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Young feminists on the move!

Young people – particularly young women – are on the rise, leading feminist movements around the world. They are taking a stand and making big strides – they see what’s happening in their communities and around the world, and they’ve had enough. Now more than ever, we need the leadership of young people, to drive forward the kind of transformation we need. 

Young women are leading the charge for change. We’re seeing this everywhere – from Afghanistan to Alabama, from India to Iran, from Tonga to Texas.

And these days, there’s more reason to rise up than ever. I’ve said over and over and over – we’re just not doing that well. Equality is farther than ever, and every single one of our basic rights is at risk. Yes, everywhere. 

At the same time, young women’s movements are bringing us hope. They’re rising up relentlessly – often in the face of great risk. And they’re just not taking any crap.  

Young women are lighting figurative – and literal – fires everywhere. This fight isn’t about other women, over there – it’s all of us. In Iran, the movement ignited following the murder of Mahsa Amini is the fire sparking the feminist revolution in Iran. Following Amini’s death, brave women took to the streets to declare their call to action: Women! Life! Freedom! 

On November 10th, the UN General assembly called on Afghanistan’s Taliban to stop restricting women’s human rights. Women and girls are guilty simply for being women and girls – and women’s rights in Afghanistan have been on the decline since the Taliban reclaimed power in August of 2021. Women – especially young women – are taking a stand there, too.

In a recent article on Afghanistan, an Afghan woman asked: “When you have no freedom in your own country, then what does it mean to live here?” The same question can be asked by any woman today, in any country. Yes, even the US. Countries can not deny freedom, equality, rights to half of their population. All women – and particularly young women – are not going to let that happen.

On November 8th, young American women demanded to be heard. The overturning of Roe v. Wade has lit a fire amongst young women voters – they aren’t going back. The US Midterm Elections were supposed to bleed red, however young feminists demonstrated who really has the power. The strong turnout from young voters turned the red wave into light pink. 

The message from young feminists is clear: we are young AND feminist AND we will turn the vote. Or take to the streets. Or do whatever it takes. 

There’s a lot of conversation about young women’s feminist activism and leadership. I recently came across a guide by the World YWCA on how to consult young women-led feminist movements. This methodology differs from others in that it is meant to ignite transformation. That’s how I feel too – even raising key issues helps plant the seeds for change. The World YWCA Methodology centers girls and women in all their diversity, using a democratic and decolonized approach to place power firmly in the hands of young women as the architects of their own lives and choices. 

In fact, the World YWCA built this perspective from what they call Goal 2035, a quest for 100 million young women and girls to transform power structures to create justice, gender equality, and a world without violence and war. Goal 2035 aligns with other global goals including the Sustainable Development Goals to fully realize the potential of women and girls and the urgent need to bring forth change. 

All of that stuff is great on paper. But what does it mean in practice?

Full blog linked here!

“Humanitarian Day”… and we’re still harassed

Lina AbiRafeh

Today is World Humanitarian Day, a day we celebrate people who help people. I used to be one of those people, so I’ve got a lot to say about it.

Firstly, the backstory. World Humanitarian Day was born out of tragedy. On 19 August 2003, a bomb attack in Iraq killed 22 humanitarian aid workers. In 2008, the United Nations designated 19 August as World Humanitarian Day.

That’s today. Again.

Today we’re supposed to renew our commitment to advocate for those affected by crisis — while also not compromising our safety and security in the process. And we are at risk — this is undeniable.

In 2021, 460 aid workers were attacked: 140 killed, 203 wounded, and 117 kidnapped.

But there are other risks, too.

Three years ago, a group of female humanitarians — friends, colleagues, women I admire whose work has spanned decades and regions — got together to discuss. The result was an impromptu social media poll with over 600 responses in a matter of days.

What challenges do you face in the field, we asked?

41% of respondents said sexual harassment was their biggest concern.

