Future Health Leaders Conference 2015 – “Inspiring Tomorrow’s Leaders”

FUTURE HEALTH LEADERS 2015 CONFERENCE
“Inspiring Tomorrow’s Leaders”
19-21 NOVEMBER 2015 SYDNEY AUSTRALIA

KEYNOTE: THE POWER OF MOVEMENTS – A GLOBAL MOVEMENT OF FUTURE HEALTH PROFESSIONALS

Last November I was invited to give speak at the 2015 Future Health Leaders Conference . It was a wonderful event and I particularly want to thank Shannon Nott for the invitation to speak.

My keynote speech was THE POWER OF MOVEMENTS – A GLOBAL MOVEMENT OF FUTURE HEALTH PROFESSIONALS about the potential, individually and collectively to lead a strong health worker movement to change the world.


20151119-Jane-FHL-KeynoteSpeech-01

Jane Sloane on Women’s Health at 2015 Future Health Leaders National Conference

I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of country, the Gadigal peoples of the Eora nation and to acknowledge the land on which we stand today and to pay my respects to elders past and present. I also want to say what a great privilege it is to be here today at the University where I studied and also because I was present for the creation of Future Health Leaders.

So it’s really wonderful to be invited back here. I particularly want to thank Shannon Nott for the invitation to speak. What I’m speaking to you about today is about your potential, individually and collectively to lead a strong health worker movement to change the world.

20151119-Jane-FHL-KeynoteSpeech-02For me in the last 30 years of human rights work I’ve been guided by a sentiment that was so eloquently captured by the late Kath Walker who later adopted her tribal name Oodgeroo of the tribe Noonuccal. when she said, “as I’ve traveled the world I’ve often thought that one could judge society by the way it treats its minorities.

Where a minority’s been forced to live in squalor, I’ve seen a squalid society. Where a minority has been riddled with disease, I’ve seen a sick society. Where a minority has been without hope, I’ve seen a nation without hope.”

20151119-Jane-FHL-KeynoteSpeech-03You have the power to come together as a strong health worker movement and change the frame and then change the world. You have the power to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which holds true the right of every person on this earth to have access to health care to have access to health services. This Universal Declaration of Human Rights has most recently been affirmed by the new global sustainable development goals to which Australia is a signatory.

20151119-Jane-FHL-KeynoteSpeech-04You have the power to be a very strong global health movement for change and to change the world in the way that Margaret Meade said, when she reflected, “Never doubt that a small group of committed thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

For me a tipping point moment of change happened some fifteen years ago when I spent a day with Nelson Mandela.

20151119-Jane-FHL-KeynoteSpeech-05He was in Sydney at the time to speak at an event called “What Makes a Champion” and I was leading one of the Olympic media centers for the Olympic Games and I was approached about whether I would be prepared to look after Mr. Mandela for a day.

You can imagine. “Would you mind looking after Mr. Mandela?” “Oh well. Ok.” During the course of the day he said to me, “Jane if you really want to make a positive difference in the world you should focus on conflict resolution and citizen led change.”

If you think about the wisdom of those words since all the conflict that’s happened since, and the number of people led movements that have risen up around the world, you just again reflect on what an incredible individual Nelson Mandela was.

20151119-Jane-FHL-KeynoteSpeech-06From that point really to now, I’ve been on quite a journey and that journey has led me to working with an organization called Global Fund for Women. Global Fund for Women was created some twenty-seven years ago by three women who were concerned about the fact that there wasn’t much money going to support women led organizations in developing countries. The money that was going to support them was largely project based – rather than core funding to be able to sustain the advocacy and the activism. They wanted to change all that.

Since that time we’ve given out about a hundred and twenty million dollars to some 5,000 women’s groups. Just to give you an idea of what that means in practice and the radical idea of trusting women and getting money into the hands of women in order to see transformative change, three of the women who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 were early recipients of funding from Global Fund for Women.

One of those women Leymah Gbowee from Liberia had a dream to end the Liberian Civil War. She used some of the money that we provided to bus hundreds of women into Accra in Ghana where the leaders, the male leaders of the Liberian Civil War were meeting and these women surrounded the compound and Leymah Gbowee grabbed a megaphone and she said, “We women, we’re tired of war, we want peace, we want justice and we are surrounding this compound and we’re not going to let you men out until you make a decision to end the civil war and if you try and come out we are going to bare our breasts.” which is like a hex on men.

Those men stayed in that compound for several days until they finally did make a decision to end the civil war. When they came out, Leymah Gbowee and the other women, they turned their attention to getting the first female president of Liberia elected and that women of course was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

One of our board members at the time, Abbey Disney, who’s the granddaughter of Walt Disney, was so transfixed by this story that she made a film about Leymah Gbowee and the women who surrounded the compound. That film was called “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” and at the same time, Tina Brown that legendary publisher in New York approached Leymah Gbowee about writing a book about her experiences.

It was that book and that film that came to the attention of the Nobel Peace Prize organizing committee and that was really what helped to get her the recognition that she deserved. That’s what happens when you not only get money into the hands of women’s groups, but when you lift up their voices and their views, so the whole world knows what they’re capable of achieving.

20151119-Jane-FHL-KeynoteSpeech-07Just one other example of an incredible movement for change, closer to home, a woman called Janet Sape. She was concerned about the fact that in Papua New Guinea some eighty-three percent of women experienced some form of domestic violence. Many of these women in rural and remote parts of the country can’t access their own bank account without getting it their husband’s signature. It means that they are trapped in a cycle of violence and they can’t get out of that, can’t imagine a different life or economic independence.

So Janet had a dream. She had a banking background before she went back to working in her community. She had a dream to create a Pacific women’s bank. We provided her the funding to be able to pursue that dream. She worked with thousands of women; she managed to get some 15,000 signatures from women who really wanted to see this bank happen. The problem was she couldn’t get the banking license from the prime minister.

I’m also on the board of Women’s Funding Network in the United States and we have an award called the Lead Award, which is a global women’s leadership award. Global Fund for women flew Janet Sape to the United States to receive this award. She stood up before hundreds of men and women at a global women’s conference and she said, “You know, we women in Papua New Guinea, we thought we were alone, we thought our problems were our own and what I realized standing before you today is, we have a whole global women’s community, a whole movement that has our back and I can’t tell you what a difference that makes”.

We then beamed the footage of Janet receiving the award back to Papua New Guinea, back to TV stations in the country, to newspapers in the country.

By the time she arrived back in Papua New Guinea, she was a rock star. She was on the front page of the papers, she was the lead story in the TV’s news and so sometime after she arrived back, the prime minister invited her to his residence and he signed over that banking licence to her.

Now some two years later she has over 30,000 women who have signed up as members of that bank. That’s what happens when you not only get money into the hands of a group that wants to lead a strong movement for change but you also lift up their voices and their views.

20151119-Jane-FHL-KeynoteSpeech-08That’s what’s really important about the way that we work. We don’t just invest in individual people, in individual leaders; we don’t even invest in individual groups. We invest in strong social movements, believing that’s the best way to be able to change the world.

20151119-Jane-FHL-KeynoteSpeech-09We take our cue from an activist scholar called Srilatha Batliwala who defined a social movement as an organized set of people interested in making a change in their situation by pursuing a common political agenda through collective action. That common political agenda is really critical in terms of the level of change you’re able to achieve.

20151119-Jane-FHL-KeynoteSpeech-10Why are social movements important? Research has shown that broad-based social movements are one of the most effective mechanisms to create and to sustain long-term social transformation.

20151119-Jane-FHL-KeynoteSpeech-11For example, social movements have been pivotal in the adoption of progressive policies, in ensuring policy implementation, in changing a whole political process in changing gender norms.

20151119-Jane-FHL-KeynoteSpeech-12One example of this, you’ll remember the woman in India who was raped. That horrific rape on a bus and the global outrage that resulted from that and the fact that the Indian government then, less than two months later, passed new laws to give new protection to women and girls in terms of sexual violence and domestic violence.

Those laws were only made possible by the years of work by women social movements, women’s groups that were writing policies, drafting legislation, working together to create the kind of environment that could ensure that when this political tipping point moment occurred, everything was ready and able, to be able to enact the change into law. All of that work, of investing in movements for change is vitally important for when those tipping point moments occur.

20151119-Jane-FHL-KeynoteSpeech-13What does a strong social movement look like? One example of that is the movement for Climate Justice. Here a health worker movement has a pivotal role to play with the intersection of climate justice.

For example, the World Health Organization has predicted that in the years ahead in Papua New Guinea alone, it’s likely to face a 95% exposure to Malaria. You can imagine the level of disease and dislocation that will follow in Papua New Guinea and other Pacific countries that are on our doorstep. We’ll see a lot more climate change refugees as a result of rising sea levels and all of the other factors that play a part with climate change.

We’ve already seen that in the Carteret Islands, with members of the population moving to Bougainville. We’re likely to see a whole lot more in the time ahead. You, as a health worker movement, are really going to be at the front line of response.

It’s also really important to pay attention to the gender dimensions of climate change, of health worker response.

For example during the Asian tsunami you may not know this, for every man and boy who died, three women and girls died.

Often for cultural reasons such as women not feeling that they could leave their homes because they didn’t have their husband’s permission or they didn’t feel that they were covered up enough or because they didn’t know how to swim.

Paying attention to those factors, paying attention to what’s playing out in the world with climate change is really critical and connecting with that movement is really vital as well.

To that point, the key components of a strong movement include that connectivity with other movements. It includes having a strong leadership pipeline and diverse leadership so that you’re actually reflecting the diverse perspectives within a movement.

