When the media party is over and the month long celebration of uplift and outrage has come to an end, when Gloria Steinem and Nicholas Kristof and Hillary Clinton have had their say and the United Nations task forces and the nonprofits have presented their research and policy papers on the global status of women: What will we do?
It’s easy to get swept up in the moment. High-tech video access has produced poignant evidence of the plight of women everywhere, connecting us emotionally with women and girls in dire circumstances around the world. Gritty camera work and tender music and fine editing make the stories that much more compelling. Certainly all of us can agree politically that something must be done.
Time and time again the facts have shown that when girls are educated, they become women who contribute to society in many ways. And when women contribute economically or bring needed goods and services to their villages, they gain the respect of the men in their communities. Where women are respected, there is greater hope for peace. Yet gender discrimination is persistent and entrenched in all cultures, including our own.
As everyday citizens, how will we prod this stubborn beast? Embrace the animal, observe its habits, choose our battles. And the battles best won may be in our own backyards.
Let’s start by paying attention to the messages we send our daughters about self-respect, education, and boundaries. We can stop coddling our sons—let them do their own laundry—and enhance their capacity for empathy by getting them involved in community projects that help families in need.
Beyond family, we can educate ourselves about the status of girls and women in our own regions. In San Diego, where I live, a local radio news program, “These Days” with Maureen Cavanaugh on KPBS, has in recent weeks tackled issues facing the local female population. This is where I learned that California is a major hub for human trafficking.
The problem is so severe, says the organization California Against Slavery, that a ballot initiative is required to deter traffickers with stiffer criminal penalties, aid in the prosecution of pimps, increase protection for victims, and mandate specialized training for law enforcement officers.
The KPBS news program is also where I learned that San Diego is an international gateway city for the predatory sexual trafficking of American girls, but until a couple of weeks ago had no safe house where the victims—usually middle-school-age runaways—could seek asylum. And it’s where I heard about The San Diego Women’s Resource Fair, now in its 21st year, which brings together 70 organizations offering services to low-income, abused and homeless women.’
We can keep up with our local newspapers and find out what’s happening. Here in San Diego, we’re asking ourselves: What state law or action by local authorities could have prevented last week’s tragic rape and murder of seventeen-year-old Chelsea King? A known sex offender, released from prison after serving five years of a six-year sentence, has been charged in her killing.
Beyond advocacy for victims, let’s think about how our talents and interests can empower individuals and families. If you’re a corporate executive, can you encourage your company to offer employee job-sharing or on-site day care? If you’re in the legal or medical services sector, how can you volunteer your services? Could you make life easier for military spouses and their families? Through churches, public schools, literacy councils, and organizations like the Boys and Girls Club of America or the Salvation Army, anyone can find a way to make a difference, not just in individual lives but in the status of women—right where we live.
Of course, we’ll want to continue on the path of global responsibility. Many of us will contribute to UNICEF and CARE, buy that livestock through Heifer International, or support international microlending programs for women. These projects are wide-reaching and they’re working. But let’s remember, too, that often the very neediest are within arm’s reach. Let’s make it personal. I say: Go local. Invest in a grassroots effort for girls.
Ainslie Jones Uhl is a writer and former editor who has been a literacy tutor and hands-on community volunteer for over 25 years.