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Time to put girls first…

Lina AbiRafeh

“The first time I was raped, I was 9,” Caroline told me as we sat side by side on a broken branch in the mud. The first time. I couldn’t turn to face her. All I could do was give her space to talk, while I listened…

“It’s the bathrooms that are most dangerous. We try not to go unless it’s urgent. Even then, we can shit in a bag and throw it outside. We have learned how to protect ourselves”.

Caroline told her story, while we sat in the dirt side by side on the small step leading to her hut in Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya, if not the world. An open sewer ran by the hut. Children played in the rubbish around the slum — most not wearing any pants. They kicked a Coke can around and laughed. An emaciated goat looked on.

I tried to focus on the can and the shuffling of little bare feet in the dirt. Concentrate. Don’t cry. It doesn’t help. But I really wanted to find a private place to cry — next to impossible in an overcrowded slum.

“Girls are raped because they don’t have underwear,” Caroline continued. “It just makes things easier for men”.

Her elbows poked through the holes in the sweater she wore as a dress. She wasn’t wearing any shoes, and I suddenly wanted to use my too-solid hiking boots to clear the soda tabs from her patch of dirt. I could feel grimy sweat rolling down my neck into the collar of my t-shirt. I wished it would rain.

“Everyone calls me Caro”, she added.

I turned to Mercy Musomi, director of the Girl Child Network, working in Kibera. She stood with her head slightly bowed. She’d heard all these stories before — and far worse.

It was Mercy who led me to Kibera — and to Caro. “How much,” I asked her. “Just tell me how much it will take”.

I left Kenya the next day, leaving my remaining cash and the contents of my suitcase behind for Mercy to give to Caro and other girls.

That was 2007. I’ve been supporting and advocating for the Girl Child Network ever since.

When I met Mercy, the Network provided for the basic needs of 40 girls in the slum. Most were HIV-positive. Most had survived rape — at least once. And most had undergone genital cutting. And yet they were filled with power and courage — and still able to laugh. Mercy’s Girl Child Network had been raising money for years to build a safe haven for girls just like Caro.

The Network supports girls to stay in school and builds leadership skills through after-school activities. Once, Mercy noticed that the girls were missing up to a week of school a month because they did not have sanitary supplies. And so she found a way to raise money to distribute pads. And then she noticed that the girls did not even have underwear. And so Mercy found a way to provide that too.

When I met Caro, she did not have the time to participate in the Network or to think about school.

Caro left school to care for her parents, who both died of AIDS when she was 10.

“If I could, I would teach one day”, she told me. “I feel like I have been teaching all my life”.

I left Kibera — and Kenya — committed to helping the Girl Child Network continue to support girls like Caro. And I supported Caro as well, paying for her education and whatever else I could in order to give her a chance to become whatever she wanted, to make her own choices, to control her own life.

In a slum of over 1 million people, helping one girl doesn’t feel like much. But I wasn’t going to leave until I helped one girl.

The Girl Child Network was founded in 1995 after the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing to work on child rights — girl-child rights specifically.

Mercy founded the Network because she herself is a survivor of violence. “I was 12 when I experienced gender-based violence,” she told me. “No girl should ever have to go through this. For me, it was my school principal. He was married and in his 50s. And I was a student. A child. I only wanted to learn.”

Mercy understands all too well how important it is to ensure that schools are safe. And how no one, or nothing, should get in the way of a girl’s right to learn.

She continued: “It is always older men who take advantage of young, innocent girls. Girls who have no role models or mentors to empower or support them.”

These girls now have Mercy. They cannot ask for a better mentor. Or a stronger champion.

Get involved here.

Read the full article here.

Creating Feminist Cities in the Arab World 

Lina AbiRafeh

Urban spaces have long been controlled, owned, and built for and by men, and Arab cities are no exception to this. In fact, in many Arab communities, urban space is, by default, male space. Men act as if they “own” the street, which is reflected in how they walk and how they treat women in public. In many Arab cities, as is true elsewhere, men are also far more likely than women to litter, reinforcing the perception that men consider public spaces to be their personal property. Sexual harassment is common in Arab cities, however, attention to gendered urban space is not only about safety. Although many women in Arab cities do risk verbal and physical abuse when they are in public, they must also contend with issues like poor sanitation, limited access to toilets and clean water, and little privacy. Marginalized groups – like migrants, ethnic and religious minorities, young girls, elderly women, and the disabled – are particularly vulnerable to discrimination.

In these cities, many systems make the lives of the typically male breadwinner easier, but fail to account for traditionally female tasks, such as school or grocery runs, making women’s lives more difficult and unsafe. 

Transport systems in particular are aimed at making the male breadwinner’s commute easier, while failing to account for traditionally female roles. These systems are not easy for women and mothers. Mothers and women tend to take less linear trips, stopping frequently to drop off or pick up household goods or children. Most transports systems charge extra for these non-linear trips. Additionally, these transport systems are rarely built with mothers with strollers or young children in mind, making them inaccessible for many women. Pregnant women are often not accounted for in these transport systems, and when they are, offers of a seat are not guaranteed, due to not being visibly pregnant or other rude passengers. 

While these traditionally female tasks – trips to schools, stores, or childcare facilities – should ideally be taken on foot as it requires shorter trips and multiple stops, most neighborhoods fail to plan for this with no, or unsafe, ways to travel by foot. This creates a car dependency for many women and mothers. 

