I’ve seen it happen time and time again. We just want to fix things for other people. It makes us feel useful if we can be fixers.
It’s in our nature – especially for those of us who live in affluent countries. Some of my African friends have pointed out that it’s a trait that’s particularly evident among North Americans. It emerges from a culture that values independence over community. To be independent we have to be fixers and givers rather than receivers or dependents.
Now there’s nothing wrong with wanting to help. Helping is a good thing. The problem comes when helping turns into fixing and we end up imposing our own solutions and values on someone else’s challenges. Unlike helping, fixing comes from a place of superiority instead of compassion. It’s something I have to resist again and again when one of my teenage daughters has a problem that I’m pretty sure I can resolve better than she can.
Today, a lot of bloggers are writing about the importance of empowering girls around the world, to help them rise out of poverty, oppression, and even slavery. It’s a cause I believe in deeply. In all of my travels in developing countries, the stories that impacted me the most deeply were the ones about young girls who’d recently escaped from sexual slavery in India, and other young girls subjected to genital mutilation in Ethiopia.
Here’s one of the things that I’ve seen have a significant impact on young girls all over the world (including my own daughters)… good role models. I’m not talking about celebrities or even perfect people, I’m talking about REAL people who live authentic and meaningful lives and let their values guide their actions.
Young girls need to be shown what impact women can have when they have the courage to live with passion and conviction despite the fact that they may fail sometimes. They especially need role models in their own countries and communities – women who have risen above the odds and impacted change in big or little ways.
I have had the privilege of meeting several such women who serve as role models in their own countries. Today, I want to honour them for the part they’re playing in changing the world. To change the world for young girls around the world, the best thing we can do is celebrate powerful women wherever they are, listen to their stories, and then find out how we can support their work.
For just a moment, step away from all the fixing you’d like to do and just listen…
Elizabeth was just 23 when I met her in Ethiopia, but she has wisdom and strength beyond her years. She has committed her life to serving the cause of justice for those who are poor. She gave up her home in Addis Ababa to move to a remote village in the Afar desert to help a nomadic community build a water diversion project so that they can move beyond the hunger that has plagued them for a number of years (since the climate has changed and drought comes more frequently). Arriving in a conservative Muslim community, Elizabeth was told “this project will never work if it’s lead by a woman”, but she persevered and a few years later, dramatic changes have occured. Not only do they have abundant crops where nothing once grew, but there are more children going to school because families do not have to uproot themselves in search of water. The most exciting change is that gradually, women are being allowed to hold leadership positions in local governance, because the community witnessed what Elizabeth was capable of.
When I met Fidelis, I couldn’t help but notice the fierce energy burning in her eyes, despite the quiet calm of her face. It didn’t take long to find out that my first impressions were dead on. This was a women who would stand up to almost anyone without flinching (she had the nerve to tell Jeffrey Sachs he might be wrong on some of his thoughts on the Green Revolution for Africa and encouraged him to listen to more Africans), but still had the grace and compassion to make everyone in her presence feel valued. One of the most striking things she said in her visit to Canada was “Why do you people in the West always think you need to FIX everything?” She was working tirelessly in her native Kenya to help farmers learn more sustainable agriculture practices. I remember a story she told about how they’d learned to give goats and chickens in some villages because then they were more assured that the women and children would eat (men were too proud to eat that lowly meat and preferred beef). Sadly, Fidelis passed away a few years ago. A bright light too soon gone.
Mary Beth left a career in teaching to work in agricultural development because she witnessed marginalized tribes during times of conflict not having enough food to eat and it awakened a driving passion in her to do something about it. She was quickly promoted to leadership and now serves as Chief Functionary/Secretary for the Rural Women’s Upliftment Society (RWUS) in a remote area of India. When she visited Canada, she could not believe how much waste was accepted in our culture. “I visited a potato farm,” she said, “and saw so many potatoes that were left on the field to rot after the machines had finished the harvest. I couldn’t help but think of all the people those potatoes might feed.”
