May 15th – International Day of Families

Not every family wears anoraks and goes on walking holidays in Wales.
Not every family wears anoraks and goes on walking holidays in Wales.

In the West we have a problem. But don’t worry, there’s a fix for it, and apparently it’s approved by mums.

This preppy little phrase has recently crept into our advertising, reviving in us the outdated motto that mother knows best. It seems that society feels like without an apron wearing, wooden spoon brandishing wife in rollers we might not know which cleaning product to use, which nappies to buy or how best to entertain children with saccharine snacks. Despite the rise in the number of families with working mothers we still like to pretend that nuclear family not only exists, but is to be idealised. This International Day of Families too many of us will still be labouring under the ideal that Mum, Dad, Tilly, Tom and Rover the dog are celebrating with a home cooked family dinner.

Our tunnel vision of the family is exclusionary, prejudiced and frankly counter-productive. Throughout the world ‘family’ is stretched to fit a plethora of lifestyles, some you may not even recognise. Remember the first time you realised your family was a bit weird? That not every family wore matching yellow anoraks when on they went on walking holidays in Wales. That some families produced Christmas musicals containing the smallest members of their brood that were so elaborate they could rival the West End. That not every family talked to each other the way yours did. Variation in family exists in one community, on one street, let alone across continents. We get so caught up in the definition, in the semantics, that we forget the sentiment. Family is no more blood than it is bonds. Family are the people who care for you, support you, respect you and protect you. Family has never been so complicated, or less so. The only thing that has ever been simpler has been the stereotype.

After the genocide in Rwanda people built families from whoever they could cling to. When you’ve lost your blood relatives and seen your village consumed by an evil you can barely speak of, you do the most human thing you can; cling to each other. WomenforRwanda is about hearing the stories we wish have never even happened, hearing the voices of Rwandan women because their stories are bittersweet, beautiful and full of life. So this International Day of Families, go and tell the story of your family. Tell it to your kids, your friends and your work colleagues. Then ask them for the story of their family.

Family are the people who care for you.
Family are the people who care for you.

Every family is different, some have ugly sides, some have silly sayings but all have an awesome role in shaping us as people, and us as a society. Go tell your story and remind yourself that family is more than a six letter word.

By Claire Smith


International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – November 25th

The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women was adopted by the United Nations resolution 53/134. The General Assembly of the United Nations agreed that “violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of their full advancement, and that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into subordinate positions, compared with men.”

The Assembly defines violence against women as: “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.”

UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon comments on the day:

“Violence against women and girls takes many forms and is widespread throughout the globe.  It includes rape, domestic violence, harassment at work, abuse in school, female genital mutilation and sexual violence in armed conflicts.  It is predominantly inflicted by men. Whether in developing or developed countries, the pervasiveness of this violence should shock us all.  Violence – and in many cases the mere threat of it – is one of the most significant barriers to women’s full equality.”

This day is also known as the White Ribbon Day also signals the start of 16 Days of Activism against violence against women, with NGOs and community groups to hold events every day until 10 December to keep the focus on domestic violence issues.  These 16 Days of Activism to end violence against women involve groups all over the world who speak up for support against such violence. This year the campaign calls for overcoming challenges and obstacles to gain long-overdue results in the struggle to end violence against women. It pays particular attention to social attitudes and policies that continue to condone and perpetuate abuses.

Read more about this international day here.

Be active and make a difference!

International Day for the Eradication of Poverty

Happy International Day for the Eradication of Poverty!

One of UN Millennium Development Goals is to end extreme poverty by 2015.

Since 1993, October 17 has been recognized by the UN as a day to promote awareness of the poverty, hunger, and violence happening in countries all over the world. The day calls for recognition of those victims of destitution and to remind the world that the United Nations regards fighting poverty at the core of its development agenda. World leaders have come together under this initiative and are determined to cut the numbers of people living in extreme poverty in half by 2015.

This year’s theme will focus on “Ending the Violence of Extreme Poverty: Promoting Empowerment and Building Peace”. This is a theme that hits close to home for Women for Rwanda, as we are well aware of how poverty and violence often go hand in hand. With nearly two thirds of the Rwandan population living below the poverty line and the ethnic tension that continues to lead to violence we promote International Day for the Eradication of Poverty in hope that the world’s leaders will continue to work towards development in areas suffering from poverty and violence.