We couldn’t leave it there. Individually and collectively, we four had been working to promote women’s rights and gender equality in the countries we’d worked in — and within the system itself. And in all our experience, we continuously argued that aid agencies should be — claim to be! — champions for gender equality but that female employees face violence and discrimination from within the system.

This isn’t just us — there’s tons of research to back this up.

We had spent hours, days, years in the field lamenting the “cowboy culture” of our humanitarian work, where women are told that they must “handle” the harsh realities of the work — or find a job elsewhere.

We released an article on 19 August 2019. That year, World Humanitarian Day was dedicated to women — the “unsung heroes”. We argued that praise rings hollow without real change — and even more so when the women they celebrate are victims of the system.

Our article — Praise for female aid workers rings hollow when harassment is pervasive — is now three years old. It’s worth asking… What has changed?

In our article, we noted that respondents — our colleagues — felt that the system rewards sexism and discrimination and hides abuses, while simultaneously paying lip service to “gender equality”.

Violence and discrimination exists within aid agencies — it exists everywhere. But aid agencies lack safe and confidential reporting mechanisms.

More than 400 women shared stories describing a culture of sexual exploitation and discrimination — where they are mocked for arguing in favor of their own safety and forced to tolerate the “boys club” culture that pervades. They shared being denied opportunities like equal pay, benefits, and protections — simply because they are women.

We noted that the discrimination we face is layered. National women and those with intersecting marginalized identities face much greater obstacles than expatriate women.

Some women were told they were “too young and too pretty” to be managing complex emergencies — and perhaps should serve as the admin instead.

Gosh! What do women want?!

Our article outlined solutions. Like equal treatment, greater leadership, and, ultimately, a shift in the humanitarian culture.

We want to dismantle the unequal distribution of power.

We said it then — and we still want it.

Read the full article here.

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.

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.

Weathering the Storm: what decades of humanitarian aid taught me about real life

Lina AbiRafeh

The world seems pretty bleak right now. We’re hardly managing one crisis before another hits. We’ve got too much on our equality and rights agenda — with most of it moving backwards.

I think back on my experience in humanitarian emergencies. Surely there’s something we can learn from those decades of work — the stuff we need to build resilience (even though I hate that word!) before an emergency hits. We can either be proactive, reactive, or ridiculously unprepared.

Let’s start with a story. On April 25, 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the country of Nepal. Nearly 9000 people died. 22,000 were severely injured. The most deadly earthquake the country had experienced in over 80 years. The capital city, Kathmandu, was flattened, buildings were toppled, landslides and avalanches occurred in the Himalayas. 600,000 homes were destroyed. One-third of the population was affected. Hundreds of thousands of people fell into poverty. The losses were extreme. Worse, the country continued to experience significant aftershocks — almost as strong as the original earthquake itself.

Prior to this tragedy, in early April, I had taken some time off work. I planned to spend a few weeks preparing for my upcoming TEDx talk, a talk that would summarize the work I’d been doing for the last two decades — responding to humanitarian emergencies around the world.

I had just begun staring at the blank sheet of paper on which the talk would magically appear when the earthquake happened. I dropped the pen and started to pack. The next day, I was on a plane to Nepal. And the page remained blank.

When something like this happens — a large-scale humanitarian emergency — a system is activated. I was once part of that system. My work focused specifically on sexual violence in humanitarian emergencies. Along with colleagues working on food, shelter, education, and other critical needs people face in emergencies, I was working on protecting people — women and girls in particular. That’s because, in an emergency, all the challenging things that used to exist before become much worse. All the forms of violence that women and girls face everywhere — in every country, every space, all the time — are now everywhere. All forms of violence increase — and new ones are created.

This was Nepal. And all the other countries I’ve worked in like Congo, Haiti, Chad, Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka. And every single country. And the US in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And as a result of the COVID pandemic. No country is above this or immune to it. In this one crappy respect, we’re all the same.

Can’t you prepare before this stuff happens?!

Yes — sorta. Before I deploy, before there’s an emergency, before there’s an earthquake, before any of this, I need to be ready.