20151119-Jane-FHL-KeynoteSpeech-15It requires a strong grassroots base and it requires a strong organizing structure. It requires the use of multiple strategies which includes convenings such as this, capacity building, outreach, surveys, research, advocacy, (and) the use of social media. It requires a collective political agenda. An agenda that has a focus on shifting power as much as shifting resources and it requires strong alliances not just with established movements but also with emerging movements.

20151119-Jane-FHL-KeynoteSpeech-16One of those emerging movements is the movement to end hyper-masculinity and this image you see here is from a film that some of you might have seen. It’s a film that was created by a US filmmaker called Jennifer Siebel Newsom called The ‘Mask You Live In’.

She conducted interviews with boys and young men in the United States asking questions such as, “What does it mean to be a man, what do you think about when you’re told to man up, what does masculinity mean to you in your life?”

It’s really an absolutely incredible film. I’d love to see a similar film made in Australia, interviews with Australian boys and Australian young men. It would be so interesting to see the differences and the similarities in the responses received.

A couple of months ago I was in Uganda visiting a group that we’d funded about three years earlier. This group was led by a woman who was really concerned about the high number of girl kidnappings, the high rate of child marriage, the high rate of violence against women within the villages where she lived. She started a campaign.

She started going out and talking to male chiefs, talking to police chiefs, talking to elders within the villages, talking to families about imagining a different way of life.

A different way of life where men could drop their focus on violence could actually imagine the deep healing that needed to occur within these villages. She was soon joined by a young male teacher who was really distressed by the fact that his mother was being beaten up every day by his father, that his sister had been disappeared some two years earlier and he also wanted to see a big change in the villages in the community.

Well. I was arriving three years later after they’d been doing this work for some time. I was present for the testimony that a lot of male chiefs stood up and spoke to me about.

One older man said to me, “You know I used to see sex like a cup of tea that I could have at any time. That I could have sex with any young woman, with any girl and I’d even had sex with my daughter-in-law to test the dowry we’d provided, to see whether it was actually worthwhile, and that was my way of life. I realized that it was doing as much damage to me as it was the women in my community.”

Man after man stood up and talked about the changes that they’d made in their own lives and now being mentors to other boys and young men in their communities.

These men, as well as the women in the community, started talking to me about the difference that this had made. That they’d now created their own cooperative dairy, they created their own cooperative coffee collective, that they created a system to be able to transport women with high-risk pregnancies to the nearest villages.

Now every girl with going to school, that the kidnappings that occurred with many children on the way to school had ceased and every boy had made their own compact to not be violent.

They said, “We now want to lead a strong movement across the rest of Uganda. We want more funding because we’ve seen the healing that has occurred in this community.

We’ve seen the healing that occurs when we address hyper masculinity. We now believe that we can engage communities across the rest of Uganda and create the deep level of healing that’s needed to be able to transform our communities and transform the society in which we live.”

20151119-Jane-FHL-KeynoteSpeech-17You also have a phenomenally powerful role to play in one of the most challenging issues of our time that we’re seeing playing out now and that is the mass migration that’s occurring across Europe. It’s occurring across many other parts of the world because of the heightened level of war and conflict that’s occurring.

Mass migration needs a global health system. I want to share with you what I’ve experienced in several of the Syrian refugee camps where I’ve been in Lebanon in recent weeks; if you can imagine some 25,000 to 37,000 people crammed into a space of less than a kilometre.

These people are living in places where there are live electrical wires just a couple of feet above me and every couple of weeks someone else gets electrocuted from these electric wires, where any drinking water has to be brought into the camps in order for people to be able to drink, where the Lebanese government has banned some seventy occupations so it means that people in these camps have to resort to the most menial kind of work, working with sewerage, working in plumbing, where the women who are pregnant have no access to health care, where many of them are giving birth to children, to babies with deformities and because they have no access to health treatment these babies are being medicated and really left in a vegetative state at the moment, where the level of violence is at an all time high and where the women particularly Syrian women have just normalized the violence.

Some of them said to me, “We think it’s better that our husbands hit us, beat us up, rather than hitting others, rather than them beating up others”, where children are encouraged to scream so that they’re not grabbed and taken away from the camps and sold off to some of the Gulf men in Gulf communities. This is something that’s not normal for Syrian children, they’re not normally taught to scream so they’ve had to change their behaviour, to be able to scream when any man touches them.

Where the women’s groups that we’re supporting have been working with Syrian women to really understand that they have rights, that they have the right not be violated in their community and also again working with men so that they can deal with the level of trauma that they’re facing and understand what’s driving them to be violent every day.

One of the young boys I spoke with in the community who was also a victim of domestic violence. I asked him. “What would you like to be when you grow up?” And he said to me, “I’d like to be a pilot so I can fly away from all of this”.

20151119-Jane-FHL-KeynoteSpeech-18You know these stories are just absolutely heartbreaking of what’s happening in these camps. These people have the right to a different life. They have the right to basic health care, to be able to support them, to be able to imagine a different life in the time ahead. Because if we don’t support these people we’re going to not only deny them their basic human rights, were going to be able to, I guess lead them to a situation that none of them want to be able to see, which is being led into the arms of armed groups, not just ISIS, but other armed groups.

They want to take the first ticket out of there, to be able to get themselves out of this situation because of the level of poverty, the level of disease, the level of despair in these camps is something that no one should ever, ever have to experience.

The problem is, this is just the beginning. What I experienced and witnessed is just the beginning of a great tide of humanity that is pouring into these camps at the moment. You have the power to come together as a global health worker movement and advocate for change, advocate for the right of these people to be able to assume the need and the access to basic health care.

Because health care is a human right, health care is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and you have the power to be able to change the situation, you have the power to change the world. In this respect technology is going to play a massively important role; the power of a mobile phone to be able to change the situation for an individual and a community, the ability of a phone to be able to determine and detect a high-risk pregnancy and for a woman to be able to get the health care that she needs, so that her baby is saved. 20151119-Jane-FHL-KeynoteSpeech-19The power of a phone to be able to support girls and women who are in high areas of conflict, such as happened in Haiti, where women devised a 24 hour hotline using cell phones so the girls and young women who were in danger could immediately use their cell phones to be able to get to safety and to identify where they could get help if they’d been raped or abused.

When I spent time with Syrian and Iraqi women activists a few weeks ago in Turkey, they said to me that one of the most important things that would help them in organizing an underground network to keep girls and women safe from ISIS, was a safe digital network, so that they could identify where women were at risk, where they could set up safe shelters, where they could dismantle, where they needed to be able to get out of a space quickly. So the power of technology to be able to keep girls and women safe, to keep boys and men safe and to be able to provide the services that are needed to be able to drive a strong health workers movement.

20151119-Jane-FHL-KeynoteSpeech-20How we use our power is really going to determine our world. How you use your power and the choices we make in the time ahead. How you use your decision-making and how you make a commitment to a strong global health worker movement is really going to shape our world for the time ahead.

20151119-Jane-FHL-KeynoteSpeech-21You have the power here today to be able to change the world. Please join me in this strong, strong vision to be able to change not only the experiences that I’ve seen in the Syrian refugee camps but the experiences of every individual in the world.

20151119-Jane-FHL-KeynoteSpeech-22You have the power to drive a strong global health worker movement.
You have the power to change the world.
I invite you to step up and assume that challenge.

Thank you very much.

Jane Sloane

 

Transcript by Jools Thatcher – Pretentia

 

 

Letter From San Francisco #22

sausalito boatI’ve just arrived back on my boat in Sausalito from being in Australia. A couple of days after my return I open my hatch and watch a man with a pirate hat rowing toward shore. Hi, he says with a grin, although in my mind it’s more har, har. I’m back in Sausalito, Grateful Dead territory.

And back on campaign turf. The Presidential campaign feels like a microcosm of what’s playing out in the wider world. At one end of the spectrum there’s fear and greed trumping all and at the other a genuine citizen powered movement for social justice. A hawks and doves kind of race, with the latest act being Sanders’ little green bird sparking a peace tweet frenzy. We’d better hope that this momentum for social justice wins out if we’re to have any chance of advancing women’s rights and righting history in the time ahead.

Sometimes it feels like there’s a lot of noise but not a lot of sense making when it comes to advancing women’s human rights.

Grass roots women’s organizations still receive so little funding in spite of all the noise of commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals and to all kinds of initiatives intended to engage women as leaders and peacemakers. Often, commitments get made to great fanfare without the tracking in place to ensure those donors step up and honor their commitments. Other times it seems that all the boxes get ticked for getting more funding to groups with women as beneficiaries without the power dynamic changing and without women stepping up to new positions of power, influence and engagement.

Women need to be able to influence informal and formal political processes and regulatory mechanisms and to connect this to their front line activism. They need to be able to tap political will and resources to address the issues they’re advocating for. At present, so many women are literally fighting to their death for the causes to which they are bound.

Berta Caceres stands at the Gualcarque River in the Rio Blanco region of western Honduras where she, COPINH (the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) and the people of Rio Blanco have maintained a two year struggle to halt construction on the Agua Zarca Hydroelectric project, that poses grave threats to local environment, river and indigenous Lenca people from the region.For instance, the recent assassination of Berta Cáceres, a Lenca Indigenous woman, and an internationally recognized leader, who was assassinated in her home.

I heard Berta speak at an agro-peasantry conference in Mexico last year and she was compelling in her message and oratory. Berta was an activist who worked at the frontlines in the struggle against the expropriation of land and water from her community by the construction of the Agua Zarca hydropower dam project in the Gualcarque River basin in Honduras, promoted by the company Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA) and financed by foreign investors.  The kind of company that would be championed by a Trump Presidency.

There was neither the political will nor regulatory processes to hold DESA and its investors to account for the decimation of land and water; no formal systems in place to protect the wellbeing of communities. In the United States, we’ve seen the effect of efficiency processes trumping the right of communities to access safe water in communities such as Flint in Michigan where the governor’s representative decided to replace access to the community’s safe water supply with a  cheaper unsafe option. The devastating health consequences of that decision resulted in an ongoing inquiry and a class action for compensation.

