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Archive for the ‘Women Making Mischief’ Category

I am a full person

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Today I visited one of our projects working to combat illiteracy among women.  As we walked through the busy marketplace of Nyamirambo, I was at first confused where we would find a classroom among the crowded pathways that separated stalls of fabric, shoes, buckets, jerrycans, pots and tools.  We rounded a corner and ducked into a darkened classroom in a cement building that abutted the market.  As my eyes adjusted, I saw about 30 women squeezed side by side at desks usually reserved for children.  Innocent Baguma, teacher and founder of this initiative, called “Let Us Build Ourselves” was finishing his reading lesson, as women followed along in books filled with cartoons.   

When the class was over, Innocent introduced me and invited me to the front of the classroom, as the women applauded.  I offered thanks and acknowledged the courage of these women, some appearing to be in their 70s, to make the effort to learn to read.  I then had a chance to ask them more about how the project,  just completing one year of operations in July, had begun to transform their lives. Here is what they said:

I came here with no knowledge of how to read or write….I remember before, because I had no knowledge of how to read or write, someone would write a letter for me.  But for now I am able to write it for myself. At that time I was very, very shamed because someone else could know my secret…that was very hard for me. I’m very grateful for your support in helping women in this literacy program. 

It was a very difficult period when my children would come from school and say, Mother can you please explain to me what is happening here in this homework? And I couldn’t say anything and it was very hard.  And I was in possession of a cell phone. Someone could send me an SMS message, but I couldn’t read it.  And someone could even call me and I would not know who was calling.  But now I can tell.

I am married and I have four children and a husband.  I came here with absolutely no idea of reading and writing. But for now I am very, very thankful due to our leaders who have been very patient… This project has been most helpful to the extent that we used to go to town and people would tell us where we were to stay, but we didn’t know where we were going because we had no knowledge of how to read the signs on the road.  I came here and didn’t even know how to write my name.  But currently I am able to write my name and even the name of my children and my husband.  Before I couldn’t go to the hospital or carry my babies to the hospital because I couldn’t read what was written on the papers given by the doctors.  And I had to ask my husband one day to be absent from his job to escort me to the hospital. It was as if I was not a full person, and it was very shameful.  As for now, we do not have any problems.  We can take our children to the hospital and buy medical treatment without a problem. 

I came here to sell flour.  I couldn’t measure what I was giving to the customer.  

Before people in my region didn’t respect girls and did not send them to school.  And they would say that the diploma or certificate for a young girl was to get a husband.  That’s why I grew up with illiteracy and it was very hopeless to us. Now, even our daughters have to be taken to school so that they may not face the same problems that we faced.

Girls used to pass along all their days working at home. Girls were supposed to go to the kitchen, sweep, draw water. But now we have a chance because we have been able to go to school. We do believe that young children, girls and boys, they do have an equal right to schooling.

I was so touched by the commitment and determination of this group of women.  They sat wearing eyeglasses that we had collected and sent to them earlier in the year so they could see their books or the blackboard.  I have no doubt that the gift of reading will propel these women forward in many dimensions in their lives.  Let Us Build Ourselves is not only creating new hope and opportunities for this group of women, but transforming the way in which they will raise their girls and influence other parents in their communities.

Eliminate the Trace of Violence

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

My aunt passed away last weekend, a life-long victim of abuse, self-hatred, domestic violence, anorexia and alcoholism. I am saddened, not so much from our loss of her life, but from her loss of what her life might have been. 

I think verbal abuse of children or between spouses in the presence of children is one of the most toxic, deepest wounding forms of violence that plagues our society. It goes unnoticed, without visible scars, it induces shame, fear and doubt, and it leaves a conditioned, distorted understanding of how to communicate – with anger, aggression and violence. Those who have experienced verbal abuse in their early childhood often either internalize the experience where the violence goes on to rot their inner health or externalize it through acting out, projection and violence towards others they identify as more vulnerable. It takes great courage to embrace and heal the aftermath of verbal abuse. This is especially true among those living in a culture that frequently rejects therapy as an indication of weakness, or worse mental illness, where violent aggression is an established form of international diplomacy, where violence is at the core of entertainment and where fear-based discipline in parenting or even pet ownership is acceptable.

Patricia Evans writes, in The Verbally Abusive Relationship, “We are aware of politically and economically repressive systems that are maintained by physical force. We are less aware of psychological repression. This repression is maintained by verbal manipulation and coercion…Repressive systems perpetuate themselves as long as they remain unrecognized.”

