Evidence Pileup

I felt slammed by an article this week.   It radicalized – even further – my belief that too many women in the US are laboring under the illusion that we don’t need to fight for basic rights.

The article, An Epidemic of Disbelief by Barbara Bradley Hagerty in the August 2019 issue of The Atlantic, opens with a riveting description of this discovery: in a broken-down warehouse in Detroit,  more than 11,000 rape kits that had not been sent for testing. Their dates extended back thirty years. Each one bore evidence of the most horrific event in a woman’s life. Image rape kit

A scandal it was, this breathtakingly negligent warehousing – but not an isolated case.  Estimates are that more than 200,000 untested rape kits now languish in police evidence lockers in cities throughout US.

In many rape cases, police don’t even begin investigating; a prevalent belief is that most women lie about being raped. One detective stated: “Out of ten cases, eight are false reports.”

Most prosecutors won’t take a case to court without a “righteous victim” – a woman who didn’t know the assailant, fought back, had a clean record, hadn’t been drinking, and didn’t offer sex for money or drugs. Essentially, the victim on trial.  If prosecutors predict a jury won’t convict, they won’t prosecute.

This ‘blame the victim” mindset in the criminal  justice system allows women to be raped with impunity. Journalist Bradley Hagerty captured it succinctly:  “Rape is by far the easiest violent crime to get away with.”

After six millennia, the only right women share worldwide is the right to vote.

In this country, as in many,  we’re still up against The Big Three Wrongs that try to “keep women in their place.”

We are paid less that men.

Our reproductive decisions are legislated by governments.

We are physically not safe; we will likely see no justice if we, or someone we know, is raped. And rape is epidemic in our world. Statistics forcable-rape-rate-in-the-us-by-state-2017

These ugly truths tend to invite depression,  a  predictable malaise too common among women, along with real fear of stepping beyond the restrictive definitions of ’woman’ so well embedded and defended in our culture.

In many countries,  women are in pervasive jeopardy, suffering transgression that even our broken systems might find actionable.  Women walking eight hours a day to collect water. Young girls married off to old men.  Clitorises removed. Wife-beating an accepted practice. And, diabolically, so much more pain-inflicting behavior.

The warriors among us have to come up with solutions.

Nine years ago, an amazing Darfuri woman revealed my warrior purpose to me, I have been immersed in thinking about how Women’s Centers work and grow and change.  I know, from creating four Women’s Centers, that women find what they need there.

Think:  base camps for the movement of advancing women’s lives.

Think:  safe places where women learn new skills, changing their life trajectory.

Think:  women experiencing the support of a sisterhood, learning that the petty stuff undercuts the enormous strength women find in unity.

That’s what Women’s Centers do. They equip women to become strong and resourceful – as they must be to build a better life. And their transformation ripples through the community.

I have witnessed the joyful engagement of the women at Baraka Center.  I know they come, sometimes a great distance, because they find acceptance and wisdom and support.

Meanwhile, to my utter bafflement, I have yet to convince enough monied allies of the urgent utility of Women’s Centers.  We’ve paid big dues; it’s time for big movement.

Women of means – even small means – must  step up for the sisters in dire situations – refugee camps and slums. There you find the women whose unique gifts can and will transform our world.

Women’s Centers are the most elemental way to advance the power of women. We need all the help we can get.

 

 

 

Kenya on my mind

Reflections on my time here in Kenya:

Nairobi on the cheap is less than fun but tolerable.  The city is all noise and hard surfaces; dust constantly swept and wiped, glass seldom clear, lighting never kind, no trash cans (which explains the mess on the streets), and drivers executing terrifying maneuvers. This is the part I’ve experienced. Outside city center, the lush amazing Kenya asserts itself.  For better or worse, Kenyans seem to adore and emulate things American.  T-shirts emblazoned with logos from Michigan State, Detroit, Arizona, etc. Rap music. I’ve seen vegan items on menus! Giant commercial vibrating signs a la Times Square.

