Why It’s Crucial to Include Women in Peace-Building: Excerpts from Leymah Gbowee’s Memoir

Gift bags from the Women in the World Next Generation Leadership Academy allowed the inspiration to continue beyond the event with an amazing memoir by Leymah Gbowee.

Gift bags from the Women in the World Next Generation Leadership Academy allowed the inspiration to continue beyond the event with an amazing memoir by Leymah Gbowee.

I first encountered Leymah Gbowee when I saw her speak at the Women in the World 2012 summit. I wrote a blog about her for Girls Who Rock and was looking up videos for the better part of a night that showed her giving interviews. What struck me most was not just how inspirational she was, but her great sense of humor.  Recently, I was lucky enough to have another Women in the World event in my life when I was accepted into their Next Generation Leadership Academy. In the gift bags they so generously gave to us was Leymah Gbowee’s memoir. Remembering the woman I saw on the stage in 2012, reading her story was incredible. It showed her personal life in Liberia throughout the years of war as she faced death, domestic violence, health issues, fleeing the country, refugee camps, and family heart aches. Throughout her personal struggles and the war that tore Liberia apart, she overcame what would seem like the impossible to show the strength that women have in peace building. Her passion and belief in the power of women is what helped to finally put an end to years of conflict.

As I read, I tend to take notes. When I went back through the book once I had finished, I saw within the first few pages I had written “hope and courage” at the top. That’s because this woman’s story and the women she portrayed were examples of those two things to the full extent. Prefacing the book, she touched on what the world is used to seeing of women because of the media.

“Now watch the reports again, but look more carefully, at the background, for that is where you will find the women. You’ll see us fleeing, weeping, kneeling before our children’s graves. In the traditional telling of war stories, women are always in the background. Our suffering is just a sidebar to the main tale; when we’re included, it’s for “human interest.” If we are African, we are even more likely to be marginalized and painted solely as pathetic–hopeless expressions, torn clothes, sagging breasts. Victims. That is the image of us that the world is used to, and the image that sells.”

It made me wonder, why is the media still reporting in this same way as it always has? With the world changing and an interest in human rights, social good, and women’s issues, is the world finally ready to see women as a source for hope and courage instead of always just the victims? At the Women in the World Leadership Academy, Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, made a very important point. Women victims of war and violence are not just getting help, but they are teaching those of us who haven’t experienced such atrocities what courage really means…what it really means to look fear in the face and be brave. This change in reporting would not just be the right thing to do, but it could benefit multiple cultures allowing empowerment and understanding to cross borders.

These women living through conflict are the ones who have really come to know it. “Why were women, who bore the brunt of war, expected to remain quiet while men debate how to make peace?”  Listening to this local community is crucial for peace building.  Gbowee used this as a tool as she gathered women to join the peace movement and stand up to their leaders and demand an end to the violence.

 “As part of adapting it to the situation in Liberia, we were supposed to identify local leaders and groups throughout the country and teach them how to teach others. By helping people and communities heal themselves, we’d be helping our fragmented, suffering country mend itself.”

Although women often suffer the most during war through domestic violence heightened by the stress on the family, rape, seeing their husband/children murdered or kidnapped, lacking control over their bodies as husbands often are forceful for sex causing multiple unwanted pregnancies during a time when money and health resources are scarce, and desperation leading to options such as prostitution instead of education. Through all of this, it seems that “women are sponges.” They must take in what is going on around them and with their families without truly having an outlet to talk about it. Early in Gbowee’s social work career, she discovered how important this outlet was as one woman who was so grateful for one of her sessions expressed its importance.

“The UN brings us food and shelter and clothes, what you’ve brought is much more valuable. You’ve come to hear the stories from our bellies. Stories that no one else asks us about. Please, don’t stop. Don’t ever stop.”

“You can’t cure trauma when violence is ongoing, so the primary effort must be working for peace. You can’t negotiate a lasting peace without bringing women into the effort, but women can’t become peacemakers without releasing the pain that keeps them from feeling their own strength.”

Through these sessions, a movement began to formulate. “They built a form of sisterhood that transcended the power of guns.” These sisterhoods even spread across the borders throughout north west Africa. When Liberia once again fell into war, the connection allowed women to be less alone as collections were taken up to help with any emergencies. This shows the importance of getting to know the faces behind the conflict and just how strong a group of women can be even if they are from different backgrounds. “Over the last few months, we had discovered a new source of power and strength: each other.”

“I did not meet helpless victims, but women of strength, bravery, and determination.”

The women that Gbowee organized showed the changes they can make because they understand the culture and the war firsthand. International help and aid was important, but it seemed that it wasn’t doing its best. It wasn’t reaching its full potential in the difference it could make in such dire circumstances for one simple reason: nobody was listening to the citizens of Liberia who were living it.

“The UN and ECOMOG peacekeepers could provide only temporary help. Above all, they wanted to get back to their own homes alive. We needed to help ourselves.”

“You can tell people of the need to struggle, but when the powerless start to see that they really can make a difference, nothing can quench that fire.”

“[UN Agency] never consulted with anyone from civil society how best to do things. The result was entirely avoidable disasters…Every war is different…People who have lived through a terrible conflict may be hungry and desperate, but they’re not stupid. They often have very good ideas about how peace can evolve, and they need to be asked.”

Post war Liberia is still filled with its share of issues. “Unemployment is around 85%, only half our population can read or write, and life expectancy hovers at fifty-eight years. Official corruption remains rampant and crime is a serious problem.” But what these women showed in the face of a brutally violent war, was that there is always hope. If you don’t have hope, then what other option do you have? Some of these points really stuck with me as words of wisdom to keep that hope alive and keep moving forward.

“Peacebuilding to me isn’t ending a fight by standing between two opposing forces. It’s healing those victimized by war, making them strong again, and bringing them back to the people they once were. It’s helping victimizers rediscover their humanity so they can once again become productive members of their communities. Peace-building is teaching people that resolving conflict can be done without picking up a gun. It’s repairing societies in which the guns have been used, and not only making them whole, but better.”

