training program. She was a founding member of the national organization for Women and, as a lifelong Catholic, she once told The Chicago Daily News, “The Catholic Church is racist and its position on birth control is ridiculous. In 1969 she was arrested with seven others for trying to hold an ecumenical Mass for peace inside the Pentagon. Her husband, Senator Philip A. Hart, also a liberal, staunchly defended his wife even when the couple’s views diverged.

Jane_OlsenJane Olson is the former Board Chair of Human Rights Watch, which is such an important organization in its political and citizen advocacy and programs. She chairs the board of Landmine Survivors Network and she was the recipient of the inaugural 2005 Eleanor Roosevelt Award from Feminist Majority.

jane morrice

Jane Morrice was a prominent member of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (founded by Monica McWilliams and Pearl Sagar) and a politician for a number of years. She was involved in the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and was appointed Head of the European Commission Office in Northern Ireland and took a special interest in the establishment of the Special EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland. I’ve just returned from time at the Transitional Justice Summer School in Belfast and my next blog will be focused on the incredible learning I gained there.

jayne amble artworkJayne Amble is a graphic designer and poster art activist who for years worked with the Community Arts Network, and she was the artist with whom I worked for International Youth Year to capture the spirit of issues young people were advocating.

It was the work of Jayne and others who took graffiti sprayed walls featuring slogans such as ‘Asians Out of Here’ and transformed them to posters reflecting the same words crossed out to form ‘We Welcome Asians Out Here’ as a visual and political reclaiming of our humanity.

sybil shearer 2
A few days ago I sat down with a student, Anna, who asked me, ‘what would you say to me as a 20 year old woman wanting some advice for my own international work in the time ahead?
My response?
sybil shearer

Be brave, take risks, and don’t look back.
Identify the organizations and issues with which you want to associate, and create a career canvas like a Pinterest board and map and stake out the opportunities to engage in these arenas rather than feeling limited or forced to focus on one or two.
Find your tribe as people you want for the journey and pay attention to your spirit and emotional life as much as to your professional life.
Walk away from bullying in any form and stay close to passion and beauty and art in all its dimensions.
Be kind.
Be true to your values
Hold fierce to your activist heart
Step into your power and be generous in your support of others.
Seek out mentors and be a mentor to others.
Take inspiration from artists, as I do from the legacy of dancer Sybil Shearer
Dance, Sing, Write, Act.

 

MermaidFestivalx1000px
©2016 Bowerbird Photography – http://bowerbirdphotography.com/

I could have added ‘embrace your mermaid self’ from my recent experience at a Mermaid Festival in Mill Valley where there were mermaids and mermen, mergirls and merboys who came together as custodians of the waters. The festival was in support of an organization called All One Oceans founded by the inspiring Hallie Austen-Iglehart in order to lead a movement committed to eliminating plastic waste in our oceans and waters that currently kills so many sea creatures.

Jane MarrI thought about how my friend Jane Marr, another mermaid, would have loved it! The festival featured stands, forums, storytelling and a mermaid/merman swim to affirm our mythic identities as protectors of the waters and all sea creatures. One of the speakers talked about putting mermaid and mermen tails on the legs of children with physical disabilities and their feeling of personal power as a result of this transformation. Another person spoke of the Mermaid School in Hawaii she established to build girls’ self-confidence and leadership.

When girls know the power of their voice and actions, real change is possible. Check out what Sofia Ashraf, an Indian rapper, did when she took on Unilever after discovery of mercury poisoning in one of their thermometer factories in Kodaikanal, India, as shared by one of my friends, Ishita. The rap went viral and, as a result, Unilever stepped in and worked with the Tamil Nadu government to clean the soil, clean up the problem and commit to it not happening again.

Art and activism helps change the world, and also the way we see ourselves and our place in the world. I recently went to a ceremonial gathering where our host gave us wings to wear as we danced around. I had on dragonfly wings and I remembered as a girl asking a question in a competition as to whether dragonflies were harmful or magical (guess!) Out of curiosity, when I returned home, I looked up the mythological meaning of dragonflies: The word dragonfly has its source in the myth that dragonflies were once Dragons.

curious jane 1The dragonfly is a symbol of transition. The dragonfly, in almost every part of the world, symbolizes change and change in the perspective of self-realization; and the kind of change that has its source in mental and emotional maturity and the understanding of the deeper meaning of life. The dragonfly’s scurrying flight across water represents an act of going beyond what’s on the surface and looking into the deeper implications and aspects of life. So, in a time of transition, the dragonfly is a kinetic symbol for me.

