Category Archives: Post-Conflict/Disaster

Three Women, Three Struggles

Originally posted on In Women’s Hands, the following post will serve as an introduction to my trip to Bosnia and the amazing friends I made there.

The flag of Bosnia & Herzegovina at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial and Cemetery. Photo by Morrarovic Photography

With different goals reached through the use of various tactics in distinct circumstances, it may be difficult to see the similarities in the nonviolent struggles that Leila Seper, Advija Ibrahimovic, and Iltezam Morrar are actively involved in. While their situations are diverse, they are each struggling somehow for the same things: equality and justice. Fighting for justice, in its many forms, is not just an option for these three dedicated women and the activists by their sides– it is a necessity.

The other commonality among them is their age: all of them represent the new face, the next generation of women activists. Skilled in social media, willing to face risks, and aware of the fact that the more people who understand their struggle, the broader impact they will have, Iltezam, Advija and Leila have accepted that changing the world — locally, nationally, and globally — is a daily responsibility.

Leila is an expert in using humor to explain Dosta!'s serious work. Photo courtesy of Dosta!

Leila Seper, an outspoken member of Sarajevo’s young and expanding activist community, uses her quirky sense of humor, and the brand recognition of Dosta!, to actively demonstrate to Bosnians of all ethnic and religious groups that they must fight for equality and human rights. An active supporter of worker’s rights, student rights, environmental protections and women’s rights, Leila takes on every challenge with conviction, enthusiasm, and a sense of humor.

Advija enjoying some rare downtime. Photo by Morrarovic Photography

Advija Ibrahimovic, the youngest member of the Women of Srebrenica Association, has learned the skills of successful activism from some of the most seasoned activists in Europe – the Women of Srebrenica. Fighting for legal justice, accountability, and recognition of the horrors that took place during the Srebrenica genocide that left her and her siblings orphans, Advija has also been educated as a nonviolent action trainer by the Alternatives to Violence Programs. Chosen to represent the Association during the 2003 unveiling of the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial and Cemetery, where she stood alongside President Bill Clinton, Advija’s upbeat, confident demeanor is contagious.

Hajra Catic, President and Founder of the Women of Srebrenica Association with Iltezam. Photo by K. Spangler

Iltezam Morrar, a wise-beyond-her-years medical student from Palestine currently studying in Sarajevo, draws on her family’s long history of nonviolent action in the continuing struggle against the Israeli occupation. Hearing her grandmother, father and uncles tell stories of their nonviolent activism during the First Palestinian Intifada, Iltezam became inspired to join the struggle at the age of 15. Her actions, and those of her fellow villagers in Budrus, quickly became exemplars for the next generation of Palestinian activists following the success of the Just Vision documentary highlighting their nonviolent struggles against the wall.

In the process of learning to identify with seemingly disparate women and reminiscing about nonviolent successes everyone went away with fresh insights and inspiration, as well as new friends. Leila taught us to keep a sense of humor even in the face of injustice, and to work with the authorities whenever possible to reassure them violence is not an option. Advija taught us that persistence pays off, and that even the humblest of citizens has the power to affect international politics when using the right methods. Iltezam too, taught us the importance of tenacity, and the need for clearly stated objectives when battling a much stronger opponent.

Leila, Iltezam and I watch as the International Commission on Missing Persons makes a positive DNA match to a fragment of remains found in a mass grave from the Srebrenica Genocide. Photo by K. Spangler

Each woman came away from our gathering with something different. Leila explained, “I get motivation from these meetings, when I see their [Women of Srebrenica] strength to fight.” Advija agreed, “You have to be determined. That’s the example for me.” Iltezam summarized everyone’s feelings in her own way, “I’m honored to be here to learn from these women.They are so strong, and we have so much to learn from them. They never give up.”

Our meeting proved to be a unique opportunity to learn, share and grow, and the inspiration from each woman’s struggle is sure to be a source of strength for each of us for years to come. And that’s exactly what we hoped for.


The Damning Effects of Militarization

Militarization is the process of making society believe that violence, especially war, is an effective way to solve conflict to the point that any nonviolent attempt to solve conflict is snidely dismissed as ineffective, liberal, feminine, sissy or a whole host of other derogatorily used terms. The global problem of militarization takes different forms in every country, and even within each community. In Israel and Palestine troops attack women protesting the occupation. In Colombia women are participants and victims of violence perpetrated at every level of society. In Uganda those participating in the Walk to Work protest have been met with tear gas and bullets by the government’s security forces. I should be upfront here and say flat-out that I am very far left in my ideas of effective government: I don’t believe in borders or states. Imagine if the $553 billion defense bill just approved by the House was money spent on education, or healthcare, or ending violence….

