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Boobs, bras, and baring it all

Image from CNN International

Lina AbiRafeh

The cold has set in here in New York. I’ve gone from t-shirt to turtleneck in minutes. While I reflect on those balmy t-shirt days, I’m reminded of the freedom I felt in the city all summer — sun on my face, arms exposed, and… no bra. It was blissful.

Everyone was braless, it seemed. Women of all ages and sizes seemed to simply no longer care about this particular garment. How liberating!

I feel like we’ve normalized the idea of boobs — they’re not a perversion, they’re not an anomaly. They are natural, they are beautiful, they are healthy in all their shapes and sizes, and it is OK to go braless.

At the same time, whenever I left the bubble that is New York City, I didn’t feel the same freedom. I found myself uncomfortable. Almost missing my bra.

And so I took the question to TikTok — I wanted to know what fellow TikTokers thought of my sense of freedom. Was it geographic? Was it just a passing summer thing? Was it about our changing norms? Or a (wonderful) post-COVID relic?

And in true TikTok fashion, the comments came in!

Size certainly was a factor, as these women had to say…

Mine are big. I need the support. But everyone should do what makes them happy and comfortable!

The gravitational pull is not working for me. I need to use a seat belt for the girls.

But society played a part as well…

I get bad attention from men.

I don’t care until I’m at work, only because I’ve had comments from male managers before.

Others simply enjoyed the freedom…

If I am wearing a shirt that won’t make it obvious I go without.

Been doing this for about a year and I’m never going back!

I love this! West coast sister here bringing up (or down) the left!

Sure, bras have a function. Forget social expectations for a second. Let’s focus on support. Some of us need a bra to avoid back pain. It turns out that most women are wearing the wrong bra size, leading to discomfort and pain, effectively undoing any work the bra is supposed to do. While there are not many scientific studies looking at this issue (another problem in itself), anecdotal evidence and expert opinion suggest this to be true.

I know some actively prefer a bra for aesthetic reasons, such as my small-boobed sisters who opt to wear bras for added boob. And added confidence. Or my big-boobed sisters who prefer to minimize. I fall into camp #2, having made feeble attempts to minimize the cargo for decades. I’ve since surrendered — we are stuck together, these boobs and I.

Anyway, cup size — actual, perceived, or desired — is a whole separate conversation.

So, decisions whether or not to bra rest on many factors — support, comfort, size, society, setting, occupation, fashion and so on.

There’s also been a major shift since the onset of COVID. Research into women’s present-day underwear preferences and habits has interesting results. We spend too much time in discomfort due to our undergarments, it seems. And more than half of women surveyed “can’t wait” to take their bras off at the end of the day. Almost half have started ditching their bras in the name of comfort.

For those who have preserved the tradition, 60% have made the switch to non-wired because — geez! — no one ever wanted wires poking into their chest! More women have committed to wearing the most comfortable pandemic bra possible — even when we are post-pandemic!

In the words of one woman:

COVID had a big impact where people didn’t leave the house as much and got used to comfort over style and then were like why would I go back to wearing something I find uncomfortable?

These findings really gave me a… lift. I had to keep poking around! And women didn’t… minimize their commentary. OK, enough boob puns. Here’s what they had to say:

I rarely wear bras myself but most people here would. I am often told I get away with it because I have smaller (no) boobs. I definitely feel self conscious sometimes in certain settings but for the most part I’m happy to go bra free regardless. Abroad I would sunbathe topless and don’t even pack bras on holidays but 100% depends on the country.

Many women agreed with this view. Young women, that is. There’s likely a generational gap here too, but that’s the subject of another blog!

“It depends on where you are,” many said. And this even varies from city to city in the same country. There are cities that are more open (or, boob-friendly) than others.

Another said:

Depends on how big your boobs are. Not in terms of acceptability but in terms of how comfortable you are going about the place and how you feel about your boobs flying about the place.

This meme was brought to mind then:

One woman added:

I do think I have to wear one, apart from the comfort I feel un-put together, lazy and like I can’t achieve anything in my day until I put one on! I think it’s fashionable with the Gen Z not to wear one, but I guess it all depends on your cup size and how confident you are. If you have a medium to generous cup size it’s more obvious and do people do it to grab attention or to shock? Or is that just what society has told us?

Another agreed with the societal expectations saying, “I think it’s acceptable but I think societally, if you don’t have as much boobs it’s kind of less in your face so you can get away with it.” And she added: “But that’s more what society says, not me.”

And another:

Definitely in summer I wouldn’t wear a bra but then when the weather gets colder I tend to because I still get the comment (from men) “Are you cold?” and I’ve even gotten “Oh the headlights are on.”

Many still opt to wear bras. “Oh god I can’t not wear a bra!” one woman said. “I only let them free at night,” added another.

“Mine are droopy now… if I run I need to wear my own bra with two sports bras over my original bra to stop them from jiggling!” But for everyone else, she said, “free the titties!”

“I would feel comfortable going bra free,” another said, “but sometimes I like how my boobs look in a bra and the confidence I get with that.”