My mermaid self is so happy to be back on my boat. Swimmy creatures all around, the sweet sound of the sea and an otter with bright eyes bobs up for a brief time. A sky crayoned crimson and the deepening blue waters. How lucky I am to have this home, this life, in all its turns and transitions.

I hope that this peace I feel can reverberate to a lasting peace in the world.

Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have this wish I wish tonight.

Happy birthday to all the Janes in the world, and to those who share our spirit.

Jane and Juniper ©2016 Bowerbird Photography
©2016 Bowerbird Photography – http://bowerbirdphotography.com/

and dedicated to Juniper, divine and magical daughter of my friends, Ariel and Sam.

 

Jane Sloane
San Francisco

Letter From The Running and The Rising

running and rising - header

I’m just back from the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen, a convening on the health, rights and well-being of girls and women that takes place every three years. The conference dynamically engaged some 5,500 people from 169 countries, with 20% under 30 years of age and all of whom came with their energy, ideas, strategies and solutions for change.

Yemurai Nyoni WDC2016One of the participants under 30 was Yemurai Nyone, Founder and Advisor, Dot Youth Organization and 2013 Women Deliver Young Leader, Zimbabwe who spoke at the opening plenary and who said “My strength [as a man] is not defined by the weakness of others. My partner can be the fullest expression of herself – not for me but for herself. I believe our countries will be better for it.”

Also at the opening plenary, singer Annie Lennox spoke about the need to do so much more to address HIV/AIDS which had become a forgotten issue at the very time it is increasing in many parts of the world. Lennox was a force. Authentic and true. Like Patti Smith. As I watched her, I imagined a new organization called Artists for Activists, with artists fueling funds and forums to support activists on the ground to speak and act with the resources to sustain this work.

(L-R) Annie Lennox, Margaret Chan and Gro Harlem Brundtland attend the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, May 16, 2016.At the conference Melinda Gates announced an $80 million commitment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help close gender data gaps to accelerate advancing women’s and girls’ human rights. It brought back memories of making the case to the Australian Government in 2009 to invest in women’s research hubs in Asia and the Pacific for the same reason.

It’s so important to have this data and, in the spirit of what Mohammed Yunus said to young people at the conference — to see themselves as job creators and innovators rather than job seekers — I hope women in communities across the globe can be co-researchers and co-creators of data capture in support of their knowledge, experience and networks.  And that they can help define what data is captured, and how it is recorded and used.

Melinda Gates is also involved in another new initiative introduced at the conference. Called the Maverick Collective, it’s described as a ‘groundbreaking philanthropic and advocacy initiative aimed at catalyzing the next wave of social investors to improve the health and rights of girls and women worldwide’. Co-founded by Kate Roberts Senior Vice President, Corporate Partnerships & Philanthropy at PSI and Her Royal Highness Crown Princess of Norway Mette-Marit and co-chaired by Melinda Gates, the collective is intended ‘to drive strategic investments that go beyond the checkbook by engaging the time and talents of philanthropists.’

This is what’s happening now, donors want to be more than just ‘walking ATMs to use a phrase coined by Jessica Houssian from Women Moving Millions. Donors want to be engaged as thought leaders and strategists advocating for and influencing, social change outcomes.

With $14 million committed to date from 14 women giving one million each, the Maverick Collective represents the new way of organizing for change. I hope the funds get to grassroots women’s groups at a time when they’re most needed. Especially when institutional donors are pulling out of some regions, such as Latin America and the Middle East.  In the Middle East, European governments are redirecting funds they were providing to UN agencies working with refugees in countries such as Lebanon to back to Europe to address the refugee situation there rather than funding work in both regions.

One of Global Fund for Women’s advisors told me that this is precisely the time where Islamist groups are ramping up their funding to support groups working in the refugee camps.  So, at the very time when there is a deep need to invest in civil society infrastructure and organizing inside and outside refugee settlements to deal with the safety, security, health, education, and livelihood needs of women and their families, western donors are failing them and Islamist groups are stepping in to fill the breach.

I think about what happened in Nigeria when women’s groups in Nigeria and neighboring countries were sounding the alarm more than a year before Boko Haram kidnapped the girls in Nigeria. Women’s movements were asking for funds to shore up a strong grass roots women’s movement across the region in order to create the infrastructure for security and protection, advocacy, and action to build systems of ground support and intelligence.