Today government officials and representatives from civil society, including those living in poverty, are meeting in the UN headquarters in New York. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has provided a message for today, “Rampant poverty, which has festered for far too long, is linked to social unrest and threats to peace and security. On this International day, let us make an investment in our common future by helping to lift people out of poverty so that they, in turn, can help to transform our world.”

The Great Wall of Vagina

Have you heard of The Great Wall of Vagina? That’s right, vagina.

It’s a masterpiece of a Brighton-based artist Jamie McCartney in his latest exhibition Skin Deep. The artwork, which unfortunately was only on display for the month of May, is a 9-meter-long wall that consists of “four hundred plaster casts of vulvas, all of them unique, arranged into ten large panels.”

This controversial piece can be interpreted in different ways, but many female participants themselves see it as a positive step towards demystifying the feminine.

Our media displays the female body again and again in a range of different ways, but the vulva is always left hidden and untouched in the day-to-day imagery we receive. Pornographic films, on the other hand, emphasize on displaying the vagina, but the type of genitalia shown in porn is very limited. Therefore, currently, the only representation of the vagina available is the pornographic vagina. Also, at the same time, the idea that porn films show what the rest of the media is not allowed to show, further enforce the idea that the feminine private parts are something to be hidden.

McCartney hopes his artwork will make talking about female genitalia more normal. He says he first came up with the idea five years ago when he begun to realize how many women suffer from low self-esteem because of the look of their genitals.

“I had no idea women had anxiety about their private parts. I began to wonder, as an artist, if I could take this any further.”

Mardi, one of the 400 participants, describes her experiences of participating in the artwork in the following way:

“Looking at it from a cast I was quietly surprised. I was very pleased with it. Vagina is a really important piece of equipment. It’s the gate way to life, really. This is a much softer way to record what your body looks like.”

And the piece really is a spectacle. The sexual has become nonsexual. Mardi continues, “I like the ethos of the piece, of showing different women all the different types of varieties of vagina which one can have, which we now know is lots!”

Josetta, another participant, talks of the social significance of the wall:

“It really helps you get over any body issues, I think. Lots of women feel the shape of their vagina is a bit different, because they are all different… To bring back the idea of women’s bodies, and parts of our bodies, into an art, I think is very different to women being objectified with a pornographic, sexual, or the male gaze.”

Finally, she concludes in a way that also speaks for Women for Rwanda: “The whole nature of the project feels very empowering to women. That in its self can counteract the kind of damaging view of women.”

The artist himself admiring The Wall.

We’re interested to hear what you think. Do you find McCartney’s spectacle vulgar, uncomfortable to see, or perhaps further objectifying women? Or, would you agree with Mardi and Josetta, that the artwork is empowering women, breaking patriarchal norms, and demystifying the hidden? If you’d interested to find out more, have a look at The Great Wall of Vagina film gallery here.

Indian sex workers an example of women’s empowerment

This morning I read an inspiring article in the Guardian about Indian sex workers. The article was about a community of sex workers in Kolkata claiming rights and recognition with the help of a local organization called Vamp.

There’s power in a collective.

Vamp is a part of a larger organization called Sangram, fighting to stop state violence against women in sex work. Founded in 1997, Vamp advocates health issues and human rights of sex workers. In the last ten years Vamp has helped sex workers in Kolkata to improve their working conditions and encouraged more and more women to use condoms with their clients.

These are great improvements, but the most impressive change has been in attitudes. Prostitution, a profession which society generally sees as the disgusting and most inferior, is liberating many women from patriarchal oppression, from institutions like marriage.

“If I had been married, I would be HIV positive by now,” says Shaban, a sex worker and a Vamp supporter.

“Why? Because he would have had sex elsewhere and would have passed it on to me.”

In a traditional Indian marriage, the woman has no freedom and is unable to insist her husband to use a condom, for example. In her work Shaban sets the rules. She’s able to choose her clients, choose when she works. She has her own income and she’s able to educate her children. “I’m free as a bird,” she says.