Wearing a bra for work was pretty standard response. In the office, most of us feel “obliged to wear one to work,” even though “I don’t need the support,” one added.

“I think it probably is the done thing to wear one to work,” another woman added. Even if minimal, like a bralette.

Another woman explained that it isn’t about the boobs but about the nipples. “Certain tops I don’t wear a bra but would put on nipple covers,” she said, recognizing that this has more to do with how society views visible nipples.

Another one echoed this:

If I’m wearing a top that doesn’t work with a bra I go braless no problem but I do kinda try make sure nips are covered I guess? I know like it’s definitely some toxic masculinity shit going on.

For the younger generation, covering nipples is less of a consideration.

Definitely a bra to work but probably depends massively on your uniform/outfit and what your job entails. Outside of that each to their own. The “nips out” is all the rage now sure!

“Yeah nips out and 90s fashion is back!” another agreed.

At the end of the day, in the words of one woman “I’ve got a few things to get off my chest… like this bra!”

Why do we wear bras anyway? Society. Support. A bit of both, perhaps? The truth is that there are many good reasons not to wear a bra, including “you just don’t feel like it.” The expectation (to bra or not to bra?!) has been placed on us since the beginning of time, with the first bras appearing as early as the 14th century.

And then there was the corset. And women literally breaking their ribs to squeeze into them. The corset has an interesting history with varying viewpoints — oppressive or empowering. Impractical and often hazardous, many regard them as a symbol of repression. Others thought they celebrated femininity. Presently corsets are incorporated into fashion trends, thanks in large part to TikTok (and maybe Madonna, for us kids of the 80s out there!).

Despite their ancient origins, bras became normalized in the early 1900s, and by the 1930s they were an essential wardrobe staple. Along with evolution of the garment came evolution of our standards and expectations. In every age and stage, we have been told what our bodies are supposed to look like. And we’ve enlarged or reduced our boobs according to the norms of the day.

According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the most common cosmetic procedures are breast augmentation or enlargement, breast implant removals, and breast lift. Globally, too, one of the most common surgical cosmetic procedures is breast augmentation, with over 1.6 million procedures performed in 2020.

The bra is tightly… fastened to the status of women and patriarchal views of the female body. We are expected to “cover it up” — boobs, hair, whatever. To me, any forced form of covering plays a similar role. I’m not saying we should all go topless, but what I would like is for us to have more freedom around our choices. In other words, if I am not wearing a bra under my top, shouldn’t that be up to me to decide?!

I remain opposed to any attempt to forcibly cover, restrain, restrict, deny, or hide parts of our bodies that should otherwise be natural.

There’s an ongoing conversation about this. Popular campaigns like #FreeTheNipple became a rallying cry to point out hypocritical double standards where images of female breasts are censored or removed from social media sites. Meaning, women’s bodies are perceived to be indecent and sexualized, while men’s bodies are natural.

The same argument can be seen in conversations on breastfeeding in public, one of the most natural acts. The argument here is that it makes people “uncomfortable” because breasts are sexual. I don’t have words for how archaic this line of thinking is.

Anyway, there’s much more to say about boob-politics. But back to bras.

In Papua New Guinea, where I lived for many years, the word for bra is kalabas blong susu. And the translation is poetic and perfect: prison for breasts.

That’s how I feel about bras, anyway. But if you choose to wear such a “prison” — with emphasis on the word CHOICE across every single aspect of our lives — then I’d suggest doing what I probably should have done: get a really good fitting, invest in a high quality bra, and don’t pick based on aesthetics. Admittedly, I failed across these fronts, and have since all but abandoned my pretty little prisons.

More importantly, get to know your boobs. Check regularly for lumps or abnormalities. Speaking of, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. We need to understand breast cancer — and fully fund its research. And we need to show support and solidarity for those affected by breast cancer — we all know too many people who have been affected. Donate here.

So, do we burn our bras?! Not necessarily. Bras might fuel our fire — or light our fire — but either way the choice is ours.

Read the full piece here.

Women, life, freedom: For Iran, for all women

This piece was written by Lina AbiRafeh, Rebecca O’Keeffe, and Maryam from Iran *last name withheld for her own safety. 

Originally posted here.

Mahsa Amini was 22. Her name is now well known. She is the fire that ignited a feminist revolution in Iran. Amini was killed by the so-called Morality Police for improperly wearing her hijab, the head covering mandated by so-called cultural and religious interpretation.

(Not so different from the religious interpretations and legal restrictions that deny an American woman her right to her own body, to use just one example. Let’s be clear: this fight isn’t just about “other women, over there.” It’s all around us. Just because our heads aren’t covered doesn’t mean our eyes aren’t covered…)

Anyway, Iran.

This garment has become the symbol of oppression in Iran and a way to ‘justify’ discrimination against women. And yet, shouldn’t all women have the choice whether or not to cover? Ideally yes, but…

The Morality Police arrested Amini on September 13 for wearing her headscarf too loosely. She was severely beaten in police custody and subsequently died from her injuries three days later.