Militarization is a gender issue. A gender issue is anything that disproportionately affects men, women, boys, girls and/or intersex or transgender adults or youth. Therefore, because militarization has a hugely disproportionate effect on men, men’s violences, and masculinities, it is a gender issue. It is also a gender issue in that anything defined as masculine can only be defined in opposition to that which is feminine, and because militarization of a given society negatively impacts men’s attitudes towards and treatment of women.

Many right-wing misogynists claim that feminists hate men, or that gender issues are only women’s issues, but militarization is a prime example of the genuine concern for well-being that many feminists around the world have for men who are part of the military. In graduate school one of my most influential professors, Dr. Sara Sharratt, opened my eyes to a reality that is often denied: killing people is not natural for anyone, male or female; men must be trained to kill. And as her work as a psychologist working with soldiers returning from war taught her, many men react negatively to having killed someone. The stress, trauma and horror that soldiers endure in battle is much too high a price for the false promise of “protecting freedom.”

Here in Turkey males are required by law to serve in the military, reinforcing the idea that there is honor in using violence. The belief in the effectiveness of violence is so strong in Turkey that even liberal, feminist groups condone the use of violence in protests and do not see the need or efficacy of strategic nonviolent action. Very few groups speak out against militarization here. One effect of this belief is that, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch, 47% of women in Turkey experience some kind of physical or sexual intimate partner violence within their lifetimes, regardless of education, class, religion, or region and much too few women’s shelters to accommodate the need. Violence between a couple is seen by police, the government, and society, to be a personal problem and victims are constantly told that they cannot expect their partners to be nonviolent.

In the United States there is better enforcement of laws against domestic violence and yet 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men in the US are victims of intimate violence at some point in their lives. Militarization in America is slightly more subtle than in Turkey, but commercials to “Go Navy,” be “Army Strong,” and join “The Few, the Proud, the Marines” constantly inundate television viewers. At the same time military recruiters are present on junior high, high school and college campuses to convince children that the military is their best route out of their hometown. Militarization is therefore a compounded heap of inequalities: class, race, gender, education, location, language, ability, and age.

Militarization in the US is forced on Americans at a very young age, when children at sporting events see the poorly named Blue Angels fly overhead with a roar as a giant American flag is unfurled across the playing field. The idealization of being a servant of war as a good, honorable thing is fed to Americans to serve the greed of the corporate world. We are taught from the time we can talk that America is the best place in the world, the most just, the most equal, the fairest. We have been lied to. We are told these things so that when our Commander-in-Chief calls on us to “protect freedom and liberty” and “stand up to injustice” our first response is to join the military killing machine so we can “serve our great nation.” This idea that the best thing a person can do for his country, the most masculine act possible, is serve in the military totally discounts the experiences of a great number of people in America including disabled men, transgender or intersex men, openly gay or bisexual men, men who believe in nonviolence, and women.

Unfortunately it is only after the damage of war has been done that many of the wide-eyed military recruits become hardened advocates for peace. The brave men and women who understand the error of the US’s ways in using violence and force to fill corporate pockets have formed a number of anti-war groups. Founded in 1985, Veterans for Peace, is seeking signatures for a petition to bring the troops home from Afghanistan. One of the newer organizations, Iraq Veterans Against the War, seeks an end to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and is pressuring the military to provide better care for returning vets. Vietnam Veterans Against the War states “We believe that service to our country and communities did not end when we were discharged. We remain committed to the struggle for peace and for social and economic justice for all people. We will continue to oppose senseless military adventures and to teach the real lessons of the Vietnam War. We will do all we can to prevent another generation from being put through a similar tragedy and we will continue to demand dignity and respect for veterans of all eras. This is real patriotism and we remain true to our mission.”

Cynthia Enloe renowned author and feminist, is one of the voices at the forefront of the anti-militarization effort. This piece nicely summarizes Enloe’s main arguments against militarization and its effects on women. Even non-governmental organizations, international organizations and peacekeeping missions are fraught with problems because of militarization, as Enloe and my professor Nadine Puechguirbal explain in a talk here on Haiti. For me, the most compelling argument against militarization is that violence does not work. It is ineffective! Nonviolent action, especially when used strategically, is an extremely effective tool for change and one that I hope more people will begin to utilize once they understand its efficacy. I will forever be indebted to Dr. Mary King for teaching me the strategy of nonviolence. In the future I will write a post summarizing the ideas behind SNVA.

