by Tennille Amor

I haven't sent an update email in a while, but I just put out a new video for 'Bad Name,' a song that I wrote a long time ago, but was uncertain about whether I would release it.  It is the most personal I have ever been in my music, and I have been apprehensive about allowing myself to be that vulnerable.  But with everything happening around the #metoo movement, and with an ever-expanding list of women coming forward to share their stories, I felt compelled to share one of mine.   

I performed the song and showed the video for the first time at an event for the Kota Alliance at the Ambassador of Finland to the United Nations's home in New York last Wednesday.  My friend (and colleague in the advancement of Gender Equality), Richard Lui, from MSNBC invited me to perform, and it ended up being an extremely moving night.  

I shared my story about 'Bad Name,' and my apprehensions about releasing it, and then performed 'I Am a Girl,' as a reminder of the strength and resilience of women, and our ability to pick ourselves up and move on from the difficult experiences in our lives.  

Almost every person there came up to me afterwards to say that they connected deeply to both songs, and some shared experiences of their own.  A woman in her 50s told me that she had experienced something similar with an ex-boyfriend when she was in her 20s, and said that she never talks about it because she has carried so much shame around what happened for so many years.  She said that me sharing my story lifted such a huge weight from her, and made her feel like she wasn't alone.  We both shed a few tears of connection, and shared one of the warmest, most powerful hugs. Her husband then came over and thanked me for my bravery, and told me how incredible it was, and how much it made him think.  And in that moment, everything that I am doing made sense to me.  

Another woman who spoke before I performed said that through her organization, they meet with so many women who are afraid of coming forward with their stories, because they live in countries where talking about sexual harassment and sexual assault, or anything sexual in nature is taboo.  She said that they are not supported by their families, because the family doesn't want to have to deal with the shame of what happened, and often times the girls/women are blamed for leading the man on, and accused of causing him to behave in that way.  This of course is not just an issue between men and women.  A lot of men are survivors of sexual assault and harassment as well.  

After my performance, another couple came up to me and said that they have 3 daughters, and they are going to go home and play my videos for them, and use the videos as tools to educate their daughters about the meaning of consent, and the importance of Female Empowerment and Gender Equality. The dad looked at me square in the eyes and told me, "Don't stop what you are doing, it is SO IMPORTANT that you keep going."

Those were only a few of the stories, just hours after putting out the video, but they were enough to remind me why I feel compelled to use my platform in this way.  I know I will receive backlash for being so outspoken, and I know that some people may not agree with my approach, but I wouldn't be myself if I tried to fit into the constraints placed on me by other people.  

If you connect to the video in any way, and would like to share it with your network, or on your platform, please feel free.  My hope is to start a healthy conversation around the topic of consent with this.  

If you reach out to me and don't hear back right away, it is because I am traveling to India tomorrow to perform and speak, and then going to Trinidad for Christmas with my family.  I'm hoping to have wifi on the plane, or good wifi when I get to India, but if not, I will respond as soon as I get a chance.  

Thank you so much for your continued support and love.  So many of you have been in my corner through the highs and the lows and I am forever grateful for that.  I couldn't do what I'm doing without you.  

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and looking forward to building more memories together in 2018.

Much love, 

Tennille Amor x

Follow Tenille Amor on her, Instagram and Twitter

Lemonade Party to squeeze gender based violence

by Sonja Liukkonen

Lemonade Party

Last Thursday on December 7th Aware Girls and The Kota Alliance hosted a Lemonade Party to squeeze gender based violence. The promoters and guests gathered at The Center for Social Innovations in New York to drink lemonade, but the main reason for the event was to commemorate the 16 Days of Gender Based Violence Campaign. The 16 Days of Activism is an annual global campaign, which was initiated by participants of The Global Leadership Institute at Rutgers University in 1991. The campaign starts on 25th of November and ends on10th of December.  The 16 days in between are devoted to action to stop all forms of gender-based violence.

What is Gender Based Violence?

