Finding a Light in the Darkness

a-light-in-the-darkness-1-of-1As the misty, morning light edged into my consciousness, the waking nightmare seeped in beside it. I reached immediately for my phone, for a connection to the outside world, comfort. My husband is off in New Zealand on business. Squinting at the phone through sleep and tear crusted eyes, I found first a letter of condolence from a dear friend in Scotland. His dry wit even in the face of this tragedy allowed me to start the day with a smile and a chortle before the tears returned.

I was uplifted when I opened Facebook and saw hopeful messages there. People are mourning, as I am, and they are asking, “how can I help to make this better?” This is a frightening turn of events; a hate mongering, racist, misogynist, xenophobe is actually president of our United States, and a whole lot of hate mongering, racist, misogynist, xenophobes put him there. That’s the real scary part, that there are that many out there. I think of my friends of color, my Muslim friends, and those in the LGBTQ community, and imagine how much more compounded their fear must be.

And yet, we have to keep going. We don’t have to sit back and accept this, watch our world crumble, and give over to the despair and hate. The question is, “how do we make a difference?” I want some kind of concrete plan, a to-do list of tasks I can complete and when the list is all checked off the world will be a brighter place. My in-box is so full of emails exhorting me to take action, sign the petition for this cause, donate money for that one. I find it all so overwhelming.

As I read those thoughtful posts in my Facebook feed, I’m reminded that it is love and compassion for others that will pull us through this and create a better world for us all. Just as humans are soft, malleable creatures, so too is our path forward. Yes, we need to sign petitions and donate money, services, time as we can, but we need to spread love too. The way forward is in each individual interaction with our fellow creatures. Just as hate and enmity spreads, so too does love. I have to believe that today. Isn’t that the American can-do spirit? The attitude that made our country great? We can do this. For fuck’s sake let us do this.

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The Dangers of Living in the World

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Recently, I read a very disturbing article in my AARP magazine.  Just the fact that I receive and read AARP magazine is disturbing enough!  This article was about “sneaky culprits” that might be contributing to weight gain.  It mentioned BPA and that thermal cash register receipts are a significant source of the estrogen-mimicking chemical, which messes with your hormones and metabolism.  I immediately thought of my purse-full of receipts.  I started obsessively internet searching for articles on BPA.  I got myself sufficiently freaked out and started throwing away all of my plastic leftover containers and checking labels for BPA free bottles and bowls.  Now whenever a checkout clerk hands me a receipt I just want to ask, “are you trying to kill me?”  I know they think I’m crazy when I look at the receipt in their hand for a minute before sighing and then gingerly taking it between the very tips of my thumb and forefinger.

The BPA-ridding frenzy wore off; I relaxed a little.  Then I read this Mother Jones article that says even BPA free plastics can have estrogen-mimicking chemicals in them.  Now, I’m worrying about the super protective mattress cover we have and wondering if I’m soaking up these chemicals while I sleep.  Or try to sleep instead of worrying about this.

The Mother Jones article does also mention that there is some skepticism about the research and who was funding it.  I would certainly like to see some non-biased research done.  It disheartens me that our current way of life is such a health risk.  We have all of these things that are supposed to add convenience and make our lives easier, such as processed foods and plastic storage containers.  Plastic everything.  Corporations push these things at us, telling us it’s all good and good for us, when in fact most of it is slowly killing us.  It’s all down to money and people getting rich off the masses who eat their pretend food and use their BPA-laden products.

In Salt Lake the air is poison, but the people in control won’t put restrictions on the factories belching out the fumes because some rich bigwig will lose money.  Someone told me recently that Salt Lake’s mosquito abatement program involves adding a chemical to our water.  Our drinking water!  I haven’t been able to find anything to back this up, and I don’t know who is getting rich off that or whose life is made easier by it.  All I know is I think life is killing us.

A World in Need of Hope

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It’s gotten to where I can’t bear to turn on the television or the radio, for fear of learning of some new tragedy happening in the world. War, disease, natural disasters, and police brutality. As long as the terror is happening in other countries, it’s easier to distance ourselves from it; there’s a buffer zone. Then you turn on the news and see police in military gear, armed with assault rifles and tear gas, and see armored vehicles driving down U.S. streets.

