Tag Archives: women’s rights

50 Women, Book One at Book Passage – July 18

On July 18, Pauline, Nwe and I spoke at Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA.

Pauline and Nwe read from their stories in 50 Women, Book One, discussing political and social upheaval in Burma and Cameroon. Pauline discussed her many stories of hardship to elevate herself out of poverty and to educate herself by learning to speak French. Nwe discussed the continuously brewing instability in Burma and her hope for her ethnic group, the Rakhine. Overall, both women stole the show and audience members descended upon them with questions, teary-eyed comments and book signing requests. Below are some photos of the event. The entire album can be found here on the 50 Women Project Flickr page.

Jessica Buchleitner and Pauline Stangl at Book Passage

Jessica Buchleitner and Pauline Stangl at Book Passage

Nwe Oo speaks at Book Passage

Nwe Oo speaks at Book Passage

Pauline Stangl speaks at Book Passage

Pauline Stangl speaks at Book Passage

Jessica Buchleitner discussing 50 Women, Book One

Jessica Buchleitner discussing 50 Women, Book One

From left: Nwe Oo, Jessica Buchleitner and Pauline Stangl

From left: Nwe Oo, Jessica Buchleitner and Pauline Stangl

50 Women, Book One at Book Passage

50 Women, Book One at Book Passage

Jessica Buchleitner at Book Passage

Jessica Buchleitner at Book Passage

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Book Passage – July 18

Book Passage has served the Bay Area for more than 30 years, providing the community with an array of author events, writing and language classes, and highly-respected annual conferences. They have hosted Hillary Clinton, Madeline Albright, Eve Ensler, Carlos Santana, John Waters and Nick Hornby to name a few!

Now they are hosting an event for 50 Women, Book One Saturday, July 18 at 1:00 PM!  Click here for details and join me and a few of the contributing women.

A New York Times-reporting bookstore, they offer a wide variety of books ranging from children’s literature to travel guides, from top-selling fiction to mystery novels, and they continue to work diligently with community and nonprofit organizations as well as universities.

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Contributor Photos – 50 Women, Book One

The last 9 months have been quite the journey with 50 Women, Book One out that I have managed to get a few photos of the contributors with the book. Of course these are only a handful as there are 30 women in this book. Perhaps one day I will have a photo of all of them together! More posts to come.

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From left – Boona Cheema, Jessica Buchleitner, Nwe Oo, Masha Maslova

 

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Masha Maslova signing 50 Women, Book One

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Padma Shandas and Jessica Buchleitner

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Nwe Oo with 50 Women, Book One

 

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Jazz Vocalist Thuy Linh and Jessica Buchleitner

 

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Jessica Buchleitner and Editor Nancee Adams- Taylor

 

 

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Jessica and Pauline at Books Inc.

 

To see all photos, please visit the full album here.

 

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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.

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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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Debriefing: United Nations 57th annual session of the Commission on the Status of Women

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The following is my comprehensive debriefing of the 57th annual session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women meeting.

The importance of the annual Commission on the Status of Women meeting and the parallel  NGO (non-governmental organization) sessions is to bridge the global policy making body of the United Nations with the grassroots efforts of the non-governmental organizations (NGO). NGOs are the ammunition needed to jumpstart UN policy in member nations because they have the most direct grassroots influence on the micro level. What was witnessed at this year’s session was a merger between the micro and macro levels of the United Nations and its NGO consulting partners. This debriefing examines both areas.

The priority theme for 2013 was Ending Violence against Women and Girls. Violence against women persists in every country in the world as a pervasive violation of human rights and major impediment to achieving gender equality. Violence against women will not be eradicated without political will and commitment at the highest levels to make it a priority locally, nationally, regionally and internationally. Political will is expressed in a variety of ways, including legislation, national plans of action, adequate resource allocation, location of mechanisms to address violence against women at the highest levels, efforts to overcome impunity, visible condemnation of this violence, and sustained support by leaders and opinion makers of efforts to eradicate it. Over the past two decades, there has been significant progress in elaborating and agreeing on international standards and norms to address violence against women. Yet NGOs have a long way to go and a significant amount of work to do.


Microlevel: UN consultative NGOs and current progress at combating violence against women in the global grassroots

 There are hundreds of global non-governmental organizations with consultative status to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Each year at the annual Commission on the Status of Women meeting they meet in parallel to the main ECOSOC commission in order to present their activities, research and panels of survivors and experts in order to keep other NGOs informed of their progress and key issues in their country pertaining to the theme of the meeting.

Recurring themes of these NGO presentations for this year’s meeting were armament and militarism, fiscal economic policy, women’s political participation, economic inequality and human trafficking.

