Reporting for Duty, Mam

We’d imagined decades ago that our army of bra-burning feministas had achieved rights for women that were unassailable, correcting a gender imbalance that had festered for centuries.

We have a vote. We get to shatter glass ceilings here and there, as long as we play by the rules. But we live in a country where abortion is banned and women prison inmates are sterilized without consent. Despite fifty+ years of re-stating that birth control is not just a “woman’s issue,” millions of women and girls cannot obtain a simple, effective method of preventing pregnancy without jeopardizing the chemistry of their entire bodies.

Prominent men believe it is their God-ordained right and duty to judge and harass women about the use of their reproductive gift. Rape is a weapon wielded in every community on the planet, often with impunity. Domestic abuse claims thousands of women’s lives and splinters the future of their children. We’ve not gotten far.

I’m on the lucky side of menopause, when neither a monthly choice of toxin-tainted, non-biodegradable “feminine products” nor an ill-timed pregnancy poses a threat to my equilibrium. My 35-year-old mind, however, cannot grasp the slow erosion of my decades-older body. I have succumbed in the war deftly prosecuted by gravity. My silver-white hair, that I happen to like and am too cheap constantly to ”restore” to its original chestnut brown, sometimes feels like public evidence that I have traveled tragically beyond the definition of useful in the Land of the Free.

The salve for this attrition is an evolving understanding of my own genius. I refer not to the high-IQ sort of genius, but the grace of knowing –  the wisdom to act on my purpose. I prefer to believe that my life is no accident. I’ve weathered the slaughter of every sacred cow I’d once naively admired – the largess of government, the virtue of the world’s purported governing body, the public service ethos of media – and wrestled my outrage into a serviceable toolkit.

Relative to the 700 million women and their children living in egregious poverty, I live a privileged life, as do most Americans who are not yet homeless. I resist the delusion, enforced by all the subliminally seductive media chatter, that our private lives present all the drama we need to know or care about.

The strategic plan is clear to me. I’ve laid it out in the mission of Women’s Centers International. We reach out to women least equipped with the tools – education, skills and access to capital – to fight for their futures. They’ve learned to survive in formidable environment – urban slums and refugee camps. We nurture and focus their resilience and ingenuity with a new toolkit for growth. It’s working at Baraka Center in Nairobi. It will work in every environment where women are challenged to the breaking point.

The tactical maneuvers take shape as we deploy further afield.

For starters, I’d like to make a case for accurate language in women’s programs. Gender-Based Violence (GBV) crept in as a standard label for all things related to violence against women among the international aid community. What so-called ‘developed’ country uses such obfuscation of the real deal? We mean sexual violence.

Reproductive health – another cumbersome phrase. Contraception (including abortion), access to competent pre-natal care, and reduction of egregious rates of maternal mortality indeed represent vast battle lines in many cultures, including our own, but this phrase does no service to the broader issue of freedom from fear that is the daily reality of millions of females. ‘Body rights’ nails the point.

It’s easy but short sighted to regard men as the enemy. Many of the most malevolent warrior men surely deserve to be kicked to the curb in rush hour traffic. Still, we women have raised them. Many of their fathers have not. This remains the fundamental wound to heal.. Lots of territory must be re-charted and reclaimed. The question grows more urgent: How many women can rally? What sort of crew is on deck to steer the legacy of our era? 

Immobilized or Lost?

Why are we – as cultures and societies – so disinclined to pursue and so slow to deliver what is good for women?

Is a woman’s capacity to create a human so terrifying that we cannot rally ourselves to end the violence and diminishment that have characterized the circumstances of women for millennia? 

If men had the ability to gestate and deliver human babies, wouldn’t reproductive privilege be enshrined in our laws and institutions. Would there not be world class maternity care, generous parental leave, well subsidized, convenient, professional childcare.

Would not abortion be legal, easy to access, and  free?

Would not rape and domestic violence be treated as preventable, healable afflictions for perpetrator and survivor?

We denizens of half the sky are the answer. The rub is that too many of us are either caged by privilege (immobilized) or stranded in destitution (lost).  Both groups – and all the company living in between – can drive their own beautiful ripples into sea change.  We’ve got a job to do together.

Our contribution to the effort:  Women’s Centers International. Come ripple with us! Here’s how.