Donors weren’t much interested in providing funding to these countries until the kidnapping of the girls changed all that. Now we have a situation in the Middle East where women’s groups working in and around the refugee settlements in Lebanon and surrounding countries are seeking funds to support and sustain their activism to bring about change and remain connected to women’s movements. And yet funds are flowing away from these groups, away from these countries, at the very time that civil society needs strengthening.

freedom-muslimasIn Egypt the government is withholding funds to women’s groups for many months and they are finding it very difficult to continue to operate when they have to pay fixed costs such as rent in order to have a safe space to meet and organize. Without this ability to organize there will be a further erosion of the really important work being undertaken to engage religious and faith based leaders to influence their oratory and their actions. There will not be the opportunity to increase women’s civic and political leadership, to advocate for new policies and practices to address the violence, and to increase women’s access to health information and services and to livelihoods.

There is so much talk and energy around women’s and girls’ empowerment and yet the amount of funds going to grassroots women’s groups is decreasing. The funds being directed from governments to support women’s and girls’ empowerment are largely project based and they are mainly being channeled through for-profit companies and international NGOs rather than via women’s organizations that are directly connected to women’s groups on the ground.  And many international NGOs are shifting from situating themselves as grantmakers to focusing on being convenors of influence, which has the promise of mobilizing more resources and yet often means less funding getting into the hands of women’s groups even though the intent may be there.

It’s not just that funds aren’t getting to grassroots women’s groups to support them to sustain and extend their work. It’s also that being nice and expecting to get a fair slice of the funding pie isn’t working.  While UN Women was created to powerfully advance women’s human rights, it needs millions more to achieve its vision and charter and yet it receives much less funding than other UN agencies.

At the same time, governments are directing massive funds to for-profit companies to manage their funds for development programs rather than this funding being directed to women’s organizations that have deep experience in grantmaking, especially with hard to reach groups working with the most isolated and marginalized communities. The funds being disbursed by governments are at such a high level that its more expedient for these managing contractors to grant funds to large groups in-country that have the systems in place to absorb such funds. To be funded groups also need to and demonstrate a level of governance and risk management to acquit funds at this level and demonstrate impact in the way defined by government donors.  In such a landscape the casualties are the small, cutting edge grass roots groups that are seeding new ideas or seeding themselves as rising activists for change.

At Women Deliver the power of young people was like an electric current running throughout the conference – in the breakout spaces and breakout dancing as much as in the formal sessions and presentations. They were occupying space, defining issues and power on their own terms, turning up the volume on their views and voice. It was a transmission of energy and power and it was such a gift.

running and rising - bodySo, we must hope that this new generation will flip power on its head and create solutions that really do deliver gender justice in the way Yemurai Nyone articulated in the opening plenary session.

I’ve been thinking about power in all its forms and, in this respect, I’ve learnt a lot about personal power from one of my dearest friends, Kate.  Specifically the need to unlock blocks in order to lean into our power, step into our power and to be held to account for this power and, in so doing, to feel our heart sing… This idea kindles in me the vivid images from reading Clarissa Pinkola Estes book, Women Who Run with the Wolves, many moons ago.

women and wolvesIn her book, Dr. Estes invokes the qualities of the archetypal wild woman from stories and fairy tales; qualities that she says have been consistently tamed by a society that advocates the virtue of being “nice.” She found the comparison of woman and wolf while studying wildlife biology. “Wolves and women are relational by nature, inquiring, possessed of great endurance and strength,” she writes. “They are deeply intuitive, intensely concerned with their young, their mate and their pack.” She also writes: “Yet both have been hounded, harassed and falsely imputed to be devouring and devious, overly aggressive, and of less value than those who are their detractors.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estes defines wildness as a kind of savage creativity. “You must become an activist if you are going to live the natural life,” she added, referring to being closer to one’s true self… “Otherwise you fall to the song of the starved soul, the hambre del alma.”

This invitation to reclaim power as feminists is so important. Of connection and exploration, wildness, togetherness and community.  Of stepping up our organizing, being assertive, strategic, untamed and unstoppable.

That’s why the work of the new Centre for Women, Peace and Security at London School of Economics is so important, especially its new activist in residence program to provide a space for women’s human rights activists to engage with the centre. As a member of the Advisory Board, I was so happy to be able to catch up with Professor Christine Chinkin, Director of the Centre, and with Zoe Gillard, Centre Manager, where they had just announced the appointment of four visiting professors in practice to the centre: Jane Connors, Director of International Advocacy at Amnesty International Geneva, William Hague, former UK Foreign Secretary, Angelina Jolie Pitt, UNHCR Special Envoy, and Madeleine Rees, Secretary General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.  It’s a hugely exciting time to be involved with the centre as it galvanizes support and involvement to drive and deliver a strong curriculum and engagement program.

