women’s rights

Reproductive and Sexual Health is an Economic Issue

Reproductive Rights are Human Rights - Image credit: Secular Pro-Life PerspectiveI had a discussion with a group of teenage girls I mentor last week about the recent Supreme Court decision on Hobby Lobby, which allows private firms to opt out of paying for contraception for its female employees based on religious grounds.  Most of them were actually surprised that the decision came in favor of the Christian focused company.

These young girls are used to living in a country where their reproductive rights are fully protected.  In the United States females have access to safe abortions, birth control pills and other contraceptives and education for proper family planning and sexual health.

As a business owner myself, I have been torn on this issue since the decision.  While I support the right of privately-held businesses to do what they please, as a woman, I could never see myself denying those rights to my female employees.

As a matter of fact, access to proper reproductive and sexual health rights is an economic issue that affects female workers worldwide.

I have worked in international development for the last 12 years, mainly in media development for journalists in the developing world.  However, one of my first jobs in this field was working in reproductive and sexual rights in Africa and Southeast Asia.  I saw firsthand many of the injustices women and girls faced on a regular basis.
In many countries women and girls simply don’t have any rights when it comes to their bodies, such as when they get pregnant or protecting themselves from sexually transmitted diseases. Obstetric fistula, female genital mutilation and, of course, HIV/AIDS are corrupting the lives of many females in these regions.  Sometimes this is due to cultural or religious traditions, but much of the time it is caused by poverty and lack of education.

I told my mentees that in many poor countries some women and girls usually have to stay home from work or school when they menstruate.  They literally have to sit on a rag at home for the duration of their flow because they can’t afford feminine products.

Women can play a big role in global market over the next decade, especially in the developing world, where GDPs can significantly increase and current rates of female workers are below 30 percent.  Economically empowered women also raise healthier, better educated families.

When women and girls can’t go to work or school, it affects economy in the long run.  Women and girls shouldn’t have to worry about losing their job or not receiving an education because of an unwanted pregnancy, a sexually transmitted disease or even a lack of maxi pads.

My girls were shocked when I told them this because for them their rights is something that is taken for granted.  It is really important to educate others about these issues and make sure women’s reproductive and sexual health worldwide moves forward, not backwards.

Marjane Satrapi: Life After

Marjane Satrapi is one of the most inspiring storytellers of our time.  She is the embodiment of an artist who uses creativity to express her political views.  Satrapi is best known as the French-Iranian graphic novelist whose best-selling books, Persepolis and Persepolis 2, were turned into a film of the same name.  Persepolis is an autobiographic tale of Satrapi growing up in Tehran in a family with socialist beliefs just before the Iranian revolution.  She came to Boston recently to discuss her life after the Persepolis phenomenon, Muslim women and identity.

I discovered Satrapi’s work by accident while walking past a local bookstore ten years ago, where I saw Persepolis in the store’s main window.  I was captivated by the book cover of a young girl in a hijab.  I assumed immediately that it was just another book about how repressed women are treated in the Islamic world.  However, I went into the store anyway to see a few pages.  I quickly saw that it was a graphic novel – a format I was not used to reading.  Twenty minutes later, I had almost read half the book.  I learned quickly that this was not another repressed Muslim woman’s tale.  Satrapi’s Persepolis is a story of determination and hope that really captures a balance view of Iran from a child’s eye.

I was equally impressed with her follow up work, Embroideries, which delves into the sex lives of the colorful women in her family.  The lurid details in the book again go against the stereotype of women in Islamic countries.

“Women actually had more rights before the revolution than under the new regime,” Satrapi said.  “For example, in the 60s and 70s the miniskirts women wore in Iran were short short.  At the time in the West, the mini-skirt was a result of the women’s revolution.  In Iran women wore the mini-skirt, but had to remain a virgin.  But here is my problem with virginity.  If men have the right to make love, they had to make love to somebody.”

Satrapi’s work still creates controversies.  In March a Tunisian TV station was fined for undermining “proper morals” by screening the film version of Persepolis, which depicts Allah, an act considered blasphemous by many Sunni Muslims.

Satrapi, who was raised atheist, sees extremism in all belief systems.

“There is no clash between East and West, North and South, and Muslim and Christian.  There is a clash between fanatics and open-minded people, and fanatics are everywhere,” she said. “I see no difference between a hardcore Christian who kills a doctor because he made an abortion, or a crazy Muslim who burns something, or a crazy Buddhist who does another thing.  Fanatics are driven by emotion.”

Satrapi also commented on the recent controversial ban on veils in France.  She asked why the French government hypothetically why in 1970 no North African woman wore a veil, but they do now.  Maybe this was a larger discussion about still feeling like an “outsider” as a first or second generation Arab woman in France.

“I don’t like the veil, but I will never tell someone else not to wear it,” she said.

Satrapi has such a sound view of the world; something that is much needed today.

Mic Check with Anna Oloshuro Okaro

One of the best things about my job is that I get to attend all kinds of events where I get to listen to (and sometimes interview) some really interesting people.  A couple of years ago I started the “Focus” series where I get off-the-cuff video footage of speeches, press conferences, live events and interviews I collect when I am out and about with my camera.  Today I am launching the “Mic Check” series to be a complementary audio version of “Focus.” I am doing this because of the high demand from my fans mainly in the developing world who don’t have easy access to video and have told me audio is better.  I hope “Focus” and “Mic Check” will continue to serve my mission of advancing social justice through media and technology.

My first “Mic Check” is with Anna Oloshuro Okaro (above), a Maasai farmer from Tanzania and women’s rights activist who was the keynote speaker at Oxfam America’s International Women’s Day celebration March 10, 2012. She was recently awarded Oxfam Women’s Leadership Award in Washington D.C. for her advocacy work on women’s issues and poverty.  Okaro talks in her speech about the food security crisis around the world.

Okaro has an interesting life story.  After a devastating divorce that left her broke, she fought against cultural norms to not only rebuild her life, but to also advocate for women in her community to have better access to education and the right to own livestock and land.  She even helped to build a computer center with a mobile recharger powered by solar panels.

Note: This recording is in Kiswahili with English translation.