Category Archives: Thoughts and Contemplations

United Nations 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women Debrief

The fifty-eighth session of the Commission on the Status of Women  (CSW 58) took place at United Nations Headquarters in New York from March 10 to March 21 2014. Representatives of Member States, UN entities, and ECOSOC-accredited non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from all regions of the world attended the session.

This year’s Priority theme was the challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for women and girls and the Review theme was the access and participation of women and girls to education, training, science and technology, including for the promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work.

The Millennium Development Goals

The Millennium Development Goals’ (MDGs) are eight international developmentgoals that were established following the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in 2000, following the adoption of the United Nations Millennium Declaration. All 189 United Nations member states at the time (there are 193 currently) and at least 23 international organizations committed to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, the goals follow:

  1. To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. To achieve universal primary education
  3. To promote gender equality and empowering women
  4. To reduce child mortality rates
  5. To improve maternal health
  6. To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  7. To ensure environmental sustainability
  8. To develop a global partnership for development

Each goal has specific targets and dates for achieving those targets.

As of 2013 progress towards the goals was uneven. Some countries achieved many goals, while others were not on track to realize any. A UN conference in September 2010 reviewed progress and concluded with the adoption of a global plan to achieve the eight goals by their target date. New commitments targeted women’s and children’s health and new initiatives in the worldwide battle against poverty, hunger and disease.

The purpose of CSW 58 was to identify the barriers to implementation of these goals in terms of women and girls and develop strategies to overcome them.

Panels and Presentations from the Commission on the Status of Women and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs)

Opening morning

Opening morning took place with an address from UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon regarding the Millennium Development Goals and current progress.


UN Secretary – General Ban Ki Moon opens CSW 58

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
, Executive Director of UN Women, spoke about the current progress of the Millennium Development Goals and then opened up the floor for delegates to give their statements in a high-level roundtable session to exchange experiences, lessons learned and best practices on the priority theme.

Accelerating Progress on the MDGs for Women and Girls: High level statement from Heads of UN Agencies

Several heads of major UN agencies delivered statements on Tuesday, March 11 regarding measures they are taking to accelerate progress on the Millennium Development Goals.  UN Women, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) all reported on their specific areas and actions in several member states, with a particular focus on Africa.

UNESCO making a statement on the MDGs

NGO panel presentations

Domestic Violence


A group of NGOs gave a presentation on engaging law enforcement to handle domestic violence. Here is part of the speech delivered by a DV prosecutor based in Texas.

World Bank breakfast: At a special reception hosted by the World Bank Group, the subject of women working in unpaid care positions was thoroughly discussed by several representatives, including Jeni Klugman, Director of Gender and Development. The group produced a printed report on global research of this topic. Below is a video of  the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights speaking about unpaid care work and lack of attention to it as a human right and a photo of Jeni Klugman.


Engaging men and boys to achieve the MDGs (Brazil, Switzerland, MenEngage
): We heard briefings from several representatives from Brazil, Switzerland, South Africa and Nicaragua discussing their goals of breaking social stigma and societal traditions that discourage men from being part of their families. They work with young boys into their adulthood to ensure an understanding of the concept of gender equality.


North Caucasus panel

A panel of representatives from the North Caucasus region of Russia discussed the prevalence of domestic violence and bride kidnappings in the republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia and Chechnya. It was reported that groups of NGOs working with Chechen women leveraged the CEDAW ordinance to put pressure on Chechen officials to curb the practice, citing that the it is illegal in the Russian Federation, in addition to being considered a sin in Islamic law. Recently, a fine of one million rubles was introduced as punishment for anyone kidnapping a woman as a bride in Chechnya. These anti-kidnapping laws were first introduced in 2010. The video below by one panelist accurately describes the situation of Chechen women:

Women’s Intercultural Network (WIN): Winning Strategies on the Beijing Platform for Action, CEDAW and the Millennium development Goals for Gender Equality

Our WIN panel consisted of our global partner delegates brought from Afghanistan, Uganda and San Francisco. We heard from Raihana Polpalzai, Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs at Kabul University and the Honorable Annette Mukabera, former MP, Republic of Uganda. Here are a few video excerpts:

Annette Mukabera and statistics on Ugandan women

Raihana Polpalzai on Afghan women

US Women Connect: Technology and Women’s Advancement

Longtime Women’s Intercultural Network national level partner, US Women Connect presented a panel on the role of technology in advancing women and girls. We heard from Mary Ann Ellison (WIN Board Member) of Flowering Hope, Michelle Ozumba of Women’s Funding Network and I read for Elahe Amani of University of California Fullerton. Here are videos of our presentations:

Mary Ann Ellison, Executive Director, Flowering Hope

Michelle Ozumba, Executive Director, Women’s Funding Network

Jessica Buchleitner, WIN Board Member, reading for Elahe Amani

Our important panels regarding CEDAW

CEDAW is perhaps the single most important subject addressed every year at the United Nations CSW meeting.

Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 18, 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is an international human rights treaty that focuses on women’s rights and women’s issues worldwide. Developed by the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the Convention addresses the advancement of women, describes the meaning of equality and sets forth guidelines on how to achieve it.

The Convention focuses on three key areas:

  • civil rights and the legal status of women
  • reproductive rights
  • cultural factors influencing gender relations

It is not only an international bill of rights for women but also an agenda of action. Countries (UN member states) that ratify CEDAW agree to take concrete steps to improve the status of women and end discrimination and violence against women. As evidence of these ongoing efforts, every four years each nation must submit a report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Composed of 23 experts nominated and elected by the ratifying nations, the Committee’s members are regarded as individuals of high moral standing and knowledge in the field of women’s rights. CEDAW annually reviews these reports and recommends areas requiring further action and ways to further eliminate discrimination against women. It is an important international measure of accountability.

For example, the Convention requires ratifying nations to modify social and cultural patterns to eliminate gender prejudices and bias; revise textbooks, school programs and teaching methods to remove gender stereotypes within the educational system; and address modes of behavior and thought which define the public realm as a man’s world and the home as a woman’s, thereby affirming that both genders have equal responsibilities in family life and equal rights regarding education and employment.

