A Broken Door towards Peace

As a new intern at Women for Women International-UK, an organisation that assists women victims of war, I have been fortunate enough to attend a private audience with Karak Mayik, WfWI Sudan Country Director. A woman whose story moved, inspired and humbled me. She re-affirmed my belief that there is always hope; that human endeavour and a striving towards a better future for people can and will overcome any obstacles. I listened as she told her harrowing story, taking us beyond images frequently seen in the media.

Karak Mayik speaking at the WfWI UK Gala 2011

Life there is hard, in ways those of us here will not be able to comprehend. War and violence are part of their common culture and the women bear the brunt of this. Steeped in gender inequality, the rights of women are taken away by men who view them as worthless commodities and use rape and sexual slavery as weapons of war.

Karak and her family were forced to flee their home after civil war broke out. They spent many years at an IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp where they lived in severe hardship.  Violence against women was widespread. But whilst in the camp, Karak voluntarily began to educate the women. Taking them through the Arabic alphabet written on a broken piece of door, this was the first step towards a leadership role beyond the family sphere. She later went on to start her own community-based organisation and joined with WfWI.

The WfWI year-long Sponsorship Program is a life-changing experience that works through a ‘sistering’ system by which a survivor of war must receive a sponsor to enrol; thus illustrating the importance of the Sponsor within a woman’s life. Letters from Sponsors are gifts many keep close to their hearts. Karak would tell these women: “If there are women in the US and the UK and other places that believe you can have a better life, why don’t you believe it yourself?” Through sponsorship funding, the program helps women receive vital job-skills training, business, money management and rights awareness education. Karak explained that the women are taught to view their sponsorship money not as relief but as a gift that must be utilised effectively, for the whole family, not just their husbands. Since 2007, this initiative and the Sponsorship Program have supported 10,000 women.

This was due to the daring idealism and steely determination of a woman who has instigated a spark of positive progress within her shattered society and created the space needed to negotiate peace. Karak described her motivation as being cultivated by her environment, with a matriarchal attitude towards leadership and clearly driven by her faith. She has valiantly demanded her place at the table, raised gender education and encouraged women towards self-reliance and income generation to help themselves, their families and ultimately the wider society. This is ground-breaking work that is causing a shift within this generations’ thinking and attitudes towards life and culture. Women within the program are now wanted education for their daughters, rather than early marriages, as they see this is the way forward and they view women like Karak as role-models.

A woman, a leader, a home-maker, a peace-keeper. She is a mother, a diplomat, a negotiator; the driver and the vehicle. Such women deserve our recognition. We should know what they are capable of in such extreme circumstances, to act as triggers within ourselves. She said something that truly struck a chord in me: “I’ve done this, voluntarily, starting from nothing. If I can do this, what about you?”

It rarely occurs to us that very small amounts of assistance can go such a long way in changing a person’s life. When asked about what we here can do to make a difference, Karak responded that we need to inform ourselves of the situation there and to help in whatever capacity possible to lead them towards their vision of their future. In the coming months, WfWI UK will be launching the Sponsorship program to partner sponsors in the UK with survivors of war in Sudan, Iraq, Bosnia and five other countries.

We’d love to hear from anyone who wants to know how they can take action and connect with women around the world who are putting their lives at risk to rally for female empowerment and peace.  For more information please visit our website: http://www.womenforwomen.org.uk/ or alternatively find us on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/WomenforWomenUK

Women beneficiaries of the WfWI programme in Sudan join together to call for an end to the fighting in their country.

The Bravest Woman in Afghanistan

Recently, a global survey has named Afghanistan as the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a woman. But within this place, one woman in particular has been hailed “the bravest woman in Afghanistan.” With a long list of achievements to her name, and the recipient of many international awards, politician and activist Malalai Joya is most commonly known for her outspoken long-term commitment to women’s right, peace and justice in Afghanistan. A critic of the Taliban, the present ‘warlord’ government as she describes them, and the occupation, Joya claims that the situation for women has not improved since the invasion stating that war is never better for women. She believes that left to their own self-determination, the progressive men and women of Afghanistan could move the country forward for themselves.

As a staunch opponent of the coalition’s invasion of her country, Joya holds to the notion that the occupation is a crime that is doing nothing more than propping up newer warlords. This fierce criticism of the occupation led to her being denied a travel visa to the U.S. earlier this year though the official reasons given were her “unemployment” status and the fact that she “lives underground”. This was eventually lifted as the government was inundated with pressure from the public to allow her in and to be given the opportunity to speak:

“My country is still in chains of bloody and terrorist fundamentalists. The situation in Afghanistan and conditions of its ill-fated women will never change positively, as long as the warlords are not disarmed and BOTH the pro-US and anti-US terrorists are removed from the political scene of Afghanistan.” 

Her refusal to compromise when plainly stating the truth about the realities of life in Afghanistan has also left her the target of many assassination attempts. And yet she demands her voice be heard as an elected member of the Afghan Parliament, touring internationally and authoring an autobiography ‘A Woman Among Warlords’.  Times 100 listed Joya as amongst the ‘100 most influential people in the world’ in 2010 and the Guardian named her among the ‘Top 100 women activists and campaigners’, whilst Noam Chomsky personally described her as a “truly worthy choice for the Nobel Peace Prize”.

Malalai Joya addressing girls at a school in Farah province, Afghanistan in 2006

I think what strikes me as a common theme that can be found in such figures of genuine peace-loving, justice-seeking individuals is a fearless determination to have the truth speak for itself, regardless of consequence. And just as glaringly obvious as it would seem to have the truth of international affairs available to us all, it is becoming eerily apparent that these efforts may be squashed if they proceed to question or criticise the common narrative that is sold to us. As the opponents of wars and oppression are beginning to find it difficult to be given that platform to speak publicly, especially in countries such as the U.S. that prides themselves as being homes of free speech, one has to then question the very foundations upon which we frame our understanding of these monumental world events. Despite this, it is encouraging to know that the most dangerous place to be a woman is clearly not stopping this woman becoming an incredibly influential figure spearheading justice for Afghan women and all peoples of Afghanistan.