Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Woman Crush Wednesday - Lina A.

I love social media as much as the next person, but this whole Instagram #mcm and #wcw (Man Crush Monday and Woman Crush Wednesday) thing is kind of silly. It seems purely superficial as mostly celebrities are featured. I don’t typically play along with such nonsense.

But then I started thinking about the women I know personally who are doing amazing things with their lives – giving unselfishly in critical ways to empower women and all people. These are the women I have crushes on. These are the women I want to promote. These are the women I want to come alongside.

And so I came up with a short survey and will highlight a different woman I admire each Wednesday. I chose my friend Lina to kick off this series.

I met Lina when we both signed up to be International Assistants at Boston College. We quickly became friends and danced our way through college. She is one of the most courageous women I know, working for the United Nations in parts of the world you and I would avoid like the plague.

Her responses to my survey are lengthy, but I could not bring myself to cut even one word, because every word she wrote counts. Please take the time to read this. She is extremely intelligent, witty, well-traveled, and, despite seeing things that would cause me nightmares, she is one of the most upbeat and happy women I know. The work she is doing can be dangerous but it is important and worthwhile.

Please meet my friend, Lina.
Lina and her little love-dog
1)      Please tell me a little about YOU.

I’m Lebanese-Palestinian, Arab-American, and all sorts of hyphenated things. I work on gender issues – mostly gender-based violence, in developing countries – mostly really chaotic emergency places. I’ll explain what that means a bit later. I was 13 when I started thinking about helping women, and 18 when I started doing something about it. I guess I’m a lot older now! I am also a self-proclaimed geek and accidental academic. While working, I pursued a Phd in development studies, which enabled me to “bitch constructively,” and as a consequence I published a book on gender issues in Afghanistan with a big title (Gender and International Aid in Afghanistan: The Politics and Effects of Intervention) and other Serious Things. I set my anchor down in Beirut, aka LinaHQ, but I still think I live on an airplane!

2)      Please tell me about your work.

Here’s my complicated job description: I coordinate gender-based violence programs in humanitarian emergencies – like conflicts and natural disasters – big messy things. Think of contexts like the earthquake in Haiti or violence in Syria. Every situation is different. Every DAY is different. Before I explain my work, I have to explain some key terms. That’s because we can’t build a shared purpose unless we have a shared understanding.

What is “gender”? I’m always surprised at the frequent misuse of this mysterious word! Bear with a little Gender 101. In my work – every day – I remind people that gender is not another word for women – and it’s not another word for sex. It’s OK to say “women” – and it’s OK to say “sex” – neither of these are bad words. And neither of these are “gender.” Gender is not a tick-box on a form (M or F) – just as much as sex isn’t a yes or no question on a form!

While working in Papua New Guinea, I learned that the best way to explain it was like this: Sex is “between the legs” – and gender is “between the ears.” So the “bits” we’re born with are understood and negotiated and exercised based on what’s in our heads. Having certain genitalia comes with expectations – sometimes opportunities, sometimes constraints. So gender is how we come to understand and interpret WHAT IT MEANS to be female or male in a certain place at a certain time. And this changes based on what is happening in our environments.

This understanding is essential in my work because it’s a good way to gauge what is going on in our world – the world being comprised of lots of people’s heads all thinking in lots of different ways. That’s the stuff I have to know before I do anything else – before I go into a new country and try to “do something.” For my work, I have to understand how people interpret their roles, their rights, their responsibilities. And more importantly – I have to understand what happens if people do NOT conform to those roles. We are lucky to live in a time where societies are working to become more open – but there are still challenges – and we still hear about people who are suffering EVERY DAY because they don’t conform to society’s expectations. This happens EVERYWHERE – not just in far-off places “over there.” So that’s gender.

What about gender-based violence? It occurs when some people try to force others to conform to what society expects – they do this using violence. It is directed against any PERSON – female or male – although the vast majority of those affected are female. This violence results in physical, sexual, emotional, psychological harm or suffering. At the core, gender-based violence is about power – who has it, who doesn’t, how they use it, how they ABUSE it. It is what happens when someone tries to exert power over another. The most important thing to remember is this: gender-based violence is an ABUSE OF POWER.

How do we end this abuse?! The solution is EQUALITY. Here’s the unfortunate reality: equality just isn’t possible in a world where gender-based violence – or even the fear of it – continues to exist. Because it DOES exist, the first thing we have to do is support survivors.