The difference in Latin America is that those leading the protests are getting assassinated. The Global Witness report shows that Latin America has the highest rate of indigenous peoples being murdered for standing up for their rights, and many of those murdered are women.

During her 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize Award ceremony, Berta Cáceres shared these words:

In our worldview, we are beings who come from the Earth, from the water, and from corn. The Lenca people are ancestral guardians of the rivers, in turn, protected by the spirits of young girls, who teach us that giving our lives in various ways for the protection of the rivers is giving our lives for the well-being of humanity and of this planet… Let us wake up!

We’re out of time. We must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction. “Our Mother Earth – militarized, fenced-in, poisoned, a place where basic rights are systematically violated – demands that we take action.”

Conflicts over land and mining rights are exploding into dramatic battles.  Violent intimidation, assassinations and burning of houses of rural activists is widespread. 03-Bazookax480The most recent assassination of an environmental defender of land against a mining company is of Bazooka Rhadebe, Chairperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), The ACC was elected by the affected communities to represent them in the fight against the proposed mining project at Xolobeni, Wild Coast of South Africa. The committee had managed to hold the Australian mining company, MRC, and the force of the state at bay for close to a decade. And then Bazooka Rhadebe was gunned down in his home by assassins posing as police officers while Bazooka protected his son and wife from also being shot.

Women and men are being killed as defenders of land and territory, and more often it’s women who are left to defend the land while men are further afield working. If women aren’t killed, they are often raped and violated for their stance and determination to protect their home, rivers and earth. The word ‘gendercide’ does not overstate the case when it comes to rape being used as a weapon of war in many countries, women still being burnt as witches in places like Papua New Guinea, women being killed in honor crimes, the ‘normalization’ of domestic violence, including in marriage, the kidnapping and forced marriage of girls as young as nine and the sustained mutilation of girls’ bodies through harmful traditional practices.

02-aboriginal girlYoung girls are also committing suicide in response to violence and despair, such as the 10 year old Aboriginal girl who committed suicide in the Kimberley in Australia last month. Growing criminal networks, militarization and corporatization add to the layers of violence affecting women and girls.

Most especially concerning is the rise and rise of religious fundamentalism and the devastating impact this is having on women and girls in all of its dimensions.

There’s been plenty of military money and might to support fighting wars in the world but not much money for combatting the world’s longest war of violence against women, whether it’s domestic violence, sexual violence, violence perpetrated against women’s human rights defenders of body and earth or the violence of fundamentalist beliefs and the impact on women. Why do we accommodate this sustained war against women and yet commit so much fight and might to address other major crises and wars?

If we are serious in addressing this gendercide there has to be a global compact by donors to ending violence against women. Important here is the need to dramatically increase funding to grassroots women’s groups to ensure they can continue to provide the services and support on the ground while advocating for policy and legal change.

For instance, at Global Fund for Women we provided a crisis fund grant to Berta’s group to support their continued fight for their land and for justice in Honduras and in Australia we’ve funded the formation of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s fund based in Darwin to support strategies and solutions led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. We need to be ramping up support on the ground to 1000 times the level at which it currently happens.

08-nonhle-mbuthuma-1-c2a9-the-shore-break-lrGlobal Fund for Women remains one of the few global organizations committed to providing core funding to support the work of women led groups focused on realizing women’s human rights. It’s critical to maintain this support as the opportunities for women’s groups to access funding is diminishing and the spaces for women’s organizing are shrinking. This is happening in many forms and for a number of reasons. In some countries, women organizing together are seen as a dangerous trend and the buildings they occupy are being burnt and razed to the ground.

In Egypt, the government is cracking down on women’s groups receiving funding from donors outside of Egypt and issuing officials summons to key staff of these organizations to attend interrogation sessions undertaken by government officials and freezing organizations’ bank accounts. Other cultures restrict women coming together for cultural reasons and so their isolation and disconnection from other women, community and organized action is acute.

Girls too are losing their gathering spaces as their parents choose to marry them off early in the name of security rather than allowing them to stay in school.

The number of donors pulling out of countries due to concerns over corruption, conflict and crises as well as changing strategic interests and approaches all contribute to women losing the spaces they’ve created for their organizing. The pressure against civil society and women’s human rights groups has been increased exponentially in countries in the Middle East in particular, with some donors deciding it is too hard to keep supporting groups in this region.

Funding is also being reduced for organizations working to support refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. This situation is now exacerbated by the fact that many European governments that were supporting organizations working in the refugee camps in the Middle East have now diverted this funding back to Europe to address the refugee situation there.

04-aptopix-mideast-lebanon-syrian-refugees-cpPublic attention has also swung from the Middle East to Europe where there appears greater interest in providing funding support for the refugee situation in Europe than to also maintain support for organizations and groups working in the Middle East.

And yet if we don’t support groups to be able to help families and communities inside the camps in countries in the Middle East then these women, their families and their children miss out on education, personal and economic security and an opportunity to realize their rights and potential. They may also become targets of fundamentalists and terrorist recruiters.

What is the solution, so many people ask? There is no one solution, there are many interventions and actions that will collectively contribute to real change. The work the women’s groups are doing in the camps is essential in supporting women to address violence, trauma, attend to their own, and their family’s health and education needs, for them to have a voice and self-esteem, to claim their own power, to earn an income and to influence policies and laws. Having spent time in the camps, I’m also convinced of the power of yoga, mindfulness and meditation and conflict resolution skills for long-term peace.

Nikita ShahbaziI’ve written previously about Nikita Shahbazi a yoga teacher supported by I Move Foundation, one of the women’s organizations working in the refugee camps that are funded by Global Fund for Women.

Nikita is a teacher with the grit and grace to help children survive in these camps by giving them an immersion in yoga that helps them reclaim energy, life force, hope, curiosity and the power to dream thanks to Nikita’s skilled and graceful teaching.

The arts also play such a key role in healing and peacebuilding – including children drawing, writing and dancing their fears and hopes while in the camps. Conversely, art can be a great community educator and peace builder. While I was in Australia, I was captivated by the theme of the Perth international Arts Festival which was empathy.

In responding to the refugee situation, we can’t just say their problems are not our problems, that they are the other, they are not us, that we’ll build walls and fences to keep refugees out. This is a global problem and it requires global, regional, national and local  leadership. Each country must take a quota of refugees rather than expecting those countries closest to the borders of Syria to assume the load. Moral leadership requires this commitment. Beyond this commitment by political leaders is the invitation to every person to walk in another’s shoes, it’s the invitation to an empathetic life and to the profound recognition that we are not separate, we are connected.

06-hr_pwf-family-day_cr-jessica-wyld_01In this same spirit of empathy and connectedness, there needs to be a recognition of the radical shifts needed to achieve gender justice so that we don’t lose another generation of women and girls, of men and boys – who are also profoundly affected by gender inequality and ideas of hyper-masculinity. Investing in women’s movements is critical. And so is the need to recognize that just supporting other social justice movements, whether they be environmental movements or racial justice movements won’t necessarily lead to changed conditions for women unless there is an intentional commitment to gender equality built into the equation.

Getting money to women’s groups and trusting their strategies and solutions for change, as well as ensuring they have a seat at tables of influence, is key to real change for women. For it is their rise that will rebalance the world and set us on a course of peace and justice.

While immersed in the big issues impacting women’s human rights I took time to fly back to Australia where I needed to spend time with my family and with close friends. When I was there I was dealing with a lot of change and so swimming in the sea was like an act of renewal; diving into the water felt like I was reclaiming a fearlessness I felt I’d lost. I danced, I spun, I somersaulted, I leapt.

I read an interview with surfer Leah Dawson and felt I’d found kin in the way she described her relationship with water:

“If I were to categorize myself, I’d say I’m a water woman in love with the sea, passionately exploring all crafts and waves of most sizes.

Most of all, I’d love to be considered a dancer of the sea, that’s what I am working towards on every wave I ride.

I want to feel that feminine elegance exude from me, I want to feel myself in unison with the wave, completely a part of the sea. If people do see me surf, I want them to see that I’m in love with the ocean.”

Walking the beach reconnected me to joy and laughter. The daily ritual of watching dogs bounding into the sea was sublime and so too the experience of seeing dolphins in the bay.

07henley beach dogOne day I watched an old Labrador walk slowly along the sand next to his owner. He suddenly stopped, plodded into the sea and sat down in the water. I laughed out loud. Nearby was another daily ritual in progress. A very large woman waded into the sea up to her neck, with just her face showing and her very big floppy hat waving in the breeze. Like the nearby Labrador, she was glad to soak her skin. Near her was a woman in a green bathing cap and swimmers relaying a mile from one jetty to the other, arms slicing the sea in sync. Like rhythmic points of light across the water.

Later, getting some fish to eat and sitting in the beach square, I watched a woman carrying a baby, with her male partner following her and a little girl trailing behind. The little girl turned and stopped when she saw me and then she curled her fingers in a slow wave several times. Then she smiled again, all dimples and ran on to join her family. Those littlest of moments can bring a great whoosh of joy.

It brought to mind that lovely song by Australian singer Sara Storer called “Long Live the Girls“. Storer, who has four boys, said she wrote this song for her four nieces. It seems to me it’s a universal song for all the girls in their fearlessness, potential and in affirmation of their rights.