We find this police brutality and suppression of civil rights shocking; this denial of freedom of speech is something that takes place in the Middle East or China. We forget our own country’s history of oppression. We forget about the attack on the Bonus Army, a group of veterans and their families gathered in Washington DC in 1932. They were there to demand payment of their service certificates. Instead the police showed up and started shooting people, then Hoover ordered the army to clear them out. They were chased away with guns and tanks, their encampment full of women and children was burned to the ground.

Not as far back in our suppressed memories are the Kent State shootings, when the National Guard opened fire on students protesting the Vietnam war. Four students were killed and nine more wounded.

A few days ago, a young man, Dillon Taylor, was shot and killed by police here in Salt Lake, because he didn’t respond immediately to the officer’s orders.  Witnesses say he had headphones on and didn’t hear the officer, and that he was unarmed.

I am far and away not a criminal element, but I have to say I feel uncomfortable around the police. I used to work in a domestic violence shelter. I was followed, and not in a protective way, by police on more than one occasion as I picked up women to bring them to shelter, or left to drive home after work. I remember very clearly being verbally assaulted by an officer when I refused to tell him where the shelter was. I was scared. He had his hands in my car, white knuckle gripping the door, his face in mine screaming like a banshee and spitting, as he threatened and demanded to know where the shelter was.

I don’t feel safe in this world. I don’t feel safe in this country. I need some good news. I need to hear about people being good to each other. I’m going to avoid the news today and get lost in some stitching. If you hear any happy news, please share.

Very Personally Yours: Violence Against Women Affects Us All

**Warning** If you are squeamish you shouldn’t read this post. It contains graphic descriptions of something most Americans choose to ignore.

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As I write this, I keep thinking of that little booklet I received in school as a young girl, Very Personally Yours, about puberty and menstruation, and I can’t help but think about how things could have been so different except for an accident of fate that had me born here instead of on another continent. What if there was a booklet about Female Genital Mutilation that was passed out to young girls before undergoing “the tradition”?

Female Genital Mutilation has been in the news quite a bit lately. We call it FGM for short. That helps us to remove ourselves, take a step back from the physical reality of what it is. It becomes an abstract idea, a non-western cultural practice that we don’t need to think about. I ask you to think for just a minute about what it really means.

Female. Genital. Mutilation. Having your labia, clitoris, and vagina mutilated with a knife.

Imagine if you will, young blond Sally at the playground with her friends. Suddenly her mom shows up with a group of other ladies from the neighborhood. She pulls Sally from the jungle gym, saying, “come on Sally; it’s time.” Sally looks back in horror at her friends. Some of the older girls have already been through this.  She received the booklet at school just last month.

Sally’s mother and the other women take her to a potting shed behind her house. There they put Sally up on the potting bench; the neighbor women hold her down while her mom pulls out a JH Henkles paring knife, a needle and some floss from the embroidery project she was working on that morning. “Don’t worry, Sally; all girls go through this. It will make you a better wife.”

Are you feeling uncomfortable yet? This is a slightly modified version of something that takes place every day, all over the world. I think if this were happening to little blond girls there would be much more of an uproar. Thankfully though, this heinous practice is finally starting to get some media attention.  As women, we need to understand that when violence against women is perpetrated anywhere, it is perpetrated against us.

Female Genital Mutilation is a procedure traditionally performed on girls between infancy and 15 years of age, in which all or part of the external female genitalia is removed and or modified. This includes all or partial removal of the clitoris, and all or partial removal of the labia minora and the labia majora. Often times the outer labia are cut and sewn together, leaving only a small opening for urine. This is frequently performed without anesthetic and with questionable surgical equipment, such as rusty knives or sharpened bits of metal. It is usually carried out by a person in the community whose role it is in addition to attending childbirths. In some areas the practice is performed by the mother or aunt. Today however, more that 18% of the procedures are performed by professional health care providers. In Egypt, where 9 out of 10 women have had this procedure, 70% of the operations are performed by doctors.

