Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Francisca del Carmen Espinoza Ortiz leads the Board of Directors for the Red Nacional de Casas Maternas — Maternity Homes National Network. She helps raise maternal survival rates and the value of womens lives throughout Nicaragua. Under Franciscas leadership, Casas Maternas provides comprehensive medical care and temporary shelter to more than 11,000 women annually. She relies on UNFPA to equip new homes and strengthen those in existence. Today, the Casas Maternas includes 60 homes.
Monira Rahman is a human rights defender, who works to create a society where women live a life free from the fear of violence. For seventeen years, her efforts have centered on ending violence, abuse and discrimination against women in Bangladesh. As Executive Director of the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) Monira has raised awareness and brought about institutional change, including new laws to discourage attackers and prevent future violence. ASF runs a 20-bed hospital and treats 600-700 acid attack survivors annually—many were attacked years ago and never received care. Through ASF, survivors also access mental health services and employment opportunities.
Monday, July 13, 2009
I was never particularly a fan of tea. That is—of course—until I arrived in Bangladesh. As a child, I hated swallowing that warm herbal stuff every time I had a sore throat. Maybe the taste of tea is acquired as one gets older. Or maybe tea tastes sweeter when shared in good company. Either way, my conversations with women over a cup of milky, sugary cha have become my fondest memories of my time in Bangladesh.
I came to Bangladesh expecting to hear the story of Bangladesh women. I had the false assumption that I would learn what it means to be a Bangladeshi woman, a woman from the sub-continent, or even a woman from a Muslim nation. My damn science background sometimes leads me to believe that things can be placed simply into categories. But I soon realized that women’s stories were both complex and diverse. And every woman has many stories to tell.
After a dinner of dahl, dosa, and fish kebob (I almost burst out of my salwar kameez!), Deni and I sipped tea as Monira told us fascinating stories of her life. We laughed about her dangerous escape from untrustworthy men during a visit to the U.K. With nostalgia and a twinkle in her eye, she explained the way wearing her mother’s beautiful lilac and silver sari made her feel. As if we were old friends, she expressed the emotional strain of working with acid survivors for 10 years, her concerns for her two little boys, and her hope for new self-exploration. I left the night already anticipating seeing Monira when she is honored by Americans for UNFPA in New York City for her women’s rights work.
Kohimoor’s stories inspired me just the same. Although Deni, Semonti, and I were just expecting a tour of TARANGO, Kohimoor invited us for tea and—my favorite —mango. She shared the difficulties of once working in a male-dominated workplace (unfortunately, something many of us can relate to...), deciding to stop having children after the birth of her daughter in a culture that prizes boys, and her reliance on and respect for the members of the Women’s Leadership Forum that she created.
I wanted my travels to initiate a dialogue about our lives as women. As it turns out, these amazing ladies were already speaking. I just needed time to sit with them over a cup of tea, and start listening!
If we took the time to listen, we Americans would soon realize that we do not have to travel to “fix” the broken world. Women in every part of the world are taking charge and challenging the status quo. We need to support our sisters in struggle instead of thinking we have to do all the fighting for them. This means something as simple as declaring yourself an American for UNFPA, lobbying Congress to fund women’s empowerment programs, and to start listening to women themselves. We must be open and honest and supportive. And there is no better time to do so than over a warm cup of tea, or hey, even a Starbucks latte!
Thursday, July 9, 2009
It began at 6:00 A.M. when I forced myself out of bed, drank a much-needed cup of coffee (6:00 A.M....seriously?), and hopped into a van that would take me outside Dhaka for the first time since my arrival in Bangladesh. After two hours, our driver stopped because the road had become too narrow and muddy from the monsoon season.
Lo and behold: a nice crowd of villagers with watchful eyes surrounded us. But what else could I expect? I wasn’t a Bangladeshi woman in a bright sari or dark burka like those on the side of the road.
Let’s face it: I was a white girl wearing pants. And I had a camera crew! Why wouldn’t they be curious?
We walked through fields of jute to arrive at Hasina’s home, where her family greeted us with baskets upon baskets of sweet cakes. As the camera crew filmed Monira and Hasina, I decided to make some friends. And it was easier than I thought. Stares soon turned to smiles as I asked young girls to take pictures with me. “Asho, asho! Come, come,” and the girls came and held my hand. In particular, Depa, a smart and beautiful twelve-year-old girl held my hand and never let go...even when a caterpillar-like bug managed to crawl up my pants, bite my thigh, and send me into panic.
I was overcome by the sisterhood I felt among these young women who walked with me through their homes, played with my hair, and let me hold their babies. I admired the strength of women like Hasina who has the courage to return to her town and to serve as a role model of an intelligent economically-independent woman.
