Imagine My Surprise!

Fifteen years ago, I worked with a young woman named Fatiah in Darfur, Sudan. In a simple statement1, she revealed to me my life’s purpose.  Since then, I have understood, with increasing clarity and urgency, the value of Women’s Centers.

The seeds I’ve planted and vigorously tended have taken root in at least two places in Sudan (a third failed due to internal squabbling), and at the ‘mothership’ in Nairobi Kenya, Baraka Women’s Center. My efforts in Oakland, CA died prematurely because the money stopped flowing. But the women’s needs never did. The pandemic deepened them. My goal is to reopen Oakland Women’s Center within four months.

Of course these years-long efforts have not been mine alone. Many remarkable allies have stepped up. Only one possessed the means and commitment to deliver serious money (water for the seeds). God bless Grant Williams.

The tradition of women gathering for mutual support spans millennia. The Women’s Center Model provides a holistic application of that tradition in environments where Conflict, and its evil twin Poverty, are newly introduced or painfully endemic.

I believe the Women’s Centers Model will revolutionize humanitarian assistance to refugees and internally displaced people.  I’m convinced that most urban destitution would reverse at a steady pace with the establishment of Women’s Centers. Every city deserves at least one. That’s because women are the best movers and shakers when it comes to community transformation.

But we women cannot do it if we find no relief from the burdens of being born females. First we must rise from deep craters of internalized insignificance, insane taboos, virulent restrictions, predatory marketing, and soul-depleting violence.

We do that best when we gather in a safe place.

We do that best when key resources– previously denied– are brought to our place.

We do that best when we’re seen and treated as complex beings with vast capacity for healing and creativity.

We do that best when our unique kinds of leadership are given full rein.

A Women’s Center is the ‘base camp’ for that redemption to happen.

Tony Benn, a now-deceased UK Member of Parliament, once opined: “It’s the same each time with progress;  first they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.” 

My shock at the slow uptake of Women’s Center Model has exceeded my own imagining.  Why is this surpassingly elegant Model dismissed without comment by major foundations, international humanitarian organizations, and even (especially!) women’s funding networks?

“It’s the same each time with progress: first they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.” 

After fifteen years, I believe I’ve arrived at ‘dangerous.’ Surely poor women, especially those of color, who will rise to kick ass through engagement with a Women’s Center, qualify as ‘dangerous.’ A Women’s Center would be a lot less messy way forward than howling riots in the streets. If humanity is to thrive, to say nothing of survive, they must come into their full power.

I’m inescapably aware that my stamina and ‘time remaining’ in this life is spooling out. I’d be ecstatic to see the full flowering of the Women’s Centers Model: the global network!  A Movement of undeniable authority and joy.  If I’m not blessed with that experience, I will leave behind the full instruction manual.  The young ones can continue the forward surge, adding their unique grace notes to an indomitable design.

___________________

I In answer to my question “What will you do, inshallah, when you leave [Kassab Women’s Center in North Darfur] and go home?” She said:  “We will build Women’s Centers.”

Taming the Beast of Poverty

Poverty preys on the human soul.  Its predations are hard to understand fully without having experienced destitution.  The most pernicious damage is the erosion of hope – the belief that opportunities come not to oneself but to others.

Beneath hopelessness dwells a kind of psychological lassitude born of chronic effort simply to survive.  While this bedrock instinct may allow certain cleverness in exploiting random good luck, it muffles incentive like a heavy quilt. In the long term, ‘working the system’ or waiting for what you need to fall off a truck does not build momentum for plans of real consequence. 

The burden of poverty falls most heavily on women, and women of color in particular. In every area of life – education, livelihood, health, housing, personal safety – ways to improve life circumstances are systematically and routinely denied by the complexity of the qualification process, by overburden providers, and by the indifference of those who could afford to help in meaningful ways but prefer to look away.

Not knowing one’s purpose, ‘hanging on’ through days of no consequence, inflicts the sort of hollowness that leads women to drugs, alcohol and/or other destructive habits. These painkilling survival strategies are often misread as character flaws. Their descending vortex is hard to notice, much less to escape.

A thoughtful look at the range of services offered to low-income people in Oakland argues that the 34% of West Oaklanders who live below the federal poverty level should not be living below the federal poverty level. Why does this situation seem intractable?

Even the most miserable woman will not capitalize on opportunities to change her circumstances without a belief that her life matters. There are no quick fixes to poverty’s psychological damage.  A disabled sense of self-worth is a deep and abiding wound. 

While handing out food may stave off hunger, it does not make a self-reliant woman. What does?

Women’s self-reliance comes from belonging to a group. One of the best things a woman can do for her mental and physical health is to nurture her relationships with other women.

A Women’s Center provides this opportunity. I have not been able to understand how this important Model is consistently overlooked by funders, especially those who profess to support ‘women’s issues.’ 

The elegance and utility of the Women’s Center Model derives from it use by women who understand how much it allows them to accomplish in their community. Baraka Women’s Center in Nairobi, Kenya continues to play the edge in this regard, uplifting nearly 1,200 women living in extreme poverty. Women’s Centers International is ready to support their initiative to establish two new Centers in Kenya. Who is ready to step up and support this ambitious initiative by a women-led community-based organization?

Just as important: when will Oaklanders rally to support the re-establishment of Oakland Women’s Center? 

Women’s Centers are all about taming the beast of poverty. It’s time to open this toolkit in service to women – locally and globally.

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

A Woman’s Place is in the Revolution

Reality checks

Global demonstrations marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 28th. Large protests in Latin America and Europe. Their focus: femicide.

women with hands across mouthApproximately 87,000 women and girls were murdered around the world in 2017, according to the United Nations, which says that violence against women and girls is one of the “most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations in our world today”  – and remains largely unreported because of impunity and stigma.  BBC

Sudan has repealed a law that allowed police to arrest women found dancing, wearing trousers, vending on the streets, or mixing with men who weren’t their relatives. Amnesty International praised the law’s repeal but also called on the transitional government to amend other restrictive laws, such as those governing so-called ‘morality’ including consensual sex, dress code, and other matters on the conduct of individuals in private spaces.”

Body politics

  • Alabama passed a law banning abortions at every stage of pregnancy even in the case of rape or incest – and criminalizing doctors if they perform the procedure with up to 99 years in prison.
  • Georgia passed a new law outlawing abortion after six weeks, during which time most women aren’t even aware of their pregnancy.
  • A law in Kentucky takes effect that punishes women for seeking an abortion. The law requires doctors to describe an ultrasound in detail and show fetal images before they can perform an abortion – even if the patient declines.

We need to be reminded of what our sisters are up against  – so we can help.

And there’s some good news:  Two remarkable talks by two visionary women:

Isabel Allende’s meditation on the need for Feminine energy in the management of the world.

Eve Ensler’s TEDWomen Talk     “Calling Men In”    A Masterful discourse about a way forward between men and women.

Taking Off

What’s important is not what is truly new but what’s about to take off.   That would be Women’s Centers.

WCI – Home of the Women’s Centers Movement – creates safe places with the connections and support all women need, especially the poorest. A Center is a ‘base camp’ where a woman can find her power and rise to her place of influence.  Our world need lots of base camps!

Seeking visionary allies:  Susan@WomensCentersIntl.org

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.