To start, there’s the physical prep. A go-bag — so you can get up, get it, and go, quite literally. It’s the stuff you know you need no matter what. Even those who don’t work in emergency settings have an idea of what they might put in their go-bag — it’s what you’d take with you if your house was on fire. Cash, medicine, passport, essential supplies, the things you need, the things you absolutely can’t live without. You might not have it ready, but you know what it is.

I’d bring things like a sleeping bag, a headlamp, granola bars, tampons, maybe even hot sauce. For two decades, I was always packed, go-bag at the ready. (Today, my suitcases are out of sight, and I savor the sweet relief of going nowhere!)

It’s not just about the physical contents of the bag. Sure, there’s a war-weary duffel bag sitting by the door. But it’s also the mental preparation. My go-bag was just as much mental as it was physical. I had to think through what I would need for myself, the tools to operate, the calm to maintain in crisis, the task ahead — and how to get it done as best I could.

So there I am. The earthquake happens, my go-bag is ready and I fly off the next day. At 30,000 feet, I’m reading about Nepal. I’m absorbing information, understanding who’s there, who’s doing what, what the country looks like, what the landscape is like. Nepal is largely rural, and rural areas were severely affected and nearly inaccessible. How would we reach those areas? What organizations were already there?

So, what happens?

A group of key agencies who work in humanitarian emergencies — the Inter-Agency Standing Committee — decide how serious the situation is, and designate a level (one, two, or three), with each level corresponding to a protocol to follow.

Level Three is where I lived — global emergencies requiring all the effort, energy, and human and financial resources we’ve got. So it’s all hands on deck, as they say. No regrets, as we say. Meaning, better to get too many people out there than too few. Get everyone out, roll up your sleeves, and start doing the work.

And there’s money. Depending on the emergency. Donors can dump into the pooled Central Emergency Response Fund, accessible (through somewhat complicated bureaucratic procedures) so we can do the work we know needs doing.

There’s a coordination team managing all of this, meeting every day in order to understand the situation, what’s happening, who needs help, and how we’re going to help them.

What does this mean for women?

In an emergency, bad things get worse. And working on sexual violence prevention and response is already a bad thing — even on a “good day”. In fact, there are no good days. Even without emergencies, this — the fact that sexual violence even exists — is an emergency for women.

In emergency contexts, I have to work with other actors to ensure that we are doing everything we can to prevent violence and mitigate risk. For instance, are shelters safe? Do women and girls have a space for themselves? Is food distributed in a way that ensures that women aren’t going to be exploited accessing their share? Are bathrooms safe, lit, lockable? And so on. Incidents happen when we don’t pay attention to those things.

I also would bring together the wide range of actors working on sexual violence to help them coordinate efforts. What are we doing? Who is doing it? Where? And — most importantly — what work is not being done? Leave no one behind.

What’s the plan?

As a retired humanitarian, I think of myself as perpetually living in an emergency. I’m always putting out fires, even if I’m not on the frontlines anymore. We all have our own frontlines — and we might as well be prepared for them.

For instance — a global pandemic. Who predicted that?!

So just in case you need it, I’ve laid out my crisis management plan and you can read it in full here.

Or, check out the speech I gave in 2021 called “Weathering the Storm.”

Mother’s Day Musings: What does it mean to be a mother in war?

Lina AbiRafeh

The Gnostics ask: “How long will men make war?”

And the answer? “As long as women have children.”

There are so many ways to interpret this, but one explanation is this: Men make war because women have children. Women are breeders of soldiers.

Or so is said. But this seems rather simplistic. There’s a lot more to say about war and womanhood. And motherhood in particular. Here goes.

This past weekend was Mother’s Day in the US. We should spend every day honoring our literal and figurative ability to mother — whether we are actually “mothers” or not. But more importantly, in these dark days, we should honor the critical need for that to be a choice.

