Today is Women’s Equality Day, and it somehow makes me sad. When I reflect on the past week’s news – how over 150 women were raped in Banangiri in Eastern Congo just last month by armed gunman, http://www.worldpress.org/africa/1561.cfm how only 40 years ago, several U.S. states still had not yet ratified the 19th Amendment http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/25/opinion/25stansell.html?_r=1 , and reading about violence against women with disabilities in Uganda. http://womennewsnetwork.net/breaking-news-portal/ What is there to recognize or celebrate on Women’s Equality Day?
In this country, I sometimes have a sense that women are quietly accepting the status quo. As U.S. President Obama so eloquently stated in his proclamation today,
“Women comprise less than one-fifth of our Congress and account for a mere fraction of the chief executives at the helm of our biggest companies. Women hold only 27 percent of jobs in science and engineering, which are critical to our economic growth in a 21st-century economy. And, almost 50 years after the Equal Pay Act was enacted, American women still only earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn. This gap increases among minority women and those living with disabilities. “
With these statistics, it is easy to feel that women’s accomplishments are too few, and that a future of equal rights is dismal.
But one must look to history and individual women’s achievements — those which incrementally led to community gains and the growth of larger, national movements — to recognize what has been accomplished over the centuries, not just in the U.S., but around the world. When I reflect on the women I’ve met over the past 4 years in the field of civil resistance, I realize that each one of them is incrementally creating change in their societies.
Very often, the activist who is in the struggle day after day can become enveloped in a feeling of hopelessness. But once you step back and review the small achievements, those “mini-victories,” you realize that so much has been accomplished, and that you’ve helped pave the path for the next generation of activists. As my Burmese friend and nonviolent activist says, “our past failures are leading to better failures, and eventually we will win.” Better failures…it doesn’t sound promising, does it?
I think what he means is that a struggle is an endless process, there is simply no finite ending. And so the real challenges are in maintaining steadfastness and persistence, mastering strategic thinking and understanding mechanisms of nonviolent action, and striking the balance between resilience and mobilization – retaining movement leaders while always refreshing the movement with new members and new energy.
In the past year, I have followed the work of women in the Maldives, who after their stubborn participation in a successful nonviolent struggle which finally helped dislodge a 30-year dictator, are now fighting for judicial reform and women-friendly policies. I have also met a determined West Papuan leader who is persistently working to train and educate both men and women in strategic nonviolent action in their struggle for rights and equality. The Bosnian women that I spent time with this summer have been struggling for 15 years for justice and truth on missing loved ones. It was easy for me, as an outsider, to see their monumental achievements over time. But I think they realize that their work will probably never end. I also met a young woman from Colombia who works with indigenous women and very proudly declares,
They are strong, and they are organized. Even the violent groups respect them.
I’ve listened to the challenges facing women in Zimbabwe, whose activism is dismissed as “manliness” and who are often branded as lesbians or prostitutes because they are willing to openly challenge the government through nonviolent protest. And I’ve watched the nonviolent actions of women in Budrus, a small village in the West Bank, through a new documentary film http://www.justvision.org/budrus , and also observed from afar the courage of the film’s director and producer, both of whom are women.
When I think about those women, and so many others around the world as well as here in the U.S., I feel hopeful for women’s rights around the world. And the world is taking notice. Last year, the UN established a new agency to deal with the rights of women. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=32066&Cr=women&Cr1 There is also a proliferation of women’s organizations, websites, and blogs promoting women’s rights issues, providing women with tools and resources – including strategic and tactical thinking and nonviolent theory or training – and there are grants, fellowships, and advocacy networks that women can access to advance their struggle. I have listed some of these below.
So, with Women’s Equality Day now coming to a close, and perhaps without much notice from the world, I recognize, congratulate, and stand in solidarity with my sisters around the world who fight everyday for social justice causes which ultimately, and hopefully, encompass equal rights for all. For many women, even the act of resisting is pursuing women’s rights. They do this work at great risk, and their efforts and achievements are slowly, incrementally making this world a better, safer place.
I will end on a hopeful note, because hope, like anger, is an impetus for change. Our work has not ended, and the current status quo regarding women’s equal rights around the world, including in my country, is simply not acceptable. The struggle continues . . .