The House with the Mint-Green Walls

[Editor's Note: After a few nomadic months, Priyanka has settled in New Delhi. Here she shares her feelings on the way art has inspired her own sense of being home. She will resume her regular column with Her Blueprint in mid-January.]



The first thing that I saw when we walked into the apartment was its mint green walls. 

We had just arrived in New Delhi two days ago. Since June, we had moved from Pittsburgh, traveled across the United States, and divided time between Bombay, Bangalore, and Rajasthan before finally making up our mind to come to India’s capital city. I was both utterly exhausted of being a nomad for the past many months and apprehensive about calling Delhi home. Actually, more precisely, calling India home. 

Apart from annual holidays to the homeland while growing up in Oman, I had never previously lived in India before. I was becoming increasingly disconnected to the idea of calling it home over the years. In fact, the label itself was becoming a complex abstraction for me. Was the home in homeland actually home? What was home anyway? I could worry about the semantics of home later though. Right now, I wanted a house: a nice, comfortable house, where I could anchor myself and start fleshing it into my space again.

 I fell sick hours after landing in Delhi. On our first night, we went to a mall where there was an indie rock concert going on in a huge open-air court. I remember sitting on the edge of a white marble planter, simultaneously listening to the crowd sing along to the music and feeling a dreaded itchiness invade my throat. Every time I had previously visited Delhi, its notorious dust and pollution had not been my friend. The following morning, I woke up to find that the itch had snowballed into a cold: my eyes watered continuously, my nose was on fire, and I had little desire to do anything but remain under the covers for the next day. 

 I couldn’t, of course. I had a house to find.

 Our apartment was the second one that the real-estate agent showed us in what would be a long succession of potential homes. Seeing the green walls after a day of battling a burgeoning cold, consuming cold, dessicated sandwiches, and dodging dusty, traffic-clogged roads was like stumbling head-first into an oasis. I wanted to camp out on the sofa itself, refusing to budge further. Afterwards, once we were done with visiting the other apartments (good, terrible, and ugly), the only one that remained with me was the green wall apartment. In the morning light, it would be mint-green, I thought, by dusk, it would assume the shade of pistachio ice-cream. I like the green wall apartment, I told my husband at dinner that night, as we listened to three college-age musicians sing Bob Dylan, let’s take that one. 

 ** 

We arrived in the apartment. My cold became a fever — and I spent the first week in our new house, ensconced in the bedroom, either staring at the ceiling or the windows bracketing me. On one side, the shadow of a massive peepal tree and its spreading, embrace-like branches and numerous leaves dutifully dappled the balcony while the other tree — whose name I still do not know — was framed within the window, like a minimal black and white photograph. During the day, their leaf shadows stenciled and overlapped one another upon the green walls, the walls fluid canvases. The leaf-shadow dance lulled me into sleep; the green soothed and calmed me. 

The house swiftly became a welcome sanctuary after all those migratory, mobile months. 

** 

We are still in the process of turning our house into a home. In fact, we are still befriending the city, understanding its costume, its dialect, when it sleeps, when it wakes up, the art of razoring through its traffic jams. We potter about in the house, migrating from one room to another, wondering where the guest room should be, what color flowers will look good against the mint. 

A river of traffic flows behind our house. We hear people’s conversations, dogs fighting, and ambulance and police sirens. I was accustomed to a soundtrack of silence in all the places that I had previously lived. This is the first time my ears are constantly negotiating the overwhelming barrage of sound, the sheer plurality of it; my mind is learning how to filter, distinguish one sound from another. However, I don’t miss the silence quite as much as I miss peering above into the nocturnal sky, glimpsing the dense population of stars studding its surface. Here, in the city, like any other city, they are just as invisible as they are during the day. 

**

 Our landlord’s art work meanwhile still dots the apartment walls. In the living room, you can see camouflage-hued tapestries of Paris, a bright bird water-color, an Ancient Egyptian god and goddess in dialogue, and a mountainscape sparely executed in oils. I have decided that these works will continue to hang there on the walls until we discover and introduce our own to them. In any case, they are strangers no more; our daily engagement with the works has made them familiar to us. There are three paintings though that that we have decided to never remove as long as we stay in the apartment. 