I don’t need to tell you that recent developments in the United States have made that choice extremely precarious. America seems on its way to severely limiting — or erasing — women’s reproductive rights.

To me, this is nothing short of a war against women. And, given that it was just Mother’s Day, I started thinking about the experiences of mothers in the context of war. What happens when basic rights are stripped away, when choice is restricted, when social safety nets are destroyed?

What struck me was the universality of it all. How, despite contextual and geographical differences, the experience of mothers in war is really the same. And by “the same,” I mean women (and children) are hardest hit.

Despite this, women are seldom seen as a protection priority in war and its aftermath. I spent too many years working in too many emergencies, watching the “tyranny of the urgent” hijack women’s rights and needs.

Aside from the war against women in the US, I wanted to take a grim tour of other ongoing wars to examine the experience of mothers.

Ukraine… forced migration is a crisis for women

Since February, over 5.5 million persons have been forced to leave the country, with an additional 7.7 million internally displaced. The majority of refugees and displaced persons are women and children — military conscription prevents men aged between 8–60 from leaving.

The result? Families are separated.

In Ukraine, this crisis of forced migration is a crisis for women, and for mothers most of all. We’ve probably all seen the powerful photos of strollers left at train stations for Ukrainian women arriving with babies.

But what happens when initial goodwill and meager state provisions for refugees dry up? How will mothers survive? How will they pay for rent, get a job to pay the rent, and find affordable child care so they can work to pay for said rent and child care?

Unsurprisingly, Ukrainian mothers now face “a higher-stakes version of the problem that working mothers face all over the world: how to find both affordable child care and employers willing to accommodate their needs as parents.

The risks and challenges are magnified by the refugee experience — and in the long-term, support will dwindle, along with our attention spans. Whatever remains will likely be gender blind, ignoring the plight that mothers fleeing war continue to face, not just in Ukraine, but everywhere.

Afghanistan… still the world’s worst place to be a woman

Both the Global Gender Gap Report and the Women, Peace and Security Index rank Afghanistan as the world’s worst place to be a woman.

Since the Taliban (re)takeover, women and girls have suffered disproportionately. The dire humanitarian situation, combined with policies introduced by the Taliban, have severely deprived women’s access, movement, expression, and opportunity — in short, their freedom.

One in five women in Afghanistan are widows, according to the World Widows Report. Their plight is extremely difficult. Single mothers in Afghanistan have always faced marginalization and increased risk of poverty — now this is much worse. Fewer protections and a hunger crisis have pushed single mothers to the brink — they can no longer feed their children and have no support.

And yet what do mothers tell their children when things go badly?

My friend in Afghanistan told me this:

Mothers are concerned about their children’s safety, and their unknown future in a land that was only just beginning to be free. These kids, they may not be able to continue with their education. And girls, they now have the sense that they are unequal, less-than. We fought so hard to rid them of this very feeling.

Yemen… a forgotten emergency

Yemen is not far from Afghanistan as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Negative gender stereotypes and patriarchal attitudes, a discriminatory legal system, and economic inequality have compounded women’s vulnerability to violence.

Add in one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, and the situation seems impossibly bleak. The country is on the brink of famine, the economy has collapsed, and nearly 4 million people have been displaced. The latest figures estimate 24 million people are in need of assistance, nearly 13 million of which are children.

Mothers and children particularly feel the effects of the conflict. And this is a conflict we hardly hear about. It’s not on our radar at all, no media attention, no critical conversations about life-saving efforts. Nothing.

Child marriages are increasing as impoverished families use this as a means for survival. The situation is that bad.

One woman and six newborns die during childbirth or pregnancy every two hours in Yemen — because they can’t access health facilities and get the care they need. Children who lose their mothers have less chance of survival due to infection, disease, malnutrition.

The worst part? These deaths are preventable.

But even when there is access to health facilities, the war-torn economy and lack of governmental policies and protections leaves little chance for the situation to improve.