The next day brave women took to the streets, burning their hijabs, openly defining religious clerics, and cutting their hair — a feminist revolution.

Her death sparked widespread protests, and a feminist call to action:

Women! Life! Freedom!

Zan! Zandegi! Azadi!

زن، زندگی ، آزادی

This is a fight for freedom, for rights, for choice, for bodily integrity, for autonomy. That is what feminism stands for. No one, no country, nowhere should ever tell women what to do with their own bodies and their own lives, including how to dress, and whether to cover or not. NO COUNTRY.

Just like the rest of the world, I was watching the news in awe and admiration. But while I cheer, I also fear. Will they succeed? What will be the repercussions if they do — or don’t?

On Friday September 23, an email landed in my inbox:

Hello Dr. AbiRafeh,

Hi, I’m Maryam. I live in Germany but have been in contact with my family and friends in Iran. Do you know what happened to a girl in Iran? I’m sure you know a 22 year old girl was killed for what she was wearing. The government has been killing the people who are in the streets and shouting “women, life, freedom” please be their voice. You have been working for women rights for many years, please be with Iranian women and help the world hear their voices louder.

Sincerely,

Maryam

We exchanged messages to get a sense of the situation — especially given the communications blackout imposed by the government. Maryam confirmed:

After Mahsa’s death millions of people all around Iran are in the streets saying the slogan “women, life, freedom “ and the police are killing and beating them. A lot of women disappeared during these days and nobody knows where they are and a lot of women have been arrested.

She added, urgently:

Please watch this video of what they are doing to women.

We asked how we could help.

Maryam responded:

We just need the world to hear our voice because the dictator government always says women are free in Iran and the Hijab is their choice and is not mandatory but the world should know they are liars, they are monsters who have been oppressing women for 43 years. We can not do anything without men’s permission, we cannot choose what to wear, where to go, and what to do.

She continued to say:

My mother-in-law is in hospital because of what happened to her during the protests.

Maryam’s mother-in-law is no stranger to the harsh rule of the Islamic Republic. Her son was arrested in 1999 a few days after the student-led protests in Tehran. Three months after his arrest, the family received a phone call from him but have not heard anything since — they still do not know if he is alive or dead.

Such is the fate for many — those who are brave enough to challenge the authoritarian regime and demand basic human dignity and rights.

A little bit of history… because context is important.

The Iranian Revolution in 1979 toppled a monarchy. In that historic moment, people’s hopes for change were high. Unfortunately, the result was the Islamic Republic — an even more oppressive regime. This new Islamic Republic sought to restrict and control the population in the name of sovereignty. In the decades since, corrupt autocratic governance coupled with externally-imposed sanctions have resulted in a precarious economy with high poverty rates, widespread unemployment, turbulent political relations, restricted opportunities, gross human rights abuses, and international isolation.

And rampant violations of women’s rights.

Women have suffered most under this regime, reduced to second class citizens and stripped of all rights. The age of marriage for girls was reduced from 18 to nine, movement was restricted, and women were forced to wear the hijab and adhere to Islamic dress code.

Gender segregation in public places such as schools and public transport was attempted too, but women resisted. So while segregation and female only spaces are observed in many places, institutionalization of segregation has not happened thanks to resistance and criticism from civil society.

In fact, women in Iran have always been actively resisting.

Whatever marginal gains women have achieved in education, politics, and the workplace have all been a result of women’s resistance.

And today again, women have been leading the protests — despite grave risk.

The repressive regime is known to arbitrarily arrest, savagely beat, torture, and disappear dissenters. And this time is no different, with authorities brutally retaliating — especially against women. The death toll is rising, extreme violence is being meted out, and internet restrictions are curbing communication. They are also attempting to hijack the narrative with counter protests in support of the government.

Maryam sent us this:

This is an important video to see what they do with women. And this one.

On Sunday 25 we got another update:

They killed Hadis Najafi with 6 bullets in Karaj city.

Najafi, seen here on her way to a demonstration speaking about hope for a better future, was in her early 20s.

Other young women murdered include Ghazale Chelavi, Hananeh Kia, Minu Majidi, and Mahsa Mogoi — who was only 18.

Men too have been protesting and supporting women. One man, visibly injured and bloodied, said:

My body is full of those pellet bullets. I am here to claim the rights of the next generation… We want justice, we want gender equality.

However, they are not immune to the state’s brutality either. Erfan Rezai, Zakaria Khial, Mohammad Farmani, Abdallah Mahmoudpour, Rouzbeh Khademian, Milan Haghighi, and Javad Heidari, were all murdered.

video emerged of Heidari’s sister cutting her hair on his coffin, protesting his killing. Everyone is suffering.

And that’s not all. At least 76 people have been killed since unrest broke out, but it is likely much higher — and rising.

And countless have been arrested, held in inhumane conditions, subjected to beatings.

This isn’t stopping anytime soon.

On Monday September 26, Maryam sent this:

Today the police arrested my sister. The situation is awful, they are trying to find everybody.

We reached out to some other contacts in Iran. Those who were able to reply safely, did so. One woman wrote:

I’m still alive. Sad moments remain in Iran.