These paintings are portraits of three distinguished women hanging upon one wall in the living room. I call them distinguished simply because that’s exactly the sort of air they exude. I have no idea who these women are. I don’t even know the names of the artists who painted them. What I do know is that these portraits define the house as much as the walls themselves. And like the tree window-photograph in my bedroom window, I am content to see their framed selves on the walls. 

What is remarkable is that each of them wear an identical expression of contemplation in their portraits. They look as if they were mulling over a problem or a puzzle or a query — and were about to unpack their thoughts to the artist. The thoughts would quickly spill out, raw, unadulterated, like paint gushing upon a palette from a newly pierced open tube. Yet, the women would just as swiftly incorporate them into the bigger picture, the larger idea, connoisseurs of both the macro and micro. These women are constantly editing themselves, their thoughts, striving to be better, fuller, richer persons. But they wouldn’t bite back their words, that’s for sure. If they have something to say, they will say it. 

 When we say goodbye to the house with the mint colored walls, I already know that we will miss these three ladies. In the next few months, we will be constantly overlaying the house with our presence— paintings, photographs, furniture, objects, books, our conversations — and by the time we leave, the house will have become an alternate version of itself, a new draft, so to speak. Perhaps, by that time, I will have even figured out how to solve the mathematical-like conundrum of learning to call my homeland home. But what these walls and admirable ladies will remind us of will be those initial paint-strokes, those first words on the computer-screen, a freshly new time, when blankness was exciting, when anything could become everything.

This post originally appeared at the story-sharing platform, Medium over here.

Belonging Together: The Making of Justice and Art

“What does poiesis have to do with slavery?”

Shadow of Monique Villa, CEO of
Thomas Reuters Foundation. Photo: Deborah Espinosa
That is how internationally renowned artist Anish Kapoor began his 14-minute keynote address during the 2014 Trust Women’s conference recently held in London. The conference, which puts "the rule of law behind women’s rights," gathered advocates and activists focused on solutions to women’s economic empowerment, including women’s access to land and financial services, as well as on the global fight against modern slavery. A short video captured the breadth of issues covered. Notable speakers included two Nobel laureates, Muhammad Yunus and Kailash Satyarthi, CEOs of many major corporations and NGOS, and survivors of the slave trade.  

The Trust Women two-day gathering was highly cerebral, sometimes academic, and always stimulating. It also was visually compelling.  Each theme was introduced with a 2- to 3-minute multimedia piece, including Women and FinanceAccess to Land, and Slavery and the Supply Chain. (All of Trust Women conference videos are available here.)  

We learned that 35.8 million people are working in slave-like conditions around the world in violation of their human rights on a daily basis.  We were challenged to consider whether the supply chains of goods we use everyday include forced labor or debt bondage, including considering the human rights abuses necessary to sustain "fast fashion."

We were also encouraged to consider how responsive cities are to women's needs, including safety, particularly given their typically greater reliance on public transport for going to work and taking care of child and household responsibilities.

And for me, a women's land rights practitioner, of utmost interest was the panel on the issue of women's access to land, which Trust Women aptly described as the "biggest challenge to women's empowerment."   

So imagine my surprise when, amidst this dialogue, sculptor Anish Kapoor took the podium. “What does poiesis have to do with slavery?", he asks. I wasn't familiar with the term “poiesis,” but I imagined it referred to poetry. Later, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that poiesis is actually a much broader concept dating back to Ancient Greece — more like "a making” or the "making of art.”
    
No doubt Mr. Kapoor's words meant many things to many people.  For me, his words caused my soul to soften. I had steeled myself for a day on the global slave trade, and there he was opening a part of me that I’d purposefully locked down.

The artist and advocate in me heard him liken the making of art to acts in pursuit of justice — and that the time is now.   
“Does my making have truth?  Or is it that belief and therefore beauty is something that lies in the future?  Is it something that is always out of reach? . . .  Freedom and beauty are the future — only possible because of what we do next."
Kapoor continued:
Mr. Anish Kapoor speaking at the Trust Women
Conference on November 19, 2014.  Photo: Deborah Espinosa
The oppressed, as we all know, are asked again and again to wait for the right time to press for change.  Right time?  What is this right time? 
Always in the future.  The right time for respect and dignity is always in the future. . . . 
Time and courage and beauty are now. I’m linking them together because I think they belong together. . . .  Rights are dreamed of as if they belong in the future. But rights, as we all know, depend on what we do next."
Mr. Kapoor's full speech is available here.