Tigray… when bodies become battlegrounds

The situation in Tigray has been characterized by massacres, weaponised sexual violence, and ethnic cleansing. The UN determines that 90% of the population of Tigray — over 5 million people — are in need of life-saving humanitarian assistance. And, no surprise, the vast majority are women and children. There’s a theme here.

One mother described the destitution she feels, being utterly helpless for her starving child: “Listening to his cries, there are days when I contemplate killing myself.”

And as for violence against women, too many accounts of abuse, slavery, violence, and torture of women and girls have emerged. Reports have documented sexual violence, in particular sexual slavery, on a shocking scale — perpetrated by all sides of the conflict.

Women and girls in Tigray are continuously being targeted for rape and all forms of sexual violence. “Now, a mother is raped in front of her child or her husband”, resulting in massive physical and psychological damage.

And, as usual, the numbers seriously underestimate the reality.

And, as usual, the international community is shockingly silent.

Myanmar… women resist, and violence persists

Continued military airstrikes, anti-coup militias, and blockades mean 14.4 million people are in need of aid in Myanmar. This has also meant the continuation — and escalation — of sexual violence against women and girls, particularly the Rohingya. Women have remained staunch in their resistance, but have been targeted by the military as a result.

The all-female fighter group, The Myaung Warriors, have a motto, “the hand that swings a baby’s hammock can also be part of the armed revolution.” They are committed to fighting systemic abuse for their children’s future and want to ensure women are part of reconstruction efforts.

The women’s resistance group has been at the forefront of demonstrations and women’s participation in civil disobedience in Myanmar is not new. But the women continue to face traditional gender norms that see them sidelined from peace processes.

Mothers as victims, mothers as fighters

So there’s a theme of shared vulnerability here. And many more crises we could cover. We’ll hear the same thing over and over — that women have it hardest, and mothers are suffering because they are responsible for the survival of their children.

There’s something to be said for that image of the mother who, in a time of crisis, finds physical and emotional strength to protect her child. Does it have to get to this, though?!

Women are hardest hit by crises and are under-represented in peace-making and all aspects of recovery.

While women — particularly mothers — are victims, that is not all they are. Positioning them in this light marginalizes and denies women and their agency. Such beliefs reinforce patriarchal views that a woman’s worth is tied only to her ability to reproduce and care for children. A conversation happening just about everywhere right now.

What does it even mean to be a mother? There’s a lot of ideological weight behind this term. In war, this is even messier. War has long been viewed as “men’s business” — in simplistic and stereotypical ways. And “women’s business” is relegated to more nurturing pursuits — like mothering. Men sacrifice for their country, women sacrifice for their children. Or so goes the cliché.

It is worth stating that women can play a range of roles in war and crises, with complex relationships to militaries, conflict, and violence insofar as they can be agents, perpetrators, and/or victims.

The 2007 book Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics presents a feminist re-evaluation of what is deemed to be appropriate female behavior, too often riddled with stereotypes and stripped of agency. The authors put it this way:

Women can be violent, politically active, wives/mothers, or all three, because women’s lives are complicated, and they are complicated in a world where gender subordination influences their lives in many, multi-directional, ways.

Motherhood is a diverse role with a definition that is constantly in flux. But the common theme is this: Being a mother remains a challenge the world over. Women, mothers, and children are the ones disproportionately affected by conflict or disaster.

But here’s the thing — you don’t need to be in a warzone to experience the stripping away of rights. It happens everywhere. It is happening everywhere.

Being a mother brings risks. But being a mother should always be a choice.

Read the full article here.

The Plight of Afghan Refugees and the Failure of the Outside World

Photo credit of CNN


Is the photo above familiar to you? It most likely is. The so-called “Afghan Girl,” recognized primarily for her blazing green eyes, has been a tragic symbol of the Afghan refugee crisis for almost 40 years. The Western world has profited off her troubled image in newspapers, magazines, documentaries, and more, though very little has been done to understand her plight and help her to safety — a situation very symbolic of the refugee crisis as a whole. This is her story, the story of Afghan refugees, and the story of how they have been largely failed by the outside world.