Aminetou
Aminetou Mint El Moctar Ely

Later, I spend time with Negar Esfandiary, an oral historian who has been working for Women’s Learning Partnership to capture the stories of activist leaders in the women’s movement. Activists like Aminetou Mint El Moctar Ely who escaped the Mauritanian tradition (that is still happening at this very moment) of sending girls to feeding farms to force feed them and fatten them for forced marriage — like lambs to the slaughter. Instead, Aminetou became a highly vocal and active defender of women’s human rights in Mauritania and globally.

The stories are so compelling that the British Library has now bought the rights. As Negar says, the testimonies of these women are of cinematic quality and deserve to be films in their own right. I imagine a series of short films on these activist leaders created by some of the most renowned established and upcoming filmmakers in order for the whole world to get a grip on the power, courage and organizing ability of women organizing for gender justice globally.

People need to be exposed to the ideas and advocacy of these women to know the full power and potential for societal change that is possible when these views and visions are embraced. We all have a responsibility to seek out ways for the voices of those representing the most marginalized, radical and revelatory to be heard.

angela_blackwellIt reminds me of the phenomenal address given by Angela Glover Blackwell, President and CEO of Policy Link, where she said

“The problem isn’t those being left behind – the problem is those who are comfortable leaving people behind…you are not going to be who you claim to be if the thing that defines you is those who are left behind.”

The academic, Kimberlé Crenshaw, spoke to this too at the important London School of Economics International Inequalities Institute Annual Conference where she critiqued an exclusive focus by the Obama administration on lifting young boys out of poverty without any focus on girls because, the President said, girls were doing fine. However the research showed otherwise and it led to a Black Girls Matter movement rising with the slogan Our Girls Are Not “Just Fine” – Break the Silence.

sarianTwo women I met at the Women Deliver conference are also breaking the silence on female genital mutilation (FGM).  Sariam Karim Kamara, is an FGM Survivor from Senegal, now living in London in an area that has the highest number of FGM survivors in the country. She is also founder of an organization called ‘Keep the Drums, Lose the Knife’. In telling her story, Sariam says,

“I was 11 when I was cut. I was taken by my grandmother – together with 15 cousins during the dry season – since after you are cut you need time to heal and it’s harder during the raining season.  We had a sense of something about to happen but no real understanding. We were really excited as we’d prepared for this moment for the last year and we knew we were being inducted to Bondo society (female secret societies that exist across Sierra Leone, where almost 90% of women in the country are members).

FGM Sierra Leone‘In Sierra Leone the practice of FGM, the cutting that girls are subjected to, is only part of a long rite of passage, a long journey, much of which is valuable. We want to keep the rituals, the books, the drums, the dancing, the ceremony and the learning. We want to end the cutting. That’s why I called my group ‘Keep the drums, lose the knife.’ When we come together in this space, everyone is comfortable and there are no barriers and no difference. But with the cutting comes separation and searing pain.

‘If I had between $50,000 and $100,000 I would embark on a community engagement campaign in Sierra Leone to talk with the cutters and the religious leaders. It’s critical to involve the Paramount Chiefs as they are the ones that give the traditional licenses and so they are very powerful. Governments can’t touch them and yet these Chiefs touch every area.

‘What’s important with this issue is to get people talking, to tell their stories and to break the silence on the violence. This means sending women and men out into the community voluntarily to face the issue. Engaging the diaspora community and local communities is the key. It’s also important to give women a safe space and platform to tell their stories and to also learn how to heal and regain confidence and voice, and to rise up.”

What has also been critical has been supporting grass roots movements in the country to advocate for  Sierra Leone to ratify the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa that explicitly bans FGM.  This was finally achieved in July 2015 when Sierra Leone finally ratified the treaty. Now activists are working to get the government to implement the treaty and pass a national law explicitly banning FGM.

AlimatuI also spoke with Alimatu Dimonekene, another FGM survivor and founder of Project ACEi working to end FGM. Alimatu was also born in Sierra Leone and is now living in London.  She was asked by the Prime Minister of Britain and Baroness Lynne Featherstone to share her story at the Girl Summit that took place in London in 2014 to highlight key issues affecting girls. Reflecting on that time Alimeku said “I was quite nervous but I knew it was important.  I was also interviewed by BBC Radio One presenter, Vanessa Felts, who said “we really want the world to know what is happening” and that set the tone for the interview and her program.

“The publicity has been important however the media and celebrities from the Girl Summit have long gone and we’re still struggling to attract funds as grassroots women’s groups. The bigger organizations don’t always reach the communities we reach and that’s a big issue.  I’m paying for myself to do the work here and in Sierra Leone but so much needs to be done, especially in rural areas.”

“There are all the issues related to FGM including menstrual hygiene, access to education and safe access to water and sexual abuse and child marriage of very young girls. These girls are specifically targeted because they have undergone FGM.