Studies have found women’s health has been impacted by poor planning because women tend to be more physically active in walkable spaces. Spaces that aren’t walkable are correlated to higher obesity rates in women, but not as much in men. Other commentators note that anti-obesity campaigns often target women and mothers as being symptoms of urban issues like a dependency on cars and fast-food when actually a large part of the problem is poorly designed cities and neighborhoods.

While it has held women back in many aspects of their lives, the irony is that the Arab “street” has long been a stage for feminist progress. Even before Arab women raised their voices during the 2011 Arab Spring, urban spaces played host to feminist protests and served as a political barometer for the rest of society.

The port of Beirut blast in 2020 provided an opportunity to build the Arab region’s first “feminist city” which means building a new city with – and for – women. This is about more than safety and public spaces; it is also about equality, dignity, and access to opportunities. Lebanon is filled with private, prohibited spaces – from the government to gardens. A feminist city is built on accessibility, open spaces, public resources, and shared recognition of the value of the city as a home for all. But urban feminism, or the idea of feminist cities, is not widely studied by city planners in the Arab world. Awareness of how public space in Arab cities is gendered is rare, and little information has been collected on how women affect – or are affected by – planning decisions. Without a deeper understanding of the socio-spatial needs of Arab women, the region’s streets will remain the domain of men. How can this be done in Beirut and other Arab cities? 

Solutions to women’s problems in Arab urban life must consider the full range of social and cultural challenges that prevent women and girls from moving freely in urban settings. To help cities in the Arab region progress toward greater inclusivity, governments should focus on four key reforms.

For starters, city planners should cooperate with women’s groups to conduct safety audits and map high-risk areas. By analyzing crime data, for example, planners could determine where to focus improvements such as better lighting and additional policing. When women’s organizations are involved in these types of decisions, cities become safer for women, which in turn improves their access to social, economic, cultural, and political opportunities.

Next, education systems must be reconfigured to encourage more women and girls to pursue careers in architecture, planning, and urban design. In most Arab cities, planning processes are inaccessible to much of the population; they are even less accessible to women. To change the patriarchal status quo, we must encourage more young women to enter these fields, and to design modern spaces that are sensitive to women’s needs.

Third, cities need standardized methods for measuring women’s rights in urban environments. One way to achieve this would be to establish scoring systems created by and for women; surveys could include questions about legal frameworks, engagement in urban planning decision-making, public transportation habits, and views on housing, recreation, and safety.

Finally, urban planners must rethink how they fill public spaces. Consider, for example, historic statues; in many cities, only men are lionized in bronze. Why not women? If gender equality was a criterion in commissioning public art, young women and men would grow up knowing that their city was a place where everyone is honored, protected, and respected.

Urban planning is never gender-neutral, and leaders in Arab cities, in particular, must work hard to account for all residents’ views and desires. For women and girls, requirements include safe streets, well-maintained public facilities, and gender-specific amenities – such as nursing rooms for mothers. In a truly safe city, everyone’s rights are considered, everyone can access public spaces, and everyone is involved in the planning process.

If planners consistently applied such principles to their work, the Arab city would naturally become a catalyst for female empowerment. And when cities become engines of opportunity for women, everyone benefits.

Sidewalk Sexism

Lina AbiRafeh

Every time I walk down a New York City sidewalk, I’m in a 1950s James Dean movie. We’re playing a game of chicken, where — at least in the movie version — two cars drive toward each other along the same path. The first one who swerves out of the way to avoid collision is labeled “chicken” — the weaker one.

In my case, it’s not with cars, but with humans. Human males, in particular. When a male body — of just about any age — is walking towards me, I continue as long as I possibly can to see if he will step out of the way. He never does.

What happens instead is a collision. I’ve been bonked with elbows and shoulders, scowled at, and a few times nearly knocked to the ground. Most of the time, I’m the chicken who swerves. But I try to hold out as long as I possibly can — to make the point, if nothing else.

I started to note these spatial gender dynamics on city sidewalks, wondering if everyone shared my experience. Was I expected to step out of the way every time a man was headed in my direction? Was there an unwritten rule on this that I wasn’t aware of?

Like manspreading and other patriarchal practices of taking up too much space, sidewalk sexism is a way to exert power, to say “I own this space” and to say “you must step out of the way for me.”

I’ve learned this in my informal study: the pavement patriarchy never steps out of the way. It is a daily micro-reminder of who owns public space.

I conducted a super scientific study of observation — one hour on lower 5th Avenue, New York City. It’s worth asking if this is unique to New York (doubtful) or unique to major cities (possible). My theory is still evolving.

I’m interested in the micro-movements in the micro-moments, the split-second gestures of taking up sidewalk space — spreading arms or veering slightly towards, rather than away from, women on a sidewalk when there is ample space that could be shared.

Sure enough, I wasn’t the only woman who jumped out of the way in the face of an oncoming man with no plans to move. In my speedy study, I’d say about 70% of women stepped out of the way. The men continued on their path. That’s enough for me to see a pattern. And a problem.

So to further my so-scientific inquiry, I asked my fellow female pedestrians what they thought.

“I don’t care if I bodyslam anyone… why should I move?!” one said.

“I step out of the way for everyone. It’s what I was taught to do. Be polite.” said another.

Another woman explained that age and race all came into the picture for her. There is a clear intersectional element to this. And height, she said. “Overall, the taller person wins.”

At the same time, when looking down at our phones, sidewalk sexism no longer applies because we’re all the same type of jerk — iPhone zombies.

But the bottom line is that women are expected to behave on the sidewalk as they should in other parts of life as well — sweet and discreet. Don’t be too loud. Don’t demand attention. And certainly don’t take up too much space.