It is important to understand that the Afghan refugee crisis has existed long before the tragic Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021. The international community first began seeing massive influxes of Afghan refugees in the 1970s and 1980s, when 6.2 million Afghans crossed the Iranian and Pakistani borders to escape the rise of a Communist regime. In the decades that followed, more and more Afghan refugees — fleeing war, political upheaval, social crises, and economic insecurity — reached the E.U, the U.S, Australia, and other locations beyond the MENA region. Tragically, many were forcibly returned, their asylum claims rejected by various countries. Pakistan and Iran heavily restricted the political and economic rights of Afghan refugees, and often used discriminatory legal actions and violent tactics to “voluntarily” repatriate Afghans. Afghan women arguably suffered the greatest restriction of rights in Pakistan, with local attitudes towards women in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa barring them from exiting their homes in the presence of strangers.

One must acknowledge the severe economic and social strain associated with processing a massive influx of refugees in a short amount of time, especially when cultural and linguistic barriers exist between the host country and country of origin. Yet, one must also question whether such strain is reason enough for a nation to violate international human rights legislation by denying refugees safety and by returning thousands to a country where they face persecution, extreme insecurity, or death. I say not.

We have all seen the desperate scenes from Kabul in August 2021.

We all watched as thousands of terrified Afghans tried to push themselves past airport barricades and onto U.S. airplanes, desperate to escape the Taliban. Amidst the chaos and tragedy at the Kabul airport, approximately 123,000 civilians (80% of whom were women and children) were evacuated from Afghanistan over the span of several weeks. Some were U.S, U.K, or other foreign nationals, while others were activists, former translators, or employees that had supported embassies and international organizations. 

By the end of 2021, the Taliban was in full control of Afghanistan, and there were approximately 2.7 million Afghan refugees in the world. Up to 3 million Afghans were internally displaced, 2.4 million of whom were women and children. 

Where did all of these refugees end up? 

An estimated 2.2 million are in Pakistan and Iran, where they continue to face injustices. Many of those evacuated through the Kabul airport were taken to emergency processing centers in Germany, Spain, Qatar, the UAE, and Uzbekistan, though their journey beyond became much more complicated. In a time when international unity and open-door policies were needed the most, the world became more closed-off to Afghan refugees than ever before.

Some countries, such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, offered only to help Afghans transit to other countries. Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran, which had previously served as the most active transit and host countries for Afghan refugees, announced they did not have capacity to take in more refugees, choosing instead to tighten border security and call on Western countries to bear the brunt of the influx. However, while nations such as France, Germany, the U.S, the U.K, and Australia did accept thousands of refugees, much of the E.U. expressed firm opposition to opening its borders, citing fears of a repeat of the 2015 Syrian migrant crisis.

And even then, most (if not all) of the countries that did take in refugees struggled — and in some cases, neglected — to efficiently process incoming Afghans and secure stable futures for them. Take the United States as an example. The Department of Homeland Security has received over 43,000 humanitarian parole applications since July 2021, but has processed fewer than 2,000. The U.S. Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) and P-2 programs have created an alarming degree of gender inequity in the resettlement of Afghan refugees, as the programs do not provide resettlement pathways for thousands of at-risk Afghan women who worked for U.S. subcontractors, sub-grantees, and community-based organizations. Of those Afghans who have been processed in the U.S. (through parole or other methods), approximately 4,000 are still living in temporary housing. Many of them are Afghan women with unique — but unmet — needs for reproductive and maternal care, cultural and linguistic training, resources for supporting their dependents, and more.

Clearly, such a complicated issue does not present one clear solution. While some nations that initially opposed accepting Afghan refugees have recently opened their borders, some observers argue that it is necessary for the international community to more actively combat anti-refugee rhetoric, revise resettlement programs to address processing issues and gender discrimination, and pressure more nations (as well as their citizens) to host Afghan refugees. Others argue that more focus needs to be directed to the 3.5 million internally displaced peoples who are still in Afghanistan, the majority of whom are women and girls taking life-threatening risks in their attempts to cross borders and escape the oppressive Taliban regime. 

