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Posts Tagged ‘women’

Breathing in Byimana

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

I should pause and describe the scene of our Academy program in the village of Byimana.  I sometimes forget to do so, as much of what I experience, which would be so exotic for another, is something that I have come to find so comfortingly familiar here in Rwanda:  The women in their beautiful multicolored wrapped skirts; a sweet child sitting on the floor of our classroom while his mother takes notes; ten children and men peering through the bars in the windows of our classroom wondering what we are doing; giggles from small children as they ask to have our empty water bottles.  We are teaching in a small building used by Byimana local government.  It is a single room with plastered walls and a cement floor.  Narrow benches form our seating, and though the women are more comfortable setting up the room for me as if I am preaching to their congregation, we rearrange the benches in a circle so we can all address each other.  They watch me with curiosity, but they are open-minded and willing to participate in whatever I initiate for our class.

I’m feeling more grounded.  I’m grateful for all the visitors with me – they’re challenging me and bringing really valuable ideas to the table. And the tension that marked our first gathering – a combination of nerves, anticipation, uncertainty about how my offering would be experienced – has left me now.

On our second day, we went in depth into the personal transformation portion of our work.  We started out by exploring our own desires and aversion to change and the emotional reactivity that sometimes causes us to create harm inadvertently.  We considered how perspective and preference can cause angst and how trusting the intuitive sense can help us access inner wisdom.  And then we breathed.

I’m utilizing a technique called Coherent Breathing and a program called Breath~Body~Mind which was developed by Dr. Richard P. Brown and Dr. Patricia Gerbarg to relieve stress and trauma. This program includes Coherent Breathing (influenced by Stephen Elliot) and Qigong movements from Master Robert Peng.  Coherent Breathing sets the optimal pace of breathing necessary to enable your body to rebalance the autonomic nervous system resulting in greater calmness, energy, and resilience.  Our women have taken an assessment to measure their level of post-traumatic stress, but through simple observation, I can see the stress melt from their shoulders, feel the energy shift in the room, and hear their comments afterwards that they feel deeply rested.  One rather heavy-set, beautiful, enthusiastic woman even exclaimed that she felt so light she must have lost several pounds!  The woman have already asked how they can teach the technique to others, including children in their communities. I am encouraged.

Tomorrow we explore power.

A small miracle

Monday, June 14, 2010

Today was my first day of training for our 2010 Academy for Conscious Change.  I was actually really nervous for the first time in a while.  But it was not because of my new group of participants, but more because I had a large group of Americans observing, which is not usually the case.  I will be curious about what they think as we get deeper into the course.

We have an amazing group of Rwandan participants – 34 women and 3 men representing 8 different teams working on a range of issues from domestic violence to malnutrition.  All seem deeply committed to their social issue and open minded enough to let a crazy “muzungu” get them to do a bit of Qigong and then lie down on the floor for a round of coherent breathwork.  They giggled and kept one eye open (and on me) even during the meditations, but they were willing to participate and I am ever so grateful for it.

We ended the day with homework that encouraged each individual to notice the little miracles happening around them.  As we clarified what that meant, one woman offered her example of what she thought that might mean from what she had experienced that day.  She told us that she originally thought foreigners were stiff, inflexible and formal.  But when she saw us lying on the floor too and when Laya, one of our staff from San Francisco gave her a kiss on the cheek to greet her, she felt that moment to be a miracle.  As my Program Officer Gyslaine translated for us, I got chills.  The woman explained, it was a miracle not just because we were friendly, but we were willing to touch them and get close to them and get down on the ground with them and just be with them.

Back to Rwanda

Saturday, June 12, 2010

I am writing over a triple Kenyan latte in Nairobi’s airport.  The sun is coming up.  World Cup fans fill the spaces usually taken up by foreign aid workers and African businessmen.   All are wearing evidence of their leanings – a jersey, a scarf, a hat, a patch.  They are not afraid.  Everyone is glued to CNN.  South Africa looks like they are celebrating New Years.  The flight attendants on Kenya Airways even have new uniforms – red jerseys that say GO AFRICA on the back with a big soccer ball on the front.  In Amsterdam, bright orange was worn everywhere by loyal fans.  Even the public restrooms in the airport had bright orange toilet paper. It feels as if the rest of the world is having a party that the Americans are too busy to attend.  How is it we can’t quite get into the fabulous sport of soccer/futbol?

I think the two days it takes me to get to Africa are good for me.  They allows for a slow transition whereby I leave behind the hurried pace of America, where I work most days as a one-woman show wearing a hundred hats.  Over dark coffee in several airports, I slowly ease into a place of presence, ready to arrive as GG “President” to the hundreds of women and staff I have taught and learned from since 2005. In less than 2 days I’ll be hosting a new Academy for Conscious Change.  I can’t wait.