These people have asked to remain anonymous. They must delete the messages after sending — or they put their lives at risk. The government is tracking down everyone who speaks out.

Maryam explained:

Usually every time they suppress the demonstrations, they start arresting people from their homes months later, and then the rapes, whippings, and tortures of the prisoners start again. They are the biggest liars in the world because they always try to show that everything is fine inside Iran. Just yesterday, the villa of Iran’s most famous football player Ali Karimi was seized by the government because of his support for the people’s demonstrations.

Another woman wrote:

Dear Rebecca

I am so happy that the world is watching us and hearing our voices now. It means a lot to me to get a message like this from you.

I couldn’t take part in the protests so, I don’t have any fresh information from the field. All I know is from the news which is spread around the world. All I know is that women lead the protests, some people got killed during the protests. People protest in many cities, they’re vast.

While Iranians have always protested, and various incidents throughout the years have sparked mass demonstrations, women are saying that this time feels different.

In the words of one:

People are hopeful that something might change from now on. We are sad and angry. We want to live a normal life just like any other human being. It’s very simple. Wish they could hear us.

I just want to imagine a life in Iran where we are sitting at the beach with our bikinis and drinking beer. Something this simple. A normal life…

Women, life, freedom.

Another women echoed this sentiment:

Iran is in trouble, I hope freedom for all.

And another:

We are tired of all the past years of dictatorship…Wish us freedom.

So what can we do?

Listen to — and amplify — Iranian voices. They are not silent — but they are silenced.

Here are a few Iranian journalists, academics, activists to start:

Golshifteh Farahani

Soraya Lennie

Assal Rad

Negar Mortazavi

Masih Alinejad

Read what they say, and share their voices — especially as Iranian voices are being restricted. Let’s not let their cause fall victim to news cycles and social amnesia.

And check out this list of further readings for those who want to know more.

On Tuesday September 27, Maryam wrote:

Thank you for listening to me these few days because I am far from Iran, these messages helped me a lot to feel that I am the voice of the people.

We stand with everyone everywhere actively resisting patriarchy and fighting for freedom — for women, and for all.

Sisters in Iran, we’re with you. Fight on.

Image from @golfarahani

Equality for women? Nope. Not even close.

Lina AbiRafeh

“Women in much of the world lack support for fundamental functions of a human life.”

That’s what Martha Nussbaum said in her 2000 book Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach.

Meanwhile, 22 years later… where are those “fundamental functions”?!

Women are still less likely to live a free and full life — and we are more vulnerable to discrimination and abuse. You’ve heard me howl about the gender gap and how it is getting worse.

And here goes yet another reality check.

Women at work still enter at lower levels, stay at lower levels, and are paid less — even if we reach higher levels. Women in politics have even more hurdles to jump through. The law still doesn’t see women as equal in too many countries — including right here in the US. Women are still expected to take on the bulk of domestic and childcare burdens. And, worst of all, women still suffer from violence that deliberately targets us — because we are women.

So, no wonder women are not able to reach their full potential — the world actively keeps us from it! Meaning our freedoms and capabilities are actively, and deliberately, constrained. This is the stuff that dictates human development. What is that, really?

Well, human development can be anything from basic stuff like access to clean water to more strategic stuff like better laws, representing different levels of empowerment. When our freedoms and capabilities are restricted, we lose out on human development. And when that happens, we fuel gender inequality. We know this to be true — and increasing — from just about every single report in recent years.

The 2020 UNDP Human Development Perspectives Report is yet another case in point. Focusing on the concept of social norms, it shows us that progress toward gender equality is slowing. In areas that are considered basic, progress towards equality is present. But not so in the so-called strategic stuff.

What does that mean?!

Basic needs are about subsistence, the stuff we need to make everyday life easier like access to water and health and so on. Strategic stuff is what we need to move towards more equitable gender roles and relations, for instance laws that protect women from violence, ensuring women have access to credit, and those types of critical things.

Strategic stuff alters gender power relations — for the better. These are about agency, power, change. Basic needs do not challenge power relations (although in the long term they may make microscopic changes — but these aren’t good enough or fast enough).

Already disadvantaged groups, like women, catch up in the basic needs and fall behind in the strategic needs. The gap widens where it really matters. The higher the power and responsibility, the wider the gap. Our basic needs are closer to being met, but our strategic needs are a long way off. Meaning progress is uneven, and the trap of the unequal distribution of power continues.

Areas such as politics, the economy, leadership, and decision making all remain vastly unequal. So, yes women can vote, but are they heads of state? Yes women have gainful employment, but are they on the CEOs and billionaires lists?! Although women’s overall employment might be close to parity in some countries, women are underrepresented in more senior positions.

The glass ceiling is more like a concrete roof.

If we want gender equality (ohhellyes FFS it’s about time!), we need the strategic stuff because that’s going to expand women’s agency and empowerment.

