As women, one thing that we all seem to share is the desire to make the world a better place. Some of us do so by raising our kids to become caring and compassionate adults. Some of us volunteer in our local communities. Some of us do our part to create a better world by choosing careers in teaching, counseling, or other "helping" professions.
The world is no doubt a better place as a result. But in so many parts of our world, the valuable contributions that could be made by women are inhibited. Women and girls are too often oppressed, abused or ignored and their power is just another wasted resource. But there are efforts, both large and small, to change that.
March 8th was International Women's Day - a day designed to celebrate women's economic, social and political achievements and to also build awareness of both the obstacles and the opportunities for sharing in those achievements.
Last night, many theaters had a special showing of "A Powerful Noise." The film documented the efforts of three women who have, against all the odds, succeeded in championing a cause near and dear to their hearts.
We met Hanh who learned that she had contracted HIV after her husband and daughter died from AIDS. Bouncing
back from despair, she started a self-help group in Vietnam, called Immortal Flower, to give people living with HIV/AIDS a place for support, counseling and health care.
We watched Nada, a working mother of three children and a refugee who survived the Bosnian War. Her women’s association, Maja Kravica, is helping ease hostilities between Serbs and Bosniaks in a region marred by war crimes and massive destruction. Nada is building an agricultural cooperative to offer employment opportunities for war widows, and fair trade markets for families to sell their crops and livestock.
We cheered on Jacqueline, better known as “Madame Urbain” who fights forced labor practices in the slums of Bamako, Mali. Madame Urbain stands up for the rights of powerless girls who are often abused in the workplace or on the streets of the big city. Her organization, APAF, provides girls a basic education, teaches them vocational skills and places them in safe jobs.
These women are both ordinary and exceptional. They have changed themselves, their families and their communities for the better. Their's are impressive stories of how one person can have a powerful impact. But, while beautiful, their stories are not the only ones.
In Zimbabwe, a country whose economy has been devastated by a disasterous land-reform program, middle-aged women like Amai Towe have found innovative ways to help their families and communities survive. Called "cross-border traders," Amai and others like her work all hours of the night and day traveling across borders into neighboring countries to obtain scarce goods including soap, bottled drinks, canned beer, rice, and maize-meal. Their efforts have kept the collapsing Zimbabwean economy going.
As inspiring as these tales are, the truth is that the potential power of girls and women is too often overlooked or downright excluded. Girls and women are a vast untapped resource and it seems to me that middle-aged women in particular are underutilized and undervalued.
Whatever the developmental explanation, it seems that we mid-life women somehow come into our own; we have a better idea of who we are and what we want; we have more confidence; we are ready to make our mark; and we have the strength and the fortitude to make things happen. So many women in developing nations, many of them middle-aged like Amai, Nada and Madame Urbain, are finding their voices and using them to create change. But what about us, here in America. Are we making a powerful noise?
Some of us are, but so many of us are not. We have rights and privileges that girls and women in the third world can only dream of and yet, despite the many opportunities and advantages, or perhaps because of them, we are failing to live up to our own potential.
We complain about going to school while young girls in developing countries fight and die for the right to an education, attending unofficial classes at night after working 12-16 hour days. We sigh in disgust over the stupid decisions made by our government officials, all the while failing to exercise our right to vote or to become politically active. We waste our time and our money on nonsense while women who have little of either rise up and speak out and make their presence known.
Have we become too comfortable? Have we become complacent? Do we need to be similarly oppressed to have enough gumption to stand up and be counted? I certainly hope not.
We women have much to offer and, here in America, we have the opportunity to have our say. There is so much we can learn from our sisters around the world and so many ways that we can speak up and speak out. We have the power, we just need to be reminded to exercise it.
Do you want to know what you can do to change the world? Stand up for what you believe in, speak out on issues that matter, become involved in community, national or global movements. Want more specific ideas? Check out www.care.org to see what that organization is doing to empower women around the world. There are many ways that you can support their programs. Visit www.kiva.org and find out how you can loan money directly to women who are starting small businesses. You make loans that go directly to program participants who then keep you up-to-date on their progress and pay you back directly over time. You'd be amazed at what $25 or $50 can do. Visit the site www.girleffect.org and learn interesting facts about what a difference a little education or financial independence can really make.
What can you do to change the world? Chances are good that you're already doing something, but there is always more that can be done, isn't there? We will all make our mark in our own unique way. My advice? Find your own voice and use it to make a powerful noise.