A Breath of Fresh Hope for Women in Haiti’s Tent Camps

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Port-au-Prince Haiti, March 13, 2010

AMURTEL Haiti (www.amurtelhaiti.org), is the women-managed wing of AMURT, which has been working in the country since 1998 as a registered NGO.  Their mission  is to improve the quality of life for disadvantaged women and children, and provide  relief  in natural and man-made disasters. AMURTEL particularly focuses on creating empowering and long term sustainable strategies for holistic community development. In response to the devastating earthquake that hit Port au Prince January 12, 2010, AMURTEL has partnered with several other agencies to offer life-saving services and resources to 14 refugee camps in the surrounding neighborhoods of Jobel and Lavale Bourdon, Port Au Prince, serving 10,444 displaced people. Global Grassroots partnered with AMURTEL to offer a trauma healing workshop in Coherent Breathing to women displaced by the earthquake. The following was written by Didi Ananda Deva Priya, one of the female monks working with AMURTEL in Haiti.

With quick efficiency, the camp committee in the Sitron camp announced our arrival for a women’s gathering. Soon the women were spreading  large grey tarps on the bare ground, and to our surprise, a microphone and amplifier were waiting in the middle of the space. I was amazed to see that already the camp had wired electric lines throughout the site, and indeed, a bulb was shining in a hut on the hill. Two months have now passed since the earthquake, and people have begun to settle and adapt to the circumstances with characteristic resilience. The construction of latrines was nearing completion, and groups of men were busy chopping poles to construct a large community tent for clinics, meetings, religious services and other collective events.

As the women began gathering, it seemed at first, that there would be plenty of space to do the deep relaxation exercises and yoga that the AMURTEL team had planned together with our partners from Global Grassroots. It would be a new experience for both Gretchen, from Global Grassroots, who has worked facilitating women’s trauma recovery for survivors of the Rwandan genocide, as well as for  the Didis from AMURTEL who have years of experience as meditation and yoga instructors. Soon the space on the tarps were completely packed with at least 150 women and girls of all ages, and even the men in the camp had gathered around in interest. Plans were quickly improvised to adapt to the tight space.

Gretchen opened the gathering by explaining the normal reactions to a stressful event such as the earthquake. As she described common experiences, such as trembling, difficulties with sleep, racing heartbeat, over-sensitivity to certain sounds, hyper-alertness, and more, the women began nodding empathically and eagerly joined in discussion, sharing their own experiences vividly. They all expressed great relief at discovering that they were not sick, but rather having a normal reaction to an abnormal event. They listened with keen interest as Gretchen described how the stress regulating system in our bodies, intended to help us survive trauma, can remain stuck “on”, in ways that become unhealthy. Then she led the group in a series of breathing exercises, followed by the Didis who led some loosening warmups, yoga exercises (in the end, just one standing up posture suitable to the cramped conditions). The yoga sequence ended with a self massage, which they enjoyed immensely, and by then the initially giggly and noisy group had settled down into a calm and open feeling. This was followed by a session of relaxation, with slow, regular, timed breathing designed to awaken a relaxation response and turn the stress system “off”. The women were elated to share how they felt lighter, rested, and hopeful that they would be able to return to normal again with techniques which were simple and easy to remember for practicing on their own.  The session ended with singing on a joyful, uplifting note. An elderly man approached one of our native Haitian volunteers, and expressed how grateful he was that we were sharing this for free – he understood how important it was for their healing, and that they would not have normally been able to afford access to such techniques. The singing continued echoing from the hills  even as we walked out of the camp.

A Breathwork Practitioner in Haiti

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Barbara Johnson is a senior Breathwork Practitioner with the Inspiration Community (www.inspirationcommunity.org) in Baltimore, MD.  She traveled to Haiti as a volunteer with Global Grassroots for two weeks in March to offer trauma healing using breathwork to help women traumatized by the earthquake.  Following is a letter from Barbara to her family and friends.

Dear All,

I returned from Haiti early yesterday morning. I was and am so grateful for your support (financial, spiritual, emotional, all of it!) which was a touchstone during my amazing time there.

We arrived March 1 and drove to the site of the ruined Hotel Montana, which was, before January 12, the finest hotel in Haiti; a lovely site on a hilltop overlooking the city of Port-au-Prince and the sea. The site, now referred to by the search and recovery teams as “The Pile”, was my home for 12 days. Our camp had been established by Gretchen and Andrew Wallace and Gretchen’s brother Brian Steidle when they arrived a few days after the quake, to aid with the huge multinational recovery of the hundreds of victims at that site.

