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?