From Miriam A., Nairobi, Kenya

Baraka Women Center became the springboard of my second chance in life. I can’t believe what is happening to me and my baby girl! I am only counting blessings one by one from the day I joined Baraka Women Center. KEEP THE CANDLE LIT FOR THE VOICELESS GIRLS AND WOMEN!”

The Obvious in Detail

I often make the mistake of believing that something obvious to me is just as obvious to others, especially those working in the field of women’s equality. But often the obvious is missed. The Women’s Centers Model is a prime example.

How to describe the enormous impact of Baraka Women’s Center (BWC)? Nearly 1,200 women are members.  If you read any of the Success Stories, you’ll understand how vital BWC is to poorest women living in Nairobi’s slums.

Baraka Women’s will celebrate its tenth anniversary in October. Teresia Njora, the Center Director, Wanjiru Ngigi, Program Director, and their 10-member Board of Directors – all of them are on fire to meet the challenges so many women bring to the Center. They are uniquely gifted with shauku (passion) for healing and elevating the young single moms, the undereducated older moms, the struggling elders. They see needs and do as much as they can to ease a woman’s crisis. The crises are many: living on the streets with children, parenting at age 15, addiction, fleeing domestic violence, scratching for capital to boost a small business, unemployed with no marketable skills.

Poverty’s effect is universally the same:  chronic trauma from the unrelieved dismantling of self-worth and aspirations. When a Women’s Centers brings resources to ease the struggle, a woman can make her first leap to the “other side” – the place where she has what she needs with a sense of control over her choices.

BWC deserves to thrive.  To see what the Center is and does watch:  Amazing Place.

Women’s Centers should be opened and sustained in every major city, in every refugee camp, in every rural area where women’s education, health, livelihoods, and protection have not been considered, much less nurtured.

After years of effort, I’ve detailed the process in The Women’s Centers Guide: Best Practices for Creating and Sustaining a Women’s Resource Center

WCI is building an affiliate network of community-based organizations using the Guide as their roadmap. The Guide will be available also to large NGOs interested in elegantly integrating gender in global programming. 

On June 30th, find it here: Women’s Centers International 

On Being a Woman Elder

This year as of 29 July, I will have inhabited this earth and sky and seas for 70 years. I’ve led an adventurous life that’s produced books full of stories. 

I remember when personal computers were new and exciting technology.

I’ve created a home in at least fifteen different neighborhoods of the San Francisco Bay Area and in Washington, DC.

I’ve traveled throughout Europe and Scandinavia. Italy seduced my soul. Four African countries – Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, and Rwanda – are lodged indelibly in my mind and heart.

SBL waiting for a ride at Kutum airstrip, North Darfur, Sudan 2009

In my lifetime,  sixteen genocides have desecrated the human landscape – after we’d solemnly promised ‘never again.’ I studied in depth only two of these cataclysms: Rwanda and Sudan. Two was more than enough exposure to the darkest human impulses that have cost the planet nearly 10 million souls.

Blooming late, I created and manage an organization, Women’s Centers International,  from my heart’s mandate to help unleash the power of all women.  Our biggest battles are yet to be won: control of our own bodies, freedom from sexual violence, parity in pay, and elimination of exploitative images in the media.

The revolt worth supporting is rising among those with not far to fall: the poor. Women who grew up that way or were downed by a twist of fate, who subsist on starchy foods in second-hand clothes and love their kids and scramble too damn hard to keep them fed and clothed and educated.

There’s nothing noble in poverty. There is, however, great power in poverty-honed instincts for survival. 

I’ve become a woman in a hurry with a lot to do in much less time than I’ve already lived. Curiosity drives me. I know very quickly when I’m with someone whose energy inspires exuberance.

I despise the word ‘senior.’  I plan never to be a ‘retiree.’  I’m an Elder, a designation that implies wisdom; it’s what comes of surviving long and well enough.

Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, I remain optimistic about our collective ability to rescue our world from the mess we’ve created.

I know that acknowledging people when they do well can transform a day. 

I know our world adores youth. And I am not immune to the siren call of ‘stuff you can do if you have endless energy.” But I’m at the juncture that points toward mining the inner treasures.

A legacy requires a lifetime to build. I hope mine will endure.

Movin’ on Up

A month ago, WCI received a substantial donation that allows us stable and effective operation of Oakland Women’s Center for maybe a year, if we play our cards well.

This means we get to move to a higher level of service to women. It’s invigorating to have the resource to execute a passionate vision.

So much to do. Just fabulous!