In any setting – emergency or not – there are 4 things a survivor needs:
·      Medical care – to treat injuries, to administer post-exposure prophylaxis (to prevent HIV infection), to provide emergency contraception, to prevent STIs
·      Counseling– to deal with the trauma of the event
·      Police assistance – to report the case, to capture the perpetrator
·      Legal aid – to prosecute the perpetrator and bring some justice to the survivor

In every setting, these 4 services need to exist and need to work together. They have to know what to do when a survivor comes to them – and they have to treat the survivor with respect, respecting her choices and maintaining confidentiality. There should be information campaigns so survivors know where to go for help – posters in public bathrooms, hotlines to call, etc. – we see a lot of this stuff around. There might be support groups – these are a good strategy. Women worldwide are more likely to reach out to friends and their own support networks first – so we all have an obligation to know what to do and how to help. So that is a widely-accepted standard of services for survivors.

But… Isn’t there any way to prevent these things from happening in the first place? This is the longer-term, more challenging stuff. Best way – education – starting at the most basic level – for both girls and boys. Teaching non-violence, teaching equality, teaching human rights. Media campaigns, role models. Positive outlets – sports, art, etc. Security patrols, neighborhood watch, etc. – ensuring that people – especially WOMEN – feel safe.

It is about building a society that believes in and practices non-violence in every way. It is about treating each other with respect – whether we agree with each other’s choices or not. It’s the stuff that starts at home as kids – and we perpetuate these messages with our own kids. It’s so important that we BELIEVE in non-violence, so we actually stand a chance to ACHIEVE it.
 In the Kibera slum (Kenya)
So… what’s different in an emergency? We’ve got a few facts to start:

Fact #1: As I mentioned, gender-based violence occurs everywhere – I haven’t heard of a country with a clean record yet! There are no boundaries or exceptions. It is not something that happens to “other people” “over there.”

Fact #2: Even before an emergency, women are MORE vulnerable because of their lower status in just about every country – they are more poor, they have less political voice, less mobility, less education, less access to health care, etc.

Fact #3: In emergency contexts, gender-based violence – PARTICULARLY SEXUAL VIOLENCE – increases because of the absence of law and order, lack of support services, increased vulnerability, breakdown of community networks, etc. We even saw this in the U.S. after Hurricane Katrina.

Fact #4: Emergencies are more dangerous for women – and women become even MORE vulnerable – and are increasingly being targeted. The reality is this: women are being DELIBERATELY targeted in contexts of conflict. Women’s bodies are the NEW battleground. To drive the point home – a UN peacekeeper in the Democratic Republic of the Congo said: “It is now more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in modern conflicts.” SCARY.

The nature of war has changed. In so-called “modern conflicts,” 90% of fatalities are civilians – many women and children. Women are the “easier targets” – they are more likely to be victims of direct attacks on civilian populations, they are more often the “collateral damage,” and they suffer more when essential services collapse. But the most alarming trend of all is what we call “rape as a weapon of war” – this is a crime against humanity. We can imagine what this does to women, but it also forces populations to flee and breaks down communities. Even the FEAR of violence prevents women from movement – rendering them even MORE vulnerable.

We all heard about the mass rapes in Bosnia. Rwandan genocide: 500,000 women raped. Congo: beyond our ability to count. The list of conflicts, violations, tragedies is far bigger than this article allows. And another disturbingly accurate quote – this time from Amnesty International: “Rape is cheaper than bullets.”

And what about natural disasters? Surely they must affect women and men equally, right? Nope. More women than men died in the 2004 Tsunami. Why? Women were home. In contexts where women’s mobility is restricted, they are not likely to leave home, even as a wave approaches. And many women were not taught how to swim. They are more encumbered by clothing that limits their movements. And they have children – how can they save them all?

But women are not just victims of these horrible crimes and tragedies. Women are survivors who help countries recover more quickly from emergencies. Women are resilient – natural cultivators of social safety nets and community networks, build bridges between warring communities, increase community resilience to future disasters. In EVERY emergency, women are the ones who will ALWAYS know who’s missing, who needs help, and how to help them.