Our event started with the welcoming words of Saba Ismail the co-founder of Aware Girls and Jaana Rehnström, The Kota Alliance President. After the welcoming words our keynote speaker Saba Ismail began the interactive discussion by presenting the 16 Days of activism campaign. Before this year none of the participants had heard about this campaign. It seems that in 2017 with other campaigns such as #metoo the knowledge of gender-based violence is starting to spread. Good way to spread the awareness is to ask a simple question: What is gender-based violence?  Gender -based violence targets an individual, a group or a community. All of the following are forms of gender-based violence: sexual-harassment, child marriage and female genital mutilation. Gender-based violence is a global problem, which victims are mainly girls and women. According to World Health Organization (WHO 2013) 1 in 3 women have faced gender-based violence during their life.

Lemonade Life Line

One part of the event was a group practice called The Lemonade Life Line, which was also led by Saba Ismail. Saba asked the participants, if due to their gender their life has no salt at all, is somewhat salty or has a high level of salty. The participants got a chance to share their experiences as an individual and as a member of a community. This lead to a powerful discussion about gender-based violence and the fact that women and girls often keep quiet about their experiences fearing that if they tell the truth they might hurt other people or that there is something wrong with them. Also, it is important to point out that even though men face less gender based violence than women the society and gender norms often expect men to behave in a certain way.

Together We Can End GBV in Education

The 16 Days of Activism has a different theme every year. The theme for this year’s campaign was “Together We Can End GBV in Education”.  Our speaker Saba Ismail pointed out that ”Gender based violence in educational spaces is not only problem of girls but a gross violation of fundamental human rights. ”  Gender-based violence in education can happen in the school in a form of sexual, physical or physiological violence.  However, the fact that many girls in the world are unable to attend school, can also be a form of GBV in education. For example, girls might be forced to quit school because the school trip might be too unsafe or too long.  Some girls might not be attaining school at all because of patriarchal norms or family pressure.

Globally 130 million girls between the age of 6 and 17 are out of school. This is a huge problem since the benefits of schooling are obvious. One additional year of schooling can increase women’s earning by 10 % to 20 %.  Increasing the years of education for women is also beneficial for the economic growth. One percent increase of women with secondary education can increase the per capita income per 0.3 %. Also, the education for women decreases the amount of child marriages.  

If we want to end GBV in education it is crucial to offer safe educational spaces and to promote a gender equal culture among students, teachers and the families. Moreover, men can also have a part in ending GBV in education. The social norms of the power that men have over women must be changed. Young boys should be taught that any form of gender-based violence is not acceptable. One example of, how men can take a part in ending gender-based violence is Jonathan Calin who also spoke at our event. Jonathan is the co-founder of Party With Consent. Jonathan created this movement at Colby College through the organization Male Athletes Against Violence.

This kind of movement should be an inspiration to all of us. We can all have a part in ending GBV in education. What is your pledge to end GBV in education? Now it is time for us to follow the example of Saba Ismail and Jonathan Kalin and be part of the change we need to end GBV in education.

Thank you Saba and Jonathan.

Follow Aware Girls on their website and Twitter

Follow Party With Consent on their, website and Twitter

Read more about Gender Based Violence from UN

Increasing Opportunities for Girls and Women in Nepal

By Jaana Rehnstrom

As an adolescent several decades ago, I had the opportunity to live and study for a few months in Nepal. My father had been hired for a short term UN consultancy there. Not until this year, fifty years later, did my dream of returning materialize. In the intervening years, Nepal has changed enormously: the air pollution in Kathmandu is bad, poverty and inequality high, but roads have been built and cell phone connections work almost everywhere; educational institutions abound, and this December 7, the country is conducting its first democratic elections since the abolition of the monarchy, the end of the Maoist insurgency and the approval of a new constitution in 2015. Life expectancy rose from 55 in 1990 to 68 in 2012. Yet so much still remains the same: the people are as friendly and kind as I remember; the countryside breathtakingly beautiful.

