Strength in Numbers: Mobilization, Awareness, and Health

Yesterday morning at the foot of the Eiffel Tower over 20,000 women converged ready to race in the 14th edition of La Parisienne to celebrate women's health and raise awareness for myriad causes. En route to the start line from Metro École Militaire, I thought about the passage of time. I looked to the gray misting skies of Paris and remembered that sunny day nine years ago when everything my fellow New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, and Washington, DC residents knew, my country knew, and I knew about safety changed.

This weekend also marked the ninth anniversary of September 11, 2001, when the United States as a country and as individuals, including my sister and myself in Manhattan, experienced one day of terrorism in an act of war. One day. Nearly 3,000 victims. It took months to recover, years to fully heal. A week after the 9/11 attacks, I vividly remember my sister and me in Grand Central Station crying in front of a sign seeking two missing sisters. Out of thousands of posted missing persons signs, we cried for those sisters because enough days had passed we knew them probably gone, but also because we knew they could have been us.

 The Healers of 9/11, by Nicholas Kristof, shares the journey of Susan Retik since she lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks nine years ago along with Patti Quigley, another widow who was pregnant with her first child when her husband was also killed that day. Though devastated and suffering post-9/11, "they realized that there were more than half a million widows in Afghanistan — and then, with war, there would be even more. Ms. Retik and Ms. Quigley also saw that Afghan widows could be a stabilizing force in that country."

America has been at war in Afghanistan since October 2001, meaning Afghan women have been suffering the strife of war for almost a decade. Kristof explains that "at a time when the American government reacted to the horror of 9/11 mostly with missiles and bombs, detentions and waterboardings, Ms. Retik and Ms. Quigley turned to education and poverty-alleviation projects — in the very country that had incubated a plot that had pulverized their lives. The organization they started, Beyond the 11th, has now assisted more than 1,000 Afghan widows in starting tiny businesses."

Women for Women International (WFWI), an organization that focuses on women and children in war, cites the obstacles facing women in Afghanistan as enormous. Their statistics clarify Afghan women's plight: "85.1% of women have no formal education; 74% of girls drop out of school by 5th grade; only 1% of girls in rural communities attend school; nearly 79% of women are illiterate; the average salary is just 48 cents a day."

Admittedly, last Friday when I arrived to the La Parisienne Village to pick up my race number, I remained low energy from the flu my body had been quietly fighting all week. But, when I entered the village I was suddenly ignited by the incredible energy surrounding. As La Parisienne's web site acknowledges, the run is dedicated to being "more than just a simple road race...." Rather, it is an event where, "women related to sport have an opportunity to offer various choices of action for awareness and mobilization."

Immediately, I changed into my Run for Congo Women t-shirt. What better place to raise awareness of the issues facing females worldwide than an event held to honor both the health and vibrancy of women in sport? I passed by women who were doing yoga; women handing out brochures for various women's causes and organizations; then, as I walked part of the race course itself, I came to the Musee du Quai Branley. Earlier in the week, I viewed the museum's current exhibit, The Congo River, which displays 170 pieces and 80 major documents of Congolese art, specifically focusing on Gabon, the Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Musee du Quai Branley's web site defines one of the major themes of the exhibit as "the representation of women in the kingdoms of the savannah, balancing the authority of men, linked to the mystery of regeneration of the earth, agriculture and human life." Where this theme becomes most evident is in the work of the sculpture where woman are cradling children in their arms, the essence of human life.

Since 1998, 5.4 million people have died in the Congo due to war and strife. Yet Women for Women International cites that "perhaps worse than the loss of life is the staggering numbers of human rights violations – torture, mutilation and sexual violence that has occurred against tens of thousands of women and children." In fact, according to the Guardian's article UN Ignored Congo Rape Warnings, the number of rape victims in the most recent Congo attack, which occurred ten miles from a UN compound, has swelled to 500 women and children.

Poised beside me yesterday at the start line of La Parisienne was Alice Phan, a native Californian and ex-New Yorker who now resides here in Paris with her husband. Along with her friend, we were all sharing stories of our experiences running the NYC marathon. Now, as members of Team Congo Paris, Alice and I will soon race together on 10.10.10 in the 20K de Paris to raise monies and awareness for Congolese women through Run for Congo Women.

Right before our wave began the race, we looked up to the spectators standing atop the Eiffel Tower. I felt ecstatic that all of us were taking in from so many vantage points what over 20,000 women mobilized to run for myriad causes look like: Capable. Inspiring. Strong.

Photo credit: Vincent Krieger/La Parisienne

You can donate directly to Team Congo Paris or learn more about how to help Afghan women and Congolese women at Women for Women International's web site.

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