“There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they may seem invincible,” Gandhi said. “But in the end, they always fail. Think of it: always.”

“Because of women like us, I believe that in the end tyranny will never succeed, and goodness will always vanquish evil.”

It is common that when wars do come to an end, the attention is drawn away from the region and they quickly become forgotten. However, war leaves devastation that is equally as important to tend to so a country and communities can rebuild to prevent violence in the future. Walking out immediately after a peace deal is only a recipe for more destabilization.  This is when it’s important to look at social topics. Some preventative measure in the book suggested having these women and girls stories told on a global stage and making them heard, finding those who would like to run for office and training them/matching them with mentors, and teaching activism to young women.

“Donor communities invest billions funding peace talks and disarmament. Then they stop. The most important part of postwar help is missing: providing basic social services to people.”

“We had survived the war, but now we had to remember how to live. Peace isn’t a moment–it’s a very long process.”

To fill in the gaps that wouldn’t quite fit into a blog entry including details on the Liberian wars, Leymah Gbowee’s life, and the women’s movements and organizations she organized as well as those that are still helping throughout Africa and the world today, I suggest checking out her memoir for yourself and watching the documentary Pray The Devil Back To Hell.

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A Whirl Wind Week of Politics

This has been an extremely busy week in terms of politics in the U.S. Both good and bad. Here’s a quick wrap up on the steps forward, steps back, excitement, emotion, and disappointment. 

Early in the week the Supreme Court chose to gut the Voting Rights Act. This has been an issue that I’ve always been on the fence about. It didn’t sit right with me that only a few states were singled out to have their voting decisions basically babysat by the federal government, though I did understand why. However, within days of the decision, these states were immediately taking steps forward to take measures that would make voting difficult or even impossible for minorities, young people, and low income communities. After seeing these reports, that’s when the anger finally became apparent within me. One argument used to strike down the Voting Rights Act was that “this is no longer 1965”. It was said that our country has come a long way since those days and measures such as VRA were no longer necessary. However, it is very apparent that in fact some of our country is still living in 1965 and has not joined the rest of us here in 2013. Texas, for example, wants to move forward with its strict voter ID law that would require either a passport or a birth certificate to vote. Passports are not affordable for everyone in this country and a birth certificate isn’t something that many immigrants or people in general have easy access to if any at all. This is just one example that has already come up, but NPR has reported on others as well.

On a good note, the Supreme Court DID strike down DOMA! I sat at my desk at work with tears in my eyes and goosebumps throughout my body as I thought of all the people who have fought so passionately hard for this change. This decision will change the lives of so many in a positive way as they are finally recognized by the federal government for being who they are. I got to celebrate that night with good friends of mine who were ironically also celebrating an anniversary. It was so amazing to see them finally able to discuss their future and look forward to plans that they were unable to have prior to this incredible day. I could go on and on about DOMA, however, I’m going to wait. Sunday is the Pride Parade in NYC and I get to participate with Amnesty International this year. I’m sure the photos and energy of the day will add even more to this celebration that I look forward to capturing. I would like to say congratulations to California though who Human Rights Campaign announced can resume same sex marriage immediately today after years of dealing with the ugly shadow of Prop 8.

Another inspiration of this week was Wendy Davis in Texas. This woman stood for 11 hours–no food, no bathroom breaks, and unable to sit down or lean against anything. She did this to stand up for the women of her state. Texas is working to pass a budget bill that will essentially close reproductive health clinics throughout the state only leaving around 6. Think of how big Texas is. That fact will make these resources inaccessible to the majority of the state, especially women in low income communities. Despite the majority being against her, Wendy stuck it out with an incredible filibuster that caused time to run out before the bill was passed. At the end, dozens of Texas women joined her in support, and as news spread, so did women around the country as #standwithwendy began trending on Twitter. Unfortunately, Rick Perry (who I cannot stand), is of course bringing the bill back to the table. There is a similar budget bill trying to be passed in Ohio, my home state, which saddens me when I think of the women whose health care this will effect. Closing clinics will not stop abortion, it will only cause more unsafe instances such as Kermit Gosnell. And even more than that, these clinics are not just about abortion. They promote family planning education so it doesn’t get to the point of abortion and healthcare such as cancer screenings. 

Immigration reform. Amazingly, the Senate passed the immigration reform bill that was put together by the “gang of 8”. As it has been expressed, the bill is not perfect, but something needs to be put into motion and amendments will then be made to fit our country best. However, to get to that point, something must be passed. It infuriates me that the Senate was able to come together to get to the point, but before it even hits the House the GOP representatives are already saying they will absolutely reject and not let it true. The partisan issue to me has turned into people acting like children and just holding out for the purpose of being difficult and not working together. We will see what happens, but it’s not looking good. And our country wonders why we can’t get anything done. 

Through everything that has happened this week and in general, it’s important to keep the important aspects of life above politics. People seem to forget that we are dealing with actual human lives and that everyone is different. Any inequality or abuses on human rights in unacceptable. This world is not black and white, people’s lives have circumstances that might be different from another’s. I encourage you to open your mind, put yourself in a situation that is different than yours. How would you feel? What would you be facing? Be willing to think differently, have conversations, and remember that politics is not just a game. It is something that has an impact on a person’s life for better or worse. It concerns me when I see the lack of empathy.  For example, as I watched the news the day that DOMA was struck down, I saw same sex couples crying, so emotional and passionate about what their lives would now be like. How can anyone seeing that, those REAL people with feelings, not be happy for the more positive life they are now able to have? I think it’s something to take a step back and think about, don’t you?