Since my arrival, I’ve fretted about Baraka Women’s Center’s future.  It serves a large population of women who really need a safe place to learn and grow. Too many women – increasingly the younger ones – are lost and alone until they find Baraka Center. Mary, an older woman who joined seven years ago, came to see me.  She reminded me that had learned to read at the Center.  Over recent years, she’d lost her husband and two children.  She stays with a sister who recently had back surgery, making Mary somewhat of a caretaker.  She told me feels alone and troubled – except when she’s at Baraka Center. She wept when I gave her the equivalent of $5 to afford regular matatu fares to keep coming to the Center.

A recent dearth of funding has severely limited BWC’s ability to fully deploy programs. A mere $2,900 would completely equip the entire vocational training program and the computer lab, which SO needs a new printer and at least three new computers. Lucky for us, a potential new partner has arrived.

I flew to Kisumu yesterday with Peter Ndier, Founder and Chairman of SOWO, an NGO with programs similar to those of Baraka Center.  Kisumu is a mid-sized town northwest of Nairobi on stunning Lake Victoria.  An open, human-scale country town much less frantic than Nairobi.  We visited SOWO’s projects in Kogelo and Siaya.  A soap-making enterprise branded LASH, for which the new county governor provided a pricey mixing machine. Nearby,  a tidy compound with  a large meeting room, an immaculate well-equipped office, two large classrooms, one for tailoring and one for hair and beauty skills training.  And a row of dukas (small shops) where women display and sell their crafts.

There we saw what Baraka Center aspires to be and could become – if not constrained by the realities of the big city, with its indifferent politicians and slum-lord property management style. A beautiful place of its own.

Susan Jane with Mama Sarah
Me with Jane K and Mama Sarah Obama in Siaya, Kenya

SOWO’s guiding light is Mama Sarah Obama, the 97-year-old matriarch of the clan that produced our former President.  Barak is her grandson.  Mama Sarah is a gracious lady with a ready sense of humor; she’s nurtured by extended family who reside in a peaceful compound with fruit trees and a half-dozen cows grazing the well-tended grounds. She charmed me.

SOWO is interested in partnering with WCI and BWC in creating more Women’s Centers in Kenya. (Our vision for some time now!) The exact mechanism is yet to be worked out, but a great opportunity has been presented.  We’ve also made new connections with USAID Kenya and UN Women.  BWC has three new well-connected members who are passionate about the mission.

On balance, my work here of reviewing and connecting has been a success – with much follow-up to be done. Wheels up in about  eight hours for the 20-hour flights home.

Support Women’s Centers International!

 

Baraka SoS

How to convey the oeuvre of Nairobi? The fulminating heap of humans tumbling through their dusty days, industrious as army ants. NBO JamSpeed bumps and pedestrians crossings on freeways. Gridlocked traffic into town all day. I’ve developed an aversion to traveling anywhere in a vehicle, knowing that I will sit in the heat and exhaust for up to 45 minutes, no matter the ‘real’ time of a journey. So I walk a lot.

We are making steady progress in reviewing and refining all the systems at Baraka Women’s Center, as well as making new connections with potential funders. I am ever humbled by the power of relatively small amounts of money here. One woman to whom I gave the equivalent of ten dollars tearfully launched into a lengthy prayer of gratitude.  Baraka indeed gathers in the lost and the hopeless; the energy of inclusion in this community is a miracle to behold. To belong is to have new power, new hope, even joy. A safe gathering place matters, and that’s what the Center provides.

Yesterday, twenty-five women gathered to mark the seventh anniversary of the Center, as well as to celebrate the graduation of the vocational program trainees.  Our food offering was peanut butter sandwiches (would have been plain bread had I not brought peanut butter) and cake.