Thank you Mr. Kapoor and Thomas Reuters Foundation for uniting our efforts to make the world replete with justice with the our making of art. They belong together for me, too.


On Gratitude Versus Suffering: Resiliency Can Rise

The 16 Days of Activism is a worldwide campaign to end violence against women. Photo credit: UN Women.
Today is Thanksgiving in my country of origin. It is the holiday in which families and friends gather to share a long meal and be together. To talk. To laugh. To be thankful.

In France, where I live such long meals happen quite often, to the point I grow tired of dining. Sometimes at long dinners here, I remember myself as a small child at my grandmother's Thanksgiving table covered in pumpkin pies, growing more and more restless in the sunroom of their lovely home near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania because the plastic chair cover was sticking to my tights from sitting so long.

How far I have come from those days. In some ways. In fact, during the past two years, I have learned more about resiliency and growth because living in a foreign country is like shaking off any idea of cultural rules and trying to not judge myself or others for not understanding what is often perceived as cultural givens. Points of growth come from understanding that the phrase, "It's cultural," somehow gives credibility for why things are the way they are.

Upon some reflection, I have come to the conclusion that this Thanksgiving I am most thankful for my ability to summon resiliency. I imagine that by working nonstop most of my life for certain goals that I will attain them, that if I do not give up, eventually, I will look up and one day, the goal will arrive. This is not to say, any goal just arrives or all of them. It is to say that through effort, determination, and resiliency that keeping on, eventually, leads one to true change.

As an athlete, that happened for me. I ran two ultramarathons with a heart problem when most cardiologists said that I could not. Then opted due to more severe heart complications during graduate school to have a heart surgery that confirmed what I had always sort of known, that my heart issue was far more severe than thought for the seventeen years preceding. Yet, I remember laying on the surgery table wide awake, watching my heart beating on the screen completely outside of my own body's control, and the cardiologist actually asking me if I was sure I had supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) because he could not find it. I thought to myself, this man has my heart in his hands, literally, yet he knows nothing of my life story. Of what brought me here, to this moment. He has no idea how often during races, I had to ensure that I took care of myself better than everyone around me because my SVT was not just a quickened heart rate; that when my SVT launched, my chest rocked, my eyes rolled back in my head, my lips sucked in and the loss of oxygen usually rendered me unaware within minutes. He does not know the moment I decided to do this was watching my baby sister's distressed face in the streets of Paris as I tried to calm my SVT because I swore with only four days in Paris, she would not spend her last full day in a hospital. Instead, I just looked at him and said, "Yes, I am sure. I am positive, I have SVT."

A few minutes later, he found the problem in the core of my heart.  He then called in another cardiologist for a second opinion because the risk had grown enormously.

I walk often by the Institute that performed the successful heart surgery as it is around the corner from my pink cottage. I stare inside and think back to how I willed myself on that table to keep going and now my heart problem is resolved. The same way I willed the 17-year-old girl from a violent home to believe in my own education and my dreams to live in Manhattan. The same way I willed the 25-year-old homeowner trying to protect my property before the global financial crisis on a publishing salary. The same way, I willed the 28-year-old to move to Paris to study French at Sorbonne. Just keep going, eventually I will get there. And, I have. I stood this May one year after my heart surgery and walked the stage earning my Master's degree, a goal that took more years than I dare count.

Yet, that moment the cardiologist questioned a reality so real to me reminded me starkly of the times in my life when I have shared incredible truths, risked intense vulnerability, only to have someone stare back at me with disbelief and question that truth. And, often those times had to do with me as a victim of violence. It reminded me of the British police detective who erred constantly as he investigated my sexual assault, which had happened in a very well-known London hotel. It reminded me of the ninth grade history professor who gave me a zero in his class even after I told him my final paper was late because I had been having heart problems that no one seemed to understand but kept telling me were from anxiety, although I remained completely silent of the swell of domestic violence occurring in my family's home at the same time because of my own personal shame and the culture that grew that.