 

Lessons Learned and Ideas Inspired by Kofi Annan’s Memoir

Kofi Photo

After recently finishing Interventions: A Life in War and Peace by Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, I found myself not being able to stop thinking about many of the points he made. After jotting down random notes, underlines, and bookmarking several pages, I wanted to put this all together somewhere that I could reference in the future. His ideals on peacekeeping made so much sense in a world that is often chaotic with unnecessary conflict. Without letting himself be influenced by major powers, including the United States, he stayed true to what he believed in even if it led to disagreements with the security council or permanent UN member states.

A Christmas gift from my fiance, he bought it for me because of my curiosity for the UN, passion for peace keeping and preventing mass atrocities, and recent experience in Ghana and admiration of their culture. It resonated with me how Annan’s ideals and values seemed to stem from the culture I experienced while I was volunteering in Ghana this past summer. It also coincided with my belief in the benefits of cross-cultural communication and understanding. Not only would it eliminate conflicts essentially based on cultural misunderstandings, as many of the wars in the world often resonate, but also nations could learn how to better themselves by taking in lessons and ideas from places different from themselves. I know the United States and other major western powers often spread their practices to other countries with intentions of bettering theirs, but there is a lot that these powerful nations can learn from others as well. I thought of this a lot once I returned from Ghana and reflected in a post on who really are the rich and lucky ones in the world, and how are those two areas defined. In Annan’s writing, I found another example that especially if the United States related it to congress and our partisan conflicts today, might help finally move the country forward.

“For Ghanians, the concept of the African palaver tree has always been a tangible part of our heritage, and a source of the relative peace and harmony among myriad tribes and religions. A place to meet and talk, to seek compromise and settle disputes, to bridge differences and foster unity–this was the meaning of the palaver tree.”

“If you have a problem and you can’t find a solution, you meet again tomorrow and you keep talking until you find a solution. You can disagree with behavior or a particular position, but you do not resort to calling an opponent worthless. This notion extends to the relationship between traditional chiefs and their tribes, where there is accountability in the case of abuse or arrogance, including providing for the removal of chiefs who have lost the trust and respect of their people.”

What if this was the way for Congress and the White House today in the United States? Annan also highlights similar lessons he learned from his father.

“He taught me that when others insisted that sides must be chosen, and that it had to be either/or, there was another way that was truer to the reality of a complex world. His own life had been defined by the coexistence of tribe and language, place and purpose–the mix of heritage and hope that could bring Africa a new beginning, with dignity at its core.”

Annan also brought up a point of spreading democracy. An area I always questioned, because different cultures have different needs, he claimed that African countries are actually not being “westernized” when accepting democracy. It is in fact an idea that used to exist for them before colonization though not called democracy at the time, but contained many of the same ideals. As an African, he also stood strongly on the fact that colonization could no longer be used as an excuse for Africa’s problems. They need to look forward rather than letting the past inhibit them forever. Many countries such as Rwanda and Ghana have proven to be successful and peaceful democracies in recent years. They can serve as a model for states around them with cultural similarities, but who are still stuck under the result of a long military coup that took over once they obtained their freedom again and allowed corruption and prejudice to run rampid.

Under Annan, The United Nations also made poverty alleviation a global fight. Prior to September 11th, Annan reflected on near success of having the permanent member states ready to commit their share to make this goal closer to a reality. However, after September 11th this was pushed to the side. A very ironic move considering that poverty and all of the aspects that come along with it (lack of education, hunger, disease, etc.) are often what push men into extremist terrorist cells. Fighting poverty would likely have a considerably better result on the fight against terrorism than going in and fighting in countries that are already facing instability. This new tension, fear, and instability only leads to the growing number of terrorist activity which is now showing up in recent reports from the use of drones, for example. Imagine constantly living in fear and anxiety as unmanned killing machines flew above you without ever knowing when they would unleash their weapons. I think that may be enough to drive any person into a panic.

He touched on the importance of empowering women to make a substantial difference in the world, a common theory arising today and the importance of contraception access to give women these equal opportunities and also in reducing HIV/AIDS infections that continue to make it impossible for state’s with lack of awareness and resources to rise above.

In the situation in the Middle East he stood for the change the Arab Spring was working to bring, and sympathized with the battles they faced to finally have a better future that must include focus on young people and women to fully succeed. He reflected on lessons in Bosnia and Kosovo (an area I need to learn more about), and the cruelties between Israel and Palestine. To this day Israel continues its disagreements with the United Nations, seeing them as siding against them. Annan showed it in a way that showed the instability rising up over history, but the extreme retaliations often coming from the Israeli government only deepened the instability. That, and their persistance to not recognize international law and Palestine as a state, giving Palestinians a chance at rights and growth rather than keeping them oppressed, again something that feeds into growing extremist groups. An example here being Hamas.

He touched on the struggle during Rwanda as the world turned its back was especially interesting, since after the tragedy in Somalia gave nations reluctance to put troops on the ground in a country again. This has consistently undermined the theory of “responsibility to protect” that holds true how our world today is more interconnected than ever. A threat to peace anywhere is a threat to stability everywhere. We are very much a part of a global society.

As you can see there is so much inside the pages of this book, I’m sure I could go on talking about it forever. It’s great to read a perspective of someone who is on the side of all the world’s peoples rather than biased by what nation he may belong to. This was especially apparent to me in the chapters regarding the U.S. invading Iraq despite disapproval from the security council. We are seeing the results of this mistake now as we leave the country still in turmoil.

Annan consistently kept hope alive throughout the horrific tragedies he was faced with. Important to do in order to inspire future peace makers and not turn anyone away from a situation that may seem impossible.

“A Swahili proverb holds that “You cannot turn the wind, so turn the sail.” Turning the sail-from conflict prevention to economic development, peacekeeping, human rights, and climate change-is now more than ever in the hands of each and every one of us. The wind will follow its own unsettled course, but men and women in every society today have the ability to determine their destiny in ways unimaginable in past eras. Tyrants and bigots, warlords and criminals, the exploiters of human capital and destroyers of our natural resources, will always be with us, but their sails are not the only ones that can harness the wind.”

His main goal in working to provide more legitimacy to the United Nations was to show that sovereignty was not something that a state could hide behind any longer to deny its citizens their human rights. The United Nations was “for the peoples” along with for the states and governments must be held accountable for the behavior toward its citizens.

What Did I Do in 2012?

With 2012 flying by so fast, I wanted to document some of its highlights. For me it was a big year with a lot of growing and changing to work toward the person I’m trying to be. I’m often good at being too hard on myself trying to figure the world out immediately, that I forget that it takes time to learn and to realize what I’ve already accomplished.

I rang in 2013 with some of my favorite New Yorkers including Sarabeth, Elle, Brad, and of course my boyfriend Jon. We started off the evening at McSorleys before heading into Williamsburg to feel classy at a jazz bar. Even with living in NYC, I will never have any desire to go anywhere near Time Square.

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Jon and I at McSorleys

February brought my 4th Jack’s Mannequin concert. I’ve seen him in Cleveland twice, Columbus once, and now NYC. Sadly, he announced that the band was ending in November of this year.

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Andrew McMahon at Irving Plaza

In honor of Valentine’s Day, and as a part of Young Professionals of Amnesty International, we put on our “Make A Date with YPAI” event. At Lolita in downtown Manhattan we held the event to take action for LGBT rights including issues such as DOMA and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. We had speakers who were professors, heads of organizations including In The Life Media, and ended the night with 2 transgender comedians and spoken word artist Athens Boys Choir.

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Myself speaking at our YPAI event at Lolita

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Athens Boys Choir performing at our YPAI event

In March, I was fortunate enough to attend two of my favorite opportunities that I had the entire year. First was the Amnesty International Secret Policeman Ball. A night of comedy and music to bring attention to the organization and some of the current urgent human rights abuses that were going on at that time. Radio City filled up with the help of a wide range of celebrities such as Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman, Coldplay, Mumford and Sons, just to name a few.

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Alex and I front row for Amnesty’s Secret Policeman Ball

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Cold Play performing

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Me, Steph, Emily, and Alex outside the event

A week later I was in Lincoln Center for three of the most inspiring days of my life as I covered the Women In The World Summit for Girls Who Rock. Jam packed with individuals who have been through the unimaginable and accomplished the incredible, I learned so much and never felt so motivated to keep working toward creating change. The summit ended with a speech by one of my favorite people, Hillary Clinton.

Tina Brown, Merryl Streep, Hillary Clinton

Tina Brown, Merryl Streep, Hillary Clinton

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Girls Who Rock Team

I ended March seeing Nick Kristof speak, which unfortunately I have no photos of, but you can read more here. April was filled with visitors. Both Jon’s family and mine made trips into the city along with college friends and a couple of guys from Germany. I began May with a trip to Ohio to spend my birthday in Athens, my favorite place in the world, and for our friends Mike and Mariah’s wedding. As I came back, my sister made a big move from NYC to Florida. Finally, it was time for the Girls Who Rock concert. As a digital engagement officer (the Twitter account was named most influential by Internet Week NY) for Girls Who Rock I had been helping plan and promote this event which would raise money for She’s The First to send girls to school at Shanti Bhavan in India.

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The performers and Girls Who Rock team after the concert at Gramercy

In June I found out I was accepted to take on a huge life goal of mine and travel to Ghana with The Humanity Exchange to work summer camps at multiple schools in the Western Region. The next month was filled with organizing paperwork and getting shots in preparation. The experience was as life changing and amazing as anyone could expect. If i begin talking about it I will never stop, so if you want to hear more you can see what I wrote during my time with these amazing kids.

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The rest of summer included playing kickball with She’s The First, holding a rooftop happy hour for Young Professionals of Amnesty International where we took action on the Arms Trade Treaty, speaking at the Amnesty office about conflict minerals in the Congo and other solutions to Kony 2012, and moving. After 2 subleases and squeezing 4 people into a 3 bedroom in Williamsburg, Jon and I finally signed a lease for the first apartment that was actually ours in Astoria, Queens. We also celebrated our 3 year anniversary on July 1st. As fall came around, we joined the Ohio University alums for a cruise on the Hudson River. I went on my first ever business trip for work to Greensboro, NC to represent Blue Outdoor at the Tanger Outlets Conference. Finally, I was made of honor in my best friend Rachel’s wedding.

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The bridal party

After spending the summer reading Half The Sky by Nick Kristof, the documentary was finally airing on PBS. I anxiously went to a few screenings ahead of time of course, one which included Nick, Sheryl WuDunn, and Olivia Wilde as speakers. I also spent a Saturday volunteering at the Global Citizens Festival, a massive concert in Central Park put on by the Global Poverty Project to raise money for some of the poorest areas of the world.

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Central Park Global Citizens Festival

At the end of October we made it through Hurricane Sandy only losing cable and internet, extremely fortunate compared to others in the NYC area. We walked outside to find our neighborhood damaged, but overall everyone in Astoria seemed to stay safe.

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Day after Hurricane Sandy in Astoria, Queens

I accepted a volunteer position as a Researcher for She’s The First for their schools in Uganda and South Sudan which I cannot wait to get started on! After much excitement and drama over the past year, we watched anxiously until 2 a.m. for Obama to win the election. Well, some of us made it the whole time anyways.

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Jon, Jacquie, and Chris on election night

We celebrated Thanksgiving with my parents coming to our apartment in the city. We held our final event of the year as the Young Professionals of Amnesty International on Guantanamo and stopping NDAA (which Obama recently passed unfortunately). The holiday season brought a delicious work dinner and bowling party, Lion King on Broadway for a night of fun with a few coworkers, and a trip to Ohio to celebrate Christmas, Jon’s birthday, and the New Year with friends and family.

