When Hakima was 13 years old, armed militia men broke into her home. They put a gun to her mother’s head, and hauled her father and brothers away. She never saw them again. She and her mother were forced to try to survive in a society that doesn’t value women in the same way as men. Sometimes she and her mother were so desperate, they had to eat grass.
Leading up to International Women’s Day on March 8th, and throughout the rest of the month, Women for Women International will be posting inspiring stories of women from their program and asking their supporters to use the hashtag in sharing a story or photo of a woman in their lives who inspires them. The sorts of stories that WfWI will be posting are stories like those of Hakima, from Afghanistan, and Christina from South Sudan: stories that are profoundly compelling and speak to the impact of WfWI’s work.
The theme of ‘strength’ has a strong presence through the WfWI website, whether in the introductory text on the overview pages, or in the individual stories of women featured as part of the #SheInspiresMe campaign that runs to the end of March. One of the core principles of the organization is the belief that strong women—both individually, but particularly in networks—can help other women become stronger. Strength begets strength.
But what do we mean by strength? It is, like many abstract nouns, heavily nuanced—subject to interpretation, shaped by context, and colored by experience. There is physical strength and there is mental resilience. Male strength is different to female strength. Strength in one situation may be pure necessity in another. It can be the silent resolve that gets someone from one moment to another when all they want to do is curl up and die. It lies constrained in the clenched jaw when speaking out is forbidden, and cached in the muscles when lashing out in self-defense is instinctive but fatal. There is silent suffering and there’s overt resistance. There is also sheer desperation. But strength is also determination, courage, hope when it seems pointless, conviction when evidence suggests futility, and union when isolation threatens to overwhelm.
It is both inspiring and sobering to read some of stories on the WfWI website. Inspiring, sobering, and necessary, because they illustrate perfectly the hugely elastic meaning of the term strength, the extraordinary experiences that women have gone and go through, every day, in countries around the world. They are stories that speak to the enormous amount of work that needs to be done, and to the opportunities for us to make a difference, somehow, in some way, to someone somewhere.
For Afghan Zarghuna, strength is something with which she identifies only now, at the age of 38, though to the reader of her story it is clear that she is a woman of extraordinary resilience. Given by her father at the age of six to her cousin’s family as payment for a blood feud, Zarghuna describes how she was put on her uncle’s back ‘like a sack of rice’ and hauled off to a life of where she had neither choice nor voice. Having endured subjugation, humiliation, and neglect, she attempted suicide twice, once by eating insect poison stuffed inside a tomato. After that, she says, she went to hospital for her depression, where the doctor told her: “…you need somewhere to go and sit with women, with different kinds of women—with lucky women and unlucky women, with poor women and rich women—so you can see how they are dealing with their problems and how they are dealing with the challenges that they face.” It was after that that that Zarghuna found WfWI and embarked on a path that has changed her life. “I am always talking with the women,” she says. “I wanted to share all my experiences and I tell them to be strong, as I became strong. I explain to them how I transformed from victim to active citizen…” Zarghuna speaks of the lesson learned: that the step forward has to be taken, but that it can be taken with the support and solidarity of other women, strong women, who are willing you to succeed, to stand on your own two feet.
For Rifkatu, struggling to sustain her family in Nigeria without the necessary skills, life was a hopeless cycle of trying to find food, make money by farming and trading, and endure the beatings from her husband. Sometimes she was forced to resort to begging to feed her children. In March 2016, she joined a WfWI program, and has recently graduated. Basic business skills have enabled her to grow her poultry business, and she is beginning to exercise financial independence through the savings skills learned and applied with fellow women from her training program. More importantly, Rifkatu’s husband is also learning new skills through the Men’s Engagement Program, chief of which is the fact that Rifkatu is not a chattel, a goat or something purchased with money, but a human being with dignity and worthy of respect. He has stopped abusing her and contributes to the welfare of the family. Rifkatu now describes herself as emotionally and psychologically happy: “the program gave me a new meaning of life”.
It’s hard to imagine how hungry you must be to eat grass, like Hakima, how desperate you must be to beg at the side of the road in order to feed your family, like Rifkatu, and how without hope you must be to eat insect poison, like Zarghuna. Reading the stories of women like these affirms that strength is also standing together; believing that choice is something to which everyone has a right; trusting that life can be better when you have never known happiness; doing your best to stay healthy in a community where you are perceived as weak and dispensable; persevering with study when education is prohibited or difficult to access; daring to start your own business in an environment that believes only men should be financially independent. By sharing the stories of women like Rifkatu, Christina, Mariam, and countless others you can find on the WfWI website, we can help to spread awareness and understanding of the tremendous potential to help individuals, families, communities, and the fundamental rights of women globally.
As evidenced by Rifkatu’s story, a key part of the work of WfWI is facilitating critical dialogues aimed at changing discriminatory attitudes and behaviors towards women. The organization believes that success lies not just in educating women, but also in educating men, by engaging them in dialogue, as partners and allies. It hopes to achieve success by creating a ripple effect, where each wave of communication reaches further, touching others. There is a long journey ahead, but as with all long journeys, every step taken forward helps, as every story on the WfWI website illustrates. When, on January 21 this year, 2.6 million people—women, men and children—marched in the streets of Washington DC, New York, London and other cities in 32 countries around the world to make a statement, that statement was about more than American democracy. It was hundreds of millions of steps taken in support of basic human rights, and it took strength. And there is more for us to give.
Strength is not just the domain of women like Zarghuna, Mariam, and Rifkatu. It is ours too. It is our commitment to help in any way we can; our enterprise, as we think about what we can do to further the work of organizations like WfWI; our perseverance and determination as we make it happen; our participation in events like International Women’s Day on March 8th; and our continued effort, day after day, as we keep that flame of support burning.
So please, read these stories. Share these stories. And know that you are also a key part of a bigger story going forward.