Gender inequality is inherently tied up in discriminatory social norms, traditional roles, and unequal power dynamics. Social norms are the values, behaviors, and attitudes held by society which in turn influence and uphold power relations between individuals, communities, and institutions. (In short, CisHet white men have power over women and marginalized folk.)

Social norms heavily influence someone’s identity — things like age, gender, ability, ethnicity, religion, and so on. We are multidimensional beings, and therefore our lives are layered. Meaning that our roles, expectations, obligations are layered too. Meaning also, that the norms and stereotypes that define our layers are, well… layered.

All this stuff determines power relations — who has it, who doesn’t, how they use it, and how they abuse it.

When these social norms and stereotypes are discriminatory, they can reinforce and perpetuate inequality and unequal power dynamics. For example, norms dictating strict expectations for masculine and feminine behavior will impact individual choice, freedom, and capability — and not in good ways. Those who share a common identity are required to abide by these ideals, even if they don’t necessarily agree with them.

If you want to belong, you’ve got to behave… or you’re out. That’s what society says, anyway.

So, norms determine the extent of our autonomy and freedom. And they also determine the price we pay if we transgress. That’s why the Gender Social Norms Index is so important — because it measures the beliefs, biases, and prejudices that are keeping us from equality. They were first introduced in the 2019 Human Development Report, inspired by the World Values Survey, global research examining how our values and beliefs impact societies over time.

The survey found 91% of men and 86% of women show at least one bias against gender equality across politics, the economy, education, intimate partner violence and women’s reproductive rights. Approximately 50% of men and women from 75 countries believe men make better political leaders than women and over 40% of those surveyed felt men made better business executives. Nearly 30% agreed it is justifiable for a man to beat his partner. Nearly 30% of men and women agreed.

Only 14% women and 10% men have NO gender social norms biases — yup, that’s all.

It comes as no surprise that women have less bias against gender equality and empowerment. But… bias is on the rise globally, despite decades of progress in women’s rights. Instances of backlash and regressive attitudes are evident — in both men and women.

But there’s good news! Norms can change! It’s just like that pesky word “culture” — it’s not static. Stop using it as an excuse to oppress.

It starts with the family — they lay the foundation for any unconscious (or entirely conscious) gender bias, meaning there is opportunity to learn and unlearn traditional attitudes. Adolescence is an arena of socialization also, especially for boys. This is where they come to understand how society defines what it means to be male or female — although I’d say that happens even earlier. But during this period, beliefs crystallize into behaviors and more rigid expectations and pressures are placed on them.

It is especially important to intercept the fixed social and cultural expectations related to masculinity that are placed on boys as they will then go on to reproduce and perpetuate the patriarchy.

Challenging these stigmas and stereotypes are difficult, especially by individuals who have the most to gain from complying with norms and the most to lose from defying norms. But it must be done — otherwise women are kept from claiming rights due to the power of social expectations.

We need to change. Universal policies help to provide a basic floor — but they aren’t enough. They specify that we all should get the same things. And yes, we should. But inequalities built from social norms and resulting in social exclusion are harder to tackle. Social exclusion actively keeps people from participating in a full rich life because of the bazillion ways we discriminate against each other.

In these cases, targeted or affirmative action policies can help — when a group has been historically disadvantaged and things won’t “equal out” on their own. When we speak about historic disadvantage, gender is one of the most prevalent. And no, it’s not progressing just fine without our help. We need to do more. And do it better. And faster.

Is there a positive in all of this? A glimmer.

There are new social movements — particularly in the online space — to raise awareness, assert independence, agitate for equality, and ultimately help shift norms. Hashtags and movements like #IWillGoOut in India and #NiUnaMenos in Latin America are good examples. #IWillGoOut is a movement asserting women’s right to public space — to safe public space. To go out at any time, anywhere, without fear. It’s a pretty radical idea considering that fear exists just about everywhere.

#NiUnaMenos — or, Not One Woman Less — advocates for bringing “our bodies, our abortions, and our desires out of hiding” — and not going back. “We will not let ourselves be burned,” they say, “because this time the fire is ours.”

This time the fire is ours.

Read full post here.

You don’t have to go far to do good: In conversation with Julia Gillard

Lina AbiRafeh

I recently had the honor of being interviewed by feminist pioneer and former Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard. She is now the Chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, where I am a member of the Advisory Council. She is also known for delivering her famous misogyny speech — a lesson in how to fight back, because we all should be offended by sexism.

The full conversation can be found here. Below are some highlights.

Now you’ve described yourself as born into conflict and always comfortable with chaos. Can you tell us about the early years that enabled you to say that and how they set you on the path for the work you do today?

Being born a woman already means facing a certain amount of conflict, realizing at a certain age that the world views you as less than, as second class. So for me that is already a type of conflict. Also, I am Lebanese and Palestinian so I have two war zones behind me. And I was raised between Saudi Arabia and the United States, so I’m all sorts of hyphens and complications, which means I really had to figure out who I was and what I stood for. For me, being a woman, being a fighter, feeling very strongly about social justice before I could even put a label on it — Feminism was my country. That’s where my loyalty is. And that’s really how it all started.