The first panel discussion I attended was presented by my sponsoring NGO, Women’s Intercultural Network, on winning strategies at combating violence against women and girls where several experts spoke about municipal and government initiatives.

Marilyn Folwer, President of Women's Intercultural Network

Marilyn Folwer, President of Women’s Intercultural Network

In a separate panel discussion organized by Global Fund for Women, it was brought to our attention that total military spending around the world amounted last year to 1,738 billion dollars. The United States is a top spender, topping out at 40% of total military expenditure. The other 60% is accounted for with China, Russia, UK and France.

An economist emphasized that the feminist movement should be focused on economic policy, budgeting, taxation and military expenditure as war and conflict situations yield high incidents of violence against women. More women need to participate in the security sector if we are going to reduce violent war crimes. UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response, in post-conflict reconstruction and stresses the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security, was cited multiple times during the discussions of military and armament. The Arms Trade Treaty, created just last year in order to regulate the sale of weapons, was also cited as a means of controlling the flow of armament and land mines circulating globally. In too many countries around the world, women are too often left out of the peace negotiation process when it comes to matters of military, peace and security. The United Nations and its consultative NGOs are working hard to ensure the inclusion of women in these aspects of governance.

These discussions further continued at a separate panel discussion with invitation from Peggy Kerry, NGO liaison at the US Mission to the United Nations (and older sister of our current Secretary of State, John Kerry). We were presented with a panel of UN experts and US UN Mission personnel to answer our policy related questions about violence against women, military spending and initiatives government entities are undertaking to combat it.

Peggy Kerry, NGO liaison to the US Mission to the UN

Peggy Kerry, NGO liaison to the US Mission to the UN

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Women, War and Economics presentation

 
In another panel organized by United Methodist Women which represented several NGOs from the Republic of Georgia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Honduras, discussions on military and armament continued. For the Republic of Georgia, the NGO Atinati presented on the amount of displaced persons still remaining in the country after the 1992 energy war with Russia in a region known as Abkhazia. I was fortunate enough to interview the operator of the NGO about its creation amidst a trying time in the country. Although Georgia has its share of improvements to make, she cited recent improvements came in the form of prosecution for individuals who kidnap women as brides and an overall people oriented focus in the police force in recent years. In 1994, the Georgian parliament officially ratified CEDAW, the UN women’s bill of rights and this, she explained, has helped make progress in the country for legal matters concerning violence against women.

An NGO from the Democratic Republic of Congo reported about the 71 million people affected by the 20 years of war and ethnic conflicts happening in the country. It was reported that rebel group N23 was receiving aid from the United States and Europe and were committing 70% of the rape cases resulting from the armed conflict in the country. The presenter described the situation: “We have lost our dignity; our bodies have become a sanctuary for our rebel groups”.

Following the Democratic Republic of Congo, an NGO representative from Honduras painted a grim portrait of the changing sociopolitical circumstances in the country. Currently there are transworld capital investments and organized crime occurring and militarism was cited as one way of controlling the resources, territories and investments pouring into the country. In the current economic crisis, there are an influx of weapons circulating in the country. The presenter stated with great emphasis: “They have made life a commodity itself”.
Due to the 2009 military coup, the country has entered into an arms and drugs race and officially declared bankruptcy. The military coup consolidated all economic interests and started passing laws that systematically made life worse. All labor is temporary and employers pay per hour at a rate they decide, not at one that is regulated by law. As a result of this, the country is also being sold off in bits and pieces where multinational corporations are actually renting parts of the country. 18 provinces are now for sale and the biggest player in this race is the United States. The presence of the US military appears to be justified in the “war against drugs”, yet they are selling and participating in the drug trades. Resource wars, similar to the gas wars in Georgia, are happening all over the country.


I attended another NGO presentation on Wednesday by two Sudanese groups, where we were provided updates on the situation of disputed borders between Sudan and South Sudan. Due to the conflict over natural resources there is unequal power and economic resources, a lack of infrastructure, roads, bridges and hospitals. South Sudan has oil but needs North Sudan to transport it. The peace delegations currently in the country are almost entirely male with a severe lack of female participation. It is currently difficult for women’s rights defenders to operate because many of them are being detained and tortured. Rape as a weapon of war has long since been a factor in this environment. Currently the country is attempting to bridge Sudan and South Sudan in peace talks and a negotiation of their new constitution. Women’s rights groups are grappling to get women a seat at the table, citing UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and the CEDAW ordinance, since Sudan joins the United States, Somalia, and Iran in refusing to ratify the ordinance.

The last full NGO panel I attended was again Co sponsored by Women’s Intercultural Network and US Women Connect, where Board representative Ana Maria Sanchez gave a powerful speech about her struggle with Domestic Violence.

In this panel, an engaging discussion was launched on the cellular memory of generations. When a people are oppressed, the scars and burden of that oppression trickle through the generations and are felt by the offspring of the people.

These are just a few select observations that were made in panel presentations in the NGO portion of the meeting.

Macro level: United Nations Policy and the responsibility of its member states
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Two policy tools for combating violence against women

1.  The Beijing Platform for action (BPFA) is a 150 page document that was adopted as a result of the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. It is the agenda for women’s empowerment which fosters women’s active participation in all spheres of public and private life through a full and equal share in economic, social, cultural and political –decision making.

2.   The Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) similarly defines the legal obligations of State parties to prevent violence against women and girls. Adopted in 1979, it is an international bill of rights for women. Consisting of a preamble and thirty articles, if defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end it. Countries that have ratified or acceded to the convention are legally bound to put its provisions into practice. They must submit national reports every four years on measures they have taken to comply with their treaty obligations. Currently 187 States have ratified CEDAW. Countries that have not ratified CEDAW include Iran, Nauru, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga and the United States of America.

It is necessary to realize that it is the responsibility of the member State to prevent, investigate and prosecute all forms of violence against women and to hold perpetrators accountable.

High level roundtable session of CSW

High level roundtable session of CSW

In attending General Discussions and High Level Roundtable of the Commission on the Status of Women, I observed a review of the (Beijing Platform for Action) BPFA and ways in which each member state is looking to implement BPFA and CEDAW. Some examples of this are as follows:

–  Jordan and Slovenia reported on the adoption and reforms of laws and policies to address gender-based discrimination. Kuwait and Sri Lanka took measures to increase women’s political participation, and Sweden took measures to increase women’s access to labor markets and financial resources with a focus on rural and immigrant women.

–   Many reporting states, including Denmark, Malta, Mauritius and Slovenia have adopted national action plans to address violence against women in general, or in specific forms.

–  Several states, such as Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Mauritius, Mexico, Poland, Spain, and the Sudan, Switzerland and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reported on the establishment of coordination mechanisms, including task forces, dedicated units, working and interministral groups or observatories.

–  Senegal reported on a national action plan to address poverty as a means to address violence against women and girls, while in Japan, Hungary and Slovenia national action plans on gender also included measures to prevent violence.

–  Jordan and Slovenia reported on the adoption and reforms of laws and policies to address gender-based discrimination. Kuwait and Sri Lanka took measures to increase women’s political participation, and Sweden took measures to increase women’s access to labor markets and financial resources, with a focus on rural and immigrant women.

– As a means of challenging gender stereotypes, Mauritius developed a program to promote men’s responsibilities within the family.

 Suggestions from the Macro policy level for member states to combat violence against women:

–  Implement, monitor and set periodic reviews and revisions of laws in order to punish perpetrators.

–  Establish a reliable and consistent form of data collection on violence against women utilizing both quantitative and qualitative methods. Many countries lack reliable data and much of the existing data cannot be meaningfully compared.

–  Strengthen the awareness and knowledge base of all forms of violence against women in society

–  Allocate funding for violence programs.

Agreed Conclusions of CSW 57

 The agreed upon conclusions of the meeting have officially been released and are receiving objections by the Muslim Brotherhood. To view them click here.

My takeaways
Once again, I went into this experience a bit naïve. Diplomacy work is an oxymoron in a sense because you go into the experience believing you can make a difference yet what you are met with are many layers of corruption. I think most people assume being a diplomat allots you the fancy ability to make the world a better place. Yet, it can be a very dirty, cold and harsh reality. There are egos at stake of key players and leaders and a constant grappling for resources and power. It can be tricky to balance power with the needs of one’s member state. For example, the United States has been aware of the forced sterilization in China since it began, but is so economically tied to the country it that it is not in our best interest to “step on the toes” of officials to end the practice. Diplomacy is tricky in that sense. My experience at the United Nations proved to be a bit disillusioning. I want to believe that all the work I am doing is making an impact, yet in a delegate role- one observes the intricate layers of corruption present in every nation in the world. It is discouraging and disconcerting. In all truth, I felt like an immense failure when I came home. I was severely depressed for the week following the conference.

On the positive note, it has allowed me to connect with grassroots women from all over the world and gave me the fortunate ability to interview fascinating women from Georgia and from Bangladesh.

Receiving the opportunity to be a player in world diplomacy was a blessing in many ways. I was able to see what the real issues are and where many of the problems lie. To change the world, the key area of everyone’s focus should be economics. Money is where everything begins and ends. It is the source of corruption, of power and of greed. My recommendation moving forward is for activists and humanitarians to make economics more of an area of focus.