Interestingly enough, the United States is the only industrialized nation that refuses to ratify CEDAW. Of the 193 U.N. member nations, 187 countries have ratified it. The United States is among the countries that have not — along with the Pacific island nations of Tonga and Palau, Iran, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan.

In 2002, although the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 12-7 to approve the treaty, it was never sent to the full Senate for advice and consent to ratification. The Senate has never ratified CEDAW, and without ratification, the U.S. is not bound by its provisions.

At this year’s CSW, we started the Cities for CEDAW campaign and kicked it off with two presentations in partnership with the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women.

Here are videos of Marilyn Fowler of Women’s Intercultural Network (our NGO) speaking about CEDAW and WIN’s initiatives to mobilize women at the state, national and global level to push for it.

Cities for CEDAW, Marilyn Fowler, Part 1

Cities for CEDAW, Marilyn Fowler, Part 2

The UN and Social Media

The UN has upped the ante in terms of social media presence. This year, we were given access to more meetings that traditionally were closed. In each meeting we were encouraged to take photos, videos and to tweet. It appears that the UN is making more effort to share the content of the meetings on the internet. I have not observed this extent of social media participation in previous years. To view a complete social media overview of CSW58, see the UN Women Storify page.

One reason for an increased participation is the use of gadgets that are more prevalently on the market then they were in previous years. When I attended the conference in 2012, I saw far less participants using tablets to take photos or tweet. This appears to be a rising standard.

Recent actions of member states to increase progress of the Millennium Development Goals

The following are recent actions of member states towards furthering the progress of the MDGs.

– Bangladesh has implemented policies for the eradication of poverty among women by strengthening social services. Programmes and policies such as the allowance to widows and destitute women and a maternity allowance have been reported to have helped provide food security to a large number of poor women.

– In 2009, Guyana launched a single parent training programme which provides training to single parents to enable them to undertake paid employment.

– Sierra Leone abolished primary education school fees for all children as of 2007.

– Burkina Faso has implemented the BRIGHT programme that provides daily meals for all children and take-home rations for girls, to reduce the time they spend on household chores and increase time for them to allocate their studies.

– Nepal has adopted several gender equality and social inclusion measures, such as ensuring that at least one woman serves on school management committees.

– Egypt endorsed the “Healthy Mother, Healthy Child” initiative to reduce the risks of maternal and neonatal mortality through increased access to maternal and reproductive health services, reduced fertility rates, the utilization of antenatal care and skilled attendance at delivery, as maternal health has a direct impact on neonatal and child morbidity and mortality.

– Guinea Bissau and Kenya have enacted new laws to prevent female genital mutilation while national policies, frameworks, and laws in support of reproductive health and rights have been developed in Armenia and Cambodia, with the support of UNFPA.

– Paraguay has implemented a national plan for the control and prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis.

– Nepal has introduced school and community-led total sanitation programs across the country in order to establish child-friendly, gender sensitive and disability- friendly water, hygiene and sanitation facilities.

Agreed Conclusions of UNCSW58
Agreed Conclusions are now available and can be accessed here.

My Personal Reflections

Honestly, there were tears in my eyes leaving the UN this year.

The collective soul of the conference was utterly powerful. To be part of a group of people from all corners of the world who live and breathe the desire to change corrupt systems, end suffocating traditions against women and stir dialogue concerning issues others normally turn a blind eye to is a transcending, powerful experience.

As I watched the UN disappear from the back window of the airport taxi, the words of the song of the Statue of Liberty echoed in my mind: “Give me your tired, your poor, your hungry, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

Some of these women spent their life savings just to come to this conference and present important issues in their countries. Others brave death threats every day to do the work they do. For the past three years, groups of Iranian women were unable to attend because of the regime. Last year, Nobel Prize winner Tawakkol Karman was unable to get out of Yemen to speak at consultation day. For some of these NGO groups, planning the travel and scraping together the funds takes years in the making. It is inspiring to witness the extent people will go to for the purpose of sharing important information and to exercise their voice.

I remembered a Chechen woman taking the microphone from her translator only to passionately explode in a verbal fervor about the condition of Chechen women, to show her 1 billion rising video and explain the practice of bride kidnapping.

I remembered the group of high school girls from Mexico who boldly approached Jayne Anyango and I to introduce themselves and chat with us about their desire to end the violence and murders in Ciudad Juárez.

Then there was the Russian guard manning the front gate who remembered me from prior years and the Ugandan guard in the main building who I joked with in the morning. There were also the African women in their bright patterned dresses and the diplomats with frowning brows in their black suits. My favorite lunch spot is the Moroccan street vendor who sells kebab sandwiches outside the UN Church Center building. When he saw me approaching him on the first day, he called out to me excitedly.

Every part of the experience is transcending; a patchwork of new and familiar faces. Some frowning, some smiling, others crying.

I know the UN is not perfect, as many of its notable missions have failed in the past. There are slews of criticism about its operating procedures, officials and budget. I am aware of these arguments and judgments and do not see the UN with rose-colored glasses.

Yet, to observe the collective hope for peace in all those who journeyed to New York for CSW 58 is to witness a phenomenon of unyielding faith.

The tired, the poor, the hungry and the believers will all return again next year, in huddled masses, to reconvene towards building a world free of violence. A world where women do, indeed, breathe free…

And here we go…moving forward….

Read my debriefs from the previous two years of CSW57 and CSW56.

Read our official statement for Women’s Intercultural Network that Lenka Belkova and I authored. 



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What am I doing at the United Nations?


In 2012 (UNCSW56) and 2013 (UNCSW57), I attended the annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women meeting. Next week, I am heading back for my third trip to UNCSW 58.  Over the years, I’ve been consistently asked to explain what I do there. So here goes…

I jumped on board with the non-governmental organization (NGO) Women’s Intercultural Network 3 years ago after finishing all the interviews for 50 Women. So many world events and major issues facing women emerged in the stories and I was moved. I didn’t want to just publish narratives anymore- I wanted to take a seat at the table and fight to get the women most often overlooked and unheard at that same table with me. Undoubtedly, it’s impactful to produce narratives, but what could I do about the issues arising at their core?

The question then became: How do I merge policy and diplomacy with the grassroots?

Truth be told – I hate politics. Despise them. Frankly, I think political campaigns are a disgusting waste of money and only result in slanderous garbage. The millions that Obama and Romney spent on their political campaigns last election makes me cringe. Yet, like politics or not, they are a fact of life and a central force dictating law, order, customs, ways of life, and most of all- economics.

I’ve always been more of a “grassroots” girl. I like operating at the community level; I like town hall style meetings, forums and working one on one with people.  My analogy of the global community is a round table where everyone speaks to one another openly and freely while eating dinner together.

The United Nations is a bit of that. Since we can’t include the ENTIRE global community at that table (that would be a rather large table, potentially reaching the planet Saturn) each member state sends a representative to take a seat. Some argue that those representatives are unfairly chosen and eat too much of the food. Others argue that the dinner party attendees who contribute more to the UN budget get dessert when others seated around them don’t.

So what is my group’s piece of the pie and where is our seat at this dinner party?

Read on…

What is the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and NGO CSW?
Every year the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women meets for 10 working days in order to review the global progress of women’s rights. During that time, NGOs consultative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) meet in parallel to the commission to present research, field work, documentation, and panels of experts to brief other NGO attendees on what is happening on the ground in UN member states. The Commission on the Status of Women is a functional commission of ECOSOC.

The NGO I am representing as a member of the Board of Directors is Women’s Intercultural Network. Our seat at the dinner party table is in the ECOSOC section, presenting at NGOCSW.  Though we are one of hundreds of NGOs, our mission is strong and our voices loud.

The priority theme of this year’s conference will explore the barriers to implementation of the United Nations millennium development goals for women and girls.

A brief overview of the UN
The objectives of the United Nations include maintaining international peace and security, promoting human rights, fostering social and economic development, protecting the environment, and providing humanitarian aid in cases of famine, natural disaster, and armed conflict.

Its role since its creation in 1945 has expanded in tandem with global climate and political changes. It adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and CEDAW in 1979.  After the Cold War between the United States and USSR ended, the UN took on major military and peacekeeping missions in Kuwait, Namibia, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo with varying and arguable degrees of success.

There are 5 principal organs represented in the chart below. Our NGO, Women’s Intercultural Network is consultative to the Economic and Social Council, which also houses the Commission on the Status of Women. This is visible in the diagram below. Click on it for the PDF version. These diagrams reveal which of the five principal bodies each UN entity is classified under.


Criticism and Funding
There exists much criticism about the United Nations’ outreach, operations and involvement on the world stage.

Scholar Jacques Fomerand believes the most enduring divide in views of the UN is “the North-South split” between richer Northern nations and developing Southern nations. Southern nations tend to favor a more empowered UN with a stronger General Assembly, allowing them a greater voice in world affairs, while Northern nations prefer an economically laissez-faire UN that focuses on transnational threats such as terrorism.

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund are also a critic’s dream come true as they are often regarded as debt enslavement agencies, allegedly causing high debt in developing countries to leading nations. Both are multinational lenders in the global financial system. Although the loans are supposedly intended to help the countries, they cause them to take on debt and pay interest remaining under the condition of the UN institutions, run by the bigger UN budget contributing players. Journalist Sebastian Mallaby discusses these criticisms in depth in his interview here.

The United Nations is financed by assessed by voluntary contributions from its member states. Currently the United States is the highest contributor – funding 22 percent of the overall budget. This can be a double-edged sword. As it is often touted, the highest budget contributor is generally the one with the most power and this can cast a shadow of radical self-interest over the mission-at- large of the organization.


Two faces of the UN: the symbiosis of Policy and Grassroots

The UN consists of Policymakers and NGOs. One part can’t function without the other. The NGOs are on the ground, on the front lines of the action to report back to the policymakers the critical needs in each member state.

Watch a video interview I did last year to see why the two are synonymous.

The CEDAW Ordnance and the United States
This is perhaps the single most important subject addressed every year at the United Nations CSW meetings. Pay close attention to this topic, as it if first and foremost on the agenda:

Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 18, 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is an international human rights treaty that focuses on women’s rights and women’s issues worldwide. Developed by the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the Convention addresses the advancement of women, describes the meaning of equality and sets forth guidelines on how to achieve it.

The Convention focuses on three key areas:

  • civil rights and the legal status of women
  • reproductive rights
  • cultural factors influencing gender relations

It is not only an international bill of rights for women but also an agenda of action. Countries (UN member states) that ratify CEDAW agree to take concrete steps to improve the status of women and end discrimination and violence against women. As evidence of these ongoing efforts, every four years each nation must submit a report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Composed of 23 experts nominated and elected by the ratifying nations, the Committee’s members are regarded as individuals of high moral standing and knowledge in the field of women’s rights. CEDAW annually reviews these reports and recommends areas requiring further action and ways to further eliminate discrimination against women. It is an important international measure of accountability.

For example, the Convention requires ratifying nations to modify social and cultural patterns to eliminate gender prejudices and bias; revise textbooks, school programs and teaching methods to remove gender stereotypes within the educational system; and address modes of behavior and thought which define the public realm as a man’s world and the home as a woman’s, thereby affirming that both genders have equal responsibilities in family life and equal rights regarding education and employment.

Interestingly enough, the United States is the only industrialized nation that refuses to ratify CEDAW. Of the 194 U.N. member nations, 187 countries have ratified it. The United States is among seven countries that have not — along with the Pacific island nations of Tonga and Palua; Iran, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan.

But why, if CEDAW has been backed by three presidents?

President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty guaranteeing gender equity within its first year. In addition to Carter, two other presidents have attempted to push forward CEDAW. Urged by the Clinton administration in 1994, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on CEDAW and recommended it be ratified. Yet Senator Jesse Helms, a leading conservative and longtime CEDAW opponent, prevented a vote in the Senate.

In the early years of his administration, President George W. Bush looked favorably on ratification of CEDAW but later changed his position. In 2002, although the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 12-7 to approve the treaty, it was never sent to the full Senate for advice and consent to ratification. But the Senate has never ratified CEDAW, and without ratification, the U.S. is not bound by its provisions.


Conservatives and CEDAW
The main opposition of ratification of CEDAW comes from conservative groups and the religious right who are concerned that CEDAW will challenge the laws and culture of the U.S.

In arguments against CEDAW, many say it will negate family law and undermine traditional family values by redefining the family, force the U.S. to pay men and women the same for “work of equal value” thus going against our free-market system, ensure access to abortion services and contraception, legalize prostitution and undermine the sovereignty of the U.S.

Therefore, the U.S. is the only democracy that has not ratified CEDAW. It remains in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The Senate has held hearings on CEDAW five times in the past 25 years but failed each time to bring the treaty to a vote on the floor.

CEDAW has empowered civil society organizations to demand that governments respect women’s human rights and to adopt policies to limit sex trafficking, domestic violence, child marriage and discrimination in the workplace.

Just last year I conducted an interview with an NGO president from Georgia who informed me that bride kidnapping was drastically reduced in Georgia due to an adoption of a new law and accountability by law enforcement to prosecute perpetrators and imprison them for up to eight years. I was able to truly see how far and wide the UN’s reach can go to protect women who otherwise would not be protected or historically have not been protected.

CEDAW is an issue each and every year, with no sign of changing. This year, we are bringing together the mayors of several U.S. cities in our Cities for CEDAW initiative. Since San Francisco was the first municipality in the United States to ratify CEDAW, we are hoping convincing a few more will help twist the arm of our senate counterparts. If cities are adopting CEDAW, why not the nation?

In conclusion, I hope this explains my role at the UN along with Women’s Intercultural Network. As a I prepare in the next two months to welcome the first 50 Women book into the world (so much hard work for the last year!), I want to continue to share my attempts at wielding positive change. A large part of my responsibility for being able to attend the UN meetings, I believe, is to bridge the outside world with its efforts. Only thoroughly informed and collectively can we succeed with its initiatives. Divided or ignorant, we fail.


Related links:

–        Lenka Belkova and I authored this newly released UNCSW 58 conference document regarding the implementation of Millennium Development Goals 3 and 5 on behalf of Women’s Intercultural Network.

–        Read my debriefings from UNCSW56 (2012) and UNCSW57 (2013)

–        Read the agreed upon conclusions from UNCSW57

–        Watch my interview with A Band of Wives about UNCSW 57



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Tracking Changes

2013-08-23_12-02-35_297The culmination of a four-year journey of playing “hunter-gatherer” with women’s stories now sits on my Mac book in black and white text documents that are currently being shuffled back and forth between an editor and myself with all edits neatly tracked in Microsoft word.

Her changes are tracked in green and mine are tracked in red. Each time one of us makes a deletion, an addition or adds a comment, an “ants marching” line appears leading to a box on the right side of the page. Every keystroke, thought, and action is neatly documented in a chronology of date stamped multicolored boxes. They are recordings of the development of a fledgling anthology all saved minute by minute, without one action failing to be accurately accounted for.


Why don’t our tumultuous lives follow such a pattern? Why is there not some outside source chronicling every fluctuation, our life milestones, and the very events that mold and shape our consciousness so future generations can read about our brightest days, our darkest hours, and how we evolved? We try to make our experiences live forever by taking photographs, writing in journals, keeping scrapbooks, listening to songs and guarding special possessions. Humans are natural preservationists.

Yet, there remain too many untold stories hanging in the air. As if the wind, an elusive phenomenon, carries them above our heads where they invisibly float like lost souls suspended in the ether of waiting: of joy, of birth, of change, of loss, of hope, of sorrow, of strength.

One question I have asked continuously through compiling 50 Women is: Why am I doing this?

I sought out these women in order to record human experiences from some of the most trying world events in the last 60 years. I wanted to take the human side of historical events like the Yugoslav wars, the refugee situation on border areas of Thailand, and the “American nightmare” immigrated Latina women face in starting their lives over in the United States and personalize them. I thought of all the immigrants I ever knew that came to the United States, carrying suitcases, some even chased from their homes, while all their secrets, grief and silent rage remained hidden beneath the oceans and deserts they crossed.

A statistic is forgettable. It’s never going to move you the way a human experience can.

In other cases, I decided to compile this because sometimes I fear the world is dying, hemorrhaging and screaming from a swollen tongue. Because people just aren’t patient anymore. Because we watch movies with guns and explosions, yet no one knows what’s going on in Kabul or Mogadishu.

Because any and all accomplishments are certain victories over those who have ever tried to execute you.

Because I, too, had untold secrets I choked on, and perhaps if other women told me theirs I could finally swallow my own.

Because when I started to compile 50 Women, I didn’t know how to work my digital voice recorder, how to form close friendships or how to speak.

Through the numerous re reads of each of these stories, my head is flooded with the memories I generated in collecting them:

I remember the baby I saw at in the Women’s Building crawling hurriedly on the floor outside a multi-purpose class room. He tugged at my pants and I picked him up in my arms. He bounced his tiny fist off of my shoulder, and I wondered if I would ever be good enough to be a mother.

I remember the Afghan wedding where I danced- the tribal drums of music melting me into the floor as I flung my arms open and swayed my body to their rhythm. That night I believed I could live forever.

I remember the gleam in the mahogany eyes of one of my many Afghan sisters when we went to the beach and waded to our knees as the frigid water stung our veins. We sloshed around in crashing waves until we could not feel our feet. It was the first time she ever saw the ocean.

