Michelle Ebony Hardy opened Wednesday’s International Women’s Day Breakfast with a rousing spoken-word performance of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman.” Filmmaker Maria Luisa Gambale later introduced the sold-out audience in the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice to a powerful documentary, “Sarabah,” and rapper-singer-activist Sister Fa.
Hardy, a current Kroc School of Peace Studies master’s student, and an emotional, educational film scene from Gambale helped this event with University of San Diego representatives and strong community women leaders live up to the theme of “Connect, Create, Celebrate.”
One might also add another “C” to the list: Courage.
That’s what it takes to be a strong woman in many parts of the world. Often, though, the potential for a substantial increase in empowered women is plagued by circumstances such as a concerted effort to control or that oppression is repeated for generations. Take, for instance, four statistical messages provided by the IPJ that were placed on each dining table on Wednesday:
• Seventy percent of the 1.2 billion people in the world living in poverty are female;
• Eighty percent of the world’s refugees are women and children;
• Approximately 67 percent of the 875 million illiterate adults are women;
• About 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of female genital mutilation (FGM).
These four messages, particularly the latter, are significant reminders of the work to be done. Breaking that cycle takes consistent courage.
Administrators, staff and students in the IPJ and the School of Peace Studies organize events and programs to bring injustice to light and travel to countries to work closely with and learn from community leaders about on-the-ground issues.
Wednesday’s event, IPJ’s eighth annual, featured an introduction by IPJ Deputy Director Dee Aker, herself a woman of impact, in which she reminded the audience on the status of women in world politics as of Jan. 1, 2012. There are eight women leaders among 152 Heads of State (5.3 percent), 14 of 193 Heads of Government (7.3), 41 of 271 Presiding Officers of Parliament (15.1).
“In 1995 there were 11.3 percent women in all chambers of government. In 2012, that number is now 19.5 percent,” Aker said. She promptly acknowledged that the breakfast audience included women locally who are seeking political and justice leadership roles.
Jennifer Freeman, IPJ Program Officer for the Women PeaceMakers Program, highlighted the trip that IPJ staff took to New York for the 56th Session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. The session focused on the empowerment of women in rural areas of the world and topics included financing for gender equality, HIV/AIDS, increased suppression of women during last year’s Arab Spring as well as talk about a pledge to ban FGM worldwide.
“Sarabah,” which Sister Fa refers to it as an oasis “to escape, hide and to find myself in absolute happiness,” is a biographical look at this hero to young women in Senegal who promotes social change. A childhood victim of FGM, Sister Fa chose to start a grassroots campaign, “Education Without Excision,” combining her music and powerful voice to educate. The film, which was shown in full at an IPJ WorldLink Youth Forum event earlier this week, closely examined a 2010 visit to her home village of Thionck Essyl where she had been victimized and feared rejection because she left and because of her stance against the practice.
For some women, Gambale reminded the audience, the procedure is their job, their livelihood. Men, meanwhile, want nothing to do with preventing it from happening, thinking it to be “woman’s business.” Religion plays a role, too, but in a manipulative way to gain control and justify its necessity.
Sister Fa’s music connects with the communities she visits and the film shows her interacting with young students in classrooms to talk candidly about the issue.
“It’s easier to talk to younger people because their ears are open,” Sister Fa said in the film.
Breaking the cycle requires consistent courage. Sister Fa and others, including IPJ staff who host an event to facilitate more awareness of important global concerns facing women, are doing their part.
— Ryan T. Blystone
Photos courtesy of Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice