You know how you have that friend who makes you feel like a total underachiever? They’re not only constantly doing a million cool things, but they’re excelling at them. They’re world-changers, go-getters, creative geniuses, and probably just plain old regular geniuses too. They’d be completely insufferable if they weren’t also damned hilarious and kind.
My friend Alice Irene is one such annoying genius. Just hearing about the things she has on the go at any given time makes me want to take a nap.
A couple of years ago after meeting Veronica Kettle of the African Women Education and Development Forum, Irene came up with an idea to address the challenges many women around the world face due to harmful taboos attached to menstruation in their communities.
For many women around the world, menstruation is considered an actual curse, to the point where, in some cultures, they may be banished to a tiny isolation shed, offering inadequate shelter from the elements for the duration of their periods so that they will not contaminate their own homes with their “impurity.”
Even when not taken to such extremes, the taboo, shame and mystery around menstruation, combined with the prohibitive cost of feminine hygiene products, often means that women are forced to use ineffective methods to manage their periods, which can in turn endanger their health.
It’s not difficult to see how women in developing countries being prevented from working for several days every month, all while feeling ashamed and confused about their own bodies could have a hugely negative impact not only on their physical and mental well-being, but on their economic security and that of their families as well.
So how do you go about empowering women living in a culture with such stigma?
Well, if you’re my amazing friend, you start a partnership with the African Women Education and Development Forum, send 350 reusable menstrual cups to women in rural Cameroon and invite them to take part in workshops where information about menstruation and female reproductive health is distributed and discussed by/with health professionals. For many of them, it was the first time they had access to this vital information about their own bodies.
The response from every woman who took part was so overwhelmingly positive. Reading their feedback and realizing what a huge impact something as simple as a small, sustainable tool and a little bit of knowledge would have on their lives got me more than a little choked up. I immediately volunteered to help with whatever needed doing for the next phase of the project.
The next phase, as it turns out, will be taking the project to 5000 more women in Cameroon, a number we will be able to reach in part because Mother Nature Partnership, it was announced this week, will be one of the (over-the-moon thrilled and grateful!) recipients of the Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations grants!
We still have lots of work and fundraising ahead of us to make this happen, and I’ve taken on the task of trying to drum up some interest through social media, which is where you, my internet savvy friends come in.
Or, if any of you bloggers are interested in the project, and feel like writing about it or how to go about taking something like this from an idea in the shower to an actual living, breathing organization, please-oh-please feel free to drop me a line!
Fabulous Hanna, over at Excelsior Lady wrote a beautiful, thoughtful post last week about letting go of judgmental habits and looking inwards to our own attitudes and actions rather than trying to force that growth and change on others, (or at least that’s how I understood her post) because as she most emphatically states: “There is no point in trying to control anyone else.”
She goes on to say that this is why she doesn’t get involved in discussions or debates surrounding hot-button political issues such as gun control, abortion, gay marriage, immigration, or religion. As she explains it: “I have absolutely no right to tell anyone else what to do with their life, and the same goes for them…We cannot keep assuming what’s best for ourselves is also best for everyone else.”
It is a lovely and empathetic way to look at things and I admire her very much for recognizing and articulating that simply trying to impose our values onto others without listening to what they actually need as opposed to what we assume they need does not work.
It is for exactly this reason that I think it’s so important for people not to remain silent about these issues. Because the idea of just living and letting live is beautiful, and yes, sometimes it feels absolutely futile and/or presumptuous to try to change a mind, but at some point in reality, that will crash up against the rights and freedoms we believe in. The written-down, lawed-up rights and freedoms that are necessary for society to function.
There will come a point when something impacts us so directly, so obviously, that we won’t be able to ignore it or keep our opinions to ourselves and we’ll wish we’d lent our voices to the cause earlier.
This doesn’t mean screaming our unfounded opinions at the top of our lungs without regard for anyone else’s experience. It means educating ourselves as much as possible about the issues and the laws that shape the world around us. It means listening and participating in discussions and, possibly most importantly, asking questions to do just this. It means carefully considering the opposing viewpoint. It means seeking compromise.