Toward the end of my time in Australia I took a dreamy drive from Mt Gambier to Port Fairy – into faerie people land:

05cockatoosWhite cockatoos break across the sky
Gum studded roads
Scent of eucalyptus
Maggies cawing
Kookas cackling
My Australianness rooted in me
Deep like redgum roots
Shacks and ruins strewn across plains where the light bleaches out life
Stripped back stark
Glowing light
Meditative, memorable
Trees become creatures
Silhouettes sing to me
My country
Fella jump up
Sista sit on the ground
A gathering circle
To understand to try to

Jane Sloane
San Francisco

 

Women’s Funding Network Webinar: Power Of Witness – Feb 4 2016

Thanks to everyone who listened to this morning’s Women’s Funding Network: Power Of Witness Webinar, below  is a transcript of the recording


Power of Witness – women, children, and the Syrian refugee crisis – Women’s Funding Network webinar

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WFN: Women’s Funding Network is thrilled and honored to host Jane Sloane today. She is the Vice President of programs at Global Fund for Women which is a grant-making organization focusing on human rights for women and girls. Jane previously worked as a Vice President of development with Women’s World Banking in New York and prior to that she was the Executive Director of the International Women’s Development Agency supporting women’s rights organizations across the Asia and the Pacific region.

In October 2015 a few short months ago Jane and a few of her colleagues from Global Fund for Women spent about a month traveling around Istanbul, Turkey and Egypt to meet with women’s groups to join a convening of Syrian women activists and to bear witness to life in two refugee camps for women and girls in southern Beirut.

Jane is also a prolific writer and wrote extensively about this trip on her blog Janeintheworld.com. When we read her post it was clear that her experiences needed a wider audience so we invited her in because we wanted to give everyone in the network the opportunity to hear Jane’s stories and to talk to her about how this rising conflict in the Middle East is affecting women and girls in particular. Ok so without further ado I will hand the mic over to Jane and she’ll get us started.

In October 2015 a few short months ago Jane and a few of her colleagues from Global Fund for Women spent about a month traveling around Istanbul, Turkey and Egypt to meet with women’s groups to join a convening of Syrian women activists and to bear witness to life in two refugee camps for women and girls in southern Beirut. Jane is also a prolific writer and wrote extensively about this trip on her blog janeintheworld.com.

When we read her post it was clear that her experiences needed a wider audience so we invited her in because we wanted to give everyone in the network the opportunity to hear Jane’s stories and to talk to her about how this rising conflict in the Middle East is affecting women and girls in particular. Ok so without further ado I will hand the mic over to Jane and she’ll get us started.

Jane Sloane: Well hello everyone it’s such a privilege to be here today and I really want to thank Women’s Funding Network for providing this opportunity. I also want to acknowledge my colleagues from Global Fund for Women including Zahra Vieneuve our program officer for Middle East and North Africa who’s recently rejoined Global Fund for Women and of course our colleagues from many peer organizations.

I know there’s already a lot of expertise from those who are joining this conversation and I want to be able to provide you with an overview with enough time for what I hope is a dialogue on what’s happening both in the Middle East and particularly in the refugee camps during this time.

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When we were heading to the Middle East for this trip we were initially supposed to go into Ankara and the day that we were due to fly out was of course the day that the bombs hit there. So again it really just brought home the volatility of the region and we were due to meet with a number of our grantee partners there and of course then had to divert to Istanbul. One of the women who was part of one of the grantee groups that we supported, actually lost her legs as part of that bombing. She was a journalist who was developing another film. So again it was very personal for us in terms of what happened there and it brought a new urgency to the conversations in Istanbul.

We were in Istanbul to both listen and learn from our grantee partners there and also particularly to join a convening that was organized by MADRE an organization based in New York that’s been working for many years with Syrian and Iraqi women activists. We co-funded a forum with MADRE and with Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in order to be able to bring Syrian and Iraqi women activists together. To speak about their experience, both, some of them in escaping ISIS and other armed groups as well as those that were creating an underground network to be able to keep women and girls safe from ISIS.

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It was also particularly important to bring these women together at this time to really work with them and to prepare them for their own testimony before the UN Human Rights Committee as well as the UN Security Council’s review of Syria and iraq’s compliance with UN Security resolution 1325 which of course is to really ensure that women are assuming more leadership positions in relation to peace keeping and peace-building.

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And so it was a really important opportunity to hear the testimony from these women as well as to support them to forge a closer network both as Syrian activists, as Iraqi women activists and to identify what we needed to do as organizations to better support them in their work.

These women were also talking about the need to really create a technology platform so that they could more quickly get information about what was happening on the ground and to be able to pivot to be able to dismantle facilities and be able to increase access and safe havens for women and girls who were as I said before escaping armed groups and escaping ISIS as well.

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What was also really important was to hear the testimony of those who had been most effected by ISIS. There was one young woman who came with a man, a Yazidi young woman and she actually didn’t speak at the whole convening until the last 30 minutes of the convening and she then stood up before we were due to finish and she said to us,

“nearly all of my family has been killed, my mother, my father, two of my brothers. Isis killed all the men, they raped all the women, they raped me, they raped my sister and I was kept captive until May of 2015. I was moved from one place to another and the person who is keeping guard was planting explosive devices for Isis as we moved. Then I finally managed to escape and now I’m in a camp with other Yazidi people.”

She said, “you know I always imagined I would be with my own people and that I would be in a fairly sheltered and protected environment for most of my life and now all of that is gone and I realized that I can’t be silent and that I have to speak out and I have to for the rest of my life be an activist for my people and particularly for other girls and young women who’ve experienced the brutality of ISIS as I’ve experienced it, who have lost other family members.”

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So you’ll see in this slide, Louzina is not her real name, it’s the name she asked to be known as while she was giving her testimony because it’s still not safe for her and many other young women, but she told us how much being present at this convening gave her strength and courage for the time ahead and she was in the company of other women who also said that they wouldn’t be able to return to their homes after this convening because it would be too dangerous for them, that they would have to go to a new place in their organizing in order to be able to keep doing the work that they were doing.

It was a vitally important convening for these women both in terms of understanding how they could present their testimony through these United Nations forums as well as to connect with other women in their community and to know that they could forge a closer relationship and network in the time ahead.
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We spent more time with other grantee partners in Istanbul. I won’t talk to you about that today because of the lack of time. We travelled from Istanbul to Beirut in Lebanon to really spend time with our grantee partners that have been working inside the refugee camps. I want to make it clear that Global Fund for Women isn’t a… we are not a crisis organization.
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The way that we work is to really support women’s rights groups that we’ve been supporting for many years in terms of their organizing and their activism but because of the crisis, because of the refugee crisis many of the groups that have been working with refugees have had to expand their work and have had to really deal with just a phenomenal influx of people and particularly women and children that they are dealing with.

So the way that we work is to provide these groups the funding to be able to sustain their activism and the strength of their organizing during this time as well as to, of course to network. Network very closely with other women’s groups so that they are not only providing that support on the ground through the services that they provide but they’re also working to influence policies and to be able to change the environment that women and girls experience on the ground.
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So we visited two refugee camps in Lebanon and, just again to bring it home, only three weeks after we left the camps, one of the areas where we had visited was bombed.

Forty people were killed, that was a couple of weeks before the Paris bombing as well. Again it just speaks to the incredible volatile environment and fragile conditions in which so many people are living. If you can imagine some 37,000 people crammed into less than a mile, then you’ve got some idea of how crowded these facilities are and then of course they’re built originally to hold only about three thousand people so the overcrowding in these camps is just beyond anything that you could possibly imagine.

It’s also as a result of that overcrowding that the level of violence in the camps is so high, but just to paint a picture for you of what it’s like walking into the camps.
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There all these electric wires that are just strung together and because the families in the camps don’t have access to any electricity what they do is they connect up their own electric wires into a system of electric wires, you can see it on screen now, in order to be able to have some form of power.
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The problem is that these wires are only a foot or two ahead of when you’re walking through and every couple of weeks someone else get electrocuted; particularly when it rains. it means that people are stepping in puddles, if the wires are hanging down then someone else get electrocuted.
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Because of the trauma inside the camps because of the level of violence people have just normalized these situations. They just now take it for granted. It’s the same with the other conditions. They’ve just now reached a position where so much of what happens there is what they see as their lives. There is a sense of when you look into their eyes of women and others in the camp when you are walking through, their eyes are just dead because they really feel like there is no hope.
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There’s also no fresh drinking water inside the camps so it means that all of the water needs to be brought into the camps. People need to be able to earn some form of income in order to be able to access food and water.

The lead UN agency, the UN Relief and Work Agency has the responsibility of providing basic food and water for people in the camps but as a result of what’s happening in Europe it means that there is less money now coming to that UN agency because a lot of the European donors, in particular, have pulled out their aid funding and they are redirecting the funding back to their own countries.

So that means there’s less money in the Middle East being directed to support refugees who are in those camps and just needing access to those basic supplies. I should also say that the Lebanese government has also identified some 70 jobs that refugees aren’t entitled to undertake so it means that they are only able to undertake the most menial jobs dealing with sewerage and plumbing and it’s mainly the men who are doing that outside of the camps. So that’s the only form of income that’s then brought back into the camps and regenerated within the camps in terms of the micro businesses that are created.

As a result of the incredible over- crowding and frustration and the lack of hope, there’s a high level of domestic violence in the camps. Many women spoke to us about the fact that they really felt that it was better that their husbands hit them than hit out at anyone else in the camps.

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They often saw themselves as kind of human shields protecting others and particularly children from their husbands anger and rage. As one of the women leading the work of one of our grantee partners said to us the problems of the parents pour themselves into their children including the violence perpetuated in the camp.

So it means that creating safe spaces for women to know their rights and to be able to, particularly for Syrian women who in many instances are much more submissive than some of the Iraqi women refugees, some of the Palestinian and Lebanese women refugees in the camps. The Syrian women are learning that they have rights and how to advocate to their husbands for their own rights. Also to encourage their husbands join one of the groups that are also established by some of our grantee partners so that the men learn how to control their anger and learn that by violating their wives and children, they’re also violating themselves.