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Eric, Erin, Jon, me, Rachel, Josh

This year brought so much inspiration, love, accomplishments, and learning. It flew by faster than I could ever imagine. So what will 2013 bring for me? So far I have resolutions including eating healthier and joining a gym (pretty normal). I’m also hoping to write more, maybe take the GRE and consider grad school more closely, narrow down a focus of what issues in the world I’d like to focus most on changing, get started with my role in She’s The First, try new things, and find some me time to relax. As most people are, I’m often hard on myself for not doing enough. But thanks to this blog, for me, I was able to see all of the things I did accomplish this year, and they were pretty awesome. Here’s to a positive and even more fun filled 2013!

The Fine Line Between Self Defense & War Crimes

Throughout the last several years most of my studies have focused on issues going on around Sub-Saharan Africa. However, becoming more involved with Amnesty International in the city and meeting people from around the world I became anxious to learn about more and more cultures around the world. The Israel-Palestine conflict has never been one that I personally have been as informed on as I would like, and it still is not. However, I do know the difference between right and wrong and after spending the last week researching it as much as I could I have very mixed feelings.

I know the history is extremely complex. However, within recent months the casualties of Palestinians have been extremely high and the Israeli government seems relentless. After seeing media report after report come out with higher numbers of children and civilian casualties I cannot grasp how people through social media and even President Obama are so heavily backing the government of Israel. Both sides, meaning the Israeli government and Hamas should be held accountable. I understand that Israel is an ally to the U.S., but I also know that Benjamin Netanyahu is known for committing war crimes and standing behind atrocities in the Gaza Strip where people are basically refugees in their own land with no freedoms or human rights granted to them at all. I don’t understand how people in the world or the U.S. can look at them getting murdered with more plans coming out to increase the violence and not want to help them. I agree, the extremist groups like Hamas are also killing Israelis, and those should be condemned as well. People seem to not understand that there are families, children, husbands and wives that are not in these militia type groups that can not have the world turn their back on them so that Israel can murder them in self defense to Hamas. I read today that 44% of Gaza is under the age of 15. That’s nearly half, and explains why the child causality rate is so high. How is this right and how can people not care?

I also understand that because of the complexities that Israel may be on the defensive in feeling that if they back down that the violence will switch. So where does it end? Will it always be whoever is the weaker will be the victim of the defensive attacks of the other and so forth? It’s been going on for years–what is the solution? All I know is I do not agree with the U.S. standing so firmly behind Israel. Allies or not, they are murdering people and planning a ground attack that will increase these numbers even further. I feel concerned for what will happen in the coming days for these people. It amazes me, as usual, that this much suffering and fear is going on for other humans and so many people can easily go about their daily lives and the news reports spend a total of 3 minutes reporting anything. I feel strong emotions knowing that at this moment that is going on. I’m continuing to learn more so if you have any resources or things you think would be good to know I am open for discussion.

As I was typing this, I saw protestors on the news that are currently in Time Square. They were orthodox Jews that were protesting in support to end the suffering for the people of Gaza. Gave me a little bit of hope to see interfaith work in action for good to go to sleep with. Reminded me of Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization I’ve been following very closely lately and I strongly recommend. It’s been a rough weekend. Between this conflict and the M23 rebels approaching Goma in DRC makes me feel very fired up again to do something to help and try to find a way to change. A friend of mine posted this today, and it fit in pretty well.

UN Declares Contraception Universal Human Right-What Does This Mean for The World?

Yesterday, the United Nations declared access to contraception and family planning a universal human right stating:

“Not only does the ability for a couple to choose when and how many children to have help lift nations out of poverty, but it is also one of the most effective means of empowering women. Women who use contraception are generally healthier, better educated, more empowered in their households and communities and more economically productive. Women’s increased labor-force participation boosts nations’ economies.”

This is a huge step for so much of the world. I don’t consider myself a major “feminist” by any means, however, it is just common sense that women make up roughly half the world. Therefore, if half the world is left behind or oppressed there is no way that the rest of society can effectively move forward. The unfortunate part remains that people immediate associate contraception to mean sex and irresponsibility. It is completely the opposite, well, the irresponsible party anyways. First of all, women have the right to choose their lifestyle. So even if it is solely to protect themselves for sexual reasons, they are being safe. Then there are those who are in committed relationships or married. Having this lifestyle should not mean that having sex with your partner could always lead to the possibility of a child. By planning in your relationship how many children and when you will have children allows the woman to pursue her career and achieve leadership positions that will benefit society. This also benefits the children that the couple will have since they will be in a healthier environment.

In developing countries, there are unfortunately circumstances that come up against women where contraception is needed to avoid the results that danger and violence can often cause. Many girls must travel great distances to get to school which often makes them targets of abduction and rape. Whether rape as a weapon of war, forced into child marriage, sex slavery/trafficking, etc., these crimes are often focused primarily on women and girls. Access to contraception can help them keep some power and control over their lives. When I was in Ghana, I saw first hand that many schools had no bathrooms, making it difficult for girls to come to school during that time of month. Contraception provides an opportunity to regulate this and control symptoms that may otherwise keep them home, eventually causing them to be so far behind that they drop out. Mothers in developing countries who have multiple children would now be given the chance to control the spacing between children. Therefore, delaying pregnancy, finishing school, succeeding in jobs, saving money, and lifting themselves and their family out of poverty.

