There is no defeat

Zinti Girls

Exactly five years ago today I boarded a plane in a small South African airport, headed home. My journey as the first white teacher in a rural Zulu school had abruptly ended when the very people who invited me threatened my life. I spent thirty-six terrifying hours waiting to escape. I was exhausted, confused, and grateful to be alive.

Today as I board my flight home I confess that I once again feel disoriented. Not from terror, but in awe of the remarkable events of the past five years.

Shortly after the release of RUBY’S WORLD I met Sizani Ngubane, a fearless and tireless advocate for the rural women of KwaZulu-Natal – the very women I lived among. We began to communicate and before long her organization, the Rural Women’s Movement of South Africa, offered me am ambassadorship.

For the past two weeks Sizani and I have represented the RWM at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York City. It’s been a whirlwind of panel hearings, forum discussions, and sharing of stories between individuals and NGO’s from around the world. 

My favorite take-away of these past two weeks? Every woman has a story – a powerful story. And giving voice to her story changes a woman. The courage it takes to share intimate details of her life makes her stronger and moves her further into the world.

Bearing witness to these stories also changes the listener. During my time at CSW I cried, laughed, cheered and felt a piece of myself in every other woman’s story – sisters from Egypt, Uganda, Finland, Brazil, Fiji, Ivory Coast, and Estonia.

Sizani is committed to compiling an anthology of the rural Zulu women’s stories to preserve them for future generations who will no doubt have a different experience of Zulu South Africa as women gain ground. I’m honored to be the author/editor for the project. Funding efforts are under way and with perseverance, a dose of divine intervention and a little luck, I will travel to South Africa at the end of the year to spend time with these women to record their stories. (We’re also looking for a photographer/film crew to record the process.)

I’m practicing for this project by putting my money where my mouth is. Scary! Last year I wrote my own story about why and how I went to Africa. Unlocking the Dream reveals the exotic dreams that cured my breast cancer and lead me to the Zulu.

My desire has always been to make a difference in the lives of women and children. Five years ago when I boarded that plane in Africa I felt like a failure.

A lot has happened since then. Today I feel the magic that my “failure” initiated. My secret? Just say YES.

YES to the small voice that whispers implausible suggestions.

YES to absurd opportunities that appear out of nowhere.

YES to the risk of looking like a fool to follow your heart.

YES to letting go of old stories that keep you small.

YES to believing that every life has a purpose.

You might not share my exact passion, but I’ll bet you have one of your own. Act on it. Take one little step toward your dream. Today. Maybe, like me, you tried once and it didn’t work out. But that doesn’t have to be the end of your story.

If I can come back from “defeat” … so can you!

is music the answer?

After three full days of reports and discussions here at the 57th CSW, consensus has been reached on one critical item: every country reporting so far has laws in place to protect the rights of women! So why is violence against women still so prevalent? Why are women the number one target of discrimination world wide?

Everyone also agrees that they’re tired of laws that aren’t enforced; discouraged about always handing out support instead of solutions. Tempers flared this afternoon during a discussion about how to change the situation. More severe punishments? Enlisting more men as allies? Stronger economic empowerment? More public service information?

In the midst of the heated conversation, the answer almost slipped by unnoticed. A soft-spoken Israeli woman paused for a brief moment on a slide in her presentation. It was impossible to hear her, but the information on the slide was clear: a pilot program in Israel is introducing conflict resolution as standard school curriculum beginning in kindergarten. Studies prove that learning non-violent communication at an early age – combined with music – reduces violence.

My heart leapt as I remembered the Zinti kids of Ruby’s World. Regardless of how wound up they were at the beginning of class, a song was the answer. I was never more than one or two bars into “I’m a Little Teapot” before every one of them was in their seat, smiling, singing along. The promise of another song at the end of class was enough to keep them focused on their lessons for the next forty minutes. 

These kids, at the ripe old age of 8 or 9, have witnessed – and are often the victims of – more tragedy and violence than most of us will experience in an entire lifetime. And still, one simple song was enough to make them happy.

When our session ended this afternoon, I congratulated my colleague from Israel for her organization’s foresight. It’s encouraging to know there’s such a clear solution for the future: our kids.

I look forward to following the success of the Israeli program and hope that the concept of prevention catches on. Altering our education system to provide problem solving skills cannot help but improve the lives of men and women alike.

 

 

Chaos Meets Enthusiasm

 

United Nations NYC

I read the memo wrong! Consequently, yesterday morning I was 12th in line at the gates of the UN, waiting for the official start of the 57th Commission on the Status of Women.

Don’t get me wrong. I was happy to sit on the marble wall for an hour and a half practicing my Spanish with a wonderful woman for Medellin, Columbia. I met lots of interesting women from around the world, all of us eager to get started, anxiously trying to take it all in.

What happens when over 6,000 enthusiastic women flood the UN General Assembly lobby? Chaos! Security screening. Searching for the right line to collect secondary passes. Filing past dozens of tables to collect side event tickets. Racing for the North Lawn Building where official UN Panel Discussions are held. Reading walls of TV screens in hallways checking for last minute schedule changes and room assignments.

And what happens when you finally find your room? Locating your seat. Collecting handout materials. Finding your language channel on the translation system. And again … trying to take it all in. 