And yes, sometimes it means smiling, agreeing to disagree and moving on.
I think many of us are afraid to add to the noise surrounding these issues, to chime in or make our voices heard if we aren’t sure we have all of the information or are saying quite the right thing, but sometimes saying the wrong thing and having someone explain why it’s wrong or just explain a different perspective to you is the best way to learn more about an issue.
It’s not someone else’s job to make decisions for us and build the society we want. It’s up to us to demand and make the changes necessary to build that society. The one where, as much as possible, people can live and let live.
But we won’t get there if we’re afraid of discussion.
And we won’t change the status quo by being silent.
Happy Friday, pets! It’s Earth Hour tomorrow. Will you be participating? I know a lot of people don’t see the point of turning off their lights for an hour, but I really like the reminder of the impact that such a painless action can have. I also like the reminder that it’s ok to not be “plugged in” all the time. I might just use the opportunity to connect with some pals in person and document the lack of city lights.
Will you observe Earth Hour this weekend?
Let’s listen to a little Feist, shall we? (Just when I thought I couldn’t love her more, at her concert at Massey Hall over a year ago she implored her fans to be good little activists and do their part to stop the then-proposed mega-quarry threatening environmental degradation to a ludicrous amount of area farmland.)
I love that we have a dedicated day to celebrate the achievements of women. I’m so grateful to the feminists and activists who’ve come before me, and happy to count myself among those still working towards a world where people are not discriminated against based on something as inconsequential as gender.
This year in particular my hat is off to the four courageous women who started the Idle No More movement, demanding accountability from the Canadian government in regards to its promises to First Nations people and better treatment of the environment, and to my fellow Torontonians, Heather Jarvis and Sonya JF Barnett, co-founders of Slutwalk, an amazing, now international effort to shut down victim blaming in cases of sexual assault and harrassment.
Who are the women you admire today?
One of the most difficult things for me in adjusting to life in the city has been getting used to frequent requests from panhandlers and, especially in chillier weather, the heartbreaking sight of someone curled up to sleep on a subway grate for warmth.
Sometimes I can spare some change, sometimes I’ll offer up a granola bar or an apple, but I always have the distinctly futile feeling of putting a bandaid on a volcano.
A 2004 investigation into the issue of youth homelessness in Canada conducted by CBC news program, The Fifth Estate, found that while truly accurate numbers are impossible to come by, the National Homelessness Initiative estimates that,
“200,000 Canadians are homeless at some point during any given year, of which about one third are youth (25 years and under) – or about 50,000 to 66,000. On any given night, this means approximately 33,000 Canadians are homeless, of which about 8,333 to 11,000 are youth…In Toronto, a good estimate suggests there are at least 10,000 different youth who are homeless at one point on any given year – and anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 on a given night.”
It’s so disheartening and disturbing to think of that many people, and kids in particular who have no place to come home to at the end of the day. It makes me feel so extremely lucky and grateful to have grown up in a loving, safe and nurturing environment. One little twist of fate and I could easily have been one of the 1,500 to 2,000.
That’s why I’m very happy to volunteer for Tokens 4 Change, a fantastic annual one-day fundraiser with a brilliantly simple concept to help turn these statistics around.
Tokens for Change works with Youth Without Shelter to collect change, and, you guessed it, tokens, to help support the shelter and, in particular, to help the young people who use its services travel to the places they need to be (school, work, doctor’s appointments) to put them on a path to a better future.
This Friday February 8th, a fantastic group of caring high school students (along with some, ahem, slightly older adult volunteer/supervisor-types) will take to Toronto’s subway stations. A lot of the kids involved will be putting their talents to good use, busking to help entice commuters to give generously.
I will once again lean heavily on my giant smile and ability to get my point across loudly and concisely as well as the innate goodness and generosity of others. So if you happen to run into any of us this Friday, please consider donating your change. You know it’s just weighing your purse down, which is probably giving you shoulder problems anyway.