So given the unpredictability of humanitarian emergencies, what do we do? Our first priority in an emergency is the survivor – helping her access services (health care, counseling, etc.). Often those services are very few – or don’t exist – they may not have existed before the emergency either. But if they did exist, after the emergency they are now probably:
o       Empty, abandoned, destroyed
o       Miles away
o       Inaccessible by any available transport
o       Poorly stocked
o       Understaffed
o       In an area controlled by rebels
o       Surrounded by landmines
o       Flattened by an earthquake
o       Or all of the above – all at once

So a “typical day in the office” for me is:
o       Finding out if any services existed before the emergency
o       And of those that existed, finding those services that actually still DO exist after the emergency
o       And of those that still DO exist, finding the services that have staff, stock and whatever else we need
o       And if we manage to find those staffed, stocked services, we have to get the survivors to them
o       And if we don’t find those services, we have to find ways to create them
o       … and staff and stock them
o       (… and find the money for all this, of course)
o       And when we have created, staffed, stocked the services, we have to find ways to inform people that they exist
o       (… in a context where people speak many different languages or dialects, or might be illiterate, or might not have access to any means of communication, or might not even want to talk about these things in the first place!)
o       And once people are informed by whatever means available, we have to help them get there by whatever means of transport still exist
o       And if they get there, we have to make sure they are not further victimized while there, or upon their return to the camp or wherever they live
o       And if they have nowhere to live, we have to find adequate shelter or safe housing
o       And we have to make sure that the services “speak to each other” so a survivor can be referred to services she needs so she can get all the care she deserves – we have to know what happens to her – the job doesn’t end when she is in a clinic – in fact it’s just beginning!

And when everything is all perfect (or not!) and functioning (or not!), at the end of it all – a survivor might choose NOT to go anywhere at all – and that has to be OK with us. It’s about giving a survivor choices – and then she decides what to do – and what works for her. The HIV positive women’s movement has a great slogan that exemplifies this – their right to make the decisions that work best for them. They say: “Nothing about us, without us.” So my job is to make sure a survivor knows the choices available to her – and that she can access them. And I need to make sure that she feels we are working for her – and with her.

It’s not just about available services, but also about how a survivor is treated when she accesses a service. Do clinics know how to treat survivors? Do they know what to look for if she hasn’t explicitly stated what happened? Do they refer survivors to counseling? Do the counselors know what to say? Are cases confidential? And what about the police? Will they take the report and follow up? Or will they send her home and say it’s her fault? There are a LOT of loose ends. And I have to be the bridge.

But at the same time, we have to be proactive and think about prevention. There are hundreds of thousands of people now living in camps – because they’ve crossed a border to escape a war, or because they’ve lost their home in a flood, or because they have nowhere else to go. Thinking about prevention in that setting means thinking of things like:
·      Latrines: where are they? Can women get to them? Can they be locked? Do women have separate facilities? Are they safe?
·      The layout of a camp: where do women and girls who have been separated from their families sleep? Or are they forced to share tents with men they don’t know? Is the camp well lit? Do women feel safe?
·      Water sources: can women access water without venturing out of the camp? Can they get to the well? Again – are women safe?
·      (You’re seeing the theme here, clearly?)
·      And what about food distribution: are women able to get a share of food? Or are they forced to provide sexual services before receiving rations? Can they reach distribution points?
·      IS - IT - SAFE?

Here’s the bottom line: If women don’t feel safe, then NO ONE is safe. That’s my barometer. And that’s what I ask women and girls when I speak to them – Do you feel safe? What will it take to make you feel safe?

So how do we know all this is working? Are we making an impact at all? How can we measure our work in an emergency? The reality is this: Gender-based violence is under-reported everywhere – even in countries like the U.S. with well-functioning, high-quality services. Now imagine a place in the midst of war, or the aftermath of an earthquake – all basic services are lost. And people aren’t reporting cases anyway – they are struggling for SURVIVAL. In emergencies, we can’t get accurate numbers. And journalists keep asking for numbers – how many women have been raped in this camp? How many women?!

I think even ONE CASE of rape is one too many.

But at the same time, we need to better understand the situation so we know if we’re doing the right thing. There are safe and ethical ways to collect data on gender-based violence. But the priority is SAFETY and SERVICES for the survivor first.

3) Why are you passionate about what you do?