The situation for women in Nepal is gradually improving: while female literacy is still at 65 %, you find women working at all levels of society, and there seemed to be plenty of daycare and preschool opportunities in the city. While in the past, land ownership passed only to sons, now unmarried women over 35 also will have the right to inherit land. Abortion was legalized in 2002. The legal age of marriage is now 20, and the old practice of Chaupadi – isolating menstruating girls and women in small huts – was banned this past month. Naturally, it will take time for these changes to be known and accepted.

Challenges remain: 10,000 girls from poor rural families are trafficked to India or the Middle East annually.  37% of girls still marry before age 18, which means they are pulled out of school, particularly in rural villages. One way to prevent these issues is to help keep girls in school. Public education is available, but not free, often of poor quality, and due to lack of adequate sanitary facilities at school and old taboos surrounding menstruation, the education for girls often ends at puberty.

Empower Nepali Girls (ENG), one of our partner organizations, has worked for 15 years to help keep girls in school by subsidizing their tuition, books, and uniforms. They now have 300 girls enrolled from many different public schools in the countryside, as well as from two schools in Kathmandu.  Their policy is to support each girl as far as they are willing to study, and have several college graduates among their alumni, and their first student in medical school. The organization is funded through fees paid for trekking trips, during which trekkers can visit some of the schools. Organizations like ENG teach us that besides having a crucial role in supplementing government services, a social enterprise model can successfully fund such efforts.

Other challenges include: Gender Based Violence (GBV) and inadequate reproductive health services.

NFCC, another of our partner organizations, is an established reproductive health care organization in Nepal. They have clinics around the country and are particularly active in conducting Human Papillomavirus and cervical cancer research and screenings, supported by foreign aid organizations.

One of the highlights of our trip was the witnessing and celebration of the opening of the NFCC Asha Center, a shelter and resource center for victims of domestic and sexual abuse. The center collaborates with other nonprofit organizations who may refer clients, as well as government institutions such as the maternity hospital, which often is the first stop for medical treatment for the victims of GBV, but which needs a place to refer for shelter and further help. Situated on the top floor of the NFCC office building in Kathmandu, this groundbreaking public-private partnership is financially supported by a group of 11 local women – dubbed #fantasticfemales. The women clearly felt empowered and excited about their role. The successful launch of this program shows us that it is possible to reduce reliance on foreign aid by tapping private sources within the country itself.

NFCC was also the first organization in Nepal to campaign for menstrual hygiene and education in the country. Menstruation is stigmatized and often taboo. Chaupadi is mostly practiced in the remote western regions, but one common practice bans girls from the kitchens during menstruation – believing they will make people sick if they touch the food.

In training workshops with village girls, created by Executive Director Pema Lhaki , young girls are taught about menstruation to empower them and eliminate taboos. They work with schools to improve sanitary facilities for girls, and conduct teacher training to educate girls and boys about menstruation and reproductive health issues. We had the opportunity to attend a focus group on the success of this training at a school east of the city of Dhulikel. We observed two group discussions with teenage girls aged 11-16. In these discussions, three of the girls reported that they had gone back and spoken to their mothers about what they had learned in school and successfully convinced their mothers to now allow them in the kitchen.

This program highlights the fact that progress happens when education and healthcare go hand in hand.

 In cases like these, the young women reached by these programs will be educated and empowered to make further changes in their society. Kota’s mission is to help organizations like NFCC and Empower Nepali Girls ensure that change for women and girls is sustained and amplified.

More information and to support:

L to R: #fantasticfemales celebrating the opening of the Asha Center in Kathmandu; Menstrual health focus group interview in a rural village school; NFCC staff on a school visit; mural in Kathmandu

But None Of Us Is New To Disability

Young Women And Disability: Ensuring Sexual And Reproductive Health And Rights To Leave No One Behind with Tanzila Khan

by: Kira Vikman

Tanzila Khan (left) and Jaana Rehnström

Tanzila Khan (left) and Jaana Rehnström

Who, what, where, when and why?