On this Thanksgiving, my thoughts are focused on why culture is often used as a blanket reason for why things are the way they are. Not American culture. Or French culture. But the pervasive global culture that accepts women worldwide are harmed.

Two days ago, on November 25,  international organizations and NGOs worldwide launched the 16 Days of Activism to end violence against women. The violent stories I replay in my mind from my own life trying to make sense of my own story. The stories I have listened to from young women in Congo, Mozambique, South Africa, France, the United States. The frequency of violence is astounding.

According to the World Health Organization, "Estimates suggest that one in three women globally have experienced either physical or sexual violence from a partner, or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives, and that levels of violence against women and girls remain extremely high."
And, that in some parts of the world, sexual violence is endemic – reports of non-partner sexual violence are as high as 21% in areas of sub-Saharan Africa.
Violence against women is a global pandemic, not confined to any one country or region. UN Women says, "around 120 million girls worldwide (slightly more than 1 in 10) have experienced forced intercourse or other forced sexual acts at some point in their lives." In the United States alone, the World Bank estimates that, "annual costs of intimate partner violence have been calculated at USD 5.8 billion."

That is outright and costly human suffering from every angle.

What does most research suggest as the way to end violence against women? UN Women suggests the current culture of shame and discrimination that surrounds violence against women has to shift.
Violence against women and girls is rooted in gender-based discrimination and social norms and gender stereotypes that perpetuate such violence. Given the devastating effect violence has on women, efforts have mainly focused on responses and services for survivors. However, the best way to end violence against women and girls is to prevent it from happening in the first place by addressing its root and structural causes.
Change has to happen. In response, from November 25 to December 10, the 16 Days of Activism calls on governments, organizations, advocates, and you to call for an end to gender-based violence as a basic human right. The United Nations urges participation in Orange your Neighbourhood, to wear orange to reflect your support in breaking the stigma that surrounds violence against women. To change the culture of acceptance to that of nonacceptance.

I think today of the many loved friends, family, and colleagues I have in my life, and visually if we all sat down at a Thanksgiving table how so many of us would be wearing orange. How so many of us have experienced violence in some way. And, how all of us have channeled that experience in our own way to heal and find resiliency.

Then, I think of all the incredible women I have met all over the world who have found or will need to find that kind of resiliency to move beyond the suffering that comes from gender-based violence, and I am thankful for the strength that can be forged in a collective culture that does not accept violence against women. It reminds me to stay resilient in my pursuit to ensure greater human rights for all of us everywhere. Because, if we just keep going, one day, through effort, determination, and resiliency, that keeping on will lead us to true change: women everywhere will be safer. And, that will be the worldwide culture, just the way things are.

The 16 Days of Activism ends on December 10, Human Rights Day.  

The Opposing Trajectories of Zoe Quinn and Alex from Target

It is a strange thing, sharing the world with the Internet. Most of the time it makes life easier, better. It keeps us more connected, but it also exposes us. We could go to sleep one night, our lives seemingly normal, and wake up the next morning in another realm -- all because something we said or did got picked up and shared by someone and subsequently made its way, like the speed of light, onto the computers, cellphones and tablets of strangers around the world. As a feminist writer on the internet, this is a fact that excites and horrifies me all at once. The fact that something I write here at my kitchen table in Brooklyn could somehow touch a nerve and get shared countless times is at once empowering and paralyzing. Just ask Zoe Quinn.

By Zoe Quinn (@TheQuinnspiracy)
As a female videogame developer in a notoriously male-dominated industry, Quinn is no stranger to the dangers of being a woman online. She has been the target of sustained, anonymous online harassment since the release, in 2013, of her free interactive fiction game Depression Quest. Quinn, who has suffered from depression throughout her life, developed the game with two goals in mind: to show those who experience depression that they are not alone, and to educate non-sufferers about the depths of the illness. The backlash, according to Quinn, started "pretty much the same day" as the game's release. It escalated in severity and volume when an ex-boyfriend of Quinn's published a tirade on a blog, claiming that Quinn had a relationship with a journalist who wrote about the game. In reality, the journalist in question never actually wrote a review of the game, he simply mentioned that it existed. That was enough. The result was the birth of #gamergate and the doxxing of Zoe Quinn.