Gretchen and I went to teach a simple practice we learned last month from Dr. Richard Brown of Columbia University and Dr. Patricia Gerbarg of New York Medical College (www.haveahealthymind.com).   This technique has been shown to prevent chronic PTSD and has been used with victims of natural disasters, with first responders, and with war veterans.

When people suffer a traumatic event, the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system engages. This “fight, flight or freeze” response, so essential to us when we need to escape or otherwise summon strength and alertness, often stays engaged, overwhelming the normal swing back to the parasympathetic branch (the “rest, digest, and recover” response). Symptoms people experience when stuck in the stress response include sleeplessness, nightmares, constant worry and vigilance, overactive startle reflex, digestive problems, high blood pressure, depression and numbness, anger and irritability, muscle tension manifesting as head, jaw or back pain, and shallow breathing. People who are caring for traumatized people often suffer their own trauma, experiencing the same symptoms.

The practice we learned has three parts; movement, Coherent Breathing, and group bonding. The movement piece is useful because trauma victims are often mentally dissociated from their bodies. The breath component, 10 minutes of lying down and breathing 5 breaths/minute through the nose, uses the optimal rate for engaging the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. The bonding piece at the end, which includes group sharing and singing, helps integrate the process into normal life activities and community.

With the help of a generous and gracious translator [working as the operations director for partner organization AMURTEL, http://amurtel.org] named Jayatii, we taught this technique to refugees, to aid workers, to Haitian community liaisons, to NGO employees, and to school children. Our smallest group was 6 people and our largest about 150.

When we described the stress response as a normal reaction to trauma, we heard, over and over, statements like: “I thought I was crazy”, “I thought I was the only one”, “I have been angry with myself that I can’t just get over this”, “I thought I was getting a bad disease”, and “I’m exhausted taking care of my grieving friend”.

After the breathing, many people shared the experience of feeling relief. We heard repeated versions of: “I feel like I have been born into a new life”, “I feel like a heavy weight has been removed”, “My headache is gone”, “My back isn’t hurting now”, “I haven’t felt this relaxed since the earthquake” “I feel happy that I have a way to help myself feel better” and “I’m going to show this to my grandmother”.

We told them they could use the breathing practice when they were going to sleep and when they were distressed, and that the relaxed breathing would become more easy and natural with daily practice. We encouraged them to share this simple method with their loved ones, and many told us they had been or planned to.

I was inspired and moved beyond the telling by these resilient, courageous, beleaguered people. I had expected to find a war zone peopled with zombies. The war zone was right, but zombies they are most emphatically not. They are vibrantly busy with the work of rebuilding their lives, businesses and communities despite nationwide grief, seemingly insurmountable devastation, terrible lack of food, water, medical care and housing, desperate poverty, and the prospect of being moved away from their communities into the unknown.

I wish to thank Drs. Brown and Gerbarg for their research, their work, and their teaching expertise, and for their generosity.  They donated a weekend to training us in their home and fielding many questions.

I want to thank and acknowledge Gretchen Wallace of Global Grassroots for inviting me along and for  exposing me to her great courage, grace, persistence, sensitivity and skill in teaming with individuals and  organizations, and in working with people from other cultures.  Global Grassroots is investigating some exciting opportunities to continue serving communities in Haiti. I will pass these on as they are formalized. And I will be posting photos and videos of our work.

Thanks again for your interest!


What Would She Do?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I was recently asked by a friend to participate in an exciting experiment.  The instructions?

You are responsible for creating an organization in which people offer their greatest gifts. Describe it.

The purpose?

The instigators of this experiment propose: “Women will revolutionize how we think about work and have clear ideas for change.  Women have the most to gain from a new organizational model, so it is up to us to take responsibility for creating it… An organization intent on leveraging people’s “greatest gifts” will, in fact, be more effective, efficient, profitable and fulfilling to all stakeholders.”  Over the course of 365 days, they will be posting the viewpoints of 365 women and then working to explore and distill the patterns that arise.

Check this out as it unfolds: http://www.whatwouldshedo.blogspot.com/

And here is my contribution:

My dream organization has its center in a simple office in a natural setting, where the wall-length doors slide open during warm weather and where large windows allow a constant connection with the earth and sky. A shared kitchen with an eclectic mix of chairs, pottery and produce, harvested from a common garden supports individual wellness. Members of this circle connect virtually or in person to collaborate, create, innovate and engage around work that is aligned by a common purpose and has a broad social impact on a global level.