In the U.S., Obama’s affordable care act is known to have access to free contraceptives. Many people are disturbed by this thinking that the government is forcing to pay for something that may not believe in. However, there is no way everyone’s tax dollars will go 100% where they agree. It’s not possible to make everyone happy. Secondly, if your concern is your religion, religion is personal. Religion is not the law, and not everyone has the same beliefs as you. Therefore, you can not harm the health and quality of lives to others because you believe in something that works for you. I’m still unsure why religion has so much control over laws and policy when it should be a personal relationship. There are so many different religions in the United States. Law must focus on the well-being of people overall and not give in to a few religions that may hinder others. Another issue in the U.S. that is extremely popular to argue on is the economy. But it has been proven that by having money go into providing family planning services for women will gain revenue as an end result. The money that is put in then goes back into society as these women succeed into leadership postions and careers that allow them to establish and support themselves, rather than not finishing school or moving ahead in work causing them to sink into poverty relying on government assistance programs. Again, if you leave behind half of your society because they are women and therefore have reproductive health issues that must be addressed, there is no way to move forward. Being a woman is not a pre-existing condition, and should not be treated as such. Men certainly aren’t going to stop wanting sex, and neither will women. So the fault should not fall on women who are trying to be responsible so they don’t fall behind by using methods that are much less reliable.

I will never forget the 14 year old girl we met in Ghana, who was so intelligent and inspiring to speak with. On the last day we found out she was pregnant, would have to quit school, and work to support her family instead. That was her life. No responsibility was even considered to be put on the boy. It was heartbreaking. These are things that could so easily be avoided. People often put a stigma on the issue that causes it to slow down rather than moving forward and succeeding. It is a shame, and I am thrilled to see the United Nations take this important step forward to push the world to take action in supporting women and therefore supporting the world.

To learn more, the UNFPA released a full report here: http://www.unfpa.org/webdav/site/global/shared/swp/2012/EN-SWP2012_Report.pdf

The Battle of Helping Others While Remaining Sane Yourself

I have always been someone who feels extremely sensitive to what others are feeling and going through. That is one trait that caused me to dive so far into human rights topics. For me, it stays with me all the time that people are suffering, being treated unequally, or going through some type of injustice that is just hard to make sense out of. It seems that many people involved in international affairs and politics in general are lead primarily by wanting to get to the top, that power, or just pure intelligence that sometimes lacks feeling. The more I care the more I want to learn, but the more I learn the more I care. The problem I have, is I can’t just learn and disconnect myself. Maybe I’ll read a book on child trafficking and become informed and filled with motivation and ideas for ways to solve it. I put down the book and then maybe I have plans to get drinks with friends and enjoy a night out. The problem is I can’t. I have no on and off switch. The topic stays on my mind as my brain constantly runs in circles thinking and rethinking of ways to possibly solve the problem, help these people, and just not getting past the fact that it’s happening right now. Right this second, as I enjoy my honey jack and coke (drink of choice, when I can afford it) and listen to conversations at the bar that seem pretty unnecessary to even spend energy on, right during every sip someone is suffering, feeling pain, and hurt.

It might be good that I feel this connection to people I don’t know, but I’ve also found it can be extremely inhibiting. It’s hard to find a focused problem to solve, which causes me to spread myself to thin and not effectively help anyone. I just don’t see any problem as more important than any other, but I know to make an impact I have to find a place to start. I also recently read a post on Tiny Buddha (one of my go to inspiration blogs) that hit right on after a weekend of no productivity because of overactive brain work.

It was a Friday evening in the midst of a four day weekend. I was excited for the long weekend to finally have a chance to process my thoughts from Ghana. My recent trip made the sensitivity to other people much more intense than those I read about, which is already very strong. Now that I had seen some characteristics of a developing country first hand, they were constantly on my mind. I recently wrote about the happiness and positivity that the country of Ghana contained. That is all very true. But it didn’t take away the extreme poverty, hunger, illness/death, and lack of running water or even electricity that remained. Knowing that Ghana is one of the stronger democracies in the developing world, it also put into perspective those countries that are even further behind on those issues along with more violent situations that Ghana sees less of. It made me remember what Nick Kristof said when I heard him speak in the spring. “Everyone in this room has won the lottery of life.” The majority of the world is suffering and lacking these luxuries we take for granted. The MAJORITY, meaning MOST of this world. People in first world countries like the United States who are even middle or in some cases low income citizens, they have still won the lottery of life compared to MOST of the people in this world.

So on this particular Friday night, as I wanted so badly to be productive in figuring out my life, I found myself stuck. My brain was moving so fast that it in fact was accomplishing nothing because all of my energy was burned out on negativity. Sadness for those I couldn’t reach. Anger to those in the U.S. and other countries who just didn’t realize how lucky they were and still have ridiculous luxuries while others don’t have the basic necessities to live.  I felt frustrated as I came back to the height of the upcoming election and seeing energy being wasted on attacking, conspiracy theories, and just stupid games rather than helping others which these people in power actually have the capability to do. I also felt uneasy with myself. The day I got back from Ghana I found out I had to move and switch apartments. This meant buying furniture and stressing out over the cost of beds. It seemed silly to me since entire countries just sleep wherever they land. These little things that we need, they don’t have at all, so what’s the point of having them? Why can some people live comfortable, when others suffer? Shouldn’t there be a way to just even it out? And how do some people just simply not care? I had a hard time going about my regular life, knowing that I had so much and feeling guilty, like if I were comfortable I should give to someone else so that the comfort can even out. It might sound crazy to some, but how can some things that don’t involve helping others matter so much with the insane things that are going on in this world? It just does not make sense, and I don’t see any excuse for people not to help or ESPECIALLY for corporations to use the extra energy and money to do the right things to make things better rather than worse.

This rant that just turned into a gigantic paragraph is literally what is going on in my head 24/7, all the time, always, never ending. I know they say that you can’t help others unless you help yourself. I never really liked that. I know I’m not perfect, but I know I am more fortunate so I should be able to help people who are far less fortunate than my current status. One thing that did make sense to me, however, is the fact that I still need to make myself happy. Because without positivity in my mind, the negativity takes over and causes me to accomplish nothing. Where as if I remain positive, I have more energy to learn and act and spread that attitude onto others. So that’s what I’m working on now. How can I make a large impact, but be in a mind set that is actually productive. Right now I’m finding interest in Corporate Social Responsbility (CSR) but we will see. This world would be so much easier to tackle if people would just do the right thing and put it some effort if and when they can. And the journey of trying to help people and create a better world continues. I know my feelings toward it, and I imagine I’m not alone, so I felt it was important to finally get some of these into writing. Not only for my own sanity, but for others to relate to as well.