Read the full piece here.

The Gender Gap in the MENA Region

Rebecca O’Keeffe

Every year since 2006 the World Economic Forum releases a Global Gender Gap report which measures the difference between women and men in four areas: politics, economics, education, and health. This year 146 countries were analysed, 102 of which have been featured since the report’s inception making it a pretty constant and consistent index.

And there’s one thing that the report finds every year: no country has achieved gender parity. 

The 2022 report estimates it will take 132 years to close the gender gap globally, and while this represents an improvement from last year’s 136 years, the gap was 100 years in 2020. Obviously COVID-19 has had a detrimental impact but overall this gap represents a whole generation of backsliding. 

Now this number also masks huge discrepancies both between regions and indicators meaning progress on gender equality and, by extension, development, is actually incredibly uneven. 

So even though, globally, the health and education gender gaps are nearly closed, it will take 151 years to close the economic gap while political parity will take 155 years. 

In terms of regions, North America, the best performer, needs 59 years to close the gap whereas South Asia, the lowest ranked, needs 197 years to close the gender gap. 

Meanwhile, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has the second largest gap which will take 115 years to close. 

Last year MENA’s gap was 142 years. Progress, surely? 

Well, not exactly.

In 2006 the region had closed the gender gap by 55% and since then, they have managed to close the gap by 63%. In other words, it has taken 16 years to advance 8% which is a pretty glacial pace.

This year’s report is not entirely representative of current realities either. It must be noted that Mauritania, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen are not included this year. As such, there is a significant difference to the region’s overall scoring as these countries found themselves at the bottom of the table in 2021 where, out of 156 countries, they ranked 146, 152, 154, and 155 respectively. 

It is also worth highlighting that the report examines the Middle East and North Africa as a whole, including Israel, rather than isolating for Arab countries in particular. This has had some effect in terms of regional measurements as Israel typically does better than the Arab countries – this year it topped the region coming in at 60.  

In fact, the 2022 report shows only one Arab country – the UAE – makes the top 100 coming in at 68 followed by Lebanon (119), Tunisia (120), and Jordan (122). The rest of the region’s countries that are featured find themselves in the bottom 20, with Saudi Arabia ranking 127, followed by Egypt (129), Kuwait (130), Bahrain (131), Morocco (136), Qatar (137), Oman (139), and Algeria (140).

When we break it down by indicator there is a broad improvement in economic participation and opportunity with over half of the countries improving their scores, but there is still a lot of work to be done as only 46% of the gap has been closed. This means women in the region still have less than half the economic opportunity as men. 

Educational attainment is a source of optimism with the region achieving 96% parity. This, however, has not been translated into labour force participation which remains an issue across the region most likely due to discriminatory laws, strict gender norms, and harsh guardianship systems preventing women from entering the workforce. 

Even though the region performed well overall with regards to health and survival, life expectancy still lags behind with Bahrain, Algeria, Jordan, and Qatar among the worst global performers.

In terms of political empowerment, only the UAE has achieved parity at the parliamentary level, while Saudi Arabia remains at 0%. Saudi Arabia also has 0% for ministerial positions while Lebanon has the highest at 32%. Kuwait and Qatar are the region’s worst performers – and among the worst globally – for political parity and both still have over 96% of the gender gap to close. Notably, Tunisia appointed its first female Prime Minister, who also happens to be the first female head of government in the Arab region. 

Overall, these figures remain low despite more than half of all Arab states introducing quota systems to ensure greater political representation for women, suggesting that considerable structural barriers still exist for Arab women in politics.

So, what does all this mean and where to go from here?

The Arab region consistently performs the worst or near enough the worst across most social indicators in pretty much all indices. And the lived reality on the ground is likely much worse than the numbers allude to. Traditional patriarchal culture, protracted crises, lack of religious freedom, discriminatory legal frameworks, and chronic insecurity have contributed to this gap and stories from the region are overwhelmingly negative.

Arab women’s rights, in particular, are the source of much pessimism and can be characterised by patchy progress and major regress. And today, we are seeing a massive backlash against women’s rights and freedoms. The biggest indicator of peace in a country is how the country treats its women, therefore, it is no surprise that the region has one of the world’s widest gender gaps and has some of the worst records in terms of women’s rights.

Despite these poor records, however, there is good news. Arab women tirelessly continue to fight for their rights despite shrinking civil society space and increasingly repressive crackdowns. Civil society organisations and women’s social movements have been a leading force in shaping advancements in women’s rights across Arab states. Most importantly, young women are leading movements around the region pushing for change. 

This is the news we seldom hear but the stories that need to be told.

And we are hoping to do just that – in a book due for publication 2023. 

We will be looking at the last 50 years of Arab feminism – and what the next 50 will look like because there is a real need to understand what’s holding the region back and what forces are trying to drive it forward. 

We will document various milestones and challenges of Arab feminist movements against the backdrop of significant regional events. We aim to be representative of the region while identifying trends and patterns in each. Interwoven into the chronology will be interviews and dialogues with feminists from the region – essentially a narration of events and an insight into where they hope to go from here. Significantly, we aim to highlight young Arab feminists as a galvanising force.

We believe this book will be important insofar as it will draw together movements, voices, and actors from across the region thereby filling a critical gap in existing publications. Moreover, the focus on young feminists is important in mapping, and giving platform to, the future of gender equality in the Arab region.

To that end, we want to hear from you! We are conducting a survey aimed at Arab youth voices to gauge how feminism and activism has evolved and what hopes there are for the future.