If you want to do something to help end the militarization that is damaging the world here are a few ideas: teach girls to be strong, both physically and emotionally; teach boys they have a right to feel emotions and express them; teach all children the importance of respectful problem solving and dialogue; teach young people that there are many ways they can serve their country other than military service, including the Peace CorpsAmeriCorps, Job Corps, the Medical Reserve Corps, Citizen Corps, the Civilian Response Corps, and Serve Corps, as well as through thousands of non-governmental and non-profit groups; learn about strategic nonviolent action and then share what you know; and most importantly, practice strategic nonviolent action to bring an end to injustices around the world!


Day 31- Connecting the Dots

As Women’s History Month wraps up today I want to express my deep gratitude for all of the support I have felt from readers over the past 31 days. I hope that you have enjoyed the discussions and have learned something. I also hope that you can see how interconnected every individual’s struggle for justice is with everyone else’s. I welcomed you all to Feminist Activism with this quote by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” As I conclude my personal goal of writing everyday, I want to focus on the overarching ideas of justice and equality.

In the web of humanity everyone’s fate is intertwined with everyone else’s, so even if we personally are not facing injustice or persecution, we must stand up for those who are. Fighting to secure basic rights and freedoms for everyone will someday protect you, or someone you love. This statement by Pastor Martin Niemöller comes to mind.

Human rights covers a huge range of things, from women’s rights to access to education to the rights of the disabled to access to health care, etc. Merely fighting for each individual human being to have equal access and opportunity will not fix what is wrong with our world though. Environmental issues and the rights of other species to not only exist but to thrive need to be priorities as well, for even the most equal of societies will fall if the planet cannot sustain it.

A look into one individual’s life will clearly illustrate how dependent all living beings are on each other. Let’s look at an average white American woman: 30s-40s, two teenagers and a shelter rescue dog, one expensive abortion, Christian with no time for church, divorced because her alcoholic ex-husband broke too many of her ribs, high school graduate, working class–living paycheck to paycheck, no retirement fund to speak of, paying a mortgage, lives in the suburbs downwind from her job, tries to help take care of her disabled mother who lives in a run-down nursing home, health insurance only covers cervical cancer screenings every two years instead of the recommended annual screenings, her gay brother lives with her because he was forced out of his home when his partner passed away and their home was automatically given to the legal “next of kin,” her mid-90s car has tons of miles on it and is just as hard on her wallet as it is on the environment, and her best friend is the Mexican woman with whom she can barely communicate who is charged with her mother’s care. This story of “middle America” could go on and on.

Every aspect of an individual’s life–sex, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, education, class, religion, ability, language, environment, legal status, criminal record, and age–affects her/his reality. Each of these factors individually can be cause for discrimination but when more than one factor is “abnormal” the individual can feel hopeless. The norm for American society is male, white, straight, man, some college, middle-upper class, Christian, nondisabled, English-speaking, suburban, US citizen, non-convict, 30s-40s. Imagine how harsh someone’s reality is if these are the facts: female, Latino, bisexual, transgender FTM, some high school, working class, atheist, disabled, Spanish-speaking, urban, undocumented, ex-convict, 60s. Obviously this is an extreme case of being at the bottom of the food chain but this man does exist, many times over!

Let’s go back to our “average” American woman. Her Christian upbringing lead her to get married at age 20 and have children by age 22. After her youngest child went to school she tried to get back into receptionist work but found she had been out of the game too long and no one would hire her. The family couldn’t survive on her husband’s paycheck alone so she took an entry-level job at a manufacturing plant where she was often sexually harassed for being a woman and doing a “man’s job.” Despite missing work for three weeks because her husband put her in the hospital, she worked her way up in the union and, since she left her husband, luckily makes enough money to get by every month. Her brother helps with some of the bills but his employers give him just enough hours to qualify for health insurance, out of pity, because they know if he ever lost his health insurance his HIV status would make him “uninsurable.” Her children, whom she would sacrifice anything for, are in high school, sexually active, average students, mildly involved in extra-curricular activities. She’s straight but sometimes wonders what it would be like to be with a woman. Her mother’s illnesses are taking a toll on her and the Mexican caretaker at the nursing home is the only person she feels comfortable being honest with, partly because she believes the caretaker can’t understand her. She’s been having some pains in her stomach lately which could be attributed to cervical cancer or could be a result of years of inhaling pollution, but she can’t afford to take the time off work to see a doctor during normal business hours, and couldn’t afford her co-payment anyway.