The main message taken from this article is that Shaban and other women in the Kolkata sex worker community are not in the sex business out of desperation. Some of the women have been married and have tried other professions but eventually return to sex work by choice. The problem with sex work is the stigma and the language. As the columnist writes, if we see these women as “prostituted” we see them as less than humans, “incapable of determining their own destinies.” These women don’t want or need to be ‘saved.’

Shaban says, “Whatever rights you have as citizens in a society we also have those rights. What is the matter if we are women in prostitution? Are we not women?”

Watch a short video about Shaban and her community here.

Peacebuilding in Rwanda

A few nights ago I attended a talk by Freddy Mutanguha at the Royal Commonwealth Society near Embankment in London. Freddy is the director of the Kigali Memorial Centre, and his speech was about Peacebuilding in Rwanda. Although there are no perfect solutions, I want to share with you what I gathered from Freddy’s talk.

Freddy, the director of the Kigali Memorial Centre, was visiting London this week.

The event began with a video clip that Aegis Trust, the charity that built the Kigali Memorial Centre, had put together. The clip, called Not On My Watch, was a touching overview of the genocide and its aftermath. I picked up the following, unsettling numbers to demonstrate the totality of the genocide: in 100 days 1,000,000 people were killed, mostly by using machetes. That means 10,000 people a day, 400 an hour, 7 people every minute.

Today 18 years have passed since the genocide. The Rwandan government has taken extensive measures to encourage unity (such as forbidding public use of the words ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’), but many still argue that these measures are ineffective, perhaps even counterproductive. Most of the audience questions had to do with how is Rwanda really coping today. One audience member raised his hand and said he had recently visited Northern Rwanda and attended a church service in a village. He pointed out that the church had consisted exclusively of Hutus, and implied that Rwandan society is still largely segregated. Freddy, who had talked a lot about unity, simply answered that a possible reason there weren’t any Tutsis in that church was because there are none left in the area. There are parts of Rwanda where the genocide was completed wholly and entirely.

Another audience member asked about the psychology of the perpetrators. She had difficulty grasping the brutality of the killings and she asked whether the perpetrators today are in denial or help in Peacebuilding.

“No one really thought about psychology at first,” Freddy said. Today, the perpetrators are divided: some help in Peacebuilding, some just want to forget. Freddy gave an example how on every last Saturday of every month people across Rwanda get together to clean roads of the villages and work together for a better community. This means both victims and perpetrators. Officially, no one is a Hutu or Tutsi anymore; all people are Rwandese.

The conversation then went on to discuss education. Freddy himself is a certified teacher at the National University of Rwanda. In his talk, he highlighted the importance of critical thinking. To demonstrate what he meant he used a light-hearted example of Omo, the detergent product. He said that everyone in Rwanda washes their clothes with Omo but if someone is to ask them ‘why Omo’ most people wouldn’t know what to say. He said that the most important thing in genocide education is to teach children to critically assess their personal beliefs and those of society, beliefs no matter how small, from ideas of washing detergent, to ideas of nationality, gender, ethnicity, and race.

Someone then asked, “But is it enough?”

Freddy smiled at the immensity of the question, and said “What we can do, lets do it.”

Freddy’s words go hand-in-hand with the quote Women for Rwanda runs by: Just because you can’t do everything, doesn’t mean you should do nothing. If you can do it, lets do it!

International Women’s Day

This spring, on International Women’s Day, March 8th, Women for Rwanda walked through London with Million Women Rise demanding to end male violence against women. Million Women Rise is a London-based coalition, which organized its first Women’s Day march in 2008. The theme this year was The Girl Child, and the featured color was purple. Purple is the color of mourning in Rwanda, thus, our group wore our purple t-shirts to bring recognition to Rwandan women, and to support all women around the world in their struggle against violence.

Together we can end male violence.
Together we can end male violence.
Marching to Trafalgar Square
Marching to Trafalgar Square

Next year’s theme is Womanist Revolution. The march will take place on March 8th in Central London. Save the date if you’d like to be involved!