BWC Staff and trainers
BWC Staff and trainers

This and other daily events painfully remind me that I came mostly empty handed. No month can pass without an infusion of cash; BWC has not located its August infusion. Shifting BWC into ‘thrive’ mode takes money. It means reallocating  some of our wealth to women with the greatest needs, to those who can set things right in the long haul.

$10 transforms a woman’s life for a week.

Add zeros and the prospects for the sisterhood grow exponentially.

What will move you to contribute what you can?  

Trouble Ahead, the Movement Behind

I have it from a number of reliable sources: Trouble Ahead: Dangerous Missions with Desperate People is a fascinating read.

I’m a fairly harsh judge of my own work, but I’m proud of this book because it’s so … different.  How many people do you  know who’ve worked in Darfur during the genocide,  visited a half-dozen slums in Nairobi, Kenya, and braved the incendiary politics of Oakland CA, to bring safety and respite and tools to women excluded from the wealth of their communities.  This is the history of Women’s Centers International and the Women’s Centers Movement –– living, breathing stories of unusual and compelling people and events.

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Buy HERE. I’ll love you best if you leave a review.

The work is not a ‘noble’ undertaking or a ’cause’.  It is necessary initiative. How long will you hesitate to jump in bringing on the full power of women who’ve been excluded?

We’re certain of this path, but we need more allies:  Board members and, as always, donations – preferably with at least three zeros following the first digit(s).

The work cost money; it’s time we respond with our wallets to the reality that women are assets requiring investment. And so are we.  Support WCI today.

Why the World Needs Women’s Centers

In nearly 6000 years of recorded human history, women have made progress in equal rights only in the last 200 years.  In America, most of it in the last 60. Here’s a short tour of firsts.

Medicine:  Though Elizabeth Blackwell applied for admission to every medical college in Philadelphia and New York City,  all twenty nine schools rejected her.  In January, 1849, at the age of 28, she received her medical degree, at the top of her class.

 Voting:  The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, passed by Congress June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920, granted women the right to vote.  Just 100 years ago! It’s the only right shared by women globally.

Military:  The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 grants women permanent status in the Regular and Reserve forces of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps as well as in the newly created Air Force.  Seventy-one years later – June 2019 –  the first woman assumed command of an infantry division of the US army.

Contraception:  In 1960, the pill was approved for use as a contraceptive. Even so, the pill was illegal in some states and could be prescribed only to married women for purposes of family planning. Those opposed said oral contraceptives were immoral, promoted prostitution, and were tantamount to abortion. It wasn’t until several years later that birth control was approved for use by all women, regardless of marital status.

Civil Rights: The 1964 Civil Rights Act:  an amendment made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender as well as race.

Sports:  1972  When Title IX was passed there were fewer than 32,000 women competing in intercollegiate athletics. Today more than 110,000 women participate in college sports; the number of female athletes in high school has increased from about 300,000 to 2.13 million.

Juries: It wasn’t until 1974 that women could serve on juries in all 50 states

Credit:  A 1974 law allowed women to have credit in their own name rather than through their husbands or fathers.

ERA – The Equal Rights Amendment

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“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

The constitutional amendment has been fought for since 1923. In 1971, it was approved by the US House of Representatives; five months later by the US Senate, thus submitting the ERA to the state legislatures for ratification.

Three-quarters of the States – 38 – are needed to ratify it.  The ERA fell three states short by its 1982 deadline, and the deadline has been extended twice.  Ratification is now one state short.  The holdouts are NV, AZ, MO, and ALL the southern states, the same ones legislating against abortion and access to birth control.

We have a herstory of solitary struggles, big movements, legal and legislative wrangling, and witchy undercutting by women who imagine they have privilege.

Why is HALF the population still disenfranchised from equal pay, control of reproductive capacity, and freedom from harassment and violence –  in 21st century?

All of us – women and men – have to fight this battle together.  After millennia, how many more decades will it take to get it right?

Every day we help women rise up, no matter the laws that keep them “in their place.” Support the work of WCI!