Over the past few months, #gamergate has spread like wildfire. The issue of women in gaming, which has historically been confined to industry and feminist websites, is now being covered by huge media outlets and countless personal blogs. This is, in many ways, great for women in the longterm both online and off. In the short term, however, the results are a little murkier. Brianna Wu, another female game developer, recently went into hiding after being doxxed and receiving threats such as "I've got a K-bar and I'm coming to your house so I can shove it up your ugly feminist c--t." Notable feminist and games critic Anita Sarkeesian also went into hiding and was forced to cancel a speech at the Utah State University after the school refused to check attendees for guns, despite the threats of violence made against Sarkeesian and speech-goers in advance of the event.

In general, being outspoken and female can be a dangerous proposition. When you are caught being outspoken while female online, the ramifications can be life-altering and, sadly, even life-threatening. The internet, it seems, hates women. It is as if allowing people to be online and anonymous only manages to magnify the misogynistic norms of our culture. And to think, one night when Zoe Quinn went to sleep things were more or less okay, but when she woke up in the morning she was, "the most hated person on the internet." And all she did was develop a game to try and educate people about the challenges of living with depression. And, she had the nerve to do this as a woman.

Let's compare this, briefly, to the recent appearance of Alex from Target, a kid from Texas who was photographed while bagging groceries at Target by a girl who thought he was cute. His photograph went viral. As of this writing, he has 727,000 followers on Twitter.  He recently appeared on The Ellen Show. What Alex from Target and Zoe Quinn have in common is that their celebrity happened by no fault of their own. Both of them were doing their jobs and were catapulted into the limelight by outside forces. For Alex, a photograph taken and published online without his consent has made him some sort of b-list teenage sex symbol. This sexualization, and his presence on The Ellen Show as a result of that, is highly problematic. As far as I know, however, Alex from Target is not being sent death and rape threats nor is he being driven from his home in fear of his life. For Zoe Quinn, the fact that she dared create a game in a male-dominated industry put her in harms way. And due to the fact that she is female, her subsequent sexualization, carried out in written as opposed to photographic form, made her the target of sustained harassment.

For me, there is something inherently wrong happening in both of these situations. In both cases, there was a complete disregard for the right to privacy and the need for consent before sharing photographs or personal information, true or fabricated, with a potential audience in the billions. That aside, the completely opposite trajectories that these two individuals experienced speaks volumes about our society. Don't get me wrong, our need to sexualize people, whether male or female, is incredibly dehumanizing. But that depending on the gender of the individual the result is either empowering or disempowering, that the internet either celebrates or threatens, is just incredible. And sickening.

I imagine that Alex from Target will end up being just a flash in the pan. The plight of Zoe Quinn, however, has staying power. But that also means that for the foreseeable future she, and many other women who dare to be opinionated on this misogynistic platform, will be in danger. It is a sad reality. Those women who keep speaking our minds and hoping that people listen have to live with the gnawing fear that one day we might wake up in the middle of a nightmare. Welcome to being female on the internet.

5 Things I Learned as the Internet's Most Hated Person [Cracked.com]
'Alex From Target' and the Mess of Uncontrollable Fame [New York Magazine]
Anita Sarkeesian Cancels Speech After School Shooting Threat at Utah State [Forbes.com]
Brianna Wu and the Human Cost of Gamergate: 'Every Woman I Know in the Industry is Scared' [The Guardian]
Eron Gjoni - Proof that Being a White, Hetero-Cis Male Will Get You Everywhere [The Daily Koz]
Gamergate: The Community is Eating Itself but There Should be Room for All [The Guardian]
Zoe Quinn's Depression Quest  [The New Yorker]
Zoe Quinn on Gamergate: 'We Need a Proper Discussion About Online Hate Mobs' [The Guardian]





Programs with Potential: Collective Voice and Sense of Self

Women across the world rarely have an opportunity
to voice their opinion about an issue that
matters to them.  
Photo: Deborah Espinosa
For those of us who are women’s rights advocates and activists with ready access to advocacy platforms and tools, we have constant opportunities to learn about, launch, and participate in advocacy campaigns to voice our opinions about issues that matter to us. 

