A couple of days ago I received an e-mail, in French, from the woman in the Congo to whom I lent money through Kiva. She wanted all her lenders to know she was finally able to increase the range of products (pots, pans and other basic kitchen equipment) she carries in her store (shack), and is now able to support her family and even buy seeds to plant her crops. This large woman in colorful clothes, grinning in front of her store, might not have physically composed the message herself – rather, it’s way for the micro-financing network that lent her the money to keep on tugging at our hearts but that is fine with me. It makes my giving more tangible and, once this woman has finished repaying me, it will be my pleasure to recycle that money into another project, another woman.
I was recently asked why I seem to care more about women in far away places when there are so many needy ones much closer to home (I might have worn my friends’ patience thin with my relentless Congo stories). It’s not a case of the exotic always being more attractive but, rather, a realization that there are still vast parts of the world where women have no voice and, from my privileged perch of freedom, choices and independence, it appeases my conscience to speak up and fight for them.
Women’s rights in repressive, war-torn or just careless societies are still trampled on daily. Congo, potentially the richest country in Africa, has been ravaged by guerrilla groups for over a decade, the byproduct of whose violence is horrific and systematic raping that leaves women ashamed, marginalized and, if still alive, with physical and emotional repercussions they will never be rid of.
The Arab Spring has freed countries like Egypt and Libya of odious dictators but not a single inroad has been made in women’s rights – on the contrary, some freedoms have been further curtailed. Yesterday, the Health Minister in Iran, the only woman at Cabinet level, was fired for speaking out against the allocation of funds aimed at buying vital medications from abroad.
And then there is India. A young and very imperfect democracy but a democracy nonetheless. Also yesterday, the 23-year-old medical student who innocently boarded a bus with a male friend, trying to get home, and who was brutally gang raped and beaten, died in Singapore, where she was flown for better surgical care. Her internal injuries, the result of a metal rod brutally inserted into her vagina, proved too severe.
A few hours before, a 17-year-old who spoke out and denounced her gang rapists to Indian policemen, killed herself by drinking poison, after she was pressured by the same police officers to withdraw her case.
Protests have been going on for days in New Delhi, with the protesters asking for better police protection and accountability in a city that has become notorious, with a reported rape taking place every 18 hours.
Many other examples, from Afghanistan to Uganda, could fill pages of grim roll calls.
This speaks to the cultural disregard of women, still objectified, at the mercy of patriarchal societies still dictating who they can marry, where they can work, what they can do, whether they can go to school, which parts of their body they need to cover.
I am in awe of the women who, violated, impoverished or, alone against all odds, find the strength to pick up the pieces and denounce their aggressors, or rebuild their huts or apply for a loan in an effort to lift themselves from abject poverty, or do the impossible to keep their family together and their children clothed and fed. From where I sit, they need and deserve all the moral and financial support they can get, even if it’s just my voice or yours shouting to keep an issue alive.
Closer to home, the statistics of domestic violence in Italian households, at a time of deep economic recession, is on an exponential rise. In the US, women still get paid an average 10% less than their male coworkers for the exact same jobs, and the freedom to choose whether to have an abortion is being chipped away, one little law at the time. And this is happening on our watch.
Ten years ago, I found myself biking in Samoa, a beautiful, wild and undeveloped island in the middle of the Pacific. It started to rain, that kind of tropical downpour that can drench you in a matter of seconds, and found shelter under a roadside palapa. A Samoan woman, of gargantuan proportions, with a ready smile and an oversize machete resting in her lap, had my same idea. Maria (probably not her unpronounceable Samoan name) quickly introduced herself – she was chatty and wanted to know all about me. Once I got past the fear of being hacked to pieces, machetes are used to harvest taro, I told her about where I came from, what my house looked like, what I ate. In Samoa, the few tourists who venture are revered and the locals are intensely curious, eager to communicate and even touch you. Maria invited me to her palapa and, as I knew it would have been a badge of honor for her in the eyes of the village, I went. She rolled out a woven mat for me to sit on, opened a tin of pressed meat I could not refuse, and took out one of her sarongs for me. “You too skinny!” she laughed, as she rolled the fabric four times around my waist.
Maria will probably never have a house with four walls or agonize over which organic goat cheese to buy and chances are I will never wield a machete nor ever eat pressed meat again but, there we were, two women, two girlfriends sharing a meal in broken English and sign language, with more in common we will ever know. As much as I remember a moment of shared joy, women also share in the pain of every violence perpetrated, every right taken away a thousand miles from here or at a neighbour’s house just down the street. It shouldn’t take gory headlines to remind us we are all in this together. Women are often the moral fabric of a society and, increasingly, they are being recognized as the economic and stabilizing forces too.
For those of us who can, giving a voice to those who struggle, wherever they might be, is a moral imperative.