It was a dark Wednesday evening right after Halloween when Tanzila Khan arrived in the Centre for Social Innovation in New York, November 1st, 2017. She was visiting the US from Pakistan and Aware Girls saw an opportunity to host her as a speaker in an event about women with disabilities and their rights to sexual and reproductive health.

Jaana Rehnström, the Kota Alliance President, a retired gynecologist and the facilitator of this event, opened the night by welcoming our special guest as well as other participants and telling a little bit about Kota. She relayed how little she was prepared during her previous professional career to take care of the sexual and reproductive health needs of women with disabilities, and how neglected the issue is overall.

Tanzila Khan is a motivational speaker, an activist and an author of “A story of Mexico” and “The Perfect Situation”. In addition to that, she is a wheelchair user since birth, so she knows what she is talking about. An atmosphere of open discussion, that was a combination of Tanzila’s experiences from her point of view and her expertise and good questions and comments from participants, was created quickly.

The biggest problem in gynecological care seems to be that the treatment is available but it is not always accessible, for example, getting information to the ones that need it can be challenging at times. According to Tanzila, in Pakistan, the bigger obstacle is the data because in people's eyes, the disabled population is not in the mainstream world. Instead, there are three populations: disabled people in the road, begging -  seen as an opportunity for the family to make more money. The second is people who get exploited in advertisements, but do not even get paid. Then there’s the third population, the people in the middle, struggling with jobs and lifestyle. And all of them have sexual and reproductive health rights.

“Oooh you can’t walk! But you’re so pretty!”

Disabled women are not seen as sexual beings. In everyday life they are encountered by the preconception that they will not get married because no one wants to marry them (although this does not so much apply to disabled men). And if they will not get married anyway, why would they need education? A job? Makeup? It seems that some question the whole existence and worth of disabled women; why would you need anything at all if you will not get married? Because in that case, you will not give birth to children either. Is the life of a woman valuable if she does not procreate, bear children to this world? Why would God waste such a pretty face? “Women are seen unfit to reproduce children if they are disabled, even if missing a pinky”, Tanzila says. “Disability does not live in the uterus!” 

The problem is in people’s mindset and how they view disability. It can be invisible. And it is something we all encounter ourselves during our life cycle. In reality, it would not have to restrict one from living their life close to the same way that non-disabled people do. In fact, we all need assistance when we are young, babies, and most of us when we get old. We have all needed and might need someone to take care of us in the future as well. Thereby, not only permanently disabled people face physical obstacles. “Disabled people are not just a group of people living somewhere”, Tanzila explains. They are around us, some of us are them, many of us face the same challenges now or later in life.

“We need dignity”

Tanzila points out that in her role as a motivational speaker companies expect her to motivate and empower their employees, even though they will not make changes to their facilities to help a disabled person's everyday life. In Pakistan, disability is a stigma. It has a strong base as a charity case. Tanzila describes how funding goes very much to advocacy instead of real actions. Funds and resources are spent on wheelchairs “but there are no places to go with a wheelchair!” For example, there are too few accessible washrooms. “Compassion doesn’t help, it is not realistic”, says Tanzila. “You have to create a win-win situation”. Just like restaurants have an opportunity to get new clients if they distinguish themselves by allowing access for people who need ramps.

Many organizations have a male agenda, according to Tanzila. There is a need to work together and to move forward from a charity. There is a need for making new laws and educate. But most of all, “people need to understand we can’t wait for the government to be educated, we can’t wait for people to take focus. We need to get up and take initiative. -- [People] have to vision and understand problems that other people have, to look at their challenges”. Because none of us is new to disability,  it takes all of us to change.

Follow Tanzila Khan on her websiteFacebook, Twitter and Instagram
Follow Aware Girls on  their website, Facebook and Twitter

A Health Handbook for Women with Disabilities
Read about women's, gender, and rights perspectives in health policies
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