In communities across Asia, Latin America, and Africa, however, women face a far different reality, where advocating for themselves and their community is unheard of or they lack the confidence, opportunities, and/or tools to engage. As a result, community members are often deprived of their voice, rights, and power; government remains unresponsive; and vital needs go unmet.    

   
Thankfully, many development organizations are addressing this lack of civic engagement, and by extension, sense of powerlessness, by supporting community members' right to voice their opinions and realize their rights. These programs are intended to inspire and facilitate positive dialogue between communities and authorities to hold government accountable. Often these local programs feed into national, regional, and even global advocacy efforts.   

One notable example is World Vision International's Citizen Voice and Action (CVA) approach, which World Vision has implemented so far in 43 countries through 411 programs. First piloted in 2005, CVA is an approach to improve the relationship between local government and communities and thereby improve delivery of basic public services such as healthcare and education.[1] A cornerstone of the approach is to educate about citizen and government rights and obligations. Check out the short video to the right to learn more.

A study of the impact of the CVA methodology in Ugandan communities, by Oxford University and Makerere University, found that in 100 primary schools in these CVA communities, there was an 8 to 10 percent increase in pupil attendance compared to control communities and a 13 percent reduction in teacher absenteeism.[2] CVA in Uganda also generated significant improvements in the delivery of health care services, as presented in this video.  

Similarly, CARE International uses a "bottom up" approach to their advocacy programs, particularly by women, grounded in human rights. Tools include raising awareness about rights, budget monitoring, public hearings, social audits, and community score cards in sectors such as health, education, food security, and natural resource management.  

For example, in Bangladesh, a CARE program resulted in groups of extremely poor people successfully advocating for access to public resources such as land and water bodies, enabling them to use those resources for collective livelihood opportunities.[3]  And on the issue of gender-based violence (GBV), CARE and its partners implemented the Great Lakes Advocacy Initiative (GLAI) using an evidence-based advocacy model to increase protection for women and girls against GBV in Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  At its core, the GLAI relies on linkages between grassroots and global efforts. Underlying the model is the premise that greater participation by women in decisionmaking strengthens civil society and promotes gender equality, helping to address the underlying causes of GBV. The initiative demonstrated the effectiveness of linking grassroots advocates to policy makers, resulting in increased political participation by women at the grassroots and district levels, an increase in the reporting of GBV cases and, in some areas, a decline in the incidence of GBV.[4]   

Many other organizations implement local advocacy programming, including Family Care International, which works with indigenous women in Latin America and Partners for Democratic Change, which works with youth in Yemen.  Many of these organizations share their advocacy tools online, including WaterAid, CARE, and World Vision. A list of Useful Advocacy Resources is also available online.


Copyright Deborah Espinosa
The collective voice. Andhra Pradesh, India.  Photo: Deborah Espinosa
What all of these programs have in common is they create opportunities for individuals to contribute their unique voice and collectively advocate for a better world. As one CVA participant in India explained, "Earlier I used to remain behind my burqa. But I found my voice because of the [CVA] training."[5]

In my October post, The Power of Voice, I shared the story of Wanjiku and the courage and confidence that arose when Wanjiku learned of her human right to self-expression, combined with basic training on the art of public speaking. I had the privilege of witnessing not only her transformation, but that of her community, with positive impacts beyond all expectations. It is for this reason that I am so excited about these more comprehensive local advocacy programs. Opportunities to stand up together with our neighbors with a collective voice on an issue that matters to us not only benefits our community, but leaves a lasting impression on our sense of self. 
Finally I was able to see that if I had a contribution I wanted to make, I must do it, despite what others said. That I was OK the way I was. That it was all right to be strong.” 
                                                                                  ~Wangari Maathai


The Tampon Taboo

Sign in Indonesia, Source: Flikr Creative Commons
For girls everywhere menstruation is a rite of passage. Menstruation is a healthy, normal bodily function that affects half of our population -- the overwhelming majority of our women, at some point in time. But for too many girls worldwide this shared experience is a source of shame, restriction and if badly managed -- illness. Menstruation is an age-old phenomenon and across the developed world we’ve built awareness, products and systems to manage menstrual hygiene to enable women to live their lives seamlessly. Even with such support we can still argue that menstruation is something we’d rather not talk about in the developed world  -- but in the developing world, the stigma around menstruation has led to an invisibility around it that can really hold our girls and women back.

According to the Geneva-based Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), even sectors such as water and sanitation which “routinely deal with unmentionables such as excreta, ignore girl’s and women’s need for safe spaces to manage menstrual hygiene and mechanisms for safe disposal of materials used to absorb menstrual blood.” As we all know, ignoring a problem -- or menstruation -- does not make it go away. NGO Plan International and A C Nielsen conducted a study and estimated that there are 355 million menstruating women in India -- but only 12% of them use sanitary napkins. The study even found that 23% of Indian girls drop out of school after reaching puberty, with irreversible effects on their health, well-being and participation in society. Millions of girls and women instead rely on old rags, dried leaves and grass, ash, sand or newspaper to manage their monthly menstrual flows -- shrouded by shame and disgust on a vital bodily function.

Columbia University,  Millennium Promise and the social enterprise, Be Girl also hosted pilots for menstrual hygiene products and one of their participants, Patience, a 15-year-old girl from Ruhiira, Uganda told them “you suffer a lot; in case you stamp [stain] the boys can make fun of you which causes you to lose your self-esteem […] it’s embarrassing when you are washing your soiled clothes. It makes you not even want to go to school.” The washing of stained rags or clothing can also bring shame, especially in areas of water scarcity. Be Girl reports that in rural Africa, 40% of school girls miss up to 5 school days a month, or 30% of the school year. WaterAid found that 82% of their surveyed girls in Malawi did now know about menstruation before it started; girls across their surveyed countries were found to be excluded from water sources during menstruation, and even prohibited from washing and bathing in some communities making what is often a difficult week even more difficult to bear.

Source: WaterAid
Given the success of feminine hygiene and menstruation products, and the important role it has played in women's empowerment history, it would appear that the private sector could have significant market opportunity if they can break this taboo for women and girls -- who are expected to require the products for more tham 50 years. Sanitary products must be designed to be affordable; disposable tampons and sanitary towels are often priced out of reach of low- and even middle-income families if supply is scarce. Euromonitor International found that women in India, with average earnings of US $750 per annum earns below the $1,000 per annum deemed necessary to easily purchase disposable menstruation products. Moreover, systems to support menstrual hygiene are necessary, products alone aren’t the solution: appropriately designed and managed community spaces and importantly education on female reproductive health.

To make this happen, WSSCC believes that breaking the silence around the taboo of menstruation is a crucial first step. Girls should be informed and encouraged to talk and discuss menstruation in an informed and positive manner to prepare them emotionally and physically for the onset of menstruation and their monthly menstrual periods. Families need the education to support their girls and women. WaterAid has also compiled a phenomenal guide, Menstrual Hygiene Matters, with nine modules and tool kits -- an essential resource -- to improve menstrual hygienic for women and girls in lower and middle-income countries.

WaterAid found that well designed and appropriate water, sanitation and hygiene facilities that address menstrual hygiene can make a significant difference to the schooling experience of adolescent girls
(Photo: WaterAid/ASM Shafiqur Rahman) 
As WSSCC spokesperson, Archana Patkar,  powerfully argues: “Women are the progenitors of the human race […] Menstruation is therefore something of which they can and should be proud, so each and every one of us should work to improve the lives and life chances for women who do not have access to clean materials, water and safe disposal facilities; who cannot talk about their experiences; or are never asked if they can help define a solution.”

Documentary Unravels Honor Killings of American Sisters

By Suzanne Mahadeo

The Price of Honor is a documentary that shares the story of Amina and Sarah Said, two teenage sisters from Texas who were killed by their father. It's a film that starts off tragically and ends with the sound of your own heart snapping in your chest. Before the opening credits even begin, you hear the haunting 911 call that Sarah made to the Irving, Texas police department on the day she and her sister were murdered in their father's taxi cab. That recording will stay with you long after you finish the film.
American teenagers, Amina and Sarah Said
The Said sisters' story has touched thousands of people and the documentary will undoubtedly affect many more. It unravels the personalized story of two typical American teenagers. Footage used from old home videos shows them jumping on trampolines, taking up an after-school job as a cashier, and practicing Tae Kwon Do in a suburban strip mall dojo. Seemingly innocuous footage until you realize that the girls didn't know they were being filmed. The person lurking behind windows holding the camera was their father, Yaser Said, the man responsible for their deaths. He is still wanted by the FBI more than six years after he murdered his daughters in what has been deemed an honor killing.

