I used to keep a file of New York Times clips in a folder marked WOMEN. Stories of extreme misogyny: murdered child brides, floggings, female genital mutilation, stonings, acid attacks, burnings of girls’ schools . . .
But my anger would soon turn to apathy, because I felt helpless in the face of a fortress of misogyny erected over centuries—sometimes over thousands of years—and wondered if it could ever be breached.
I threw out my folder a few years ago when I discovered Equality Now, which for 20 years has generated “action for the civil, political, economic and social rights of girls and women.” What kind of activism does EN generate? It issues occasional, carefully researched “Action Alerts” that spark its Women’s Action Network (35,000 volunteers in 160 countries) to put pressure on high officials of the nations where the abuse is going on.
How? Through emails (or, even better, letters) to kings and ayatollahs and presidents and ministers of justice in these countries. ”We issue alerts only when local grassroots groups believe that pressure from women in other countries (including the U.S.) would be productive,” Amanda Sullivan, the Women’s Action Network’s director, told WVFC last week.
In 1998, an Action Alert was successful in fighting the Ghanian custom of trokosi—giving girls to village priests as ‘slaves of the gods.” The amount of letters the government received, Sullivan told me, was said to have played a significant part in getting officials to pass a law banning trokosi—and subsequently, 2,800 girls were released.
More recently, Zambia’s Education Minister was moved to action after an EN campaign addressed the widespread problem of teachers raping schoolgirls: the group’s Nairobi director was told, ‘Oh my god, I’m getting letters from Canada, from Australia—can you help us fix this situation?” Afterward, Sullivan said, EN also helped draft guidelines to prevent and better address sexual abuse in schools.
It’s hard to say definitively that EN made the difference, since so many take part in the campaigns, Sullivan acknowledged. “But we have no doubts, throughout the years, that the letters do have an effect. Even if it is what one might call a ‘negative effect,’ that, too, can contribute to promoting change.”
EN’s global director, Yasmeen Hassan, agreed. “Even when letters are annoying, they can be effective; it’s a matter of naming and shaming.” In 2009, Hassan told WVFC, Pakistan’s Speaker of the National Assembly attempted to write a response to every EN member who had written her about fighting Taliban pressure to close girls’ schools. The Speaker’s website crashed under the weight of members’ letters; and eventually, the assembly passed a resolution to take action against the Taliban.
Often, the Women’s Action Network needs to focus on abuses in the United States. It recently issued an Action Alert asking members to urge the House of Representatives to pass the Girls Protection Act, which bans the removal of girls from the U.S. in order to subject them to FGM in their own countries. And in 1996, EN’s advocacy helped win a landmark ruling that established that the threat of female genital mutilation is grounds for political asylum, thereby releasing Fauziya Kassindja—a 16-year-old from Togo who had been denied asylum—from immigration prison.
And so it goes: complicated issues, grim traditions, and, occasionally, a small victory. Yes, the progress is excruciatingly slow and incremental. Still, here and there it seems, courteous advocacy can trigger a tiny step toward ending that ancient/modern curse, the subjugation of women.
Deborah Harkins, who co-edits WVFC's site, was an assigning editor at New York magazine for more than 20 years. She has also been the articles editor of The Modern Estate, a columnist for The New York Daily News, and associate editor at NYCityWoman.com.