We must all fight each other’s battles. My only word of caution is not to fight for what we think someone else wants, but to fight for what she says she wants, otherwise we’re repeating colonialism all over again. If you are interested in fighting injustice in any (or all) of its many forms, get involved in your community. The old feminist adage to “think globally and act locally” is still true. Always consider what effect your actions will have on the global community and start to make changes in your life and at the local level. This explanation may help.

Some organizations with whom you can explore the birdcage of oppression include The Connect the Dots Movement focused on human, animal and environmental well-being, The Connect the Dots Network which teaches green/sustainable environmental practices to social justice non-profits, 100% Renewable Energy that explains the folly in ageist discrimination in relation to the environmental movement, Counter Quo which examines how a multitude of factors compound oppression and sexual violence, Advocates for Environmental Human Rights that is a legal service that understands how race and security issues affect environmental issues, and L.O.V.E. Living Opposed to Violence and Exploitation which explores the necessary links between veganism and feminism, and on combating speciesism, racism, sexism and rape culture.

Tomorrow is April 1st and the start of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I will not be writing everyday but hope to be able to post at least 2-3 times per week, so check back often for new discussions, or subscribe so you’ll automatically be notified when I post something new. As always, any ideas, links, information, etc. is more than welcome. Thanks y’all. Keep fighting the good fight!


Day 29- Environmental Activism

Most rational people understand and accept that humanity’s actions have severely negatively impacted the environment, and yet most people do little or nothing to change their personal impact on the environment. I too am guilty of not always recycling, throwing batteries in the trash, (which I excuse-away in my mind as understandable because I live in a country where I do not speak the language and thus cannot seek proper channels for disposal), leaving my computer on and plugged in for days at a time, lounging in the shower, using synthetic petro-chemical products, and generally being wasteful. That I am not perfect in my own personal protection and defense of the environment does not lessen my commitment to making the world a better place, both figuratively and literally. Bad behaviors are not generally changed overnight, and so, I forgive myself if I have a lapse in judgement or memory and wound the planet, but I still consider myself an ecofeminist.

Not all women who participate in activism on behalf of the environment identify as ecofeminists, or even feminists in general. The link between the subjugation and exploitation of women and the subjugation and exploitation of the natural environment is the backbone of the ecofeminist discourse. Many women who participate in environmental organizations or movements do so as a result of the negative health impacts environmental degradation has had on them, their homes or someone they love. For years reports have surface that women (indigenous women especially) are and continue to be more severely affected by climate change, pollution, deforestation, increased food costs which can result in women resorting to prostitution or families selling their daughters, and other aspects of environmental concern because of social inequalities already present before environmental problems surface, but they are also taking the initiative to educate themselves and empower those around them.

Women are disproportionately represented in environmental organizations: they are often a majority of grassroots/local members and activists but are very few officers or leaders of major organizations. Often women, and the specific effects of environmental degradation on them, are specifically (if not intentionally) left out of papers, conferences and legislation surrounding environmental issues. Increasingly (and alarmingly) environmental organizations that are committed to nonviolent tactics, such as gluing themselves to the offices of companies they are protesting, are falsely linked to militaristic environmental groups that shamefully use terrorist tactics to try and overcome the system–more on why that will never work in a later post. The women in these peaceful groups are at an increased risk of violence if other members think the use of violence is an acceptable way to get what one wants, and are often under attack from corporations, police and non-activist citizens who feel threatened by the truth being spoken.

Internationally, Wangari Maathai, the first African woman and the first environmentalist to earn the Nobel Peace Prize, is a shining example of the potential for leadership and positive change in the environmentalist movements. Vandana Shiva is another “world-renowned environmental activist” who shows that women can be extremely capable leaders, especially when they are so personally impacted by the issue at hand. Many women are discovering the power of blogs and writing to share their ideas and concerns about the environment, like this woman. Also, see this list for information about some of today’s leading Jewish environmental activist women.

The link between family planning and climate change is a hot issue for many feminists, including the women of color RJ group SisterSong, because attempts to control women’s fertility and take away their right to bodily autonomy have been “justified” whenever anything needs protecting (like a specific gene pool, for example). This article Collective_Voices_Vol4_Issue9 shows why trying to limit women’s fertility will not be the answer to climate change. Please do not misunderstand: I fully support all women having accurate information about and access to all kinds of birth control so that they can make their own fully-informed decisions. What I do not approve of is anyone imposing their views of what is right, or moral, or healthy or “best” on someone else.