Karen Baldwin, Sizani Ngubane

I’m enjoying my time with Sizani Ngubane, Executive Director of the Rural Women’s Movement of South Africa. She’s amazing. Having been in this international arena for over 20 years, I’m thrilled to have her as a mentor. Every time we turn around she’s approached by a woman she’s worked with previously in Australia, Canada, Holland, Ethiopia … to name only a few. Her expertise as a leader in promoting progress for rural women in developing countries is respected and sought after. 

The schedule of events here at CSW – both on and off the UN Campus – is intense. There are literally hundreds of Parallel Events taking place every day in different locations along Embassy Row. Choosing one over the other is tough.

If I look tired – I am! Yesterday I was content to limit myself to the North Lawn Building, my heart and mind a swirl simply with the reality of being here as Ambassador for the Rural Women’s Movement of South Africa.

As I settle in, I’ll venture further into this astounding environment of women working together to create better lives for other women!

 

GIRL – BE HEARD !!

G!RL BE HEARD kicked off the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women this morning at the Armenian Convention Center in Manhattan. And WOW – these girls have a powerful message.

The 57th CSW theme is elimination of all forms of violence against women and children. No timid toe testing of the waters here … we jumped straight into the deep end of the subject: human trafficking.

Here are a few facts I learned this morning:

  • 60% of girls/women in the US (the numbers are higher in 3rd world countries) will experience some form of physical and/or sexual violence in her lifetime
  • 34% of girls become pregnant before the age of 20
  • 98% of human trafficking for sexual gain is with girls … the majority under the age of 16
  • studies throughout Europe have proven a direct correlation between pain and aggression
  • human trafficking operates on the economic principle of supply and demand
  • human trafficking continues unchecked because of its tremendous profitability
  • only very recently have women’s rights become equated with human rights

GIRL BE HEARD shared their stories from 3 different countries – the US, Mexico and the Ukraine. Their poetry, music and dance softened the delivery of the intense, grotesque details … but not much. The stories were enough to turn my stomach and make me cry.

Leading researchers in this subject – here at the CSW from Austria, Italy and India – promise us that there are three things that will alter the course of this social disease:

  • Personal SECURITY
  • Viable CHOICES
  • Freedom to have a VOICE

I have my own theory on why this criminal and morally appalling behavior is allowed to continue – it’s damned hard to talk about.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the room of 900 women this morning who wanted to crawl out of my skin. It’s nearly unbearable to listen to these young girls spill their anger and pain. But we can’t fix something that we’re unwilling to talk about – straight on – no holds barred.

There was a day each of us would have sworn we didn’t know someone who had an abortion or a baby out of wedlock, had a family member with mental illness, knew someone who had AIDS, or … you get the picture. Times have changed only because we summoned the courage to open the discussion and in doing so, discovered that our honest sharing and support brought us together.

This morning we were assured that if we were willing to pay attention … and listen … we’d discover a young woman in our own back yard who has been a victim of human trafficking for either sexual or labor gains. This is especially true if we live in an urban area with a population from Indonesia, Asia, and South America.

So … here’s my challenge … for myself and you. Dare to keep your eyes and ears open for signs of this horrific crime against a soul. And when you have the opportunity … open your heart to give a young girl the right to have a voice.

Really listen. You won’t break. I promise. Your life might never be the same again … and that might be a good thing.

 

 

 

Asking the Tough Questions

On the eve of my first trip to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women … I’m thrilled to share this interview I had yesterday with Mina de Caro.

I love it when an interviewer asks the tough questions! From her position as a strong advocate for the dignity and rights of women and children, Mina mined the field of my life and the realities of life with the rural Zulu of South Africa.

I hope you enjoy our conversation …

M:  As a guest in the South African village, you committed to being an observer, not a critic of their culture and traditions. How difficult was it to remain silent in front of abominable social practices: infant scarification, use of black magic to cure serious illnesses, gender discrimination, just to mention a few?

K:  Holding my tongue was a huge challenge. There were times I wanted to rally the women into a “Norma Rae” revolt. But I did a pretty good job of maintaining observer status … until Ruby and the school principal began starving the children. It broke my heart and my self-control crumbled. I couldn’t just stand b and watch. It was the only time I intentionally interfered in their culture, and I’m pretty sure giving the apple to the little girl contributed to Ruby turning on me.

M:  What started as a humanitarian dream ended up in a nightmare, abruptly and at the hands of the very people who warmly welcome you and hosted you. Was Ruby’s betrayal the most heart-wrenching aspect of your ordeal? Or leaving behind that unforgettable group of kids without having the chance to explain the reason for your sudden departure?

K:  Without a doubt, Ruby’s betrayal stung – I didn’t see it coming. But through the process of being on tour with Ruby’s World, I’ve spoken with many South Africans and have a better understanding now of Ruby’s behavior. It was awful in the moment, but it doesn’t haunt me anymore.

Leaving the kids without saying good-bye was by far the most painful aspect of being run out. It still hurts. I hate that they might think I abandoned them. Even worse, I suspect that Ruby and the principal may have told the kids … (you can read the entire interview HERE.)

 

 

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