Women's Organizing

Fighting for Their Lives

Last April, 10 civil society organizations across Kenya, under the banner “Gender 10,” initiated a rather unusual mass action: a sex strike. In the wake of the post-election violence that rocked the country in early 2008 and produced a coalition government with two chief executives, the government was mired in inertia and public bickering, while vigilante groups still roamed the countryside.

Fed up, Gender 10—which encompassed women’s policy and advocacy groups, children’s rights organizations, and the Federation of Kenyan Women Lawyers—urged all women in Kenya to abstain from sex with their husbands and partners for an entire week until the politicians got their act together. A special appeal went out to both first ladies, Lucy Kibaki and Ida Odinga. “An extraordinary situation calls for an extraordinary measure,” the Gender 10 press statement read.

The result was that Parliament was convened one week after the boycott, while the cabinet met the second week. A government task force was set up to address the insecurity caused by the vigilantes.

And there were other benefits, according to Ann Njogu, executive director of the Centre for Rights, Education, and Awareness in Nairobi. “What the boycott did was to create a debate in this country. People actually talked about sex in public for the first time.” Apart from breaking the political impasse, the boycott “brought out openly the prejudices that exist in our society: that women have no right to say no, that women can be raped in marriage, and that divorced women are less of a citizen.”

These are just a few of the issues that Kenyan women’s groups are facing in a country where only 10 percent of Parliament is female; where rape victims seeking justice have faced daunting legal as well as societal hurdles; where widows and other vulnerable people are often deprived of their legal inheritances; and where women in HIV-affected families are too often stigmatized and marginalized.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2010
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Women's Work

The Darfur Peace Agreement, signed in May 2006, seemed promising on paper—any step toward stopping the Khartoum-sponsored genocide was a good step. Yet soon after the signing, violence in many areas increased, humanitarian access decreased, and now the agreement is dead in the water. What went wrong? One crucial factor was lack of buy-in by all stakeholders. Women leaders, for example, were largely excluded from the negotiations, and the Darfur Peace Agreement proved insufficient to its crucial task.

In peacemaking processes the world over, women are consistently underrepresented. At 50-plus percent of the population, we are the largest group to have this problem. It's not just a matter of fairness or equity: Creating sustainable solutions for conflict and post-conflict societies without the active leadership of women produces structural failure. Evidence shows that gender equality is not a pie-in-the-sky value, but a critical component for effecting long-term peace.

Perversely, modern warfare leads the way in "including" women, children, and civilians—it kills more of them than soldiers—and our approach to forging peace must follow. International Crisis Group's research in Sudan, Congo, and Uganda, for example, suggests that peace agreements, post-conflict reconstruction, and governance do better when women are involved.

Why? Women have their fingers on the "pulse of the community." They live and work close to the roots of the conflict, witness unrecorded wartime atrocities, and understand necessary components for lasting reconciliation—such as bringing war criminals to justice. In the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, sex crimes against both men and women got significant redress only when women judges were on the bench.

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Sojourners Magazine June 2007
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Beauty, Bracelets and Brainpower

BeadforLife has helped roll hundreds of Ugandan families out of poverty by training HIV-positive women and refugees in the art of bead rolling. They also help connect Ugandan bead rollers with buyers around the world. Not only do women generate income, but the project's expansion also has helped pay school fees for 60 children, given 90 beaders training to help them start other businesses—such as vegetable stands—and funded the testing and treatment of malaria.

For every $10 spent on one BeadforLife product, according to the organization's Web site, $4.30 is reinvested into community development projects that focus on health care, life skills training, vocational training, and affordable housing. "Many churches featured BeadforLife this past holiday season as a way to give a gift that also helped someone in Uganda," co-founder Devin Hibbard told Sojourners. Beaders now make an average of $850 a year in a country where, according to the International Monetary Fund, the average per capita income is $300 per year.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2007
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Healing Through Art

Evelyn came in at 9 a.m., all smiles and ready to draw even though class doesn’t begin until this afternoon. Evelyn usually comes for the Greeting Card class, where she quietly draws the same face over and over again: two circles for eyes, one for a nose, and one for a mouth. "Do you want to color them?" the instructor suggests. "No," Evelyn says. Today she is looking through old National Geographic magazines to cut out pictures that catch her eye.

Evelyn is diagnosed as mentally retarded and does not know her birthday. She sits near Teiko, a former medical researcher at the University of California at Davis who takes medication for paranoid schizophrenia and depression. Teiko has been coming to the Women’s Wisdom Project, a nonprofit arts organization in Sacramento, California, for five years. She remarks how lucky she is to have "psychosis" since it allows her to come to Wisdom.

The mission of the Women’s Wisdom Project is to provide a secure environment in which women can enter into a personal transformation process through the creative arts. Through this process they are able to experience self-worth and dignity in a creative community and are strengthened to shape their own lives and connect with the resources they need to break free from patterns of oppression. Classes at the Women’s Wisdom Project are free, supplies are provided, and no experience is necessary.

Wisdom has come a long way since its beginning in 1991. Originally held in a local homeless shelter and founded by Laura Ann Walton, a Sister of Mercy who realized that souls, as well as stomachs, needed to be fed, Wisdom now rents a building that has a small kitchen, kiln, and ample storage space.

In December 1998, Wisdom artists created a mural that spans one side of the building and reads, "‘Reflections,’ Created with Hope and Vision."

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2000
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