You can find the survey through the following links:



If you’d like to contribute a little more in-depth please get in touch at:

Mind the (Gender) Gap

Lina AbiRafeh

It’s no secret — no country in the world has achieved equality. No, not a single one.

To prove this point, the World Economic Forum created its Global Gender Gap to explain that yes, a big fat gap exists between women and men in the areas of health, education, politics and employment — basically the core building blocks of our lives. If men and women aren’t equal in those foundational areas, they aren’t equal at all.

So, every year since 2006, the Global Gender Gap Report comes out, reminding us that (1) we are doing pretty badly so (2) we had better move faster or (3) we will have a gap forever.

Why track and quantify this grim stuff? To prove that it exists. To show that gender-based discrimination is alive and thriving. And to give us ways to understand how far all societies are from reaching their full potential.

Sure, we’ve had overall gains between 2006 and 2022. Marginal gains. Not-enough-for-me gains. WTF-is-taking-us-so-long gains. And now we have the latest gender gap report to tell us that we need 132 years to close the gender gap. Anyone planning to be around to see it happen?!

Sure, we’re doing better than we were in 2006 (one would hope!) — but even our measly progress hasn’t exactly been linear. In fact, it’s been all over the place, impacted by whatever socio-political stuff is at play at the moment. Meaning wars, recessions, and messy business like global pandemics all contribute to widening the gender gap and impeding progress for women.

So, when the world moves in the wrong direction, so does inequality.

The gap has increased at several intervals — for instance in 2017, the first time the gap had increased in a decade. In 2018, it was estimated to take 108 years to close the gender gap. At the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos that year, they called 2018 “the year for women to thrive.” So much for that claim. The gender gap increased again in 2021 due to COVID. And we’re still feeling the shocks of this. Are we thriving yet?!

At the country level, this year’s report covers 146 countries, 102 of which have been represented since 2006, making it a pretty consistent analysis. But still — no country has achieved gender parity.

The top ten economies did close the gap quite a bit, but as they say, the rich get richer, meaning the gap between the so-called best and worst countries is widening.

Germany records its highest score ever while Rwanda has been in the top 10 every year since it was first included in the Index in 2014.

Even back in 2006, Nordic countries performed best in terms of closing the gap. But even those guys haven’t closed their present-day gender gap. Still, Scandinavian countries perform well — four of the top five spots are Nordic.

Iceland leads the charge and has closed their gap by over 90%. This is the 12th year in a row Iceland has ranked most gender equal. More sharing of unpaid labor has been key to Iceland’s progress. Greater childcare and paternity leave provisions can help reduce the gender gap as the brunt of unpaid labor disproportionately falls to women.

Check out the top ten. And, pay attention to the bottom ten — and why they are consistently at the bottom.

The 2022 Global Gender Gap Report was just released last week. And now you know that no, it did not bring particularly good news. I will say again: we need 132 years to close the global gender gap. One hundred and thirty two years.

Last year it was 136 years. We’ve gained a whole four years! Is that reason to celebrate? Absolutely not.

In 2020, the gap needed 100 years to close. In 2021, this jumped up by 36 years — a whole generation. So, our micro-movements downward really don’t mean much, when you look at it across time. They mean very, very little.

The report confirms what we have always known to be true: there is a direct correlation between gender equality and the level of development in a country. And I have said over, over, over that the clearest indication of a country’s potential for peace, prosperity, progress is not in the type of government it has nor in the state of its economy — it is based on how a country treats its women.

And women should not have to wait 132 years.

Read the full piece here.

Abortion… a primer on pills, periods, privacy

Lina AbiRafeh

… cuz we might not know what we should know!

Nearly one week later and I’m still marinating in rage. Paralysis. And no idea how to channel this into something remotely useful.

I was 15 the first time I went to stand outside a Planned Parenthood office in solidarity with women who were trying to get an abortion.

I joined the ranks of the women who were calling for our rights to our bodily autonomy and integrity, our rights to our own choices, our rights to our lives. That was 1989. I have been screaming about this for over 30 years.

Today, I’m howling. My anger is all over the place. Should I…

…paint a ‘My Body, My Choice’ placard and hit the streets? Useful, but…

…galvanize for November elections and get the right people in office — who actually care about women’s rights? Useful, but…

…sign petitions and donate to campaigns? Useful, but…

…sit home and fume endlessly? OK, that’s not useful.

I need to do something that feels constructive to me — and right now. To each their own rage.

I was 19 when I had a pregnancy scare. A hiccup, really. But at 19, it was full blown panic. I could not imagine anything worse than being pregnant at that time.

I called the gynecologist. She sent over a prescription. I learned later that this was basically the equivalent of 3 birth control pills. While this is NOT a preferred method of emergency contraception, it’s what the doctor told me at the time.

I remember thinking Wait, that’s all?! Why didn’t I know this before? Why didn’t anyone ever tell me?

Oh that’s right, because we live in a world that doesn’t want women to know their bodies because then… Ohmygoddess! We might actually control them.

I didn’t know that the power to control my own fertility had been in my medicine cabinet the whole time. Now I’m not saying that’s true for all of us, but my point is this: we too often don’t even know what’s what.

So right now I’m going to be useful by breaking down contraception for those — like 19 year old me — who had no clue what to do.

What is going on? A quick — but no less infuriating — review.

In a move we all saw coming, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned Roe Vs Wade meaning there is no longer a constitutional right to abortion. Several states have a trigger ban which will automatically ban abortions, while others can decide whether to ban abortion or not. (Even the term “trigger ban” is incredibly ironic, considering we can’t manage to ban actual gun triggers… but that’s a rant for another time).