This is a cultural practice concentrated in Middle Eastern and African countries and occurring in some Asian countries. It is also still practiced by some migrants from these countries. Young girls and teenagers are taken back to their parent’s countries for what is known as “vacation cutting”. What a vacation, huh? There have been some reports of FGM being practiced here in the US. According to a 2000 report from the African Women’s Health Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, over 227,000 women and girls in the US were at risk of being cut, either here or on trips back to their parents’ country of origin.

The cultures practicing FGM believe that it enhances a girl’s chance of a good marriage. It is thought to help control the illicit sexual nature inherent in women and keep them pure for marriage. While this is not a religious practice, it is often thought to be religiously supported.  What it boils down to is a means for subjugating and controlling women.

Unicef estimates that over 130 million women and girls living today suffer from the effects of FGM. Complications that occur immediately from the procedure include pain, severe bleeding or hemorrhaging, bacterial infections, and shock. Long term the girl is at risk for bladder and urinary tract infections, infertility, increased risk of complications during childbirth including death of infant or mother, and severe pain. If the girl has been sewn up, then she has to be cut open in order to have intercourse with her husband and to give birth. And of course, girls and women subjected to this procedure can suffer severe psychological trauma.

There is a movement today to help put an end to this crime against women. Molly Melching and her program Tostan have made great strides in western Africa toward ending FGM. She works with the communities to further human rights education, helping them come to their own conclusions regarding respect for their women’s rights and health.

In the US, the Obama administration has initiated a study into the impact and reach of FGM in the US. The study will be carried out by the US Department of Health and Human Services, working through education with the goal of ending the practice in the US, and with hopes that with the US leading the way, other countries will follow suit.

This development demonstrates the impact of people’s voices. A petition was started on change.org, working with The Guardian and Equality Now, urging the American government to put an end to FGM. 220,000 signatures convinced the US to take action.  When you are considering signing a petition, know that it does make a difference!

Other organizations working to end FGM and to support basic human rights for women and girls include Women Thrive, The World Health Organization, and Amnesty International. To add your voice to support women’s rights, sign this petition to pass the International Violence Against Women Act. Women around the world deserve to be free from such vile practices as FGM and other forms of violence. I-VAWA is an international effort to end violence against women worldwide.

To learn more about FGM, and efforts to support women’s rights, I recommend three books in addition to the links above: Half the Sky – Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn; However Long the Night – Molly Melching’s Journey to Help Millions of African Women and Girls Triumph by Aimee Molloy; and Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy, a fictional account of an Olinka woman in the US who travels back to her country to undergo FGM.

Love Rules

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I am so thrilled today to learn that the 10th Circuit Court in Denver has ruled Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional!  As I write this, I have tears streaming down my face and snot running out of my nose.  This isn’t an abstract idea for me; people I care about are affected by the ruling.  I believe that their right to marriage can only make the world a better place.  The love of two committed individuals cannot possibly endanger my own marriage or that of anyone else.  In fact, I believe having more, strong, committed marriages strengthens the institution.

In March 2013, three couples filed suit challenging Utah’s discriminatory Amendment 3, banning same-sex marriage.  They were: Derek Kitchen and Moudi Sbeity, Karen Archer and Kate Call, Laurie Wood and Kody Partridge.  In December of last year, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby struck down the ban.  I was amazed at the time.  I mean, Utah?  Really?  But then, Utah being Utah immediately appealed to the court for a stay that was granted on January 6.  During that time about 1300 couples were married.  Although Utah tried its best to deny those marriages, U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball ordered the marriages would be recognized.

Then this last April, the three couples traveled to Denver along with many supporters to have their case heard by the 10th Circuit Court.  We’ve been holding our breath since then to hear the decision.  Today we all breathed a huge sigh of relief!  It makes me so happy to see the constant Facebook notifications of people celebrating this historic moment.  I think there is hope for this world afterall:)

 

 

Refugee Crisis at Our Border

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I want to talk today about the crisis that is taking place along the southern US border, where thousands of children, some as young as three or four years old, are traveling alone or with groups of children, looking for their parents.  I’m not going to get into the politics of immigration reform here, because that’s a separate topic.  I want to talk about the dangers these children are facing and what we can do to help.