I remember the African dinner I shared with Jean Claude and its filling simplicity of pasty white rice and vegetables covered in a red sauce. We ate with our hands and the sauce dripped on the sleeve of my shirt. I felt the heat of the food on my fingertips, as though it was a living, beating heart.

I remember tracing the tiny stitches on the scarves sent to me by WEAVE Women, fashioned by the hands of Naw Wa Paw, a displaced Karen woman living in the Umpiem Mai camp on the border of Thailand. I wondered what it felt like to be displaced; to be the little girl I read about in a story of the Karen – stretching my tiny arm underneath the jagged barbed wire confines of the camp, straining to reach a pink flower on the other side.

I remember the foreign spicy tastes of Zara’s Malaysian food with its coconut hues and cardamom- a meal that we would eventually open up to each other over subsequently leading to hours of tears, laughter and memories of her monkey Madoo. Being with Zara was like being in the warm sun after taking a swim in the frigid ocean.

I remember meeting Li Jing at the Amnesty International general meeting in 2011. She was a small, slighted woman from China with an aggressive demeanor and a personality that leaked from her core, like the yoke from a smashed egg. She had a box of photos, much like the old family picture photo boxes that my mother has. The lid was torn and the rose imprint faded from the number of oily hands that handled it. I leafed through nearly one hundred photographs, gawking at image after image of busted flesh, bruises and people beaten to pulp- an exhibition of ghastly brutality.

There were bodies, some decomposing, and I could smell them rot through the photos. Li Jing told me she collected these pictures from survivors of illegal torture interrogations performed by the Chinese government. She said she shows them to anyone and everyone she meets, so maybe they will end up on the news. Her sister was assaulted by the police, she said. She was 16 and killed herself a month after because she had disgraced their mother. She started collecting the photos after her sister died. She clutched the tattered box tight against her chest as she spoke.

Li Jing told me that I was a “creature from the forest”. I was unsure of what she meant. She wanted me to take the box of photos home with me so I could show everyone in San Francisco. I stared up at the chandelier and at the marble in the hotel lobby where we sat. What would I do with that box? How could I readily take something that had become her life’s work, and had replaced her sister? How was it that we were having that conversation in a setting like the Ritz Carlton, with seas of suited Amnesty members floating about? Does summer come for everyone?

I politely declined the box of photos.

There was nothing dignifying in those pictures. Only unraveled souls. A quiet, yet ruthless end to forgotten lives.

What is worse, I wondered through the rest of the conference: To be dead or to be silenced and forgotten?

I sent Li Jing an email after, but I never received a response…

These were the human interaction parts of this experience. Now I am on the structured, the logical, the mundane- the editing. The most complicated and the necessary phase. I have to emotionally distance myself from the stories as much as possible, yet how does one emotionally distance oneself from a part of them? When I have had to trim the stories or remove certain sections, I feel as though I have lost a part of me. This is not melodrama; this is the phenomenon that occurs when you truly fall in love with something you have done and with the people who are part of it. You fear that shortening a story will detract from the understanding of its message. You worry that all of its raving authenticity will fail to be communicated, especially when the person telling it is already screaming to be heard and understood apart from the white noise of smothering reality.

Afterall, the greatest injustice that exists in this world is silence.

Silence pounds too heavy on the heart.

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Context and Subtext

50 Women book proposal

This week, I am wrapping up the year 2012. What a random collection of experiences it was. Many of these 2012 occurrences have left me asking introspective questions necessary to move forward with publishing “50 Women”.

This was the year where I not only finished the 92 page book proposal for “50 Women”, but also the draft of the complete 900 page manuscript. It was also the first time I have started sending it out in search of its publishing home. 2012 marks the third year I have spent on this book project. This year, as much as I struggled to avoid it, the focus shifted from immigration cases, ESL teaching, activism and advocacy to…well, me. My recent Board of Directors appointment with United Nations NGO Women’s Intercultural Network now places me in the position to influence policy initiatives affecting women all over the world. It is an honor to have arrived at this place in the journey, but I have refused to acknowledge what qualified me for this journey to begin with.

I am not a narcissist. Initially I sought to compile “50 Women” to heal from many things. Secretly I hoped I would just “fly under the radar” in terms of healing and never be forced to look inward. I did not want to admit to myself that certain things happened to me. I have spent much of my time in the last three years focusing on improving the lives of others. When I started this blog in 2009 to chronicle the development of what I knew would be a long term project, I used it as my voice and my lens as I embarked on new experiences aimed to take me deep into other cultures and philosophies. I wanted to show the ties stringing together the lives of 50 women from 30 countries. In 2012, I have found it harder, not easier, to communicate my thoughts here. Mainly because I began to realize in this third year that I was the missing component of those ties.

The recurring themes of 2012 appear to have been: vulnerability, surrender and authentic self. Yet there are many things I’ve been afraid and ashamed to admit. In reading the 92 page book proposal I started pitching out to various publishers, I realized that I’ve highlighted my achievements and divided all my articles  with colorful tabs, yet my real conviction is completely absent from any of this materiel. Is that truly authentic? Am I really, fully representing the purpose of this project?

I have a past. One many don’t know about and one that I rarely discuss or acknowledge. I have experienced many of the things the women in this book have with the exception of a war. I know what brokenness is like, I know what self-deprecation is like and above all, I know what is like to endure fear, shame and humiliation. To understand those is to understand every social aspect of humanity.  The result of these experiences encouraged me to advocate for myself and to learn to defend myself at a very young age.