The organization measures its success in terms of its capacity to create systemic transformation leading to a more conscious society. It is inner-driven and outer-focused: individuals engage in their own work towards deeper self-knowledge, while striving collectively to advance positive change for the common good. The organization’s structure, operations, services and outputs are all designed to maximize social value creation, while ensuring environmental and economic sustainability. There is a code to do no harm. The circle does not seek simple consensus, but invites a diversity of perspective and debate for innovation. It engages stakeholders and beneficiaries in ongoing dialogue and evaluation. As a tribe, it recognizes it is a member of a universal, living ecosystem, and thus is open to its own evolution and even its own dissolution if that is the highest need.

Individuals invited and drawn to this collective are given time to explore, identify, nurture and apply their greatest gifts, passions, and talents. Then they commit to making their unique contribution towards the organization’s vision. Though there is a leadership structure that guides the tribe, there is participation at all levels in setting strategy, goals and objectives. Teams are formed primarily on a project basis for a specific scope of work, while ongoing operational and administrative needs are handled through shared responsibility with a spirit of service.

The organization insists on an equitable investment in both inner growth and outer work. It encourages daily practice for personal growth, and provides for structure and coaching along a path for professional development. When its members need solitude for renewal, reflection or creative processes, they can easily access the adjacent healing/yoga/ meditation rooms, organic garden, library, walking trails, and a musical/artistic white space – or not come in at all.

Core operational values include: integrity, open communication, human understanding, shared knowledge, active learning, and experimentation. Time schedules honor an individual’s circadian and creative rhythms, and so the space may have occupants at odd hours of the day and sometimes no one at all. People are compensated based on their social value creation, which may change with each project depending upon roles. Performance is assessed by the whole community, and trust allows colleagues to challenge and support each other in pushing beyond their individual growth edges. Collectively, the tribe is both a microcosm of and an advocate for a whole, just and compassionate society.

Water for Women

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I have seen first-hand the horrifying and debilitating impact on women and girls of the lack of access to clean water and decent sanitation.

I work primarily in Rwanda, where women and girls rise every morning to begin the treacherous 3 to 4 hour round-trip journey down and back up steep hills to collect water from dirty creeks in the valleys. Not only does this mean young girls are missing out on a critical opportunity for education, as the author identified, but imagine the productivity gain if millions of women suddenly had an extra four hours every morning to attend to the myriad of other needs they and their family face.

In addition to the extensive health implications of drinking contaminated water, violence is often a more immediate risk facing women during this daily chore.  Throughout rural areas of Rwanda, Sudan, Chad, Uganda and other regions of Africa, women risk sexual assault as they travel to remote water access points.  And competition for resources further exacerbates this risk, by causing women to leave their homes in the middle of the night – sometimes at 2am or 3am – just to ensure they reach the water source first and do not have to spend subsequent hours waiting or fighting for the limited supply.

Even more horrifying is the alternative to this difficult journey.  Some of the women we are working with in Rwanda, who are elderly, physically disabled or sick with HIV and too weak to make this daily journey must turn to buying water from delivery men who bring them water on bicycles. However, their inability to pay leaves them vulnerable to sexual exploitation to meet the basic needs of their family.  As one woman told us: when your children are about to return from school for their primary meal of the day, and you have no water to cook rice – well, you do what you have to do to feed your children.  Further, the inability to cook meals on time due to the water collection process is often a trigger of domestic violence within families where women are seen as not meeting the needs of their husbands in carrying out their primary duties. 

The lack of proper sanitation facilities also often leads to violence, especially in primary and secondary schools where unisex latrines become a prime location for sexual violence against school children.  Furthermore, when girls reach the age of menstruation, they often leave school permanently so as to avoid the embarrassment of utilizing unisex latrines, which also do not provide them with adequate sanitation facilities to take care of themselves.

What is remarkable is that these same women are initiating their own solutions to create safe alternatives for women and girls.  Throughout Rwanda, groups of women are designing social-purpose water projects that allow them to provide water at no charge to vulnerable women, sustained by the sales of water to the remainder of the community.  Other projects are educating villages about girls’ reproductive health and then working collaboratively to build girls’ latrines at schools.  Global Grassroots has found that with less than $3000, a well-designed socially entrepreneurial venture can serve between 500 – 2500 members of its community.  When you think about the large-scale development aid that has yet to successfully address this global issue, I propose we redirect even a small portion of this aid to support smaller-scale entrepreneurial endeavors that can begin to protect vulnerable communities immediately.  These socially entrepreneurial projects – with the right training and advisory support – are demonstrating the opportunity for fostering systemic change from the grassroots level up.

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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