Anyway, all this in a country that does not offer universal childcare, has one of the worst parental leave policies, and currently has a baby formula shortage. There is even now a tampon shortage — while Viagra is still in abundant supply.

The consequences of this are frightening. I’ve written about it before, but in a nutshell:

Millions will be forced to travel to another state for an abortion — if they can afford it. Being denied an abortion amplifies poverty, as well as increases health problems — for mother and children. Women, especially women of color, have less access to quality health care, less access to contraceptives, less access to safe jobs and education. In our post-Roe world, life will be much worse for poor and minority women.

So, options explained.

What is birth control?

These are pills taken daily that stop ovulation with hormones. It is effective when taken correctly but it doesn’t always suit all women. IUDs (intrauterine device) are another option but again, don’t suit everyone and can be painful. (I hated mine. But that too is a story for another time).

People that are using tracking apps for their period and now being told to be cautious of how their data is being gathered. I just got an email from my period tracker, Flo. They’re launching a new feature called “Anonymous Mode” which will do as it says — ensure our anonymity. Meaning, if Flo got a request to identify a user, it wouldn’t be able to do it. Ha. Even without going anon, Flo assures us that our data is safe. We are living in strange and scary times.

OK, onward.

What is emergency contraception?

Also known as the morning after pill and commonly sold under the brand name Plan B, emergency contraception is one pill you take after sex (up to three or sometimes five days but best taken as soon as possible). Often taken after unprotected sex or a missed birth control pill, the emergency contraception essentially is used to stop ovulation. It is similar to birth control pills but not recommended to be used as contraception as it will only help prevent pregnancy after the first encounter.

What’s the abortion pill?

Medication abortions — abortion pills — account for over half of all US abortions. These pills are safe, legal, effective, and filling an ever-widening abortion access gap. They are made up of two two medications, Mifepristone and Misoprostol, and will stop a pregnancy growing. You will experience something similar to a miscarriage.

How can I get this stuff?

There is now a lot of talk about states potentially banning these abortion pills but this can lead to all kinds of legal dilemmas involving the FDA. Organizations have reported a massive increase in people buying abortion pills since the announcement. And stocking up — just in case. The fear is that more of us will resort to unsafe options due to lack of knowledge, fear, secrecy, stigma, and whatever other crap is thrown at us these days.

There are some good options. While they still exist. And — this goes without saying, but — they could use your funding and support right now. There are organizations shipping out pills, like Hey Jane, an online abortion clinic, or AidAccess, an international organization that can ship to the US. AidAccess also offers advance supply — for anyone who wants to stock up for possible future use. Plan C also helps us locate abortion pill providers.

Also check out I Need an A — a site helping people who need abortions figure out when/where/how to get them.

It’s not going to solve the problem. But it’s a start. There are many ways to channel our rage right now… this is one.

What else could we do?

So in the end, I didn’t get pregnant. Nor did I ever after that. And I never wanted to.

But in the end, this isn’t about me.

It’s not about MY rights. It’s about rights. Period.

Today, and for a long time to come, the fight continues.

Read the full post here.

Afghanistan, an earthquake, and what earthquakes mean for women…

Lina AbiRafeh

A 5.9 magnitude earthquake hit Afghanistan on Wednesday 22 June leaving more than 1000 dead, over 1500 injured, and 3000 homes destroyed. And with this being the worst earthquake in 20 years, the numbers are likely to rise.

At this stage, it is estimated that $15 million is needed just for immediate relief — emergency shelter, food, water, and sanitation. And even then, efforts have been disrupted due to telecommunications issues and poor weather conditions.

Afghanistan was already in the midst of a dire humanitarian situation. And we are ten months into Taliban rule, where women’s lives are being erased. This recent crisis has only compounded matters.

As if we needed another tragedy to remind the world that Afghanistan exists — and still needs support.

Afghanistan is only on the map when the news is bad. Meanwhile, the country has suffered multiple protracted crises for decades. In August of 2021, the Taliban reclaimed power and the US and international donors cut off funding to the country. Here’s the result: nearly 23 million people are suffering from extreme levels of hunger, with nine million at risk of famine. Millions are out of work and those still employed haven’t been paid.

And women… they’ve suffered immeasurably. After two decades and promises of freedom, women’s rights have been rolled back drastically. Families have been forced to sell their daughters in order to survive. This only scratches the surface.

This earthquake reminds me of Haiti. And Nepal. And what earthquakes do to women and girls.

How can a natural disaster discriminate against women? Don’t these tragedies affect everyone equally? Nope.

I’ll explain.

In 2010 I was deployed to Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake.

… where women living in camps were afraid to use the toilet — because of the risks they faced trying to get there.

… where girls as young as 9 were being raped by packs of 11-year old boys.

… where peacekeepers giving out food rations would offer “a little extra” to women who will do “a little extra” for them.

We’ve seen over and over how disasters affect women much more than men. And the worse the disaster, the more dramatic the impact on women.

A few years later, I was in Nepal for the humanitarian response following the 2015 earthquake. Of the 1.3 million people affected, about 53% were women.

Why? Women were home. Less able to escape. Encumbered by traditional clothing. Restricted in terms of freedom of movement. Also trying to save their children. We saw the same in the 2005 Tsunami. And then, more women drowned because they were never even taught to swim.

But when the disaster ends, it doesn’t seem to end for women. Even before disaster strikes, women are more vulnerable — particularly in patriarchal societies. Meaning, all societies.