No matter what my experiences amounted to- I never wanted to be a victim. I never wanted any of these experiences to define who I was. I never met with other survivors, I did not tell anyone most of the details of what I was going through and I did not express that I was deeply hurting. Instead, for many years, I took it out on myself privately in various demeaning ways. Not opening up only made me an angry person, and for many years, I was very angry at the world. There were many people I needed to forgive and I actively chose not to. In the end, I only harmed myself because harboring that anger destroyed me in many ways. In the present day, I am my most favorite version of myself. This Jessica is kindhearted, understanding, loving, compassionate, fierce, ambitious and innovative. She is wiser, calmer and more centered. She acknowledges that she is part of a more global pain; a broader picture. Once I gained that global perspective on pain and survival, I have since never felt alone again. Once you realize you cannot personalize your own grief or suffering and tap into a more universal level of humanity you will no longer pity yourself. You will realize that you are part of a greater experience; one that is much larger than yourself. If there is anything that “50 Women” gave me, it is that truth.  I have cited the boona’s example of this from her story in a previous article of when she discovered her son’s body after he committed suicide. This is, by far, the best example I have that describes this realization:

The next morning I found him. I remember this day very vividly: I called him around 12 o’clock and then I found him dead around 8:30 in the morning. It was intense. It was a very intense spiritual experience for me. I felt that I walked with his soul to whatever that other side was and is. It was beautiful! We went through a dark blue door that opened into gold light and then we were in the gold light and I was back. His breath was not in his body at that point. I think his soul was still there because he had just died around 6 o’clock in the morning. When I was thrown back from that light, I realized that hundreds and thousands of children had just died in that same moment and that my grief was a universal grief. I realized I could not possibly personalize my grief or his death; that in a way that would be too selfish. He was not like that, he would have wanted to be seen as part of a bigger pain where there was a bigger experience because he did not live small little experiences.

The next feeling that I got was that I was just one of the grieving mothers universally. There were all these perished children and I was just another one of their grieving mothers crying. We were having an individual experience but being able to see other souls that were experiencing the same thing in that moment. This was so spiritual and so uplifting. I got to see this truth and I thank him everyday for that. Individual relationships holding so much pain, sorrow, and grief are taken so personally. I believe this is selfish because we don’t think about other people. We don’t think about the hardship and all that stuff that is happening to everyone. So I am in a bigger place since then, especially when it comes to grieving. I found a real solidarity in grief.

When I was younger, I received the rare opportunity to cultivate friendships with people from all over the world. I quickly learned that most women, no matter which country or ethnic background they were from, shared my similar experiences. Their stories transformed me and their friendships and cultural sharing gave me a strange sense of belonging, as though I belonged to the other people who did not belong. I wanted to go deeper into their cultures and observe and experience life from their point of view. In 2009, the idea to compile “50 Women” came to me suddenly as I sat at a desk. Subconsciously, I was seeking redemption through 50 other women and over past 3.5 years, these women have transformed me. I was naive going into this project. I always assumed that it would not affect me as much as it did. Yet the situations I have encountered, such as going to the United Nations, asylum immigration cases, teaching ESL to immigrant women and writing for different publications forced me to ask introspective questions. At the beginning of 2012, it divorced me from my previous traditional notion of God, shattering all of my spiritual constructs and leaving me bewildered, raw and ego- less. Every layer, every facade, every notion and every aspect of me was stripped away. For those fortunate enough to experience something of this nature- it is very humbling. At the same time, it is also very awkward, confusing and anxious. It is a removal of all vices of the self. Siobhan Neilland describes this sensation very well in her story when discussing her recovery from her sex cult upbringing and other destructive situations:

It is in many ways because I am so present for it. This is why many people don’t go out and face their dreams, their goals and themselves. It’s one of the most uncomfortable things you will ever experience in your life when you are trying to be genuinely who you are. One of my favorite sayings is “vulnerabilities are where your strength lies”. Right now I feel like I am running around exposed and for the whole world to see at all times. I feel like a newborn baby that someone threw out into the world completely naked. It is a very raw feeling at times; at others I am simply not comfortable in my own skin.

I often joke that I wrote this book to “find God” and now that I have the manuscript, I am more confused about such a concept than I ever was before. It appears the more questions I ask, the more questions arise and none of them seem to have any answers. Once you live so many different experiences and travel through so many different cultural realities, it is difficult to condense yourself back to who you were before. All the beliefs you once held no longer make sense due to the expansion of your character. Evolution is the price you pay, yet the prize you gain for being a narrative journalist.

The publishing challenges have also been monumental in the past months. Here I have a manuscript with 50 incredible women from 30 countries, yet it has been an uphill battle all the way. There are publishers who won’t accept the materiel due to presence of certain religions, the controversial subject matter, the first person story focused approach and the fact the women in this book are not “famous”.

In a “would be” book deal that did not work out I was insulted, criticized, discriminated (yes, believe it or not- because I am “white”), overlooked and not taken seriously. One criticism arose regarding a “50 Women” contributor named Neema, who returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo last year to keep a promise to a group of orphaned children she cared for after she survived a month in jail as a prisoner of war and then genocide at Gatumba Refugee camp in Burundi. I was criticized by a group of university press panelists for suggesting that genocide is a ‘plight to be overcome’. In Neema’s case, she did overcome. I know this because I observed her gathering the strength to return to the place where it once happened. When I met Neema in 2010, she was agoraphobic and was in a fragile state. When I was informed of her return to Democratic Republic of Congo in order to honor the promise she made to the orphans she cared for as a result of Gatumba, I was moved. The shell shocked woman I met before had changed and evolved so much. That personal evolution is the true meaning of “overcoming”.

Remembering the times I fought for 50 Women in 2012 fill me with strength. When you believe in something so strongly, nothing anyone will say or do matters to you. If you truly believe in something, you will fight for it to the bitter end. You will not allow anyone to take it away from you and you will not allow anyone to destroy it. A belief that strong can only come from a deep-rooted inner conviction.

Perhaps I have experienced these issues because there was an absence of real conviction in my pitch materials. I did not admit that I am equal to the women I have stood in the same room with. I did not admit that I share their experiences, therefore understand their own unique voices. Going forward, I will step up to this challenge. That universal version of myself is asking me to acknowledge how my own experiences play into the creation of “50 Women”. Without that conviction there is nothing and the true qualification I have for writing this book comes from certain experiences I have shared with many of them. The rest are merely secondary elements which better allow me to do the job.