Currently, the world is facing yet another refugee crisis; the ongoing Ukrainian-Russian war has displaced between 4 to 5 million people as of April 2022, and no end to the conflict is presently in sight. In this time of great turmoil and international tension, it is vital to not forget the millions of Afghans, both within and outside of Afghanistan, who continue to suffer poverty, persecution, and neglect. It is best to analyze the plight of Ukrainians and Afghans in tandem, and to ask why the world responded somewhat effectively to the Ukrainian crisis, while leaving Afghans in the shadows. Perhaps the solution to ensuring the safety of all refugees involves a delicate blend of political will and awareness, unity, and determination the world has yet to discover.

Women of Tigray are calling out — are we listening?!

Lina AbiRafeh

I’ve never been to Ethiopia. With its rich cultural heritage, unparalleled archeological sites, and delicious food, it has long been on my list of places I’d love to visit. Meanwhile I’ve been in transit through Addis Ababa Bole International Airport 17 times. Clearly, that doesn’t count.

Even though I’ve never worked or visited, I’ve still been tagged on a lot of social media advocacy for the Tigray crisis in the last few months.

Pay attention! People are telling me.

I am paying attention. We all should.

And even though I’ve never been there — I still can do something. Let’s start at the beginning.

Ethiopia is strategic and important. Africa’s second most populous country has endured civil war, famine, and military rule for decades. But recently, Ethiopia’s story was changing. The economy has grown rapidly, along with its strategic importance in the Horn of Africa and the wider region.

What’s up with Tigray?!

Tigray is the country’s northernmost state, home to around 7 million Tigrayans — 6% of Ethiopia’s population. Since November of 2020, the Ethiopian government has been in conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Thousands of lives have been lost, and at least a million people have been displaced.

But we’re not talking about it. The outside world has hardly noticed, while the plight of the region continues to worsen.

How bad is it, you ask? We’re talking about 90% of the population of Tigray — over 5 million people — in need of life-saving humanitarian assistance. In other words: bad.

How did we get here, you ask?

What does this mean for people?!

And – what does this mean for women and girls?!

Head here for the rest:

Women’s rights…why do I do it?!

Lina AbiRafeh

What do you do? people ask me.

Women’s rights, I say.

Why? they ask.

Because the world is fundamentally unequal. And women deserve more.

I was 14, an immigrant geek in a liberal all-girls school in Washington, DC. In a class called Comparative Women’s History, we toured the world through stories and images of violence against women. I saw a bound foot, female genitalia after it had been cut, a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre. I never forgot the images. And over 30 years later, I remain a self-titled one-trick pony, committed to ending violence against women — or at least to making gains in my lifetime.

I spent twenty years as a humanitarian aid worker trying — hoping! — to end violence against women, making and un-making homes in twenty different countries, including Central African Republic, Haiti, Mali, Papua New Guinea, and Afghanistan. I have an extra-large passport filled with stamps I can’t read, an unusually strong stomach, and a collection of stories from women whose countries deny bodily integrity to half their population.

Women and girls are still the majority of the world’s poor. Fifteen million girls will never get the chance to read or write. Women hold hardly one quarter of parliamentary seats. In about 50 countries, domestic violence is not a crime (and when it is, those laws are incomplete, unapplied, or ignored). Seven hundred and fifty million girls are married before the age of 18.

One in three women and girls worldwide will experience some form of gender-based violence in their lifetime. This violence is the greatest manifestation of our persistent inequality.

Where do you begin to advocate for women’s rights when the world looks like this?

Meanwhile, I’ve spent decades asking myself the same question every day: Where do I begin?