So that work of really helping families and communities and children deal with violence in the camps is absolutely critical to them really having a sense of hope as well as obviously better health and feeling like there’s a different kind of life available to them, even in the camp.

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There’s so much to say about the children in the camps as well, and I should say, with the violence, there was one woman who spoke to us about every time she saw her child she saw her husband in her child. Her husband who had beat her every day had beat her every day and so, again, supporting, providing that psychosocial support and trauma support so that the women can feel safe, the men can feel safe, their children can feel safe.

The other thing is the graffiti in the camps is actually graffiti to encourage children to yell out, particularly girls to yell out if ithey are touched or pulled out by a man and that’s because of the increase in trafficking within the camps and Syrian girls, in particular, are taught not to scream and not to make loud noises in their own culture, at least that what we were told by some of our grantee partners. And so it means these girls in particular having to relearn their own behavior and having to learn how to scream and yell if they are grabbed by a stranger in order that they’re not then taken out and quite often taken out to the Gulf countries and sold off or provided to men there.

The other thing that is happening more often in the camps that we heard about from women’s rights groups is an increase in child marriage where parents are wanting to keep their daughters safe and so feeling like the best way is to marry then off so that they feel safe, and so again working with parents to really address these ideas of safety and security for their daughters is really important.

The other thing of course is because of the lack of access to money for contraception, the lack of access to healthcare within the camps many women are just getting pregnant on a continual basis which means that they are exhausted that they don’t have access to the kind of support they need and we also heard from women who had given birth to deformed babies because of lack of nutrition in the camps and lack of access to support.

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And as a result of that, it meant that they were having to medicate these babies almost to a vegetative state in order to cope with the sheer number of children that they had and the number of demands and issues that they were experiencing inside the camps.

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So the role of the women’s groups we’re supporting is just so vitally important.

There aren’t many organizations that are really paying attention to the needs of women in the camps. There’s more support being provided in terms of children psychosocial support but really recognizing that…it’s very easy to see women just as victims inside the camps.Recognizing women’s role as leaders, as connectors, as community builders, as solution

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Recognizing women’s role as leaders, as connectors, as community builders, as solution builders, is really important. Women are so much at the frontline. As you saw in the beginning, those statistics, the sheer number, 4 out of 5 of refugees are women and children and so women play an absolutely vital role and one of the reasons for that is that men are often engaged in the armed groups, they’re often engaged in getting to Europe trying then to bring the rest of their families along with them.

That means that there is a disproportionate number of women and children in these camps. So the work of our grantee partners is not only working to support women and men to address the violence in the camps but also to provide women with access to tools and training so that they can start and create their own micro businesses. Our grantee partners are not providing money directly to families because they don’t want women to be passive recipients, they want women to be able to play an active role and to start using their talents and their skills in a dynamic way.

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And so providing support to women by providing sewing machines by providing the tools to start their own yogurt business, their own sweet business, providing women the support to be able to make curtains, create knitted garments.

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All of that makes a difference because it means that if men are bringing money inside from the they organize outside the camps, women can then buy things with the products and services that they are creating and that means they’ve got money for contraception, they’ve got money to support their children’s education, they’ve got money to be able to expand their businesses and therefore earn more income as well. So that work of economic security is really vital to a sense of sustained hope for the women and of course it helps them create their own communities inside the camps which is also really important for them – feeling like there is a life beyond.
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One of our grantee partners was also supporting a group that was organised by something called I Move Foundation and it was a women who came to one of the women’s groups and suggested that she start a yoga class inside one of the camps and you’ll see here some of the children that are learning yoga moves. It was so incredible to spend time with these children in these yoga classes, and as someone who loves practising yoga myself I felt like I was in my element.

What was really important was hearing the testimony of these children some of whom said, “when I first came into the camp I was drawing pictures of bombs and all my pictures were black.” One of the children was talking about after coming to these yoga classes she was drawing flowers and trees with green and different colors and she was showing me theses pictures and again she spoke about the fact that these classes were giving new life and energy to children. One of the children said ”I’ve made new friends now one”, “I can sleep now and I’m dreaming of animals and spirit life when I dream”, and another young girl said, “I feel I am happy when I move.”

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It was quite profound to see how some of these really simple interventions can make such a difference, both for the children and then as a result for their parents who also started joining the classes. So you’ll see a picture of one of the teachers who started the yoga classes there.

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What I think is also really important, and it speaks to that point I made before about the money that is now being pulled out of the camps in the Middle East and being re-directed by donors to the situation in Europe, is the complexity of the situation but also the fact that I was in a group the other day and that group was speaking about the fact that they really felt that they needed to provide funding to groups that we’re dealing with the situation in Europe because of the crisis there.

I think it’s often easier to imagine connecting with groups of people who look like ourselves or who are located in Europe rather than located in the Middle East and so dealing with our own fears of the other and dealing with our own fears of what it might be like to engage with communities in the Middle East is I think really important. Because we have to understand why money is shifting so rapidly from supporting the terrible situation in the Middle East to just supporting the situation in Europe which of course is also devastating, but we can’t also ignore what is happening and what is being perpetuated in the Middle East as well and I think that’s it’s really important that we pay attention to that in terms of how we best respond.

I’m also very conscious of the fact that a lot of the funding is being provided to support the refugee crisis is gender blind. That there isn’t often a conversation about how the situation is affecting women and girls differently to men and boys. Really paying attention to those dimensions in the way that women are involved in coming up with solutions, in the way that girls are impacted particularly in relation to issues such as trafficking, and how we might better support women’s groups that have the deep knowledge and cultural context to be able to engage in those camps. Rather than just supporting some of the larger organizations that don’t necessarily have those relationships with women on the ground.

I think also just connecting and being aware of the link with climate change and the gender dimensions round climate change and issues around food, land and water security as they play out.

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What our grantee partners are doing is really supporting women to not only survive and assume more leadership positions and voice within the camps, but contribute to thinking about the broader policy dimensions and how to influence the policies of the Lebanese government. For instance, in terms of who can work and how they can work, accessing or getting involved in policy dialogues around access to education, access to healthcare and contraceptive support. So those conversations and support for women in the camps is really vitally important so that they feel like they are contributing to policies beyond their own lives inside the camps.

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People often ask when they hear about the situation, when we paint a picture about how dire the conditions are in the camps and say, “Well it’s just an overwhelming situation, what can I as one person do? How can I best respond?”

There are a number of things one person can do. There are 5 things that we’ve just identified for the purposes of this conversation today.

One is to just continue the dialog. If you are able to host your own webinar, invite someone from Global Fund for Women or another organization that you know is doing great work in the camps and in the Middle East to speak about what’s happening, in order to really encourage others to have a better appreciation of the issues that are at stake here. That would be incredibly valuable. It’s really opening up the conversation, that helps to open up options and addressing the conflicts that we might have within our thinking is as important as addressing the conflicts on the ground.

Becoming an active advocate on social media is also really important. Social media is really defining a lot of the conversations and the dialog. It can also play a really critical role in holding governments and other donors to account. So recognizing how powerful and important that is and signing on to petitions making sure that you’re tracking the work of Women’s Funding Network, Global Fund for Women, both of whom have a very active social media presence.

Supporting the organizations and funding the work of organization you know are paying attention to the specific needs of women and children refugees but are also going beyond that work and they’re helping to support the long-term efforts that will sustain women and girls human rights in the region.

Beyond that direct funding support, asking other donors what they’re doing to pay attention to the gender dimensions of the crisis and how they are supporting the needs of women and girls as distinct from men and boys. Do they have gender-inclusive policies and programs. So becoming an informed donor yourself in terms of the questions you’re asking is really important.

Then of course, it’s paying attention to the political dimensions, helping to influence the direction of US policy as much as the direction of broader global policy. So it’s starting by asking your local member what they’re doing to contribute to solutions around US refugee policy and letting them know that you care about this issue.

I’ve been involved in the past in things like an adopt a politician campaign where many organizations have got together to track the attitudes of individual politicians and then to map that out, so you can really hold politicians across a whole country to account in terms of their attitudes and then share that information on social media. So there are very creative ways to be able to make that connection between US policy and what’s happening globally.

I think that’s also why Global Fund for Women is so proud to be a member of Women’s Funding Network because again it’s a very tangible way of connecting work that happens with many women’s funds inside the US together with the international members of the Women’s Funding Network including Global Fund for Women and the work we are doing globally. I think all of you on the call today have that connection with Women’s Funding Network. it’s probably a good time for me to stop and hand it over to the wonderful facilitators here this morning in terms of questions that people may have, who have joined this call today.
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WFN: A question I have is what kind of structures are in place in these camps for children to kind of have any formalized education or is it all very informal. {garbled}

Jane Sloane: Yes that’s such a great question. There’s very little access for families inside the camps to education outside the camps unless they’ve got the money and means to make that possible. It means that groups, both our grantee partners have been supporting families and groups inside the camps to create that informal education environment. There are people in the camps who are teachers and so they are really committed to trying to sustain children’s education and we saw some of those lessons being played out in some of the makeshift rooms inside the camps and so there is a form of rudimentary education happening for children but not in any way at the level which you would hope and imagine. And of

And of course, this means that we face the situation of losing another generation of children in terms of their lack of access to education. So it’s not just their lack of access to healthcare and better conditions but that lack of access to education and of course if you can imagine the desperation inside the camps. Unless we pay attention to the needs of families inside the camps, they are more vulnerable to armed groups, they’re more vulnerable to ISIS.

Many of these individuals want to take the first ticket out of the camps themselves and so we’re actually creating a kind of perfect storm by not providing more funding to support the situation in the camps and to advocate for different policies because it means that if more of these groups end up being vulnerable to extremist forces then we are not only losing another generation of children we’re actually perpetuating the conflict.