For instance, in many communities in Sierra Leone, there is a severe water shortage and so girls are approached by men and boys to have sex in exchange for a bucket of safe drinking water. And so they engage in risky sexual relations, exposing themselves to HIV/AIDS, pregnancy and STIs (sexually transmitted infections) in return for fresh drinking water.

It is only grassroots groups’ who know these communities, much more than the big organizations who only come for a few days and leave. Our work can really bring these issues to the fore as we know what needs to be done to address these situations.”

I ask Alimatu what she would do if a donor gave her $100,000.

“I would create a center in Sierra Leone to help girls and women deal with these issues.  A center where we would share stories in person and via video to encourage girls and women to tell their experiences. A place where girls and women can get therapeutic support, learn new skills and build their self-esteem and confidence to help them break free of this cycle of abuse.

‘What I have here in the UK is access to skilled, trained health professionals. Every woman and girl should have this access. In Burkina Faso, women are not able to express that they are unhappy and so there is no outlet for their pain and grief.  There is no outlet for them to express their experience of the violence perpetrated, their low self-esteem, or that they can’t get an education or a job.

‘If I were creating this center for women in Sierra Leone, I would create it in the image of a butterfly. Before it becomes a butterfly, it is a caterpillar which is prickly and hairy and wiggly. Then the caterpillar is left alone in a cocoon to think about what it wants to become, as a kind of incubation period, and then before you know it, out comes a butterfly with beautiful colors — rising, flying, transformed.”

Lenore_DembskiWhen we stay close to women connected to their communities, the best ideas and journeys happen. I’ve been receiving updates from my friend, Lenore Dembski, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Fund she’s heading in Australia and the amazing textile artists this fund is supporting. This is a fund built on relationships between artisans and donors. I imagine what it would be like to create a Global Women Artisans’ Fund – from artisan oil producers providing a human scale alternative to big oil and fossil fuels to artisan tea makers and textile producers.

There’s no dedicated fund to connect a global network of women artisans and to support them to adapt and collaborate in ways that support human scale enterprise and self-employed worker rights. If there were such a fund it would help with exchanges between artisans and provide more ways to direct resources to support artisan collaboratives and artisan maps where people could click to create their own artisan study tours and by so doing help women to sustain livelihoods and create opportunities for others.

IMG_20140921_123420503After the Women Deliver conference I headed to Norway to discuss funding for women’s groups in the Middle East, and a partnership for a women’s climate justice initiative aimed at lifting up women’s leadership on issues of food, water and land security. This includes leadership on small scale organic farming. As George Monbiot says in his latest book, How Did We Get Into This Mess,

“There is an inverse relationship between the size of farms and the amount of crops they produce per hectare. The smaller they are, the greater the yield. If governments are serious about feeding the world, they should be breaking up large landholdings, redistributing them to the poor and concentrating their research and funding on supporting small farms….The structure of the global food movement is changing so rapidly that fair trade is now becoming one of the few means by which small farmers in poor nations might survive.”

In the village of Arendal where I had meetings regarding women’s leadership in relation to climate change impact, I was captivated by the work of Professor Elaine Barker, a UNESCO Chair in Ocean Governance who is strategizing to address the global race to gain mining rights to mine the deep sea floor.  She is also part of a team that has produced the first new global seafloor map in forty years.  Professor Barker’s framing and response is vital policy work that will influence ocean ecosystems for decades to come and hers is an important voice in influencing the outcomes.

That night, after my meetings finished, an almost full moon rose over the water as small ferries chugged across the bay. At 3.00am I bumped down cobblestone streets with my bag and with Elaine as my moonlit guide to get me to the bus stop to catch a bus for an early morning flight. My hour long bus ride to the airport was revelatory. A white-blue wonderland unfurling, like a space capsule delivering me into a hushed new world.

On my flight home I read Thomas Frank’s book, Listen Liberal, and joined the dots between his take on  what happens when the US Democratic party loses its interest in working people and what I see playing out in the field of women’s human rights. That’s a story for my next blog.

In less than a day, and now full circle, I’m back in Sausalito again.

Home to artists, activists and sustained creativity. And also, mercifully, a sacred sanctuary. I put down my bag and tip my head to sky and stars. The view across the bay has a gauzy, dreamy quality to it, and my boat feels lit from behind in a translucent wash of light … and me, I’m lit from within.

I step out on the hull and turn, turn, turn to the tiny bud lights of Sausalito. Here at night it’s velvety…mysterious…inky blue…and with the promise of a magic carpet ride if I can let myself fly … the bluest blue…I tip closer to the light and the magic is right there winking back at me.

Jane Sloane
San Francisco