With a disaster, this vulnerability is amplified.

Disasters bring out the best — and worst — in us. Initially we save each other, we support each other. But when the dust settles, and people realize what they’ve lost, women become increasingly targeted.

Women and girls face increased risk of violence — rape, trafficking, sexual exploitation, girl-child marriage.

I know this because I work in humanitarian emergencies — conflicts, natural disasters — the messy stuff in the world. And in the midst of that messy stuff, I work on preventing and responding to sexual violence — or trying to, anyway.

Here’s what I know:

Right after a war, or a natural disaster, in the midst of all that chaos — law and order, support and services, community networks — all these things are damaged and destroyed.

At the moment you’d expect us all to stick together — we don’t. At those times, sexual violence actually increases.

So — when we think the emergency is over — for women it is actually just beginning.

It is true for Haiti, for Nepal, for the Tsunami, for Hurricane Katrina, and now for Afghanistan. And many other tragedies in between.

So what are we going to do about it?!

My good friend, Afghanistan expert Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghaddam explained that the number of deaths will rise due to lack of rescue services, equipment and emergency services. Ambulance and rapid responder services in Afghanistan are derelict — or nonexistent. And, in the current heat, people will die, trapped in the rubble.

And women?

Sippi went on to say that lack of an adequate number of mobile female healthcare staff can prove problematic in an area which is very conservative, especially in remote places. “Emergency situations with large numbers of men and chaos is considered an unsuitable scenario for women to work in,” she explains. “This means a lack of services, assistance and support for women — at the moment they need it most.”

Read the full post here and how we can help.

Sexual violence in conflict and everywhere

Lina AbiRafeh

The last few weeks I’ve been talking about violence against women both in conflict and humanitarian settings and also in everyday life post-COVID. Actually, I’ve been talking about violence against women for over 30 years. And we’ve been dealing with it since the beginning of time.

I often wonder if this talking is actually doing anything. But then again, silence certainly isn’t an option. So here we go.

Sunday June 19 was the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Why do we need a day for this?

There is a day for just about everything — including World Toilet Day. Yes, really.

International days or anniversaries are important times to raise awareness, reflect on progress, show solidarity, mobilize political will, and collectively howl into the void about how far we have yet to go.

Secretly, I hate these days. I wish we didn’t need to have them. And this day to eliminate sexual violence in conflict most of all.

The UN Security Council first recognized sexual violence as a weapon and tactic of war in 2008 with resolution 1820. In 2015 the UN officially declared June 19 as the day to eliminate sexual violence in conflict.

The definition of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) includes “rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity” and can be perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys — directly or indirectly linked to a conflict.

This gruesome form of violence usually targets civilians and inflicts lifelong trauma that rips at the social fabric of already precarious and fragile societies.

CRSV is rife in humanitarian settings given political disruption, the breakdown of law, unstable economic conditions, rising inequality, increased militarization, and the disintegration of social security nets.

In short — chaos.

It can happen to anyone — but women and girls are disproportionately affected. And women peacebuilders and human rights defenders are often specifically targeted because of their visibility — and their work.

Why does this happen?

Unfortunately, the reason is the same everywhere, all the time — whether in conflict or not. We live in societies that are overwhelmingly patriarchal, and where deeply-rooted gender discrimination and systemic inequality persist.

This isn’t just conflict — it’s everywhere. And it’s not just “over there” — it’s right here.

say this time and again.

The global statistic 1 in 3 women and girls will experience some form of violence in their lifetime is not only true, it is likely underestimating the reality. And most of that violence is intimate partner violence.

It is an everyday experience for most women everywhere.

Conflict situations serve to compound existing forms of violence — especially sexual violence and harmful practices like girl-child marriage. But we can do better to prevent these things from happening — or at least to mitigate the risks faced by women and girls. And if we tackle this before conflict, we reduce the likelihood of its occurrence during and after conflict.

So… exactly how much progress have we made in eliminating sexual violence in conflict?

Crimes often go unreported due to fear and cultural stigma, lack of trust in authorities, or because of the disintegration of safety and services. It is estimated that for every rape reported in conflict, 10–20 go undocumented.

But we do know that it happens. And the list of places where sexual violence has been used as a tactic of war is LONG.

From Bosnia to the DRC, from Haiti to Rwanda, from Iraq to Sudan… I could go on, but you get my point.

Given the prevalence of systematic sexual violence against women in ongoing conflicts — TigraySyriaUkraine, and Myanmar to name but a few — it would seem we a) have learned nothing and b) are nowhere near its elimination.

Take Ukraine just as one example. According to a study, in Ukraine 62% of displaced women experienced intimate partner violence at home while 1 in 5 experienced violence at the hands of armed men.

The International Committee of the Red Cross maintains sexual violence in conflict is seldom an isolated issue. Sexual violence is part of a larger pattern of violence that can include torture, killing, looting, and child recruitment. It can also result in the emergence of new forms of violence, such as survival sex and trafficking.

We do a lot of talk about sexual violence in conflict. We read a lot of media reports gasping in horror — and often re-victimizing those they claim to be helping. We hear a lot of ‘condemnations’ through UN resolutions and reports. We see a lot of violent images. We know that such violence is punishable under various international laws.

So far very little of this has resulted in concrete change on the ground. I know this because I spent decades working in this field.

And so far, this crime continues to happen, very often with total impunity.