Overall, I am grateful for this intense experience. It is difficult work to do because it such a hefty dose of all of the world’s problems. The most inspiring aspect of CSW 57 was the amount of women I met from very impoverished countries. Some of them spent their life savings just to attend that conference and talk about what their NGO does to combat violence against women. That is very uplifting to conceive. I have decided to let that notion be my light.

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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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Amnesty International 2011

Amnesty International symbol The rain and wind pounded San Francisco relentlessly all afternoon. I hiked the 45 degree paved hills to the Fairmont hotel in gusts of wind so fierce my umbrella turned inside out. Relieved to get out of the rain, I entered the Fairmont to an oscillating sea of black and yellow t-shirts, tags and banners. This was the 2011 Amnesty International General Meeting and I was grateful that it was hosted in San Francisco, CA.

In case you are unaware, Amnesty International is a global movement of more than 3 million supporters, members and activists in more than 150 countries and territories who campaign to end grave abuses of human rights and to free prisoners of conscience.

Everyone filed in and out of receptions through the maze of hotel hallways all afternoon. We witnessed many amazing speakers from all over the world in addition to various panel discussions. I listened to a woman from the Zimbabwe women’s organization WOZA speak about all the times she had been imprisoned in Zimbabwe for encouraging women to speak out. “The police are looking for me as we speak” she laughed.

Her speech was followed by a live phone call from Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese opposition politician who has been placed on house arrest and imprisoned many times over for her ideas. The audience roared in cheers at the sound of her voice. “I don’t much like noise” she said over crackled reception, “but that is some beautiful noise”.  In 2010 hundreds of Amnesty activists rallied in San Francisco to call on the Myanmar authorities to release her and other prisoners of conscience. Eight days later she was freed. Despite all the opposition through the years- she has never stopped; she appears to grow stronger after each blow.

Between conferences and resolutions meetings, I stopped to view many of the exhibits, including one sponsored by The Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation with pictures of students who were arrested as prisoners of conscience in Iran and victimized by the regime. This foundation runs an online database called Omid, containing more than 12,000 cases of assassinations and executions committed by the Iranian government forces and their agents.

Looking at the faces on each display board, I remembered how unreserved and forthright I was in my youth and realized I would, indeed, be in their positions had I been born in Iran. I never was and never will be a silent girl. I embrace my freedoms and utilize them to full advantage. The individuals in all those pictures in the exhibit made me realize that I am fortunate to have them.

photo of imprisoned Iranian woman

If I was born in Iran, this would have been me...

I knelt down to write a brief letter to one of the students imprisoned at the infamous Evin prison in Tehran. The blonde girl behind the paper-strewn table told me, “Don’t worry. We’ll translate it into Farsi”. I printed:

You are not alone.You are in our thoughts and prayers.

With Love, Jessica

After the last assembly of the day, I had the pleasure of attending the Ginetta Sagan reception honoring past Ginetta Sagan Award recipients. Sitting 10 feet from me was Mangala Sharma (Bhutan- Nepal), Hina Jilani (Pakistan), Lydia Cacho (Mexico) – 3 extraordinary women who have made enormous change in their home countries in terms of human rights and women’s rights. I knew about these women prior to this reception and was humbled to sit facing them, to meet them and to thank them for their decades of courage.

Human rights  is a dangerous, relentless, 80 hour a week, lifetime commitment kind of job with often little to no pay. These are the real, true heroes of this world. The heroes who shape countries and policies for future generations. The heroes you may never hear of…ever.

These are not simply women who go to the streets, scream about human rights and then go home and drink a cup of tea; these are women who have put themselves and their families at extensive risk. Who often risk imprisonment and torture for speaking out and standing up. I’m fortunate to live in a country where I can safely write “50 Women”. These women often face social stigma and community condemnation for their human rights work. I will never forget meeting them as long as I live. This is truly a turning point in my journey with “50 Women”.

The conference, in spite of its insurmountably heavy discussion topics, was uplifting. I didn’t leave depressed- I left with a sense of hope. I met like-minded individuals all working in different ways towards positive progressive change and took away more ideas.

One advocate said in her speech “Don’t rely on someone else to change the world. ‘Someone else’ is sitting at home watching TV. ‘Someone else’ does not care. You, yourself, must be that agent of change”…

Walking back to the train station at night the wind immediately snapped my umbrella in half as soon as I stepped out of the Fairmont. I tossed it into a trash can- why bother. The rain poured on me- soaking my clothes, my long hair and matting together the papers in my bag. The wind pounded me as I, courageously in high heels, tiptoed down the sharply sloping hills of wet slippery pavement. I didn’t care about the elements. In fact I appreciated them as I thought of all the freedoms I am so fortunate to have at my disposal and silently thanked those who crusaded for generations to give them to me…

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