We’re actually perpetuating the level of crisis in the world and so we have to recognize that this is something that affects all of us, it’s not just something affecting populations on the other side of the world. It’s actually something that’s going to affect the future of the world. So paying attention to all of those dimensions of conflict is vitally important to us in terms of our own humanity as much as the future of the world and the future of those children in terms of their education.

WFN: I sometimes find it hard sitting here trying to imagine what life is like for everyone. I don’t have a sense of how long people, I mean how long do people spend in these camps. Are families growing up in these camps?

Jane Sloane: I think that is part of the psychological sense of families inside the camp, you know there is a kind of passivity by some families that they are likely to be there for a long time.

That equates to the deadness I saw in the eyes of many people in the camps that they recognise that there’s not going to be any easy way out soon. I think that’s why the work of women’s groups that we’re supporting inside the camps is so vital because they are really re-igniting a sense of not only women knowing their own rights but being able to act on that and recognizing that even though the situation is dire in the camps, they still have a choice about their bodies, they can still advocate for their rights to their husbands, they still can build, create their own businesses, they can still form their own communities, they can still come together to advocate for policy change.

Even though the world within the camps is quite confined being connected to a bigger world through the work of women’s rights groups is really important to be able to imagine themselves differently and then, of course, their children take their cue from their parents. If the children are seeing their mothers and their fathers break out of that cycle of violence and re-engage and establish their own businesses and find ways be able to create education, yoga, health opportunities, then the children themselves have a different form of life and become more engaged in artistic as well as educational activities.

It’s kind of a microcosm of how we respond to other situations in the world. Some families do leave the camps, it again speaks to the fact that men often form the kind of forward brigade in managing to get to Europe and men finding a way for their families to join them. A lot of families just feel like there’s no… and of course, remembering that it’s a mix of different cultures. It’s Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian, Lebanese groups within the camps and for Palestinian refugees they’ve already had to leave their homeland. They’ve then had to leave Syria, they’ve then often established or been in camps between the border of Syria and Lebanon and then they’ve had to again reintegrate themselves inside this camp.

So there have been multiple upheavals and you know that sense of home becomes really challenging and compromised when you’re having to uproot yourself all the time and then re-establish yourself in very traumatic situations.

WFN: I see a couple more questions coming in. Thank you.  Jane, how do you think the abductions and the traffickers can be stopped? That’s the first question which is probably a challenging one.

Jane Sloane: I think again that’s why the work of women’s group inside the camp has been so important. Once women know their rights, once men are dealing with issues of violence themselves, it actually has made it easier for them to form close alliances and community organizing groups within the camps.

You know they’re organizing groups around the food, access to water, access to education. Women are such natural organizers and they organize relationally as well.

Organizing groups to be able to teach children how to keep themselves safe and then a kind of an early warning system and a rapid response system for these situations inside the camps. And of course groups become very attuned to strangers coming into the camps as well.

The better women are able to express and organize themselves the greater the chance that they able to stop people from coming in and setting up those trafficking rings. But of course the trafficking is also tied to poverty and so providing families with more opportunities to be able to keep themselves safe is really important in order they not be in any way be responsive to traffickers or those that are offering a way out of the camps as well. So it’s really important and also, of course, really complex.

WFN: Ok another question coming in. For those of us who are in the US right now there has been a lot of hype, a lot of action around the presidential debates and one question coming in says why do you think refugee policy hasn’t really shown in the presidential debate? Why does it seem to be all about immigration policy?

Jane Sloane: You know I think again it does come back in part to issues of our known world and responding to issues that are really based on fear. I think people are really engaged quite often when it comes to things like presidential elections, in issues that they relate to personally and I think understanding how the refugee crisis really affects us personally in terms of our future, the future of the world and the way we see ourselves, the way that we see other people is really important.

I think that’s why I think having these conversations is so important. I don’t think that candidates themselves feel that it’s a top-line issue for people in the US so they haven’t themselves brought it out as a top-line issue in terms of what they say they’re advocating for and standing for.

You know in my own country Australia, I remember years ago when we were facing a situation with Vietnamese boat people. There was such a strong resistance from Australians at that time. It was something like 90% of Australians didn’t want to welcome Vietnamese boat people to Australia despite the urgency and the devastating conditions that they were facing.

But our Prime Minister at the time it, was actually the equivalent of a republican, Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser made the decision that Australia would accept a huge number of Vietnamese boat people because he said he knew it was the right thing to do, it was the moral thing to do and I think it is a time for moral courage in this country in terms of both the leadership as well as what we can step up to do as citizens.

We’re in a new time now with social media where we can form a very strong citizen movement where we can advocate to politicians and we’ve seen that, we saw it with President Obama being elected, we’re seeing this now with Bernie Sanders in particular. So, it’s time and that is why there’s so much excitement around citizen organising. There isn’t any reason why we as citizens can’t make it a presidential issue if we decide here and now we’re going to make it so.

WFN: So a couple more questions we have time for a couple more questions. The next one is what’s the connection between the activists you met at the MADRE convening some perhaps have escaped camps and conflict and the work that’s happening in the camps?

Jane Sloane: Yes that’s a really good question I think that there’s a number of things I can say in response to that. One of the reasons why we wanted to support this convening and co-fund the convening was to really build a stronger relationships with MADRE, with Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the other organisations that were part of organising that convening as well. Because we do want to better support the work of women’s groups that work both inside and outside the camps to raise awareness of the conditions women are experiencing both in escaping ISIS and other armed groups and then quite often landing inside the camps where they have more of a safe place to rest than outside the camps.

Being able to get representation from women inside the camps and women working as activists outside the camps is really important and that’s where funding movement of women’s rights groups is really important and that is very much the work of Global Fund for Women.

We don’t just fund individual women, we don’t just fund individual women’s groups. We fund cohorts of women’s groups that are forging strong movements to change – in this case the human rights of women in the Middle East and Iraqi and Syrian women activists particularly in this instance. Advocating for policy change in order to ensure that women and girls are kept safe, whether they are inside the camps or outside the camps. And so that connection – it’s also why forging that strong network and supporting that network, both as a physical network also as an on-line network for women both inside and outside the camps so that they can better share information and intelligence – is important.

WFN-Webinar-Power-of-Witness_25WFN: One more question coming in – How do people spend their time in the camps?

Jane Sloane: Gosh, I didn’t see a lot of leisure time, I’ve got to say. For families inside the camps a lot of the time is spent really dealing with basic necessities, dealing with – as I mentioned there’s only salty water in the camps so there are groups that are responsible for organizing bringing that clean water into the camps.

Quite often liaison with the UN bodies but also separate to that because as I said, there’s not enough funding coming through multilateral organizations. Organizing, preparing food, both for their own families as well as to sell in order to be able to generate some sort of income. Creating the micro businesses that women are forming, are important.

The work groups I spoke about before are also about keeping children safe. Dealing with latrines and dealing with the cleanup operations when it rains because of course with water on the ground there is increased risk of electrocution because of the connection between the water and those electric wires I spoke about.

Volunteers, help with teaching children as well. There are women outside of the camps who come in to help with that psycho-social support. Organizing of support groups, groups looking after babies as well, I mentioned that as well –the number of babies that are medicated, also having meetings with women’s groups that are working for those policy changes that I spoke about before and forming those alliances.

There is plenty to keep families and individuals occupied. It’s more getting enough rest I think – if you can imagine the noise, the constant noise and activity inside those camps and just trying to get enough rest to deal with daily life is really important.

WFN: So how do people in Lebanon, who are not refugees, how do they feel about the camps?

Jane Sloane: I think that the attitudes they are very mixed there are those – some people who are actually donating and volunteering their time to provide support.

There are those who were initially sympathetic who are now very angry and frustrated because they feel that it’s draining resources from their own government and who are advocating strongly. You know I think it does speak to the broader issue about the fact that we really need a global compact so that it’s not just those countries that are closest to the Syrian border that are taking the lion’s share of the load.

We need a compact where every country in the world agrees to take it’s fair share, a quota of refugees from Syria and other refugees, in order that the load not be so acute with countries like Lebanon and Turkey and Yemen of course is also experiencing incredible challenges.

I think we need to be advocating for that kind of global compact. But I think there is an escalating concern in Lebanon about the sheer numbers of people and what it means in terms of a diversion of resources from the needs of other Lebanese people. So it’s as complex. It’s as complex there as it is here in terms of having those conversations and I think it’s why this webinar today is so important.

WFN: Absolutely so I’d like to end on a more positive note. I’m curious, what did you see that gave you hope?

Jane Sloane: I think the phenomenal resilience of the women. I mean I think the women’s groups that we are supporting that have really expanded their work. These women’s groups saying we don’t need just 20,000 dollars or 30,000 dollars which is really quite often the size of grants that we’ve been able to provide these groups. We need a tenfold increase, we need like $200,000, $300,000 to be able to deal with the level of need and to be able to forge a strong movement for response and a broader change.

The resilience of both the group’s that we’re supporting are just operating under the most extreme conditions and the incredible resilience of the women and their families inside the camps. There was still a lot of laughter and sharing and storytelling even in spite of these conditions and you know it again speaks to people’s humanity. It reminds me of Primo Levy and Mans Search for Meaning where he wrote that, even in the most horrific conditions we still have a choice about how we respond. I just feel so emotional when I think about the women that we spent time with there, because they even speaking about the deadness in the eyes of women you know they were so determined to achieve a better life for themselves and their families.

Some of them were coming into their own, particularly the Syrian women who were realizing their rights, understanding and advocating for their rights. They had a stepped up level of confidence in dealing with their husbands and their families and I think also, of course, the children, the yoga classes I was saying earlier, that it would be so fantastic to create a kind of yoga without borders. To have yoga classes inside every refugee camp because the experience of things like yoga and meditation can’t be underestimated in terms of what that means for children’s, women’s and men’s psychological well-being.