So, where does that leave us? Another international day and not a lot of progress. In the end, these international days come and go — and they are just one day, after all. But for women in conflict, sexual violence is not isolated to a day, or a tweet, or a UN condemnation or a petition to sign. It is a constant fear. A daily reality. A frightening byproduct of war — wars waged by men on the bodies of women.

It is not an International Day. It is every damn day.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to sit around waiting. We need action.

It’s so much bigger than me, I hear you say. Yes, it is. It is big.

There’s no way I can possibly help, I hear you say. Nope, that’s not true.

There is always something you can do. And — we all have to do something.

So, what can we do, like, really?!

Click here to read what you can do.

We think COVID is over… but not for women

Lina AbiRafeh

Last week I wrote about surviving a crisis. I shared my learnings from work in emergency humanitarian aid over two decades and how it might be relevant in our daily, hopefully less urgent, lives.

At the same time, in January of 2020, we were all in it together when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared an international public health emergency. Whether or not you feel this was warranted — I know the jury is still out on how we all responded to this crisis — the reality is that over 6.3 million people have died, a disproportionate amount of which have been in the US.

Most people would argue that COVID is over. We are, in many ways, in the era AC — After COVID. But for whom is it over, really? And who is going to bear the brunt of this pandemic for years to come?


For whatever you might think of our almost-normal lives, women (1) have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and (2) will continue to pay a significant socio-economic toll.

Let’s start with the gender gap. That’s the distance we’ve got between men and women for equality — looking at health, education, politics, and the economy.

In the era BC, Before COVID, the gender gap was 100 years. Meaning, we’d need 100 years to achieve equality in those areas I mentioned. Now, we need 136 years. The gap has increased a whole generation because of COVID. And it’s even wider at the regional level, where inequalities are magnified.

Overall, the pandemic led 97 million more people into poverty in 2020. The virus, increasing inflation, and the Ukraine conflict will lead to an additional 75 million to 95 million people in extreme poverty in 2022.

That’s a lot of millions of people. What does that actually mean?! Poverty means a lack of access to basic needs such as food, water, housing, healthcare, and education. In terms of measurement, according to the World Bank extreme poverty is measured as the number of people living under $1.90 per day.

In the economy, divisions are stark. The pandemic resulted in lost jobs for women — who already hold the majority of insecure, informal and lower-paying jobs. An estimated 740 million women work in the informal economy. During the first month of the pandemic, it is estimated that informal workers lost an average of 60% of their income. Informal jobs are the first to disappear in times of crisis and as one example, 72% of domestic workers worldwide lost their jobs as a result of COVID.

Globally, women already perform three times more unpaid care work than men. As a result of the pandemic, men and women both report an increase in unpaid work but it is women who continue to be burdened with the bulk of it. And more specifically, when schools closed, 61.5% of mothers took on the brunt of additional care work — it’s been called a “momcession”.

Formally, women are the majority of healthcare workers and frontline workers. They constitute 70% of the world’s healthcare force which has exposed them to greater risk of infection and other health issues.

In the first year of the pandemic, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25%, prompted largely by the unprecedented levels of stress caused by isolation measures. Also linked was loneliness, fear, grief, and people’s inability to work. Or to function productively. Data indicates that women were more severely impacted than men, with mental health issues that will take a long while to address. In the US, Total Brain — a self-monitoring mental health platform — found 83% of their women users reported a significant increase in depression, compared with just 36% of men. And 98% of women are at risk of general anxiety disorder compared to 67% of men.

In terms of education, an estimated 10 million children may never return to school as a result of the pandemic — more girls than boys. Girls face a vicious cycle of risk, impacted by all forms of violence — particularly forced marriage and teenage pregnancy — which increases the longer they are out of school.

Girls are left behind to take on greater roles at home, and also to get married. The pandemic means we will see an additional 10 million girl-child marriages because, in order to offload the economic burden, families will have no choice but to sell off their girls. Female genital mutilation is also increasing, with 2 million additional cases likely to occur as a result of COVID.

Adult women are also severely impacted by COVID-related violence. Since the outbreak, data and reports show how all forms of violence against women and girls have increased. We already know that 1 in 3 women worldwide will experience some form of violence in their lifetime. We already know that this figure drastically underestimates reality.

Worldwide, the most common form of violence against women is intimate partner violence. Isolation measures meant many people were trapped with their abusers. Increased demand for services exposed the weaknesses in current support systems. They were never strong enough to begin with, even BC. Ultimately, the global health crisis took priority, reallocating already-scant resources for women’s health and safety. In any emergency, these are usually the first to go, and the last to return.

This “shadow pandemic” has been extensively documented all around the world, with more stories still emerging. And this type of violence doesn’t just go away once the pandemic is declared “over.” In fact, intimate partner violence happens in a cycle because it is hardly ever “over.” Over the long term, poverty and lack of education will drive this up even further as people get locked into cycles of poverty and cannot leave situations of abuse.

And, despite the fact that we restricted our mobility, stayed home, and masked up, we were still catcalled. Still.

Catcalling got worse during the pandemic?! Yes.

Some argue it is a way for perpetrators to channel pandemic-related frustration — unemployment, loss of power, isolation, and so on — and get attention, vent, or reclaim power.

Masks did little to reduce catcalling. Unsurprisingly, men still find ways to make women uncomfortable, even when their faces are covered.

Not only did catcalls increase, but women felt less safe in public due to empty streets and increased vulnerabilities. Safety in numbers, they say. And streets felt less safe. A UK-based survey found that during lockdown, 52% of girls felt less safe because there were fewer people around to help, and 43% felt there were fewer public places to go to feel safe.