Now you’ve dedicated your career to ending gender-based violence. How did you first get involved with this work?

It takes a while to understand that this is something ingrained in all of us as women and girls, we’re constantly told to be careful and to watch what we do, where we go, who we interact with, what we’re wearing. From an early age the message is that we’re unsafe, and that safety is our responsibility. And so you feel this burden, the idea that your freedom, your mobility, your voice, your choice are constricted. Your opportunities are limited because the world views you in a certain way, and you are constantly at risk.

That message comes across very clearly to young girls, and certainly came across to me. I was 14 years old, in high school, and I signed up for a class called Comparative Women’s History. The class wasn’t about women’s history as much as the history of violence against women, from the foetus to the funeral, and everything in between. And in every single country, including here in the US, everywhere, all the time, in every place and space.

For me it was overwhelming. I had never heard anything like that. I could not imagine the magnitude of intimate partner violence, or how we used to break our ribs to fit into corsets, body image and mutilations fueled by patriarchy, female genital mutilation, bride burning, acid burning, rape as a weapon of war, all forms of violence.

I was furious. It was that anger that got me going. I realized then that nothing is possible for us, as women, as long as this continues, as long as I feel that restriction on my freedom and my possibilities, as long as I have to constantly worry about my safety and feel like I’m always at risk, how can I ever achieve anything in my life? So that became the starting point for me. Fix that first and then let’s talk about all the other stuff. And we’re still fighting the same thing.

Sounds like you didn’t imagine back then that the pathway was going to be this long, if it was fix that first, that sort of implies you thought we’d get this done?

I was 14 and angry — but also hopeful. This new knowledge was as devastating as it was fueling. And now, I’m old, and I’m still screaming until I lose my voice. But I look at younger women, and I wonder what world we are leaving for them? Every day there are new cases, new incidents at the micro and the macro level. I have a niece who is 8. How do I look her in the eye and say, “I tried to make things better for you. But I’m sorry, I failed.”

What more can women do who are listening to this podcast? Using their social media presence is good, and amplifies the messages, but are there practical things people can do?

There are always organizations to support. I write a blog every week and try to point people towards concrete action.

It’s one thing for us to not be aware, although I think that there’s no longer an excuse for that. We’re hyper aware of what is happening in the world. Then once you are aware, you should be angry — or you’re asleep. It’s impossible to not care about these things as they go on around us — and happen to us. It’s impossible to say, well, that’s just other women, or that’s over there. Not me, not here, not now. No, we all are responsible. It is here and it is now. Every single time I write about any country, I say here’s what’s happening, here’s why you should care, here’s why we should be angry, and here’s what we can do about that anger. I like tangible action and want to promote credible organizations. They need our support.

We know that one in three women worldwide experience gender-based violence. As someone who’s advocated for women’s rights globally, how do you persuade people who think it’s someone else’s problem?

Look at intimate partner violence, the most common form worldwide, affecting so many more women than we know. Women are mostly silent about it because what incentive is there to speak out unless you’re going to be protected, with access to security, with the possibility for justice. Too often, everywhere, women don’t have those things. Intimate partner violence is a silent pandemic.

Look at sexual harassment. Certainly the #MeToo movement made some great strides in exposing the magnitude of the problem. And everybody with connectivity, with certain resources, was paying attention. Everybody was MeToo-ing, everybody has a story. When you stop and listen to that, it was overwhelming. Every woman I know a story. I certainly have a story.

When we have those conversations, we realize the painful ordinariness of this. Look at how we talk to our girls about where and how they move in the world — on the street, with keys in their hands, and so on. Whatever types of restrictions we place on the freedoms and mobilities and choices of women and girls. Even the fear of violence is a form of violence — and we have all internalized it.

Look at young women when they’re out saying “come with me to the bathroom” or “call me when you get home” or “be careful” or “don’t talk to him” or “keep your eye on your drink all the time.” It’s exhausting having to live with all of that fear. For me that is already a crime. Women know this, they know how common it is. And we all have accepted this as part of what it means to be a woman. I say no, that is not the way to live. That is not the way any of us should live.

Our right is to be free, and to have respect, and dignity, and equal share of space and resources and opportunities — but we don’t. We live very small. When people start to see those things and talk to each other, then it becomes a different conversation. We talk about things like the increase in sexual violence and intimate partner violence in the aftermath of an emergency. The emergency is right here! Hurricane Katrina was right here in our backyard. COVID is a great example. The assumption that “stay home” means “stay safe” was naive. Home is not safe for far too many women. I get chills just telling you about it — and I talk about it every day. It is just so unbearably common.

Lina, you’ve got an incredible energy, how do you keep your spirits up? Decades into this work, I can feel the power of that energy, even as we work on Zoom. How do you keep doing it?

Oh, it’s the anger. It’s the feeling that things should have been better by now. This constant shock I have every morning waking up to these stories, as if it’s happening all over again. And the weird thing is, it’s gotten harder for me, not easier, in terms of my level of frustration, and fury, and sorrow. I look at girls and I think we should have done better for you. Not that the onus was all on me or on us to fix everything, but the idea that the world shouldn’t be like this. And it’s that sense of injustice that I can never swallow. And that’s how I keep going.