In fact, my path to narrative journalism came through such means. I find passion in people’s stories. I have a very ethnographic approach to my work because I want to represent people for who they truly are. In literature, we say there are always a context and a subtext to a person and story. The context is what is observed at face value, such as personality traits, actions and daily functionality. The subtext is the conviction. It is the underlying and often cultural reasons why a person behaves the way they do and make the decisions they make. That is why ethnography combined with journalism is so effective. I have gone deep inside the cultures and lives of many of these women in “50 Women”. I did so because I wanted to understand them in context and subtext. In order to write a person’s story you have to know them inside and out. Although I have been criticized for my activist and involved approach to my journalistic pursuits, I believe such a raw approach is the best way to fully understand a person. For example, there are several Muslim women present in “50 Women”. To understand them, I went to extensive lengths: I prayed with them, wore a hijab, read the Quran, visited a local mosque and studied prayers in Arabic. I spoke to nearly a hundred different Muslims about Islam. I wanted to understand what it meant to be a Muslim woman- the conviction and the dedication to the faith. In her “50 Women” story, Bineta Diop recalled that when she lived in South Carolina, people constantly asked her to remove her hijab because it made “other people uncomfortable”. She refused. But WHY did she refuse? What did that hijab, a simple piece of cloth to me, mean to her? Why was her conviction so strong? The only way I could understand this, was to see the hijab through her lens. When I was able to do that, I realized that her hijab represented her dignity and her service to Allah and Bineta wanted so deeply to guard her dignity just as all women do. That is where the ethnography component comes into pursuits of narrative storytelling and why it is so important. That is also where my own convictions were missing from this equation. The subtext of me.

They say to craft a good narrative, one must answer the fundamental question: What is the story about?

This story is about a young woman, certainly not an ingénue, but an old soul in a new body- wary and wise to her own long past seeking to understand the subtext of humanity through the tumultuous lives of 50 women from 30 countries. It will not always be a comfortable experience or a familiar one, but she is vulnerably ready to be molded and shaped by it as the bits and pieces from every culture she interacts with become pieces of her.

Happy New Year.


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Witness to the cycle

Three years is a long time. A cycle. A chronology. A duration of time and space and, of course, lives.

It was just three years ago that I started The 50 Women Project. That I took on the role as a curator of the lives of 50 women from 30 countries who, at the time, I had never met. A responsibility I accept as seriously as my own life.

Over the course of those three years, I have watched them grow. I have witnessed healing and change in each of their individual lives and in many cases -triumph and achievements. Babies were born, books written and old grievances put to rest with the proverbial passage of time.

Though it would be hard to chronicle all 50 of them and the evolution of their lives in one post, here are some updates on a few of the women of 50 Women:

  • Neema, from Democratic Republic of Congo, is a survivor of the violent August 13, 2004  massacre of the refugee camp Gatumba in northern Burundi.  When I interviewed her in 2010, she was experiencing slight agoraphobia due to the trauma of her time spent as a prisoner of war in Democratic Republic of Congo and of the Gatumba massacre she witnessed. It is uplifting to know that she returned recently to Burundi to visit  the orphaned children of Gatumba that she once cared for. This is the first time she returned since the incident. Despite being horrific, these experiences have not defeated her. I am so proud of her for going back.
  • In December 2011, I had the pleasure of attending an ESL graduation ceremony at Mujeres Unidas y Activas in San Francisco. I interviewed six women from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador through this activism group who have orchestrated the lobbying for important human rights legislation like AB889. It was wonderful to chat with several of them in English and to hear about their new career opportunities and goals. New doors are opening for them now. It is uplifting to witness this after hearing how many obstacles they encountered in attempt to start a life in the United States. They deserve every opportunity coming.

Mujeres Unidas graduation, December 2011

  • In December 2011, Siobhan Neilland received closure regarding her upbringing in a southern California grifter cult when she received news that her father, its leader, passed away. She was subsequently contacted by an estranged relative and by a former member of the cult who was only 10 years old while living in its confines. The former member reported to Siobhan that she witnessed the abuse she endured. Although overwhelming, it gave her a sense of clarity. Siobhan has since continued on with her efforts regarding OneMama and continues to successfully support the Ugandan village where babies are born safely every year due to her influence.
  • Several months ago, two young afghan women ,whom I met through the course of compiling 50 Women, received political asylum in the United States. After waiting for over one year, they now call America their home. Nothing makes me more happy as this is the greatest gift anyone could give me. I love both of them and want nothing more for them to be happy and to live safely and securely.
  • Mona Motwani, who struggled with Lyme disease for over five years now is in remission. Although she has encountered a few obstacles in healing, she nonetheless continues on to triumph.
  • At the beginning of 2012, Bineta Diop, from Senegal gave birth to a daughter. She is not the only one. Monica Nainzstein, from Argentina, gave birth to a daughter and Masha Maslova, from Moldova, gave birth to a son. The thought of these children reading the stories of their mothers in 50 Women is one of the most gratifying feelings. I feel in  writing their stories I have preserved their legacies.
  • Bita, from Senegal, who underwent Female Genital Mutilation as a girl has received political asylum in the United States to protect her daughter from the practice. She is currently working as a medical transcriptionist. When I spoke to her in 2010, she told me the most important aspect of her life was protecting her daughter from the practice of FGM. She now rests safely.

50 Women and I are one. The successes and improved lives of these women are my uplifting successes, my smiles and my gratitude. I am currently in the process of shopping the book around so these successes could not have come at a better time. They prove to me that everything in life happens in cycles like the rise and fall of the tides. As I am shopping the book around, I reflect on the personal growth and transformation I have undergone in the last three years and now I feel I am being ushered into womanhood and in the purest sense. The crucial components of my journey so far have been vulnerability and surrender.