I felt sad and almost guilty as I left. Before my visit, I didn’t think of these women or know their everyday lives. Here I was—a young American—spending only a day with these girls, desiring their friendship, probably never to return again. So I vowed never to forget these women: their laughter, the feel of their arms around my waist, their warmth. I vowed to make an effort to connect with more women around the world through travel and self-education. I vowed to remember them, as you can, when I declare myself an American for UNFPA and search the lives of women through Lifelines.
How easy it is to forget or never to even know the lives of Hasina, your neighbor, Depa, or the woman around the world who is sleeping as you read. Each is my sister and she is your sister. Forget her not.
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
What has helped me settle into this culture the most is the openness and hospitality of the women I have had the honor of meeting, specifically Monira Rahman. I was quite humbled today when Monira mentioned me in her “thank-you” address at a press conference this morning, even though she has taught me so much while I have done so little.
The press conference announced Ms. Rahman as the 2009 Americans for UNFPA International Honoree for the Health and Dignity of Women. After she met two brave women who survived acid attacks, Monira founded ASF so that survivors from violence could reintegrate into society, their perpetrators would not walk away without punishment, and so that—ultimately—what she terms “the patriarchal culture” would be transformed into a society that does not accept violence against women. Monira surely is a woman who makes us feminists everywhere proud!
So I left the press conference refreshed because finally we were hearing some good news: a reduction of acid attacks 16-20% each year since 2002 and a safer society for women as a result of the hard work of Monira Rahman and people like her. This left me asking, “Who are our other unsung heroes who are transforming our world without our even realizing it?”
Acid Attack Survivor, HasinaTomorrow I will explore the everyday life of another unsung hero: Hasina, an acid survivor with a huge smile and even bigger heart. Deni, Monira, and a crazy four-man camera crew will travel to her home village in rural Bangladesh. As long as my deet does the job, I’m sure I will be sharing more good news of my travels with you. If your feeling inspired and would like to support UNFPA please make a declaration.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
This morning I still had mixed feelings and nerves about my trip to ASF. I couldn’t fall back asleep after the 5 o’clock morning prayer from the loudspeakers outside permeated through my hotel window. I had to force down the last bite of mango from my breakfast plate even though I have fallen in love with mangos since my arrival! After all, I knew that the scars and burns I saw might very well make me a bit sick... Monira Rahman, founder of ASF, recognized the discomfort in my expression this morning and asked, “Will you be okay?”
But the ASF tour passed. I met the women and darling toddler Durjoy who survived acid attacks, and I was okay. In fact, I was more than okay! I was enthralled by their beauty and grace. They were not victims; they were not their scars; they were brave women with dreams much like my own. And they soon became my sisters in song and dance.
I danced with 8 other women. And I could feel how the activity opened their hearts in the art therapy room. They overcame their physical and physiological pain in their circle of dance. And they welcomed me: a stranger who looked nothing like them, didn’t speak their language, and couldn’t do much to repair the damage already done. But then I realized that they did not need this from me. They had so much courage and hope already. In fact, I bet a few could actually give American women a lesson in self-confidence!
But the survivors appreciated my support; that I, an American was there; that so many women have declared themselves Americans for UNFPA and have supported them through their declaration; that they are not alone in their struggle to end violence against women.
Tomorrow, a press conference will announce Monira Rahman as the recipient of the 2009 Americans for UNFPA International Honoree for the Health and Dignity of Women. Human rights defender, a challenger of the status quo, and my personal instructor in dance, Monira taught me as we moved that together, we can all lead.
Monday, July 6, 2009
As a reminder, I am traveling for one week in Dhaka with Americans for UNFPA and Deni Robey, Vice President of Public Affairs. I will meet the 2009 Americans for UNFPA International Honoree for the Health and Dignity of Women Monira Rahman who founded the Acid Survivors Foundation.
As Deni and I took a tour of the Dhaka this afternoon, I realized I was just that: a tourist. There is no denying that Bangladesh is a world away from my home in Chicago. If I had even attempted to fit in on the crowded city streets, in the national museum, or markets flooded with goods, I would have failed. Aside from looking and dressing completely different and barely remembering the only Bengali word I knew, (“Dhannyabad”, meaning “thank you”), I was a woman.
I left my tour of Dhaka with many questions: namely, where are all the independent women? The majority of the markets had male sellers, and the deluge of colorful rickshaws that inched passengers along the jam-packed roads were pulled by men.
However, I soon found the essence of what it means to be a strong Bangladeshi woman when I met Monira Rahman, whose program for women we will tour tomorrow. In our brief encounter, I was absolutely inspired!
What most struck me about Monira was her emphasis on female empowerment in her efforts to stop violence against women and gender inequality. So often, I think women come together in the name of victimhood: “Inequality is unfair”. But, Monira’s voice speaks just the opposite.
While she does not try to diminish the horror that many of her clients have experienced, she affirms the power of women to live their lives and to push through the barriers that society has created for them. I was wowed at her openness and outspokenness.