Yaser Said murdered his two daughters near Dallas and is still wanted by the FBI.
I asked Amy Logan, the Consulting Producer of The Price of Honor, about the difference between domestic violence and honor killing.
"With 800+ million women and girls living under the honor code, honor violence is not only a global problem, it’s a pandemic that global leaders are failing miserably to address for the crisis that it is," she said in an email. "Domestic violence is usually defined as taking place between intimate partners, whereas honor violence mostly occurs between a female and her blood relatives. Both kinds of violence are motivated by control issues but honor violence occurs because the female is actually considered property of the male blood relative whose honor is at stake if she steps out of line. And with honor violence, the family and community often support the violence, even coercing it with threats of ostracism."
So how did Amina and Sarah "step out of line" in their father's ignoble eyes? They fell in love with boys their father did not approve of. 

Joseph Moreno and Amina Said had young love that ended too soon.
Amina dared to exert her human spirit and fell in love with Joseph, a boy from her martial arts class. When Amina and Sarah were not being sexually abused by their father, they daydreamed of their future. Amina and Joseph would pass sweet notes to each other, chat on the phone, and even held hands for an entire day at Six Flags. 

In the documentary, Joseph sorrowfully reminisces about a young love that ended with gunshots and wounds that would never heal. Filmmaker Neena Nejad said that one of the important reasons for making the film was because, "I felt like it gave people like Joseph and Ruth [his mother, who was also very close to Amina] some sense of closure.” (You can also read this touching article by Joseph called "My Teenage Sweetheart Was Killed To Preserve Her Family's 'Honor'" in Business Insider.)

Visiting Amina Said's tragic grave site.
Even as much as those involved with making this film wanted to bring Amina and Sarah's story to the public, there were terrifying implications that came along with seeking justice for the girls. Filmmaker Xoel Pamos said, "Something that really shocked me while trying to reach out to several friends of the girls was the fact that they wouldn't talk to us because they were scared. I think these people think, 'if Yaser was capable of killing his daughters, what would he do to us who are totally unrelated?' We had one very ugly episode involving threats coming directly from Yaser's family when we approached them to explain their side of the story. We decided to make those interactions public because that's the best way to protect all of us. Those who are featured in the film were offered to blackout their faces but nobody wanted to do so. They knew the risks by coming forward and talking, but telling Amina and Sarah's story was more important." 

Amina Said
Neena said that "telling the story of Amina and Sarah outweighed the risks! I feel that people that make death threats are weak and scared because you are opposing their belief system and they react in this way to gain some sort of self worthso I don't pay much mind to them."

Perhaps we should follow Neena's lead, because fear of speaking out against honor killings is implicit in why the practice has gone unchallenged to this day. "The very reason that honor violence has gone on unabated since 5000 BC," said Amy Logan, "is because of this conspiracy of silence around it. If somebody—or a lot of somebodies—doesn't speak up, it will only continue and probably grow. We decided to break the silence around this atrocity and start calling it exactly what it is: community-sanctioned terrorism against half a culture’s population (female) to reinforce the system of male power and privilege." 

This documentary should serve as a start to a very important conversation. It's currently being screened at film festivals around the country before it can be distributed online or in theaters. Add The Price of Honor to your Facebook feed to keep up to date or go to the film's website to find out about future screenings.

Sarah Said
"We've been lucky, as we have encountered wonderful people along the way who always supported our work, including Muslim and non-Muslim individuals, and we are thankful to those people," said Xoel Pamos.

And what can you do? Amy Logan shares,
"We hope that after watching our film, people will feel tremendous empathy for women and girls living under the honor code—there are 800 million+ of them! We hope they will tell many others about the film (#CatchYaserNow), donate to the Catch Yaser Said Campaign Fund, and join our mailing list to stay updated on the case."
"It’s important for people to see The Price of Honor," Amy said, "so that they can really understand an atrocity that is happening right in our own back yards in the USA. If we bury our heads in the sand, we cannot prevent more of these crimes."