Some time ago, I wrote that in the cases of certain women there could be no indemnification. I believed their lives could never be livable after surviving some of the worst atrocities of the last century. In fact, I always believed of all, Neema was one of them. I’m proud to say that I was wrong. There is retribution. There is rebirth. In the cycle of life, life and death, in a sense, do coexist. Even I have experienced this phenomenon in the process without ever expecting to.

It’s time for 50 Women to find its home. I am ready.

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Why education?

Jessica presenting 50 Women at International Institute of Education

In April I presented some of the stories in “50 Women” to a group of education professionals at the Institute of International Education in San Francisco.

I was moved by their interest and attentiveness in the experiences of Nadia, Tzvia, Zara, Mona, Bineta, Neema, Lena and Carmen. Their stories all serve to represent a collection of timely world issues and serious questions humanity simply must answer.

A question one women asked me will dance forever in my memory of this day: “What made you decide to write this book and pursue this project”?

I paused, waiting for the words of a complicated, elaborate response to flood my mind. Instead I replied: “I just wanted to educate people”.

Jessica presenting at the Institute of International Education SF

It was a simple answer yet explained everything I have stood for with this project over the past three years. Simple, yes, but a motivation and conviction nudging me on in periods of complication or uncertainty.

Trust me, writing a book is not easy when the lives of 50 other people are involved. I have invested nearly all of my free time into transcribing pages and pages of interview footage, converting these pages into stories and communicating with the women involved to ensure accuracy of facts. At times it felt like a never-ending process, forcing me to ask serious questions about myself time and time again. Urging me to improve the person that I am and to respect and honor the better woman I strive to gradually become.

I have touched on many very personal issues with many of these women and now feel that they are all a part of me. I have explored several wars, instances of sexual abuse and physical violence, political issues concerning immigration and so much more. The broad range of timely and important topics covered in the stories of “50 Women” astonishes me to the core and I am the one who compiled them. These women are those I treasure the most in this world. The ones I give my respect to. They are my soul and my own strength now. Completing this book has made me the woman that I am.

As my 100 page book proposal goes out to literary agents and publishers for the first time this week, I stand confidently in its messages and the wealth of information and lessons it offers to readers. I created this book to educate people no doubt. But also to document the stories of under represented women and to capture pieces of history in the instances of some stories as they highlight many current events and timely global topics. I also wanted to capture the true meaning of a heroine- the true strength women possess.

I suppose I learned something about myself: that I am an educator. That my focus in life is about educating people. I am not an opportunist in my interactions. When I talk to someone, my goal is always to leave them asking questions and to teach them something. I’ve always believed that education is empowerment in the greatest sense. As I interviewed Bineta Diop at the United Nations this year about her struggle to obtain a college degree after being labor trafficked, she told me: “The most powerful thing another human being can give to me is education. With knowledge I have the power to change my situation”.
Girls attending school in Afghanistan have had acid thrown at them. Girls in Rwanda often miss school just because of their menstrual period. Child brides in the middle east never complete school past the third grade. Young women in Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe never attend school because they are sex trafficked. The patterns of limited opportunities only continue to grow and I saw evidence of this at the United Nations this year.

I am not concerned with my own personal gain in this situation. What I am concerned with is that these stories are read and that inspiration is taken from them. That knowledge and a greater sense of awareness is achieved through them. I want this book to reach every corner of the world, no matter how it will do that and in what form it takes. I want it to educate and deeply touch every person who reads it. I want desperate women everywhere to be able to read these stories or for illiterate women, to hear them on tape.

Women are underrepresented too many times. We are absent from the negotiating tables, we are sold and transferred as property, and we are viewed as second-rate beings.
Not this time. Not on my watch.

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Off to the United Nations

I am off to New York City for the 56th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women tonight. I am excited and anxious for this experience to unfold. My journey with “50 Women” has lead to many unanticipated and fascinating paths and going to the United Nations as a delegate is certainly a profound honor.

For those curious about what this process means and what the commission does, I am here to explain the specifics and give a very brief overview of the United Nations:

The founding of the United Nations in 1945 was facilitated by the fascinating and vibrant Eleanor Roosevelt, a woman who certainly made her mark in American history and who coined the very motto I live by: “Do something everyday that scares you”.

The United Nations was originally founded to facilitate cooperation between member states in international law, security, economic development, social progress, human rights and world peace. There are currently 193 member states and its primary judicial organ is the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands.

What I will be attending is the 56th annual session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. CSW is a commission of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). It is the principal global policy making body dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women. Each year the CSW hosts an annual session generally lasting 10 working days that brings together representatives and NGO appointed delegates aimed to evaluate progress on gender equality, identify challenges, set global standards and formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality and women’s global empowerment. Each annual session has its own theme and this year it is the empowerment of rural women and their role in poverty and hunger eradication and human development.

As an NGO appointed delegate I will have a number of tasks, but one of the main will be participating in a panel with WNN entitled: Technology for Social Good of Indigenous Women & Women in the Global South where we will discuss the importance of social media and its role in women’s rights and empowerment.

I will be live tweeting as I attend panels and meetings under the account @50womenproject. (To view a list of all session activity, refer to #CSW56)

Since the conception of “50 Women” in 2009 I have fought for the rights of global women including assisting on certain political asylum cases. I have a direct concern for the rights and opportunities afforded to women in this world and believe it is our human rights that will serve to advance societies and cultures. This session is a groundbreaking event for myself and “50 Women”.

Two of the women who are part of “50 Women” will proudly attend with me: Samatata Foundation founder Bineta Diop and Civil Rights attorney and Spark co founder Mona Motwani. Several other San Francisco government representatives are also attending in addition to a group from San Francisco State University who will sponsor additional panels on women’s rights and advancement.

As a member of the San Francisco crowd, we are also making a push for the United Nations to host its 5th World Conference in San Francisco in 2015. We are prepared to boldly make our cases.

This is a necessary step in my journey with “50 Women”. I am proud to represent everything I have stood for at the United Nations. I am humbled by this opportunity and cannot wait to see the other doors this experience will open in my life and the connections I will make in New York.

Viva la revolution!


For more information on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women:








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