By SHANNON FARLEY, Spark Executive Director
Early this morning I received a call from a college student in Alabama. For her safety, I will call her Ana. She is spearheading an effort to bring her fellow students to Savannah, Georgia in June to participate in a SlutWalk. SlutWalk was founded earlier this year in Toronto after a local police officer told a crowd of students at Osgoode Hall Law School, “I’m not supposed to say this [but to prevent being sexually assaulted] avoid dressing like sluts.” Two months later, over 3,000 outraged young people took to the streets to protest victim-blaming rhetoric and policies. Since April, Slutwalks have been organized all over the world. This response to sexual violence is resonating with a large community of young people. It is also controversial.
Photo Credit: Pamela Westoby
Ana wasn’t calling about the controversy. She was calling for advice. The Savannah SlutWalk has been postponed—possibly indefinitely—because the young women organizing the event received death threats for their participation. Ana called Spark because she and her fellow organizers still planned to protest and wanted to know how to go about it.
I advised against it. I told Ana that her safety and that of her peers was paramount. If the organizers believed that there was a credible threat, there probably was and it is not worth the sacrifice. I suggested that Ana organize a service day at local rape crisis centers and women’s shelters. She and her peers should pamphlet campus, informing students about SlutWalk, the death threats and their non-violent response. I told her that the threat of violence should not stop the political action but it should shift the strategy. I hung up the phone feeling pretty good.
Then, I got a Google alert about Freedom Riders, a documentary featuring the students who fought to desegregate bus lines in the Southeastern,United States in the summer of 1961. It is premièring tonight on PBS. It is a stunning film—a story that is not well known that happened not long ago. 400 courageous and tenacious young people were vilified, tortured and imprisoned for sitting on a bus. One of the arcs of the film chronicles civil rights leaders begging the students to postpone the second phase of the rides. Robert F. Kennedy sent his staffer John Seigenthaler to convince the riders that certain martyrdom would not achieve racial equality. The students rode the bus anyway. The Freedom Riders were fed up. They would not permit the injustice of Jim Crow to continue. So, they rode the bus. 400 young people changed the face of the country for the better.
This morning I told Ana to think of herself first and the cause second. There is plenty of important work to be done to stop violence against women that won’t compromise her safety. I believe the advice I gave Ana was good, but I don’t know if it was right.
What do you think?
BY SARAH MIERS, Spark Fellow
Two weeks ago, Amnesty International requested that Spark remove the name of an upcoming speaker from searchable websites and databases. The speaker is from Zimbabwe, and due to the recent police harassment of political dissidents, her advocacy for human rights has made her a potential target. Spark immediately removed her name and that of her organization from our website, but as Spark members and women around the world unite and participate in various International Women’s Day celebrations, events in Zimbabwe remind us that there is still significant progress to be made.
Here is what happened yesterday in Zimbabwe:
In Bulawayo, police interrupted meetings and marches celebrating International Women’s Day. They detained 16 members of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, despite a court order permitting their peaceful demonstration, and a speaker at the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights’ meeting in the suburbs of the city. Although the Deputy Prime Minister Thokozani Khuphe reprimanded police for these actions, contentious arrests like these have populated Zimbabwean headlines for weeks.
In late February, President Robert Mugabe’s police forces interrupted an International Socialist Organization meeting and arrested 45 students, trade unionists and activists for watching BBC and Al Jazeera reports on the protests in Egypt and Tunisia. The individuals (11 female and 34 male) were arrested on the suspicion of plotting to overthrow the Mugabe government. 39 were released on Monday, but the remaining 6 (1 female and 5 male) now face treason charges in the High Court, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The New York Times reports: “As Mr. Mugabe’s party pushes for elections this year in a drive to reclaim sole power, human rights groups have warned that the police and youth militia aligned with Mr. Mugabe’s party have intensified harassment, beatings and arrests of Mr. Mugabe’s political opponents”.
Such police behavior is alarming and generates particular concern for Zimbabwean women. Women’s Enews reported yesterday on a study outlining the treatment of Zimbabwean women protesters that 78% reported political threats, 64% reported degrading treatment, 42% reported torture and sexual abuse and 33% reported torture.
As we observe International Women’s Day throughout the month of March, we cannot ignore the potential implications of these detentions and must continue to fight for and protect women’s rights – including the basic human right to peaceful demonstration.
Please join Spark in an intimate discussion related to these recent events at its upcoming Speaker Series on March 19, 2011. Our speaker is the founder of a non-violent human rights movement in Zimbabwe and is at the forefront of the struggle for peace and human rights for women and all Zimbabweans.
Last December, the progressive journalist Courtney E. Martin posted a powerful reflection on the state of dialog regarding women’s issues. While it has certainly become hip to advocate for women (think about Nick Kristof’s columns or the corporate engagement by companies like Goldman Sachs and Coca Cola), we must remember the importance of connecting actions to rhetoric and not assume that the current climate means our work is done.
Jenn Wilcox, Tanzania 2010
One of the things I love most about Spark is its dedication to engaging its members on all aspects of women’s empowerment. Through this blog, the Spark News Digest and the number of educational events Spark co-sponsors, members are able to learn about and engage on issues that impact women around the world. By attending Grants and Advocacy meetings, we engage in important conversations about how to prioritize projects and how to turn our values into high-impact grants. At Cocktails for a Cause events, we help support domestic and international women-focused organizations while socializing with civically engaged friends. In a vacuum, each of these activities is important, but the real power of the Spark model comes from their integration, from turning what we learn into decisions we make and causes we support.
Perhaps most importantly, this powerful confluence of engagement means that we start to more fully appreciate what Hillary Clinton meant when she declared in 1995 that women’s rights are human rights. I don’t support women’s rights because I’m a woman, I support women’s rights because in so many places women are systematically denied opportunities and disadvantaged uniquely because of their gender, and battling this injustice is one of clearest ways to create maximum impact. Spark is a small grassroots organization – by definition we have to think about our funding not only in terms of dollars, but in terms of how each dollar will impact the community. As I learn more about the issues surrounding women’s rights, I am convinced that our focus on gender inequality and substantive discussions surrounding funding ensure that each dollar donated to Spark is deployed in a thoughtful, high-impact way.
By K. Kerr
K. Kerr is a lawyer, human trafficking activist and Director of Programs for Freedom House, the first transitional shelter dedicated to supporting survivors of human trafficking in the San Francisco area. K. Kerr has been a Spark member since 2009.
I have spent the last five years in the fight against human trafficking. I have worked and written on this topic and still I am left with a lot of unanswered questions. In this, I am not alone. I can repeat what the U.S. Government, United Nations and various nonprofit organizations report. I can tell you what I have seen in working with populations vulnerable to trafficking and survivors of trafficking. Despite this, key questions around scope and solutions, remain unanswered.
Posted in Advocacy, Grantees, Housing, Human Trafficking, Slavery
Tagged activism, community, girls, housing, Human Rights, human trafficking, illegal, labor, prostitution, slavery, Women