Women are often assumed to be more “in-tune” with nature because of menstruation, or because the femininely-linked intuition and emotion are seen as more basic human traits than the masculinely-linked logic and reason. (Even big-name politicians fall prey to these assumptions!) These assumptions merely feed into the social constructions of gender roles in any given society, which are often responsible for the impact environmental issues disproportionately have on women in the first place, creating a vicious cycle.

If you would like to become more involved in environmental issues there are many, many areas of concern. A quick google search for organizations in your area will be a good start. Women are effective and capable leaders and members of environmental activist organizations not because they (more than men) have some innate connection to Mother Earth but because they are effective and capable people.

Attention: If you happen to be in Denton, Texas today head up to the University of North Texas this evening for a discussion of environmentalism and social justice from one of the founders of Code Pink, Diane Wilson.


Day 26- RAISE Initiative

Yesterday’s discussion centered on Reproductive Justice (RJ) and SisterSong, a US-based women of color collective working for RJ. Today’s post features an organization that understands the need for reproductive justice to be at the forefront of everyone’s minds all the time, even in times of crisis and emergency.

The RAISE Initiative-Reproductive Health Access, Information and Services in Emergencies-aims to improve the quality of life of those affected by natural or human-made disasters. Oftentimes, and especially in the wake of a major catastrophe, reproductive health (RH) is overlooked or seen as an unnecessary or secondary concern of governments and NGOs working to help people recover from a disaster.

Numerous case studies have shown that when water, food and shelter are the only concerns of organizations seeking to “help” survivors, harm inevitably comes to the groups with the highest pre-disaster risk factors for vulnerability: basically anyone who is not able-bodied, adult-but-not-elderly, and male. Consider that the number of boy and girl children, adult women, disabled or ill adult men, and elderly men and women combined is considerably higher than the number of healthy, nondisabled men ages 18-55; with this fact in mind it is absurd that what is “normal” and necessary for survival is based on what that minority of the population may need.

Women are at least half of any population, (although, because of socially-constructed gender roles and a lack of survival skills women may have been disproportionately killed in any disaster) and their needs should be taken into consideration when providing any services to an affected population. Women’s needs may include sanitary pads, extra-nutrition if they are pregnant or breastfeeding, well-planned and secure shelter, soap, and birth control. Many people mistakenly believe that life stops for survivors in post-disaster camps, but babies are born and love is made, even in the shadow of chaos.

Much has been written about the opportunity that arises in the wake of a disaster to weaken patriarchy and reinforce gender equality and yet the same mistakes are made over and over again, from Haiti to Pakistan to Japan.

RAISE, which has offices in New York, London, Brussels and Nairobi,  recognizes the vital role in overall health that reproductive health plays, and understands that these needs in an emergency setting are even more pressing. “Access to reproductive health care is a basic human right. Yet integrated and fully comprehensive reproductive health services are not the norm in most emergency settings. People are displaced from their homes for many reasons, and an overwhelming number of preventable deaths and illnesses related to reproductive health affect populations in crisis.”

RAISE, as far as I know, is one of the only organizations of its kind. I know very little about the Reproductive Health Response in Crisis Consortium, or the Women’s Refugee Commission. If you know of other organizations that specifically address the reproductive health needs of populations affected by disaster please share them in the comments section. RAISE is unique in its approach, and addresses RH through technical support to partner organizations, clinical training, advocacy, research, and documentation and dissemination of information.

Additionally, RAISE offers resources for advocacy, up-to-date news articles about reproductive health issues, and a large multimedia library with information about sexual and reproductive health in numerous contexts.

“By promoting awareness of the full range of reproductive health (RH) challenges in refugee and internally displaced person (IDP) situations and the consequences of inaction, RAISE Initiative staff and advocacy partners work to mobilise key humanitarian actors – UN agencies, international bodies, donor governments and host countries – to include RH as an integral part of their humanitarian response and action.”

RAISE works on long-term projects in a number of places, including Colombia, two projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Southern Sudan, the Thai-Burmese border, and Uganda. RAISE offers a number of services such as comprehensive reproductive health care, emergency obstetric care, family planning, testing and information for HIV and STIs, and assistance in bringing about an end to gender-based violence.

If you would like to help make RH a priority in both emergency and everyday situations, there are many ways to contribute to or participate in the RAISE Initiative. RAISE offers clinical training in emergency obstetrical care, post-abortion care, and family planning, in addition to offering a multimedia training tool for clinical care for sexual assault survivors. You can also subscribe to their email list for regular RAISE updates and a weekly literature review.


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