One Day On Earth

Last week I went with Anita to the Quad Theatre to see One Day On Earth. The movie was filmed in every single country of the world on the same day. The film makers took all of this footage, edited and compiled for an insane amount of hours, to show the world what was going on in each country on October 10, 2012 (10-10-10). I truly wish everyone could watch this movie. To see and be reminded that everyone on Earth is living, and often struggling at the same time as you might be leading a more comfortable life. It’s a reminder just how many people are in this world, but yet how we are all similar in many ways, but living a wide range of different lives. Through the footage, there were certain themes captured along the way:

  • Love/Marriage
  • Death
  • Trash and Waste
  • Birthdays
  • War
  • Animals/Species
  • Extinction
  • Imprisonment
  • Education Religion

These were themes that occurred in some way in basically every country. It was very emotional to watch for me in a number of ways. One, was in the way that it showed how love is universal and all the different but still beautiful ways people feel and express it. Another was struggle, and how unfair it is what some people have to live through just by the pure chance of where and what they were born into. Though there are different cultures and practices, these themes often come through to many of us. The media often portrays a certain group of people in the same light over and over again. Eventually we assume that for example, everyone in Africa lives in shacks, everyone in the Middle East has terrorist tendencies, that certain religions are better or more “right” than others. I enjoyed this movie because it didn’t stay on track with the media’s agenda. It showed the world in a way that covered a lot of average people. I think if people saw it, those in the U.S. that only watch the news might be surprised that in countries they know less about, people are living similarly to them. Therefore, instead of dehumanizing a situation where human rights abuses are occurring, they may be reminded that people just like them are being hurt or sometimes killed, that it is real, and that it is just as painful even if it’s happening far away and not right in front of their eyes.

Now, even though I think it’s important, sustainability and the “green movement” has not been an area I have focused on or studied as much as human rights. However, this film really caught my attention. One quote that was used, which I think will always stick with me is “we [humans] need nature, nature doesn’t need us.” Which is absolutely true. There aren’t really plants or species out there that rely on humans to survive, but without those things, humans in turn would not be able to live and grow. It made me think of it in a way that needs to be more appreciated. There was even an organization highlighted, and a representative spoke after the film, that takes trash and turns it into novelties. For example, furniture that could still very much be used and there are many out there who are in need. There are billions of people in the world, what we throw away is insane and the amount of landfills is one of those topics that is painful to think about so we often block it out of our minds.

Another area that I know should always be remembered, but often forgotten in day to day life is the importance of living life to the fullest and doing what you enjoy and what makes you happy. I remember when I saw Nick Kristof speak and he mentioned that those of us in that room won the lottery of life. I’ve thought about that more than ever. Sure, everyone has their struggles and their problems. But the atrocities that millions and millions of people face in this world makes being a middle (or in some cases even low) income, average American makes you in the minority of the world who are lucky enough to have such a privileged life. But, anything could happen in a moment’s time, and so no matter what society things (as long as you aren’t harming yourself or anyone else) don’t let the thoughts of other’s run your life. You have to make it yours, or you truly will never be able to enjoy it the way you should be.

There will be another film that was created on 11-11-11 coming out. One Day On Earth is also an organization as well which I encourage you to take a look at. They also have many partner organizations that have helped them through their journey. I know Anita and I laughed, cried, and got goose bumps multiple times through the 1 hour and 30 minute film. Please check it out.

Meeting A Role Model of Mine, Nick Kristof

On Monday evening I got to meet someone who is toward the top of my list when it comes to people I want to meet in life. Currently a New York Times Op-Ed columnist, Nick Kristof has lead his life as an adventure to help others and also get the message out on problems going on throughout the world that need exposure. I look forward to reading his work every single week and strive to live the kind of life that he has accomplished. I was unable to take notes during his Lecture at NYU Monday night after arriving late because Washington Square is VERY confusing, the hall was already filled with people eager to hear him speak and honestly we didn’t mind standing to listen to every word. Though I don’t have any notes, I wanted to post on a few points that really stuck out to me and have stayed with me ever since.

Near the beginning of his lecture, Nick Kristof told a story about a girl who just needed $13 in school fees, but did not have the money to spare. The New York Times began posting about these girls and soon enough letters started flooding the office, many with $13 donations.  One day, a donation of $10,000 showed up. Thrilled at this generosity the money was quickly used to sent many girls to school enough years to graduate and support programs that help them as well. Turns out, the $10,000 donation was an accounting error and the man actually meant to donate $100. Oops. As an error of the bank, Kristof told a senior level employee that he could take back that money, pulling all of those girls out of school and having a column written about it, or he could stand with his donation. Without hesitation the man exclaimed that the bank was thrilled to match the amount to keep the $10,000 donation. This made me think, if this bank could spare that money which impacted dozens of girls lives for the better, can’t others? This mistake was fortunate, but what is unfortunate is that it took an error to get the money in the first place. With the impact that it made, think of other that could go to school and create better lives for future generations through corporate social responsibility.

Kristof also drove home the point that it is extremely important for people to travel and have the influence of local communities in the movements and causes they are working for. He mentioned that if a group of people here sat down at a table and found a solution that worked without ever setting foot into the community and talking with those who are there it would be pure luck.  I couldn’t agree more, I’ve been wanting to travel abroad myself to experience my passion for helping others and cultural communication first hand, though it’s usually easier said than done. I’m always open to suggestions for great volunteer abroad opportunities that won’t take my entire savings.