So I just feel so proud to work for Global Fund for Women and to be a board member of Women’s Funding Network and for Global Fund for Women to be a member of Women’s Funding Network because I do think women’s networks and women’s movements are really going to change the world and it really starts with us as individuals and what choices we make in making it possible.

WFN: A big round of applause for Jane, for her very articulate and moving webinar today. I encourage you again go to janeinworld.com. Thank you again to Jane and all of you for tuning in.

WFN-Webinar-Power-of-Witness_26

Transcript by Jools Thatcher

Letter From The Interior

 

[symple_testimonial by=”Audre Lorde” fade_in=”false”]“Caring for myself is not self indulgence, it is self preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
A Burst of Light: Essays[/symple_testimonial]

 

This is a long-time-coming letter, erupting like a dormant volcano, stirred and spurred by a convening of women’s human rights activists in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and held in Batumi on the edge of the Black Sea.

moffatt-cropIt’s a surreal series of flights on smallish planes hopping from London to Riga to Minsk to Batumi that brings me to the convening. By the time I arrive in Minsk it’s late at night and all that greets me is an endless configuration of grey, unoccupied seats in the transfer lounge. I wander over to another area where two structures akin to four poster beds sit incongruously in the middle of the grey compound and next to them are a child sized table and chairs and a gloriously colored pup tent complete with rocket chute.

Settling myself in one of the beds, in an Alice in Wonderland like moment, a woman suddenly materializes before me and informs me that this is part of Etihad’s lounge and am I a member? Am I a member, I wonder out loud, looking in vain for signs of what I associate with an airline lounge. “In any case, you can join for a few hours,” says the woman deciding for me and my gratitude knows no bounds as I curl up for a ‘kip’ so tired and needing a flat line bed.

At last we take flight and then finally I’m in Batumi, on an ink black night and me in an altered state. I sleepwalk through registration and fall into my bed and to a  brief and welcome sleep. I wake to the alarm and to our planning day for the convening, pull the curtains across and stare at the view.

The sea!! The sea!!

(eternal) divine, ethereal, sublime…the constancy of the sea, my elemental home.

SwimmingGirl-0640-Fixed

I am beside myself with joy in this moment and later, after our planning is done, I reclaim this lightness as I skip waves in my boots and fossick for colored stones as runes for rituals and stories.

At our planning session we spend time with the facilitators, one of whom is an experienced trainer in integral security, as a concept of security that goes beyond just the physical protection of the individual. It takes into account the need to feel safe at home, at work and on the street, as well as integrating the physical and psychological well-being of women’s human rights defenders. It’s the first time in my experience that a convening such as this is so fully grounded and informed by the principles of self-care.

As we commence our convening, we gather in a circle in a room with lots of pillows and mats and for the next three days we take up space across the room with our bodies sprawled out in various positions. It’s such a celebration of this free flow space where we are able to choose with our bodies as well as our minds how we occupy this space.

My mind expands in this space – I connect different thought patterns and make leaps of association in relation to ideas and issues. I think back to the children in the refugee camps in Lebanon who could dream again, experience the reawakening of their spirit life, after doing yoga classes created by a woman who believed in the immense power of body and movement therapy.

During this convening time, we hear from so many women’s human rights defenders and activists who speak of exhaustion and burnout from their work and of the irony of advocating for the safety and security of others while our own bodies fall to pieces. At a time when civil society spaces, and spaces for women’s organizing, are closing down it seems important to find ways to find, fund and affirm the importance of these spaces.

We hear too from speakers whose work has been criminalized by the government and where any travel is dangerous. “When I return home I will be invited to the police office, I will be fingerprinted, I will be sent to the HIV office. I will be interrogated to find out where I went and why I went and how I went,” one speaker said.

“I didn’t realize how much I needed this time until I got here,” said one woman. “I didn’t think we should meet in some fancy hotel but now I realize that having soft beds and spa access is probably exactly what I needed after time in the field,” said another.

Women often seem to experience a sense of guilt when we focus attention on our own need for rest and restoration believing it somehow less worthy than the heartbreaking and devastating stories and situations of women and girls in other countries.

We don’t often enough recognize that we are affirming the right to physical and mental wellbeing of women globally when each of us take responsibility for our own rest and wellbeing.

Self-care is a political act.

Picture2If I had the funds I’d create a Center for Women’s Deep Rest that would be available to women activists and to other leaders in transition. A center for women’s deep sleep and healing, with crayons and paints and strings and clay and instruments available for play time and expression.

What a radical concept, no reports, presentations or training sessions, just a focus on restoration and rejuvenation in recognition of the incredible contribution, talent and expertise of these women, and the desire that they again be able to play a creative and active role in their communities and movements.

Where women can reclaim their playful, joyful selves and rediscover their beauty and complexity in and beyond their activist selves and learn to ensure that rest and recovery time are part of their daily lives and rhythm.

I wish the same for other leaders who are facing a time of transition in order to support them to do this from a position of strength – or at least the aikido idea of strength in the form of flow and surrender. For me, the question continues to be how to find a role where I can practice transformative leadership, without compromising my sense of community, home, and connection to nature.

How to be close to family in Australia, with my parents getting older and wanting to be close to them, and to my brother and close friends, while doing the work I love in the world that is mainly outside of Australia and being steeped in nature to infuse my soul.  And in a global environment that increasingly rewards managerialism, how to hold fast to my big dreaming self?

I listen to an interview with my favorite broadcaster, Phillip Adams, where he reflects on his broadcasting role and says

“We are so bloody privileged to be working at the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) at the one place that actually encourages ideas. We complexify rather than simplify to a slogan, we embroider. It’s not a binary world, issues aren’t yes or no, they are infinitely complex and we have the great joy, the great privilege of working in that context.”

Yes!

And so it is with women’s movements and women’s human rights activism. The work of challenging and changing structures and systems is deep and long term and necessary. We have to be strong to stay the course in holding ground and gaining ground and in supporting a new generation of activists and advocates.

I recently spent time with graduate students at the University of Berkeley at a session that was supposed to be about career advice on getting involved in women’s human rights movement building and ended up being a deeper dive discussion after a student asked me what one of my biggest lessons in my work life had been.

“Not giving up my own power,” I said

“What does that mean?” asked one student.

“In essence, don’t sabotage your own potential at the very moment where forces converge to take you to a new point in your leadership and influence.
Hold on to that opportunity and influence while being inclusive of others.
Claim this power, as good and vital power and use it as a springboard to realize your vision and direction.”

Back at the convening, I remember a powerful storytelling session I had with a narrative therapist where he encouraged me to imagine an animal totem that I could relate to and then to describe myself in the skin of this creature. I responded by saying I could see myself bounding like an impala across the landscape and my body was leaping with love of life. Like the image of Sybil Shearer, my favorite dancer, and her high, ecstatic leaping in a deeply intuitive response to the natural environment which stoked her creativity.

Bright_sun_1000What would stoke my creativity?

To dance
Work with my hands
Draw with my color crayons
Write poetry on my boat
Join artist India Flint in her textile workshop in New Mexico
Go to a month long yoga retreat at the Sanctuary at Mission Beach

Sleep long and dreamily in Piccadilly

Embrace leadership in a way that more swiftly gets funds and power into the hands of women in communities including seed funding for those women and women’s movements who just need the funds to begin a dream.
Seed funding is as precious as funding to help those wanting to extend and scale their work.

I want to reclaim those lost parts of myself that my dearest mentor, Stella, asked me about. She knew the cost and she knew the rewards when we paid attention to this.

black seaI greet the sea one final time, seeking my eternal threes – three has always been my lucky number. I don’t really know which stones I’ll be drawn to, only that it feels like an alchemic process.

As I reach into the clear, clear sea, I’m drawn to glowing egg shaped stones that are smooth and comforting in my hand. And of course I’m not really surprised – eggs – source of creativity, new life, maternal birth, cracking open.

I remember the story of the monks who deliberately dropped the clay pots they made and then painted the cracks with gold leaf, in the belief that it’s in the cracks that our richness can be found. I turn to go.

Jane Sloane

[symple_testimonial by=” Kobayashi Issa” fade_in=”false”]
From that woman
on the beach, dusk pours out
across the evening waves
[/symple_testimonial]

 

Letter From Egypt

Arriving into Cairo I catch my first sight of the Nile: ancient, flowing, mythical … There is something about the energy of this place – in the old city, in the alleyways and souks…in spite of the violence, the riots and the crackdowns…and I am so glad to be here.

The ancient rhythms are still much in evidence, even in Zamalak quarter, home to embassies and expats. I can see the Nile from my hotel room – it feels like a mystic river thread unspooled, weaving under Qasr El Nil Bridge with the humdrum of local life there and then so far beyond.Nile River Cairo

sultan-hassan-mosque-cairoIn Cairo you can see 3000 year-old treasures in the Egyptian Museum and you can experience a rare peace and silence in Soltan Hassan mosque. And then, of course, there’s Tarhir Square, site of the Arab Spring and so many other citizen uprisings. This was the place where in February 2011 women marched with men and stood their ground in spite of Mubarak’s thugs and snipers. Dozens of women were subsequently attacked and raped by male mobs and then many were forced to undergo strip searches and Virginity tests by military officers, effectively another form of rape.

As the activist writer Mona Eltahawy wrote, “This obsession with controlling women’s bodies often stems from the suspicion that, without restraints, women are just a few degrees short of sexual insatiability.” Take for instance the view of popular Egyptian cleric, al-Qaradawi, who said that ‘Anyone who thinks (female) circumcision is the best way to protect his daughters should do it. The moderate opinion in favor of practicing circumcision is to reduce temptation.’ (Headscarves and Hymens)

I was in Cairo with one of my colleagues and with human rights photographer Alissa Everett, to visit some of Global Fund for Women’s grantee partners. We wanted to hear and capture what women’s human rights groups and movements were facing in Egypt and what they saw as essential to advance women’s human rights in the time ahead. I can’t tell you the names of many of the groups supported as their existence and work remains confidential due to security concerns and so they will remain anonymous here too.