Maybe some startling figures will help explain why I’m passionate about this work:
  • 1 in 3 women WORLDWIDE will experience some form of violence in their lifetime – including in the U.S.
  • 1 in 5 girls worldwide are sexually abused, 1 in 10 boys…
  • 1 in 6 females in the U.S. will experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetime
  • We are surrounded by violence – and violence is made far worse by conflict, disaster, and poverty
  • There are 2.5 billion so-called “poor people” in the world (people living on less than $2/day)
  • 2/3 of those 2.5 billion poor people are women
This helps put things into perspective. In fact, it put everything into perspective for me. Violence against women is the most pervasive human rights violation in the world. Every culture, every society, every religion, every time period – even now – no exceptions. No one is immune. And we are all responsible.

Heavy stuff. I was 13. And this is the stuff that got me going. When I first heard these things, saw these things, that was it! I KNEW something wrong – and KNEW that I had a duty to do something about it.

I didn’t find this field – it kinda found me. It was one of those cool little hiccups, a happy accident.

I took a class in my high school called Comparative Women’s History. I learned what happened to women around the world – I saw photos of a bound foot, learned about female genital cutting, acid burning, breaking ribs to fit into a corset – all forms of violence in all cultures. It was the only class that kept me up at night because I wanted to stay up – not because I had to! Actually – I was haunted. I couldn’t sleep even if I wanted to. I still feel that way sometimes today. From that point on – all the papers I have ever written have been on women’s issues – mostly dealing with violence against women. I’m what you might call a prototypical “one-trick pony!”
Marching in solidarity with women in Mali (Dakar, Senegal)
3 things solidified my fate:
1.      I felt a sense of obligation to do something
2.      I believed I would be good at it
3.      and I was passionate about it

When those three factors collide – that’s it!

4) Why is it important to help others?

Basically this – we have to accept the challenge to change what needs to be changed. If something isn’t working or isn’t right – FIX IT. We can’t hit the snooze button! Our silence implies consent – consent to all the sh**ty things going on in the world. And – there is a lot of work to do!

All over the world – even in the U.S. – many still don’t believe that a woman has a right to choose what happens to her OWN body. We face inequality and injustice at every turn. Women are still raped in every country – EVERY COUNTRY. Unfortunately, I will never be out of a job. And that makes me angry. So here I am, trying to clean things up!

But there is a recipe for positive change – that 3-part collision – our duty, our talent, and our hearts. At the same time, if you want to enter into this work, it isn’t about self-sacrifice. You have to be good to yourself. It took me a while to learn this one. But it’s particularly important in my field or I will wind up emotionally flat – and useless to anyone else.

Sometimes I have to live in a tent, poo in a hole, not shower for days. But once I’m out of the bush, you’ll find me getting a pedicure, scoffing some sushi, buying new shoes I know I can’t wear in Chad… and that is ok!

5) How can readers contribute/participate/come alongside you?

I’ll put my favorite quote here… although it belongs anywhere/everywhere!

I share it all the time because it is one of the most powerful things I’ve EVER heard. It was in 2003, I was living in Afghanistan. I asked a young Afghan man what he thought of the work that was being done for women in his country, and he said: “The world thought they could bring freedom to Afghan women – but freedom is only won from the inside.”

I think this quote brings together so much of what I believe – to start here where we are, to work from the inside first – inside ourselves, our homes, our classrooms, our communities – and to keep going from there!

The point is that we cannot be free unless ALL OF US are free.

6) What makes a woman truly beautiful?

Confidence. Courage. Passion. Fire in the belly. To be a woman who believes in herself – and believes in other women. To be a woman who knows what she wants – and who goes for it.

7) What do you like to do in your free time?

What free time?! Haha. I love being home – reading, playing with the pup, watching a movie, making a fuss over myself, a glass of good wine, some yummy dark chocolates – being good to me! I also love to go out – especially to eat! A new restaurant in town?! Gotta try it – whether I’m in Beirut or Bamako! I still love to go dancing – especially in West Africa. And I travel – for play, for work, for passion.

8) Since you’re getting on my shoebox, what’s your favorite kind of shoe?

Depends on where I am – and who I am – in the moment. I love heels when I’m out in the evenings. Fluffy slippers at home. Sneakers when I’m traveling. I have a bazillion shoes – to suit my bazillion personalities!
Me and Lina reunited last month after a long 12 years! (California)

OK, I’m getting off my shoebox now.

1 comment:

  1. What a powerful post, Silva. Thank you for sharing this.