One thing I did not know about Kristof is that during his time abroad, he actually purchased girls living in brothels to take them back to their families. It was shocking to hear him say that he was actually given a paper receipt for the transaction, and the brothel owner was a woman. Sadly, in many cases including one of Kristof’s rescues, the girls will go back to the brothel voluntarily after becoming addicted to meth and knowing they can access it there.

Though people talk about many of these girl and women issues going on abroad, trafficking and forced prostitution is actually a very large problem in the U.S. as well. Kristof told a story of a Brooklyn girl who was taken in by a pimp and sold on websites such as backpage.com. This girl in particular was dropped off at an apartment for a John and as she made her way to his door and the pimp waited outside, she went to another door and began frantically banging. Luckily, someone answered and she was able to call the police. Most situations are never found however, and it’s very rare for a pimp to actually get caught and charged severely for a crime. The Johns who buy the girls often don’t completely know the violent scenarios that go along with forced prostitution. A recent solution is to send them to John school once caught where they learn what issues they are fueling, so far it has been affective.

Kristof’s work does focus a lot on women and girls. However, he believes men are not the main problem. Women often support many of these harmful practices do to cultural beliefs. This is true in many cases such as FGM, forced labor, and forced marriage. I learned a lot about this at the Women In The World summit where it was often the grandmothers who were the most severe when it came to forced marriage. To change these cultural customs, Kristof believes education is key for a different future. He then shared a photo of a Ugandan girl who received a goat and support from Heifer International and just recently graduated from the University of Connecticut.

Though of course women are not always the main problem. Domestic violence is an issue that is still commonly accepted in many cultures who think that women should be abused in order to understand their place. However, Kristof told a story about a woman who brought in more of an income then her husband. This trend is becoming more common now, and will continue to grow as more girls are educated and getting good jobs. Usually when the woman does make more money, there is an absence of the domestic violence.

To close, Kristof reminded us of how much is going on the world that is often unfathomable to those here in the United States, which is another reason he believes everyone should spend some time abroad. “We won the lottery of life,” he said, reminding us how lucky we are no matter how we might sometimes complain. He then told a story of his friend was was a humanitarian worker in Darfur. The woman stayed strong through all her time on the ground. It wasn’t until one day at her grandmother’s birthday party she looked at a bird feeder and had a complete breakdown. The bird feeder reminded her of how much we have here, even enough to spare to make sure birds don’t go hungry, when the people she saw in Darfur were suffering immensely, starving, and facing unthinkable violence. It just never seems fair.

After Kristof’s lecture we enjoyed a reception to do some mingling. My two friends and I even had the privilege of meeting and speaking to him, a moment I know I will never forget. As he shook our hands and listened to our questions and goals, he remained very open and easy to talk to. It was great to see someone with such a huge following so human to a group of young professionals striving to make a difference in human rights. He left us with this advice:

” It’s not about confidence, it’s about humility. The more you question yourself the more you will find the answers within others and your adventures of travel and learning.”

I highly recommend checking out Half The Sky. The organization, book, and soon to be documentary share stories that the world needs to hear.

State of the Union Highlights and Lowpoints

I will be the first to admit that I truly do support and believe in Barack Obama as president. I think that he means well, and honestly if we met  he would like me and we would have a good conversation. Maybe even some laughs.  I couldn’t help, however, but be a little disappointed in his State of the Union last night.  Mainly because I felt that he was doing the typical political thing of telling people what they want to hear, and thus digging himself in too deep and avoiding some important topics. Maybe it’s what you have to do to win, but that is a whole different story of what’s wrong with our government and politics.  There were many areas that stuck out to me throughout the evening,

“This nation is great because we worked together as a team,” Obama said in reference to building the United States to where it is today.  I love how he always incorporates bringing people together, whether it be religions, classes, races, ethnicity, or what political side you affiliate with. I’ve found that to be a theme in his book Audacity of Hope as well, I’m currently reading it. I respect him a lot because he does seem to practice what he preaches and genuinely wants everyone to get along.  There is so much party drama, but yet when he talks he seems to stay above it and focus on the task at hand rather than getting caught up in the petty media games.

Obama also pulled out an interesting quote from Abraham Lincoln. “The government should do for the people only what they cannot do by themselves.” I felt that this was a very smart rule of thumb and a guideline on how much control the government could have. Way to go Abe.

Another important point was on immigration. Obama pointed out, “as soon as they get their degree we send them home” in reference to students who are not U.S. citizens. This shows that our immigration control efforts are not in the right place.

It always baffles me as to figure out why people think Obama has done nothing in office.  Yesterday he pointed out that 6 months before he took office America had lost 4 million jobs. That is a rough situation to dive into. Just yesterday I was reading in CNN Money about 25 Fortune 500 companies were hiring 100s and 1000s of new workers.  The fact is, the economy IS getting better, but it is a gradual process. It can’t be emphasized enough that change cannot occur over night.  I’ve also found both by watching GOP debates and  through personal conversations that people who are not supporters of Obama throw out insultes of “socialist” and “turning America into Europe” to counter any argument. I’ve recently decided that I will no longer listen to someone’s argument in that respect unless they can fully explain to be the definition of socialist. I also really enjoyed this Nick Kristof piece on this subject.

Although I hope the best of the upcoming year and hopefully future presidency, I am not thrilled. I was extremely disappointed to not hear the issue of Guantanamo brought up last night.  This is a domestic issue.  There are innocent people, innocent CHILDREN being held in a prison with questionable practices.  How can someone let this continue?  This is the point where I think having a chat with Obama would do some good, because I truly cannot bring myself to understand how this is happening.  I like how this ACLU infographic lays it out.

I am very open and respectful to opinions of all kinds, and I love a good debate. However, it pains me to see how much the media twists and sets political parties against each other. It will continue, but my message to everyone is this.  Inform yourselves.  REALLY inform yourselves on what’s going on before you vote.  Though politics may be a game to some, there are people who these issues are seriously impacting and in some cases it even goes against basic human rights.