Many of the groups we visited were working to amend personal status laws in Egypt. These laws means that women inherit half the amount that men inherit and while men can freely divorce their wives, women are often forced to return to their husbands if they file for divorce, especially if children are involved. The existence of this code means that a woman often needs the permission of a male guardian to marry too, even if she is a widow. Experience has shown that it is difficult to amend personal status laws in Egypt because of the resistance of the society and conservative religious groups. The re-islamization of the Egyptian society has made it even more difficult to re-examine all personal status laws and codify them in a single code. This is exacerbated by the lack of state political will and the preference to retain the status quo.

Arab springSince the time of the Arab Spring uprising, and coupled with rising economic insecurity, there has been increased gender based violence, an increase in women being trafficked, displacement and concern over the rule of law. In addition, the harsh crackdown by the government on non-government organizations (NGOs) means all funds provided by donors to NGOs in Egypt are held up by the government for at least 6-9 months before being released. This means many NGOs have difficulty paying their rent and paying their staff with many employees forced to volunteer to keep the doors of their organization open while they struggle to keep their families fed and clothed. This situation has also resulted in a shrinking space for women NGOs in Egypt at a time when their perspectives need to be heard locally and globally. To exacerbate this situation, an increasing number of donors have stopped funding in the Middle East, saying it is too difficult, stressful and complicated.

In addition to girls being trafficked, many are forced into marriage as a result of Gulf men and agents using women and men in local villages as brokers. They become resource persons who are very well known and can help with approaching families and negotiating payment for a girl. While girls are supposed to be 18 to marry, agents produce fake birth certificates to support the marriage going ahead. As a result a girl may end up being trafficked to Saudi Arabia or Kuwait and become a sex slave to an old man where she may face a high degree of sexual violence or find she is married to a man with several other wives also treated as slaves. The youngest, most virginal of girls attract the highest price…
“Traffickers sell girls as young as eleven or twelve for as much as $30,000 while other ‘used’ girls and women can be bought for as little as $2,000. The traffickers are aided by sophisticated criminal network that are able to forge documents and pay corrupt officials to remove impediments.” (The Unfinished Revolution – voices from the global fight for women’s rights – edited by Minky Worden)

Women’s groups have been countering this trend by conducting awareness training including working with victims and potential victims and mobilizing local communities through workshops and roundtables, and encouraging community mobilization and leadership to stop such practices.

Economic conditions continue to push girls into transactional marriages, so vocational training skills are critical in order for girls and young women to have options for income and independence. Another organization funded by Global Fund for Women helps women to know their rights and support their access to work such as dressmaking from home as part of a domestic workers network in rural areas where job options are few. These women are also taught conflict resolution skills, self-expression, legal literacy and negotiation. Importantly, this approach is rights based rather than charity based since, as one staff person reflected, “charity quiets the problem rather than resolves it.” As another staff person observed, “We must not separate economic empowerment from the rights awareness training in order for women in this country to be free.”

egypt01And yet in spite of these challenges, there is the unstoppable rise of the young feminist movement, supported by such initiatives as a feminist school where young women discuss what feminism means to them; feminist ways in Egypt; the current context for women’s human rights organizing; addressing violence against women and combating fundamentalism. There is also a ten day feminist political training school that engages young women who have a progressive agenda across a spectrum of political issues in Egypt. The curriculum for this activist school covers information on political process and parties, the importance of gender sensitive agenda, discussion of gender based violence and sexual violence and the need for legal and policy reform.

The energy around women’s political engagement is strong in the knowledge that getting more women into local and national political positions represents a powerful opportunity to secure the kinds of policy changes and laws needed to advance women’s human rights. While we were there, many groups were preparing for the forthcoming Parliamentary election where there was a quota system in place – of the 120 seats, 56 need to be women. There is also work underway to bring together women Parliamentarians as well as women activists to discuss how to secure the kinds of policy changes and laws needed to advance women’s human rights. In doing this work, the President of the organization observed, “Those NGOs working on democracy are surrounded right now (by government security and crackdowns) but some work on women’s human rights can go on under the radar.”

feminists in Tahrir SquareAnother group supported by Global Fund for Women has as its mission to build an equal society free of discrimination and marginalization with a women’s rights focus. A key part of its work is to support women as candidates for election at both local and national levels. This includes establishing syndicates such as the first ever syndicate for domestic workers’ as a means to address the very low standards that Egypt retains for domestic workers.

As the President of the organization explains, “In Egypt there are about one third of families who are women-led households — divorced, widowed, separated — and 95% of these women have no organizations to support them as a movement. Well organized women working in a syndicate can defend themselves better than individual women.”

This work in getting women elected is supported by Egypt’s new Constitution that requires 25% of the representation of local councils to be women and young people and at least 50% of this 25% must be women. As the head of the organization explains, “This means we have to prepare at least 5,000-10,000 women to stand for office and to understand how to defend the Constitution and women’s rights in the Constitution, including those needing protection through new laws. We need to encourage women who have progressive agendas and who can represent women working in villages to ensure diversity of representation. Women are unstoppable in villages if they want to stand.”

The influence of women’s movements on the political process has already been evident – women’s movements’ advocacy to address rising harassment and violence against women resulted in Egypt’s National Council of Women publishing a national strategy to combat violence. It has also been the advocacy and work of the women’s movement that has created legislation to address sexual harassment and to end the social acceptability of sexual harassment in Egypt on the streets, in schools, work places and in universities.

un-egyptMany of the groups supported by Global Fund for Women see the work of influencing the attitudes and oratory of Muslim religious leaders as being key to addressing the culture of violence and progressing changes to advance women’s human rights. One of these groups works with Muslim religious leaders and their approach involves sharing with these leaders what Muslim religious leaders have experienced in other regions and how they have interpreted the Koran in relation to women’s rights. From here the group embark on a dialogue on how that relates to Egypt. As one staff person said to me “When religious leaders are engaged in a conversation about how other religious leaders have responded to a situation they can see their own role and participation in a new light.”

“What is important here,” said the organization’s director, “is that we don’t work on Koranic verses only, we work on the comprehensive heritage of the Islamic religion, the jurisprudence. It’s important to train religious leaders on new interpretations of Sharia law and also to support them in their own leadership through communication and listening skills. The leaders we worked with told their friends about it and so 25 more religious leaders came to us asking for the same training. Theirs is an archaic institution and so they loved different approaches they’d never tried before such as role playing rather than being formal in all their communication. They loved the freedom, the active participation and sharing. On the first day of training these men came in full religious attire and the next day they came in casual clothes. Many of these religious leaders wanted to take what they had learnt and to apply it – rather than standing and giving a sermon, they would be writing on a flipchart while giving prayers. In this way, we have trained about 450 religious leaders to reflect on their interpretation of Islam and to act accordingly.”

After every training there is a follow up in terms of the actions undertaken as a result of the training. The main goal of training is making them leaders within their community and to ensure that they are attuned to the rights of women.

“Where, after all, do human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and small that they do not appear on any map of the world. Yet, they are of the world of the individual person: The neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they will have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, March 27 1958 at the new headquarters of the United Nations in New York

Another organization works with religious leaders in the belief that doing this is one of the most important ways to change attitudes and cultural norms. This group sought to discuss women’s issues with some of the most conservative religious leaders in Egypt and it conducted three roundtables, calling them the ‘meeting of experts.’ These three roundtables comprised women’s personal status; right to work and other legal rights; and Koranic verses related to violence. At each of these roundtables, the group was seeking to provoke thoughts and conversations. The goal was to encourage a view that religion doesn’t contradict, conflict with or hinder women’s human rights.

As an extension of this work, the organization started to target men preaching in the mosques to influence their commentary and their interpretations of the Koranic verses. In this way they met with members of 42 mosques to discuss an interpretation of the Koranic verses that is in alignment of women’s human rights, including alignment with the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) As one staff person said, “This all happened during the time of the Muslim Brotherhood and suspicion of any kind of civil society engagement was high. It was a very daunting time and very hard to get these religious leaders engaged. However, we made the case that ‘we are with you and there are aspects of this religion that would be worthwhile discussing.’ We invited them to a conversation. In so doing we were able to gain the confidence of the religious leaders.“

The organization then decided to work with women who gave classes at the mosque after prayer. “We started to talk with some 50 religious women teachers, and approached them in terms of ‘what do you need by way of support’ and then moved to trainings such as what feminism could mean in relation to Islam. At all of these trainings we discussed key issues such as women’s perspectives on the Fatwah. What was unique in the way we did this work was that we increased women’s confidence in the way they did this work. We were able to give the women the tools to feel their role was central, and to transfer this information to others in a knowledgeable way. Finally, ten from the group went further and learnt more about the topics and sought to take the knowledge further such as topics on polygamy and feminism within Islam.”

Cabbie-Nour-Gaber-009Cairo, in all its vibrancy and contradictions, is home to phenomenal citizen activists and women’s movements, all of them leaving me feeling more hopeful than discouraged. Our driver, the magnificent and highly knowledgeable Nour Gaber, who runs her own taxi service, is a symbol of this hopefulness. She harbors a dream of setting up an academy to train women to join her in the trade. The program would encompass driving techniques, customer service, mental strength, car maintenance and English lessons and help launch more women into the workforce (some 23% compared to 74% of men).

In the meantime, there is Nour navigating the streets, a cheery wave to the many who know her, and I settle back feeling great about being in a vehicle where a woman is in the driving seat.

Jane Sloane
Cairo