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How Resilient Must Women Be?

In every region of the world, “Ending Violence, Harassment, and Abuse” is the most prominently chosen (48%) response to the question: “Which three issues are most critical for you as a person? From Global Count Interim Findings.

The challenge: not only for the violence to be ended, but that all women who’ve survived violence have the opportunity to heal. It is not a solo activity. It requires a sisterhood of help and support. That’s why Women’s Centers matter more than ever. A Center is a haven, a ‘base camp’ for healing. It’s where women gather strength together.

Ironically, nothing has been a bigger challenge than to gather funds to work this magic of the Women’s Center Model.

Philanthropically inclined Americans gave somewhere around 4% of all donations specifically to initiatives that strengthen women and girls. Four percent. Animal ‘causes’ get more donations. Women and girls remain few people’s special focus.

The profound damage of rape and domestic abuse, and the bottomless self-doubt they generate, requires a major commitment of resources to rectify.

Hands-on engagement has always mattered much more to me than advocacy, especially in such a polarized political system.  WCI’s place is seeding local managed grassroots organizations to create effective Women’s Centers.

We need to get with ALL our sisters, especially those who’ve been invisible on the margins, and steadily help to free more women from all the damage wrought in the prisons of poverty and exclusion.

We have precious little time to nurture a badass united front that can redirect humankind’s current mad dash to oblivion. We don’t have another decade, much less another century to wait it out.

At Women’s Centers, rage for change sings a bold new tune. We deserve the support of everyone who cares about achieving not just gender parity but the ascendence of the women’s genius for the path ahead.

Make our day: Donate to WCI

Source: Women Deliver

Wildish Woman

Survival Tactics

Sometimes my ‘shield’is a vision of clear molded plexiglass, with varying thickness added as needed. Selected ‘incoming’ bounces off. I do not absorb the depth of the grief, pain, and craziness I witness.  This shield actually binds like impermeable wrap preventing other people’s feelings from carving the same hollows in me. I can help them get through.  That’s my strength and I like using it.

Life insists on both weary days of plodding along and also sublime days when a cheerful and generous universe seems to have your back. For me, the spectacle of human existence is never dull, but often baffling.

I remember a woman once a colleague. She presented a kind and deferential persona, cheerful but desperate. A close friend of hers told me: “When she gets in touch with her monumental anger, I do not want to be in range.”

I feel crazy and alone on occasion, depending on the season and the set of challenges delivered.

A woman i wanted to like tells me “I never get angry” – that made me angry. Two women whose talents I appreciated and encouraged close the door of our relationships in silence – that made me unbearably sad.  Silence wounds the heart more deeply than a tirade.

White animals, except the arctic ones, are known to draw antagonism from other wild creatures. I trouble over the possibility that white-haired me similarly draws fire. This wildish part suits me. Thought I am often terrified, I won’t be cowed by other women’s fears. I’m ever seeking bonds with true sisters, and I treasure the ones I have.

When we sufficiently dismantle our color-based caste system, another re-evolution. This one moves us toward once again honoring elders. We boomers, some of us anyway, have lived adventurous lives. We’ve witnessed  tsunamis of social re-adjustments spawned by  WWII and the Korean War (through our parents). We joined and survived the upheavals of the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam (had we had good intelligence about the Vietnamese spirit, the US never would have defiled that patch of civilization), the Afghan and Middle East wars, the millennials’ ride up, and the proliferation of communications technology that oddly interferes with the soulful communities we long for.

We’ve survived, accumulating wisdom born of experience. Our contributions have not ceased and will not end – if our legacies carry forward what we value.  Honesty. Compassion. Patience. A fierce sense of service to those who’ve been stranded on the margins of our vast wealth. And an equally motivated capacity to laugh. Deserves more thought.

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Biting the Hands That Feed a Nation

The bristling dominance of American corporations may sometimes obscure the fact that they plunder at least as effectively as governments in ‘less-developed’ countries (LDCs). In LDCs, bribery, tribalism, and family ties conspire to exclude small businesses from important supply lines. The economic crippling of family breadwinners – mostly women – becomes invisible from the meeting rooms of five-star hotels and government offices.

This dynamic shifted into high gear at the start of the COVID pandemic. Africa needed PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment). My particular interest is Kenya where I know some back stories of the country’s COVID response.

