"There is a special place in hell for women who don't help each other," said Madeleine Albright during a recent TED talk.
We need to change our vision of what it means to help from something the rich, usually men, do for the poor to something more fluid, more active, and with more room for women and girls of every class and country to take charge of compassion and together we can create a global women's network for change. In our LitWorld Girls Clubs in Harlem, girls meet every week. By connecting to our LitWorld Clubs worldwide, they are each and every one emerging from isolation through words and stories so as to convey to each other a high level of care and intense understanding, across thousands of miles. The women who attend our LitWorld literacy workshops in Liberia come despite walking hours to get there, driven by a powerful desire to impart true education to the younger girls in their communities. "I hated my thumb," one of the participants told me. "It was the only way I knew to write my name, and I was ashamed. I come here to give the young women of my country more than their thumb to say who they are." Women can and must come together for women, if not in actuality then even in spirit. It is this spirit that will finally, ultimately save us all.
We as women, no matter where we live, have an understanding of one another's universal experience, the experience of being a woman. It is uncommonly powerful. I hope that this unique form of solidarity becomes the new defining global narrative for women, for the new women's movement must be global.
"Women's issues are the hardest issues because they often have to do with life and death," Madeline Albright says.
In the last ten years, hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone. In an interview on CBS News, Anneka Van Woudenberg, the senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: "Rape is now on a daily basis -- rape is the norm... it is a way to ensure that communities accept the power and authority of that particular armed group. This is about showing terror. This is about using it as a weapon of war."
Of sexual violence, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said: "It is truly one of mankind's greatest atrocities."
Rape and sexual violence are used not just as weapons of war around the world but as forms of coercion and a way to instill fear and used as bribes for female students in classrooms, a way to severely marginalize and control women, even in non- conflict areas. We must fiercely advocate to governments to take strong, urgent and immediate action to stop these practices.
Two-thirds of the world's illiterate people are women. All across the world, girls are prevented from attending school, not provided the opportunity to go on to secondary school and deprived of safe space while at school by abuse by male teachers and lack of sanitary supplies which would make them comfortable during the time of menstruation. With mobile technology, it would be possible for us to communicate learning and literacy to one another without the bricks and mortar of a classroom. No longer will a girl have to walk a lonely path to school, her heart pounding, worrying that the man by the side of the road will leap out to violate her, as is now so often the case. Let us not assume the school building is a haven of safety. The 21st century affords us innovations that will protect the physical and emotional lives of young women. Let us advocate for access to technology for all girls in every socioeconomic group worldwide. Technology can be lifesaving.
But so too can be the profound magic of access to literature. Diana, one of the girls in our LitWorld Girls Club in Kibera, Kenya recently read Charlotte's Web for the first time. "You know what I love about this book?" she told me, "I love that Fern stands up to her father. She wants to save Wilbur and so she reaches up and stops him, even though he's holding that ax. She's not afraid. I've never seen a girl stand up to a man like that before." All girls deserve the right to read, to gain access to books that can change their lives.
According to the World Health Organization, "every minute, at least one woman dies from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth." There is no reason for women to die in childbirth. Access to family planning education, care during pregnancy and after birth and adequate health facilities for high risk pregnant women around the world would eliminate death. Girls who know how to read can access resources to learn how best to care for themselves; words are lifesaving and powerful tools for self protection and self awareness.
Literacy is the human rights issue of our time. Let us advocate for each other to seek the power of words to change worlds.
My daughter Charlotte, age sixteen, participated in a solitary overnight camping trip. She was on a cliff surrounded by pine trees, with a view of the wide gray ocean. She'd wanted to write poetry, but the only thing she felt compelled at that pivotal moment to write in her notebook was: "I am ALIVE I am ALIVE I am ALIVE". She felt the power of herself, out there alone among the trees.
Let us together advocate for girls everywhere so they gain the tools they need to forge the highest cliffs, stand tall with courage, make choices about their bodies, minds and spirits. So that they will live safely, to grow freely. Let us all raise our voices together, for girls and women everywhere:
We are ALIVE. We are ALIVE. We are ALIVE.
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