Victoria is the first woman to serve as General Secretary of the Association of Evangelicals of Liberia (AEL). AEL is active in resettling refugees from the many years of civil war, including helping many farmers to successfully return to their land. As a single parent who provides a home for not only her own children, but her nieces and nephews (who she is supporting through school), she was struck by the self-centredness of Western culture. “When we have a surplus, we give it to someone around who does not have enough food. There are always people around who need food.”
Shama carries herself with poise and strength. There is little doubt when you meet her that you are meeting a leader. She works in program management for Church World Service in her native Pakistan. As a woman in a leadership position in a male-dominated world, she often has to assert herself or choose to ignore the prejudice she’s subjected to. Some of the projects Shama manages help families who’ve been displaced because of conflict gain access to food. It is clear she loves her country and she longs for a day when more of the young girls she meets in rural areas have access to education. Sadly, though, even where there are schools, she fears that young people are not being taught to think creatively. “They are taught by rote,” she says. “Questions are frowned upon. I’d like to see that changed.”
I wish I’d had more time to spend with Kabita on the tiny island in the Sundarbans in India where she lives. My first impression of this young schoolteacher was that she had great respect (and expected the same) for the children under her guidance who danced for us when we first arrived on the island. She took my hand and gently guided me around her village, helping me aboard the bicycle transport, protecting me from tree branches along the path, and making sure I was comfortable. With pride, she introduced me to the place she calls home where she works tirelessly to bring education to children from marginalized tribes. I have never felt so comfortable holding another woman’s hand, but there was a special bond between Kabita and I right from the start. There were tears in both of our eyes when we parted.
After writing my last post, visiting several of the other blog posts written for the Girl Effect Blogging Campaign, and watching some of the Girl Effect videos, I am left with a thought that keeps niggling at me…
We desperately need more MEN to help with the Girl Effect.
Let me tell you a story…
I was an innocent twenty-one year old former farm girl, in my second year in the big city, when a man climbed through the window of my basement apartment and raped me. It shook my world and shattered my innocence.
But this story is not about the rape – it’s about what happened afterwards.
When I finally convinced the man to leave my apartment (after 2 hours of abuse and nearly being choked to death), I ran down the street to the home of my friends Terence and Sheryle. It was a place I knew I would be safe – where I could fall apart and be held together by their strength.
I sat and cried on their couch, and Terence sat at my feet, his hands gently holding my ankles. His face was full of agony and despair, as he held my pain in his strong yet soft heart. I’m sure he was feeling some of the burden by association for the violence a member of his gender had caused me.
Terence didn’t hesitate to phone his supervisor and take the morning off. He knew he needed to be there to help me survive that horrible morning of police reports, a hospital visit, and endless privacy-invading questions. (Incidentally, it was also my friend Terence who, years later, nearly delivered my second daughter when I showed up at the hospital where he was an ER doctor.)
Knowing I needed to be surrounded by people who loved me, that afternoon I phoned one of the most tender-hearted people I knew – my brother Dwight. He too rushed away from his workplace to be by my side. Dwight is one of those rare and beautiful people in front of whom you know you can cry without ever feeling shame. I’m pretty sure he joined me in my tears, making me feel wrapped in a warm blanket of love.
The next day – partly because I’d been taught by my Dad to be strong in the face of obstacles – I was determined not to let the rapist destroy my dreams. So I drove to the town where I was planning to participate in my first triathlon (as a cyclist on a relay team) that weekend. As I got closer though, I knew that the pain in my neck, and the overall shakiness and trauma of my body would not let me ride. I had to give it up, and I had to be somewhere that I felt completely safe, away from race crowds.
I turned my brother’s car around and headed home, to the farm – to the safe arms of my mom and dad.
When I walked in the house, I fell apart, in a puddle of tears and fear and anger and overwhelm. My mom did what she does best – wrapped her arms around me and nurtured me.
My dad fell silent, his body hunched with pain. While Mom soothed me, he walked out of the house. Moments later, he returned.