This is another one of those horrors that has been going on for awhile and only just recently hit mainstream news.  Now I do have to admit, I don’t watch the local tv news; all they ever want to tell me is if any mormon missionaries were hurt during the tragic event that happened in xyz country, or what the president of the mormon church had to say today.  Yeah, I don’t care.  So I get my news from NPR when I’m in the car, from MSNBC if I happen to be passing through the living room while my husband is watching, and of course every Sunday from John Oliver.

Tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have crossed the southern U.S. border into Texas in recent months.  The numbers have ballooned in the last five years, from just over 4,000 in 2011, to 21,000 last year; already the projected number of 60,000 for 2014 has been exceeded.

These children are refugees, fleeing gang and drug related violence in Guatamala, El Salvador, and Honduras.  Boys in Central America are being threatened that their families will be killed if they don’t join the drug cartels.  Girls are being forced into sex trafficking.  Children who witness the “disappearance” of their friends and classmates are afraid even to walk to school.

The over 3000 mile journey from Central America, through Mexico, to the Rio Grand Valley in Texas is filled with peril.  The children suffer from lack of food and water, possible injuries, and the risk of kidnapping.  Some travel with “coyotes”, smugglers who charge the families thousands of dollars and do not guarantee safe arrival.  Others travel on “la bestia” or “la tren de muerte”; as they cling to the top of this freight train that travels through Mexico, many killed or maimed along the way.

These children arrive in the US and are immediately taken into custody by border patrol agents.  According to international refugee treaties, because the Central American countries these children come from are non-contiguous, they cannot be immediately deported.  They go first to holding facilities that are typically a concrete room with benches, an open toilet and a sink.  The law states that they will be transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours, but with the huge numbers of children coming in, that time is being stretched.  There are no windows or beds in these temporary facilities, and no access to hot meals.

After transferring custody to ORR the children are moved to slightly more appropriate facilities, many on military bases, but still much like giant warehouse full of children.  The refugees will stay there under the supervision of trained  childcare professionals while agency officials try to track down family members or sponsors to take custody.  At some point after this a “notice to appear” will be issued, requiring the child to appear before a judge to determine his or her fate.  This process can take a long time, and the kids may be in the holding facilities indefinitely.

I said I wanted to talk about what we can do to help.  I’m feeling very frustrated here, as my search hasn’t turned up many ideas.  In fact the only thing I’ve found is this list of resources that includes shelters and agencies that assist immigrants.  If you can find any other information on helping, please do share that here.

My Small Offering

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Yesterday, I had the great fortune to meet Molly Melching and hear her speak. Molly is the founder of Tostan, an international nonprofit with headquarters in Dakar, Senegal. Tostan’s mission is to create a world “where everyone is treated equally and respectfully.” They promote human rights education, with an important piece of their work being ending the harmful practice of female genital cutting and forced child marriage. Their success comes from their work model of a three year program empowering communities to make their own choices for health and well-being. Hearing Molly speak was very inspiring and encouraging.

My husband and I were told recently, by someone dear to my heart, that we do “nothing of any importance” to make the world a better place. I know that is a completely misguided statement; the person who said it, though loved by me, knows nothing about the small, day to day activities that Craig and I engage in. I don’t even think about those things; I just do them. Still, the comment did make me question my work in society more than I already was.

When I came back from Uganda, I mentioned here that I had had a life changing experience that made me realize I wanted to do more. In the months since then I’ve been exploring ways of playing a more active role in effecting social change. There are the physical, more tangible things that you get up and go do, like join a rally, write a check, or volunteer your time. Then there are the more subtle acts of simply spreading information, talking to people, posting things on Facebook (which is where we got in trouble). I had been thinking much on the value of hashtag activism vs. “boots on the ground” activism. A few days later, I saw the link Karen of SewandSowLife posted on Facebook about “small offerings”, everybody doing their small piece to create big change. Her post was salve on a wound, and it helped me to clarify for myself one direction I wanted to go in to support human rights.