The Plan

In April 2019, the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI), the Kenya National Federation of Jua Kali Associations  (KNFJKA), and The Micro and Small Enterprise Authority (MSEA) formed a coalition. In Kenya’s COVID response, MSEA was tasked with forwarding Ministry of Health orders (for PPEs) to the MSEs and paying vendors when the masks were delivered. (The acronyms are dizzying.)

In a speech on 24 April 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0K6UfZVFvcE  (forward approx. 8 minutes to the relevant section) Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta promised  1.5 billion shilling (about US$14 million) to enable the Jua Kali (informal workers) to take ‘center stage’ in the production of facemasks for the domestic and export markets. 

Informal workers contribute about 83% of economic activity in Kenya. Anything that supports growth in this sector has a huge impact on the country’s recovery.

Money Arrives

Since March 2020, money has poured into Kenya for COVID response through 99 initiatives whose ‘known worth’ is about $15 million. This came from the usual suspects in the ‘rescue industry’: International Monetary Fund, World Bank, African Development Bank, the European Investment Bank, USAID, and the Gates Foundation, to name the biggest donors.

Billionaire Jack Ma delivered a boatload of masks, test kits, and protective suits. Other organizations and businesses made smaller pledges or donated goods. The majority of these funds have been funneled through the Kenya Ministry of Health. The primary expenditure area is “COVID Response.”

The Train Wreck Begins

Now we come to the Kenyan tradition of corruption (not that ours or any other country has clean hands). Speaking on August 10, 2020, Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe said he and President Kenyatta are determined to eliminate cartels in the Procurement Department inside the Ministry of Health. 

Meanwhile, 42 MSE manufacturers throughout Kenya have, or can acquire, the capacity to meet the government’s goal of getting 24 million masks on the faces of Kenyans. Thirty-four of the small businesses (80%) are managed by women.

Vague ‘orders’ for face masks were sent to some businesses in May 2020. The specifications stated both surgical and reusable masks. Every potential vendor was required to get examination and approval of their production samples from the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS). These cost were not insubstantial. As of August 10, 2020, vendors still had not received requests for delivery, much less payment for finished masks. An actionable tender appears not to have existed or been mysteriously withdrawn.

Kenya Medical Supply Authority (KEMSA) Chief Executive Officer Jonah Manjari said on 2 March 2020 that the government had banned local manufacturers and distributors from exporting N95 and 3-ply surgical masks “to ensure the country has enough stock as part of its emergency plan.”

According to some manufacturers and distributors, the price in Kenya for a 50-pack box of face masks had shot up from about 200 shillings ($1.88 or 3 cents each ) before the coronavirus outbreak to nearly 1000 shillings (about $9.60 or 19 cents each).

Masks in waiting

In December 2020, KEMSA issued new specifications for masks, sized to fit young children. Contractors were directed to source materials from selected businesses. Sewing and other machines had to be acquired. About 30,000 adult-sized masks produced by one small business still sit in a store room. Despite many inquiries, no buyers have yet been found.

For any small enterprise, holding a lot of inventory seriously limits cash flow. Workers cannot be paid for any further work. That translates into families going hungry. Some lose their homes. (Kenya has not legislated eviction protection, even in the slums.)

Finally, in January 2021, a tender came through the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI) for young children’s masks, in red, with a government logo imprinted, packaged individually then in lots of 500 per carton, and delivered to the Ministry for distribution. The price paid – about 31 cents per mask  – did not allow small businesses to break even.

Well Wishers

Enter the COVID-19 Action Fund for Africa (CAFA).  From their  FAQ: “A PPE initiative of over 30 organizations dedicated to protecting Community Health Workers on the frontlines of Africa’s COVID-19 response in 24 African countries [including Kenya]. Key objectives: Find an urgent unmet need…protect community health services delivery.”

This is a bad-case-scenario for Kenya’s MSEs and Jua Kali. CAFA would be sending imported Western or Chinese-made masks, thus further depressing demand and prices in Kenya. This ‘intervention’ undercut Kenya’s economic engines – the small businesses; they will have a hard time surviving more foreign ‘help.’

Predicting when the COVID chaos will be sorted is difficult if not pointless. However, the next couple of months offer a major “opportunity window” to grow Kenya’s PPE manufacturing capacity.

The livelihoods of thousands of women depend on a trifecta of unlikely triumphs: a successful probe of government corruption, the rooting out of illegal PPE distribution cartels, and limits on the sledgehammer assistance of “well-wishers.”  