I ended my night with a beautiful Bangladeshi dinner. My conversation with a distinguished school director was more flavorful and delicious than our meal. Incredibly intelligent, candid, and hospitable, she shared her opinions on the rights of women and world educational systems, and –yes!—her admiration for our new President Obama.
It is only day one, and I have already learned so much from this different culture: a lesson in strength and empowerment. I know tomorrow will be filled with many more life lessons as I see the Acid Survivors Foundation’s medical ward and group art therapy session. In all honesty, I have some anxiety about what exactly I will see: scars and burns on human flesh. But I go to sleep tonight empowered and in awe of the strength of so many women.
Show your support for Nicole and the women UNFPA supports in Bangladesh. Declare yourself an American for UNFPA www.americansforunfpa.org/iam.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
I am honored to be traveling with Americans for UNFPA to Bangladesh this summer. And by “honored,” I mean that I feel surprised, excited, completely undeserving, and even a bit nervous. This will be my first time traveling outside the United States as a young adult. Terming my trip as “a learning experience” would be the biggest understatement of the year!
I await the many lessons Bangladesh has to teach me. As an agricultural country with one of the highest population densities in the world, Bangladesh faces unique challenges economically, socially, and politically. However, the country’s dynamic culture has allowed UNFPA to propose and implement creative solutions in family planning, HIV/AIDS prevention, and women support services.
For example, human rights defender Monira Rahman started the Acid Survivors Foundation in Bangladesh in 1999 to empower women who have overcome gender violence and to engage men and boys in the vision for a safer world. Rahman’s dedicated advocacy inspires me. She has called people at NGOS, law enforcement, media, celebrities, and us everyday folk to awareness and to action. Her efforts have not only upheld the health and dignity of Bangladeshi women, but have—most importantly—saved lives.
Rahman and the women and families she has assisted have stories to tell. Undoubtedly, they may be much like those women who suffer from abuse in Serbia, in the Congo, and in our very own neighborhoods. Violence against women occurs most notably in the home. It seems private, it is personal, and its prevalence remains silenced.
But silence keeps us from the truth. Silence prevents our solidarity.
I hope, then, that this trip and this blog serve as the beginning of a conversation: a dialogue about our diverse experiences and our daily lives as women, about our health and our needs, and about our individual and collective dreams for the future.
I invite you to share your story and for all of us to learn together. Let’s start this conversation so change can begin.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Americans for UNFPA President, Anika Rahman will ring the opening bell of the NASDAQ Stock Market on Thursday April 9th, 2009. While thanking the Obama Administration and Congress for their support of the world women, she will call on all of us to declare, “I am an American for UNFPA.”
Americans for UNFPA builds moral, political and financial support for the work of UNFPA within the United States. UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, provides women’s health care and promotes the rights of women in 150 countries around the world.
It's the largest international source of such assistance and has proven effective in combating some of the most intractable health problems including the fact that:
* Every minute a woman dies in childbirth – that’s 536,000 per year, 10 million women dead in a generation – all from preventable, pregnancy-related causes.
* Pregnancy is the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 worldwide.
* 35% of pregnant women in low-income countries do not have access to or contact with health personnel prior to delivery.
“The solutions to end maternal death are known,” said Anika Rahman, President, Americans for UNFPA. “We need increased access to modern contraception, skilled attendance at birth and emergency obstetric care,” she continues.
“UNFPA is leading efforts to ensure that no woman dies giving life, but to end maternal death we need increased political and financial will from the world’s government,” said Rahman.
Saving women would bring an enormous gain in world productivity. Every year, the world loses $15 billion in productivity because of maternal death. It would only cost $6 billion to provide the health services to save women's lives.
Americans for UNFPA is asking the community at large to take a stand for every woman to enjoy a life of health and opportunity, and to declare yourself an American for UNFPA.
Rahman will be joined by Board Members, Mary Lindsay and Rita O’Connor; UNFPA leadership and staff of Americans for UNFPA.
The honor of opening the NASDAQ Stock Market was held in recognition of restored U.S. support for UNFPA and the world’s women. Last month, after seven years of stunning disregard of the world women, the United States joined over 180 governments in providing financial support for UNFPA’s global women’s health programs. For the first time since 2001, Congress, with support of the Obama Administration, announced a $50 million allocation for UNFPA in FY 2009.
Friday, January 23, 2009
President Barack Obama today pledged to implement policies that help raise the status of women around the world, including the restoration of a U.S. contribution to UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.
"I look forward to working with Congress to restore U.S. financial support for the U.N. Population Fund. By resuming funding to UNFPA, the U.S. will be joining 180 other donor nations working collaboratively to reduce poverty, improve the health of women and children, prevent HIV/AIDS and provide family planning assistance to women in 154 countries,” said President Obama in a Public Statement on Friday evening.