The same survey found that less cases of catcalling were reported than in previous years, due to the fact that 26% did not feel that it would not be taken seriously. And 23% believed this was due to a different priority — the pandemic.

Meanwhile, despite the data — in BC or AC — the challenges faced by women and girls continue. And the response continues to be gender blind.

Even as we hope to be AC — After COVID — It’s hard to remain hopeful. Pandemic or not, women everywhere deserve better.

Read the full post here.

Violence Against Women in the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Lifeline

Rebecca O’Keeffe

The podcast Essential Voices with Wilmer Valderrama recently released an episode called ‘Lifelines’ which discussed sexual and domestic violence and the particular effect COVID has had on this issue. The episode featured essential worker Solange Ramkissoon; actor and advocate Gabrielle Union; and gender-based violence expert Lina AbiRafeh. 

Solange Ramkissoon described her work as a sexual violence advocate with SAVE (Sexual Assault and Violence Education). As part of a sexual assault response team, they operate a hotline for survivors of sexual violence. Gabrielle Union mentioned how, as a rape survivor, she has been using and recommending these services for nearly 20 years and has never heard of them being referred to as essential – even though they are lifesaving. They are the real superheroes. 

Ramkissoon outlined the massive impact the pandemic has had for survivors in terms of juggling health, familial wellbeing, insecurity, and employment uncertainty on top of the violence they may be experiencing. But it should be noted that this issue is everywhere, everyone, all the time – COVID or not. And the statistic is really disturbing as AbiRafeh highlighted:

“One in three women and girls worldwide are going to experience some form of violence, and that’s just what we know. And that’s in the so-called normal times. So let’s bring in a COVID, or a disaster, or a war and everything that happens is going to get much worse.”

COVID has not only created new forms of abuse, but it has amplified and made existing forms of violence – intimate partner violence and sexual violence – so much worse. Women and girls are always the most vulnerable in any crisis, and that vulnerability is just magnified. 

Most notable, however, was the issue of privacy. Union added that due to COVID, some people were in the exact same space as their abusers which presented so many other obstacles, “Where do you find the space to make the call and to speak unedited and to get the help that you need? Where is that space? Where is that privacy?

People were now isolated, confined to home, and couldn’t connect like before. As a result, there was a wave of quietness for a period which was very concerning for the service providers. But we know sexual violence didn’t stop. Survival mode kicked in and getting help was not the main priority anymore.

And this happens on a macro-level too. AbiRafeh, who has worked on this issue for 25 years in over 20 countries, referred to it as the “tyranny of the urgent” meaning already scarce resources for women are reduced or redirected. These are the programs that tend to see funding stripped first and revived last. In this instance, critical resources – shelters or safe spaces, services, support, hotlines, health care – were redirected for COVID. 

But, what could be more important? AbiRafeh continued, “In all the countries I’ve been in, all around the world, you know, there’s really nothing more important than being safe and free and comfortable in your own body, in your own home, in your school, on the street, in the market, in the office, in public office.”

And that’s the thing, sexual violence – as underreported as it is – “permeates every industry, every part of society, every culture, every community”, as Union put it. It is a normalized experience and every woman has a story. All of us are victims because even “the fear of violence is a form of violence”, as AbiRafeh said.

But how many victims will it take before the problem is eradicated? AbiRafeh described it this way: “What’s your magic number right now to make a difference here? One hundred? One thousand? If there’s a number for you, and it’s going to make a difference, I assure you, we’ve got that number and more” Ultimately though, AbiRafeh insists, “even one is one too many, and that’s what we should be saying.”

So what can be done?

Understanding how pervasive it actually is and how it affects individuals, families, communities, and countries will help tackle the issue. The best predictor of peace, prosperity, and progress in a country isn’t about the government, or the economy. It’s about equality. It’s about how you treat your women because that tends to be the most marginalized parts of the community. Everybody deserves dignity, equality, respect, rights, bodily autonomy, safety and security. These are basics.

The way we deal with sexual violence is flawed on so many levels. There’s still a lot of shame around sexual violence and the utilization of services. There needs to be a societal shift where we talk about it, normalize it, and see what work needs to be done – having these conversations is the only way we’ll end it. 

But we need to start young. AbiRafeh recommended normalizing conversations around bodily autonomy and consent, having universal sex education, and seeing rights as rights for everyone:

“This has to be from the fetus to the funeral. You know, it’s your body from day zero. And we really need to see it that way. And for me, it’s not something that I’m willing to tolerate in my lifetime, and I certainly don’t want to hand this on to the next generation. I’d like us to fix it.” 

Union is adamant about using her platform to center the most marginalized people in society, and in so doing, believes it to be the most effective way to combat the issue:

“What this work does is center the needs of the most marginalized in this particular movement, talking about sexual violence, but also in all of the things that I do. That’s just how it has to go. When you sign up for me, you sign up for all the marginalized folks.”

Both Union and AbiRafeh believe listening is vital to responding to sexual violence. Don’t listen to react, don’t ask “What were you wearing?” or “What did you do?” or “Why don’t you leave?” Just listen. But you might also be a resource or a lifeline for someone so ask what it is you can do, how you can be of service, and know that there are services and support available. There is no one way to heal, but we need to support each other through it. It’s about all of us.

This problem is absolutely everywhere. But you can make a difference and it starts in your own little circle, with your own behavior – change the narrative, call out your friends. Whatever you’ve got at your disposal, in your little circle, you can make change there.  As AbiRafeh said, “Start where you stand, wherever you are.”

Listen to the podcast here.