“I remember,” he said, his shoulders stooped in that familiar way he had of showing humility and agony, “a man whose daughter was raped years ago. He spent the next years of his life trying to find the man who did it so that he could kill him.” And then he paused while his voice shook. “Suddenly I know EXACTLY how he felt.”
Despite the pain I was suffering, I don’t know when I’ve felt so loved. My pacifist father, who didn’t believe in war or violence and never let my brothers have toy guns in the house, was suddenly willing to kill a man on my behalf.
This I know – it has been a significant blessing in my life to be surrounded by men who know how to love, how to show compassion, and how to show up when they’re needed. Though they may not have known it at the time, their tears were as valuable to me as their strength. Even though I had been abused by a man, I knew there were men I could continue to trust in my life.
It is partly because of these men that I can be the woman I am today.
There have been others too, throughout my life. Like my husband Marcel, in whose arms I crumpled when my dad died a sudden accidental death. Or my other brother Brad, who I have turned to many, many times for help – like the time he sent money for my sister and I caught in an urgent situation in Europe. Or my friend Rob, who sat and held my dead son Matthew, said few words but shed the right amount of tears.
There are many places in this world where my rape experience could have turned out so very differently. There are places where my father might have refused to talk to me because I’d brought shame on his household. Or places where I would have been shunned from my village for a sexual encounter before marriage, even if I was an unwilling participant. Or places where I would have been forced to marry my rapist because I was soiled goods and nobody else would want me. Or places where I would have risked yet another rape if I’d shown up at the police office to report the crime.
In Malaysia, Rath escaped a brothel where she was kept as a sex slave, went to report it to the police, and then was imprisoned by the police and later sold by a police officer to another sex trafficker.
In Ethiopia, Moinshet was kidnapped by the man who wanted to marry her, and then repeatedly raped by him and his friends. When she escaped and told the local authorities, they refused to arrest him and instead tried to force her to marry him. In the end, she had to leave her village because she was shunned for her refusal to marry him.
In Pakistan, Mukhtar’s brother Shakur was kidnapped and gang-raped by members of a higher caste. When his rapists became nervous that they might be caught, they accused him of having sex with a young girl from their caste. Mukhtar appeared at the tribal assembly on her family’s behalf to apologize and try to soothe feelings. The tribal council decided that an apology was not enough, and instead ordered Mukhtar to be gang-raped. Four men dragged her into an empty stable and, as the crowd waited outside, stripped and raped her on the dirt floor.
There are many, many other stories like this in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas D. Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn. Read it and be moved.
Thankfully, in some of the stories, there were men who stepped in and supported the women (like Moinshet, whose father took her away from the village and refused to marry her off to the man who raped her).
But I keep wondering… how do we change the paradigm for the men in these situations, not just the women? Sure we can insist that countries come up with better laws to protect the women, but how do we educate boys so that they grow up believing it is NOT okay to treat women like this?
What I keep coming back to is this – we need more men who are willing to step in and model a different way. We need more men like those who stood by me in my crisis, shed tears with me and then lent me strength, and we need them to teach others to do the same.
A lot of “what ifs” pop into my head.
What if the man who raped me had been raised by a compassionate father or taught compassion by his teachers at school?
What if our global leaders modeled compassion and deep respect for women?
What if police officers were taught not only to be strong, but to be compassionate? And what if the police officers we send to train police officers in other countries were doing the same?
What if we only elected officials who knew how to treat women with respect (and encouraged women of other countries to do the same)?
What if the peacekeepers we send to areas of conflict were actually modeling PEACE and not further exasperating the situation?
What if more development agencies were sending out male teachers who would model and teach compassion to boys in schools?
I personally know a lot of men who would love to see the world change for young women living with oppression. I sat with some of those men (my friends Larry and Steve) in that run down office in India that I talked about in my last post, where we all mourned the tragedy of so many young girls being sold into sex slavery.
If you are one of those men, THANK YOU. And KEEP IT UP. And know that what you are doing is of vital importance. Don’t give up until you have modeled it to enough other men that we see a sea change in the world.
Compassionate men, we NEED you!