Within relationship, the power that the abuser exerts over the victim is driven by a desire to dominate. It does not recognize that there are two equal human beings choosing to be in relationship, but suggests there is an inequality that legitimizes one’s right to control the other. This oppression leaves the victim confused, hurt and frustrated at the difficulty of communication, the lack of acknowledgement and the inability to move forward together in mutuality. The fear of reprisal, loss of love, or aloneness can motivate a victim to continue to attempt to address the imbalance in the relationship, sacrificing their ability to protect their own value and boundaries in the process. But the two realities of the abuser and the victim are not reconcilable unless each is willing to work together to heal the wound at the root of the violence.

Individually and collectively as a society, the most significant first step we can take to eradicate verbal abuse in relationship is first to explore our own histories, heal our own wounds, deepen our own consciousness and eliminate from our own actions any trace of violence that might distort our own reactions. Any time we feel a “charge” around something or someone – perhaps anger or disapproval or envy – that is usually because we have something that is being triggered in our past that is unhealed.

My spiritual teacher has defined unconditional love as the unrelenting desire to support the highest path for awakening in the self and other. Similarly, a reality of co-creation is a shared experience that requires both parties of a relationship to participate, and does not exist within a cycle of violence.  Civil discourse, deep listening and loving kindness are tools less utilized to resolve conflict, but they are some of the most important capabilities we each hold within us.

Today my heart is heavy for my aunt who was never able to make the transformation from victim to survivor.  May her memory teach us how important it is to end these cycles and heal ourselves, so that we may love others as whole beings committed to each other’s highest path.

Mrs. Obama, What Are You Wearing?

Friday, January 23, 2009

I regularly cringe when watching the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, gala fundraisers and any other red carpet event that draws the A-List celebrities, when time and time again, the almost exclusive focus of the media is on the choice of dress, shoes and jewelry.  And so it was when even traditional news sources, like CNN, joined in the debate about Michelle Obama’s choice of outfit and designer for the Inauguration and Inaugural Balls. 

Of course Americans love fashion as an art form in and of itself, and of course we are attracted to and inspired by our national icons that embody our conceptions of beauty and femininity. I further honor Mrs. Obama for choosing to support a 26 year-old up and coming designer, Jason Wu, which echoes our new President’s embrace of the capacity of the young generation.

However, we – especially we women – have taken our obsession with fashion and beauty to the point where we eclipse the substance of character that we have fought to define us as women above physical image.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that fashion is anti-feminine or that beauty and brains are mutually exclusive.  But our pursuit and fascination with the former has been at the expense of a celebration of the latter. 

At a time when we still fight for equal wages for women in this country and where women globally, for the most part, exist as second-class citizens, we simultaneously, albeit unintentionally, participate in sabotaging our legitimacy as a gender.  This also extends to every day choices.  I wonder how many women would buy that expensive dress, suit or slacks if they knew that women between the ages of 15 and 22 are said to represent 90 percent of sweatshop workers, and that human trafficking, child labor and meager wages of pennies per hour for 12 hour shifts still plague the garment industry worldwide.  In part, our choices as the most privileged and intensive consumers in the West drive the market that allows for the oppression of the most vulnerable women in the East.  Are we okay with that?

On the other hand, New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, for whom I have the deepest respect, challenges us to think beyond the sweatshop issue in addressing global poverty, in his article, “Where Sweatshops are a Dream”, on Jan. 15.  He describes the choices facing Cambodia’s poorest, where working inside a sweatshop for pennies is the ambition of many whose other job choices include prostitution and scavenging through garbage dumps in the hot sun for food and items they can sell. Kristof says: “Nhep Chanda averages 75 cents a day for her efforts. For her, the idea of being exploited in a garment factory — working only six days a week, inside, instead of in the broiling sun, for up to $2 a day — is a dream.” Instead of launching global campaigns against sweatshops in pursuit of labor standards, our focus should be on investing in the manufacturing industries of poor countries, he argues.

So what are we and our new administration to do?  Make conscious, informed choices with an understanding of both our individual and collective impact on the world in a larger, more comprehensive context.  Advance policy that does not arbitrarily impose American values in ways that constrict and impair the developing world from achieving the steps necessary to rise out of poverty.  Design corporate codes of conduct and trade policy that in partnership with foreign countries and development agencies proactively support responsible and sustainable economic growth.

But it would also help if consumers made conscious fashion choices, where possible, that advanced the rights and opportunity of women on a global scale.  If we, as women, could feel more connected to each other globally based on our gender, rather than nationality or economic class.  And if the media, stopping a celebrity on the red carpet chose to ask, “What is your cause?” instead of “Who are you wearing?”

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