Without such systemic changes, small businesses will scramble to survive; the closing of many will have dire consequences, particularly for moms and kids. The virus and hunger prowl the poorest communities. Residents won’t be vaccinated until July 2022.

Kenyans claim to be sick and tired of their self-serving government.

Some of the ‘rescuers’ claim to understand how damaging their support of the status quo can be.

Where does the fight for better opportunities for Kenyans begin? And who walks point?

Sustain-Ability

The notion of sustainability, bandied about as the ultimate goal of international development programs, troubles me.

In its simplest definition, sustainability is the ability to exist constantly.  Few things in our world – from marriages to businesses to social projects – actually enjoy sustainability in that sense.  Some endeavors are just one-off or ‘band aids’ to avoid deeper engagement.

Sustainability is a concept widely used by western development organizations to mean ‘balanced’ efforts to meet basic human needs – but usually in a hurry. Large NGOs with government contracts enjoy ready access to capital. No so much for the small organizations doing equally worthy work.

Sustainability is always in flux, changing over time and place. It’s not a goal but a process.

The greater the level of poverty, the more challenging it is to improve the lives of those who experience it. The ‘unbanked,’ the un- or undereducated, the sick and traumatized face a struggle of indeterminate length to achieve an acceptable quality of living.  Being a woman,  and especially a women of color, means you have to navigate out of a deep trough of exclusion and internalized devaluation.

If we are to inculcate sustainability in initiatives that assist the poorest communities, then we have to reallocate resources to women. The two resources that matter most: knowledge and capital.

Where women are systemically excluded from education, we offer rigorous instruction. Where women know only subsistence economic activities, we share the knowledge, tools, and mentoring that growing a profitable business requires. Where women need to meet operating costs, we open accessible channels to capital, knowing their children’s welfare motivates their long-term vision.

Success as they define it takes as long as it takes; some achieve breakthroughs, others fail and must try again. Both outcomes have to inform the patience and quality of assistance.

It’s the group we must elevate, enabling them to build both social capital and access to capital – without draconian conditions.

We have an effective way to assist this mighty transition:  the Women’s Center. With this foundation, we can let go of that nagging sense of impermanence when we witness their resilience.

Botticelli Belly

I wrote this nearly five years ago. Still relevant….                                                                                    

The Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli’s most recognized work is the Birth of Venus, a masterful rendering of the naked body of a nubile woman (‘birth’ notwithstanding). She is young, perhaps late teens, with buff arms and abs, pert tits, creamy smooth thighs, luscious hair the color of ripe papaya draped demurely across her pubes, and a belly that pooches sweetly beneath her navel.

The Birth of Venus

Modern images of women would feature most of these traits as representative of the ‘ideal’ white woman’s body. But the belly would have to go. Flat and taut across the pelvic bones – that’s today’s beauty burden.  Mostly this is a young woman’s fad. Producing a baby or two makes a Botticelli belly the normal for another vast group. My observations at the gym suggest that even women who work out have belly, and many have much more than a Botticelli belly.

Body image, one of the many battle grounds on which women get stranded, is the insidious usurper of self-worth. We do not choose our genes, but too often find ourselves regretting the ones that did not provide the ‘right’ hair, body shape, skin color or texture. That’s time wasted in the much more urgent struggle to live powerfully.

Women are the planet’s transformers. We advance in this purpose only by repudiating – loudly and publicly – the demeaning messages, the false ‘idols’, the egregious transgressions of men, and the insidious dictates of patriarchal culture.

We’ve also got to reconcile with our dark side, our most troubling behavior: undermining other women. Whether through verbal or physical assault or a ‘freeze out,’ few actions are more likely to damage a woman’s soul. We know how to ‘get to’ each other. Inflicting hurt never produces anything worthy of women.

The best of our female nature –  intuition, a capacity for nurturance, strength of mind  and heart for human needs – adorns us with unique power. To turn the testosterone tide of our culture, we’ve got to run with our natural gifts.

In her book Solomon’s Song, Toni Morrison wrote: “She needed what most colored girls needed: a chorus of mamas, grandmamas, aunts, cousins, sisters, neighbors, Sunday school teachers, best girlfriends and what all to give her the strength life demanded of her – and the humor with which to live it.” 

This is every woman’s need – and every woman’s gift to give.