If you think ending violence against women under stable conditions is hard, in an emergency it is nearly impossible. Rape increases dramatically during crises. It’s what we do to each other when we are at our most vulnerable. This is true everywhere — from Haiti to Hurricane Katrina. My first task in the field was always to set up the systems and services that enable survivors of violence to access the support they need.

People used to ask me what a “typical” day “in the office” looked like. There was nothing typical about my day. And there was hardly an office.

I might sleep in a tent, in a container, in a group house. I see my colleagues in their pajamas. We share a toilet. We share everything. We parachute into an emergency, roll up our sleeves, and get to work. For many of us, we are on autopilot. How many times have we done this? And in how many countries? We come armed with sleeping bags, headlamps, and comfort food. I bring Sriracha, Vietnamese hot sauce. Days and weeks and months blend into one. It’s hard to tell how much we’ve worked — or if anything we do is working. “If you reach the point where you know you need a break,” a seasoned colleague advised before my first emergency assignment, “you’ve already gone too far.” I am always in need of a break. Somehow I don’t break, though. I am disturbingly good at this.

Yet if someone were to do a performance evaluation for me, I’d fail. I’ve never ended violence against women anywhere, nor could I ever. I have struggled for ages to find a system by which to measure my life. Although I now live in New York, I keep asking myself what I can do, in small ways, every day, to make my space safer for women.

I bring with me decades of experience and intimate knowledge of what life is like for women and girls in the places where I’ve worked — and right here in the US. And I am committed to building a better world for women, wherever I land.

In Nepal, on an eerily quiet morning in 2015 just before an earthquake, I walked past a sign with a spray-painted message that captured what I want to say to anyone — and to myself: START WHERE YOU STAND.

We need to stand up and fix what we know needs fixing, in the small spaces that we have.

Start where you stand. And — start now.

After 25 years in over 20 countries — as an aid worker, an activist, and an academic — today, I’m starting again, right here:

Read the full article here:

A tsunami for Tonga…and for women

Lina AbiRafeh

Tonga. Saturday January 16, 2022. An underwater volcano erupted, probably the biggest on record in more than 30 years. The result was tsunamis across the Pacific — a massive natural disaster. The damage has already been significant. At this stage, deaths and injuries remain unclear but the Red Cross estimates up to 80,000 people have been affected.

It reminds me — probably all of us — of another tsunami.

December 26, 2004. An earthquake in the Indian Ocean created a tsunami the likes of which the world had never seen. An estimated 230,000 people died across 14 countries, most of which were in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.

I went to Sri Lanka in February of 2005 to research the gendered impact of the wave.

At that point I had already heard some horrific numbers: 40,000 dead, 30,000 injured, 400,000 displaced. And people continued to die from tsunami-related injuries and disease for months after the wave.

We’d like to imagine that everyone suffers equally from such disasters. Waves don’t discriminate, do they?

Yes, they do.

I know this because I used to work in humanitarian emergencies — conflicts and natural disasters.

Ultimately, the response in Tonga needs to center women, to ensure that cases of sexual violence are prevented, that support structures and services are available, and that mechanisms are in place to receive complaints and take action. Women’s voices must be heard at all levels of decision-making regarding relief and rehabilitation efforts.

From my time in the field, what I learned, and what I saw, is this: when things get ugly, we want to count on systems and services, law and order, support and safety nets, to hold us together. But really, in the very times we’re supposed to step up, stand up, stick together — we don’t. At those times, sexual violence actually increases. So when we think the emergency is over, for women the emergency is actually just beginning.

This isn’t just Tonga. Or Sri Lanka.

It’s not just “other women” or “over there”. In the US after Hurricane Katrina, sexual violence increased so much that emergency services had to turn women away because they could not help them all. And domestic violence increased for years after the tragedy. For years.

This issue is literally on the global agenda right now. The theme of the upcoming Commission on the Status of Women in March is focused on “gender equality and empowerment of women and girls in the context of climate change and disaster risk reduction.”

Our response in Tonga should be a case study in how to do it right.

Read the full piece on Medium