But now I’ve morphed, I do it in different ways. I used to be in the field in the thick of it, in an emergency. Now, in the last couple of years, I do this from New York. A little bit of distance for self preservation. Still, I will scream until I lose my voice. I do it now, through advising, and blogging, and speaking, and just howling into the void. And if one person listens, that’s already good.

Who are the women who have inspired you along the way?

I was raised by feminists, even though they wouldn’t label themselves that way. My late grandmother on the Palestinian side fought for an education, managed to go to college, and today her 1938 diploma hangs on my wall. She is a reminder of what women who push boundaries can do. I was raised with that story and that legacy of strength. My parents reinforced those messages of financial independence and didn’t let me play with dolls “because I could do much more,” my mother would say.

But there are so many women who inspire me all the time. Young women, women whose names we don’t know, who are out on the streets, or in their classrooms or in their homes, pushing those boundaries. They are more clear about what is not acceptable about the lives that they want and about the rights that they have.

In your fabulous TED talk, you talk about this expression, ‘start where you stand.’ Can you tell us the story of how you came across that phrase and what it means to you?

Oh, that was such a powerful moment. I was deployed to Nepal after the earthquake in 2015 to work on sexual violence prevention and response, trying to provide support and relief and recovery and looking at the systems and services to get women to safety. That was actually my last emergency.

I was walking to the UN office where I was stationed at five o’clock in the morning, and came across this graffiti. And that’s what it said: Start where you stand. And I thought, this is exactly what I’ve been wanting to say my whole life, but could not have put it better than this spray painted piece of wisdom.

Because people ask me all the time what they can do. They say “I want to do something, but I don’t want to go to Afghanistan or Chad or places you went.” I tell them that they don’t have to, because, unfortunate for us, this problem is everywhere, all around us, all the time.

If you look at the space you occupy — your home, or your school, or the street or the market, or your office or public office — whatever space you have, whatever platform you have, you can take that space and make it feminist.

There are opportunities for work and there are violations of rights everywhere. So by Start where you stand, what I thought my graffiti artist was trying to tell me was that we don’t have to go far to do good. The need is so overwhelming that it is all around us. And if we all took responsibility for our little spaces, then maybe that effort is contagious. Maybe we will see some change in our lifetime.

You don’t have to go far to do good. I love it.

Virginia Woolf says, As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country, as a woman, my country is the world. The wonderful Lina says…

For me, being a woman is the most important aspect of my identity. Feminism is my country, and no loyalty supersedes this. This is the most important role I have, the most important space I occupy, it is what I love, what I believe in. It is what I hope by now I am good at. And it is my duty to do it. If I can do one good thing for one young woman or make one tiny dent, then I have done something. And that for me is enough.

Full article available here and Podcast available through Spotify or Apple.

“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.

Afghanistan One Year Later — and the story of one Afghan woman

Lina AbiRafeh

One year ago today — on August 15, 2021 — Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. Again.

We all know the story of how Afghanistan, after two decades of aid and military support, unfathomable amounts of money, numerous elections, and many feeble attempts at peace, returned in 2021 to where it had been in 2001 — under the suffocating rule of a regime known as the Taliban.

I will, however, tell the story from the perspective of women, the ones who have been — and continue to be — most affected by this story. Here, we will begin with a so-called peace deal that betrayed women, bargaining their rights away. A deal made between men, all with blood on their hands. It is a story that, for Afghan women, came full circle.

Last year, as Afghanistan was falling, I reached out to my friend Aziza, women’s rights leader and partner from my time in Afghanistan. I asked how she was, and how the women’s movement would fare. The full conversation was published in my 2022 book, Freedom on the Frontlines.

On 11 June 2021, Aziza wrote:

Things are not going to get any better. We feel stuck in a vicious cycle and fear from this precarious situation. Aid has ended and NGOs have long been closed. We will not have achieved what we had hoped. What we set out to do. What we started to do. And now we have to adapt to whatever that may come in order to survive.

On 16 June, I published a piece on CNN arguing that the US rhetoric of liberation that animated their invasion nearly 20 years ago had fallen short of its goal. This built on an argument I made in my 2008 doctoral thesis and later in my 2009 book, Gender and International Aid in Afghanistan. There, and again here, I argued that the status of Afghan women was used as the barometer to assess social change, and that the promise of freedom had fallen short.

The $780 million the US spent to promote women’s rights in Afghanistan was about to go to waste, I explained, as the hasty withdrawal of US troops would likely lead to greater human rights violations, more school closures and increased violence against women. The voices I heard from Afghanistan were fearful. Women’s rights were hanging in the balance. Again.

Two decades of investment in women undoubtedly did achieve many goals: schools reopened for girls, giving them access to education, including university. Women had access to employment. They worked, flew planes, joined the military, became government ministers, and more.

But gains were patchy. Progress was perpetually met by major backlashes, a resurgence of a fundamentalist order, and more violence against women. Rural women still lived in Taliban-controlled areas, under severe restrictions. They did not benefit from these improvements. Opportunities for work, health care, or education never reached them.

On 22 June, Aziza told me this:

We could have predicted this. Patriarchy is so embedded in the culture and roots. There is need for gender awareness, education, and prolonged efforts to change what generations of men in power have created. The work that was done during the last two decades was not enough to change the fundamentals. It provided a short-term relief to what women had suffered during Taliban, but it could get worse when there is no more intervention.

On 24 June, I was invited to speak on CNN, building from my article. I was asked how serious things were for Afghan women. Very serious, I explained. At that point we had already heard of greater human rights violations, more school closures, increased violence against women. It was just getting started — things would get worse.

At that time, despite gains made, two-thirds of girls remained out of school, 70 percent of Afghan women and girls still could not read or write, and more than 80 percent of Afghan women and girls experienced abuse. Most of this took place in the home. Women’s security in the home is a reflection of the security in the country. If women cannot be safe at home, they’re not safe at all. And if women are not safe, then no one is safe. This, I have long argued, should be the barometer by which the entire intervention is judged.

Afghan women are incredibly strong. They have always demonstrated that strength, along with incredible courage and resilience. They always had strong voices and the ability to use them. But, are we listening? They have powerful voices, but they have no microphone. Did we do all we could to amplify their voices as they articulated their own needs? Did we even meet those needs?

On 10 August, US intelligence warned that it would take 30–90 days for the Taliban to topple the government and occupy Kabul. The city fell five days later.

Aziza wrote to me, explaining that progress made through international intervention was patchy — and only for the urban elite. Rural women’s lives hardly changed. If anything, Aziza explained, “financial aid may have fed their families, but the patriarchy remained.” And, she added, “today they are under the same abuse — or even worse.”

On 15 August 2021, the Taliban reached Kabul.

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.

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.

Women in Politics

Kate Eisenreich

From a ban on girls’ secondary education in Afghanistan to strict abortion bans in places like Brazil and Poland, to the recent reversal of Roe v. Wade, we are witnessing serious backlash against women’s rights most notably through discriminatory legislation. It comes as no surprise, then, that women are drastically underrepresented in government. But how bad is it?

Globally, only 26% of national parliament seats are held by women meaning women are massively underrepresented in decision-making bodies despite making up 51% of the population. Comparatively, men receive almost 1.5 times more representation than they should. 

            In fact, several countries, such as Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and Yemen, do not have any women in their representative governing bodies. But that’s not to say it is all bleak for women in government. Plenty of countries are doing better than the average. Rwanda’s representative body contains 61% women, Cuba’s contains 53% women, and Nicaragua’s representative body is 51.7% women. Mexico and the United Arab Emirates both had perfect gender parity in their representative bodies.

            In local government, women fare better with 36% of elected members of local government being women. This could perhaps be because of decreased barriers for entrance at the local level, such as the cost to run or greater childcare provisions. 

            Only 36% of the 195 nations in the world have had a woman as the head of government. Additionally, 50% of the most populous countries have not had a female head of government, including the United States, Russia, China, Mexico, and Nigeria. 

            Inclusion of women in government helps to move forward women’s rights and interests, pushing societies toward complete gender equality. Additionally, women’s participation in government helps everyone in society. Research discovered that local councils in India led by women had 62% more drinking water projects than man-led councils. In Norway, more women in local governments were found to increase childcare coverage offered. Women are also shown to be better leaders during a crisis because they communicated more effectively than men, were better at inspiring and motivating, and were better at relationship building.  

            We all know the benefits yet women are still underrepresented in most governments. So, how to fix this problem? 

            There are, of course, some easier solutions to help women overcome barriers to enter politics. Governments can ensure that women receive paid-maternity leave, do not face sexual harassment by other members of government, make sure to acknowledge the participation of women in their governments, and get rid of archaic laws restricting participation in government by women. Political parties can also encourage more women to stand as candidates. Easy solutions you say but still not implemented… 

            Another mechanism governments have introduced is a gender quota, but opinion is divided. Gender quotas are the most accurate predictor of women’s inclusion in government. There are two types of quotas, legal quotas and voluntary quotas, and those quotas can be enacted at different levels such as primary elections, final candidates, or reserved seats in the legislative body. Quotas help women overcome the discrimination and barriers they face in entering politics and ensure that women are included in government. However, mandatory quotas also take away from democratic choice. Additionally, mandatory quotas are linked to less stable and democratic governments. This may lead many to believe that voluntary quotas are best. However, they cannot ensure women have a seat in a representative body. In the United Arab Emirates, their parliament had 23% women until the adoption of a mandatory reserved seat gender quota of 50%. Now, 50% of their parliament is women. Quotas could be a temporary measure to help pave the way for women to enter government. However, it is estimated that it will take 155 years for gender equality to be reached in politics which raises the question; will a temporary gender quota be able to achieve enough? 

            However it is done, women need to be included in government to protect the rights and interests of women and make strides toward gender equality. 

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.