I’ve decided to devote one day a week here on the blog to current social issues. I’m going to call it Friday Activism. This will be one of my “small offerings”, because I believe we can make change by doing small things, by raising awareness. Social media is ubiquitous, and putting messages out there – on blogs, Facebook, Twitter – that someone might read and want to know more about is a way of effecting change.

My plan is to choose a topic from the millions of things happening every day, learn what I can about the topic and what action can be taken, then share it here with you. It’s hard to keep up with everything going on in the world, and there is so much that isn’t discussed on the news. In addition to spreading the word, this will help me educate myself on the state of human rights in the world.

I hope you are on board with this.

To learn more about Molly Melching and Tostan click here.

Salt Lake City Pride 2014

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Salt Lake City celebrated its 40th Pride Festival this last weekend. Craig and I had the opportunity to march in the parade with the Adobe Diversity Leadership Council group. Being in the parade is a whole different view than watching from the sidelines!

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Amex shows their pride

In this important year for the LGBTQ movement the theme of the festival was “Love Equals Love”. The parade was led by the three Utah couples in the Kitchen vs. Herbert case against Amendment 3 which bans same sex marriage; they are Laurie Wood and Kody Partridge, Moudi Sbeity and Derek Kitchen, Kate Call and Karen Archer.

Last December, there were around 1300 couples married during a 17 day window from when U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby ruled the state’s voter-approved ban on gay marriage to be unconstitutional, and when the state won a stay while appealing that ruling. Many of these couples rode or walked alongside the Marriage Equality float.

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We saw our friend, sweet DJ Naomi, getting ready to ride the Club Gossip float

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Samba Fogo posing for a photo op.

 

It was  a fun day.  I heard that the entire parade will be shown on Park City Television this coming weekend.  I plan to watch!

Bring Back Our Girls

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Unless you’ve had your head in a bucket, I’m sure you are aware that 3 weeks ago almost 300 girls were abducted from their school in Chibok, Nigeria while they slept. This atrocity was carried out by extremist group Boko Haram, the leader of which insists that Allah told him to do it. Now I’ve not read the Quoran yet, but from what I understand it does not say anything about school being evil; it does, however, condemn “kidnapping young girls and selling them into slavery” according to Arsalan Iftikhar, international human rights lawyer.

We’ve all been slow to react to this.  I remember several weeks ago, listening to NPR in the car about Boko Haram going into schools and killing boys.  Boko Haram means “western education is a sin”.  I came home and told my husband about it; we talked about the young women we’re helping to go to school in Uganda and wondered if there would be any problem there.  Then we moved on.

We can’t wait around any more.  This is not a new problem; the kidnapping and trafficking of women and girls is a huge, global problem.  On A Mighty Girl’s Facebook page, they state, “the U.S. State Department estimates that between 60,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year and 80% of those trafficked are women and girls, mostly for sexual exploitation.”  By standing in solidarity with the mothers in Chibok, we can fight violence against women worldwide.

The Girl Rising website has a list of action items that you can do right this moment to help bring these girls home.  The biggest thing we can do right now is build awareness and not let this be ignored.  Please share this information with everyone you know and urge them to take action as well.  This is not just a Nigerian issue.  Whenever human rights are violated for anyone, they are violated for us all.  Please please take action on this.  Start here by signing this petition.

 

Educating Girls in Uganda: Update

Justine in her school uniform
It’s time for an update on our young students in Uganda.  Justine, here in her school uniform, has just finished her first semester.  She had some health issues, but pushed through and finished with good scores.  Her highest scores were in math.  Justine is looking forward to starting her next semester in May.

The Fistula Project has been working on a couple grants to sponsor Justine and a new student, Judith.  Through individual donations we’ve raised over $1300.  With these donations we’ve been able to get Judith started on her first semester, and it will cover both of the young women for the second semester.

Judith is 19 years old, the sixth of eight children, and also a fistula patient from Kitovu Hospital.  Judith’s medical issues were congenital, and became worse over time.  She was able to attend primary school, but by the end she was experiencing too much urine leakage to continue.  She was operated on in August of last year, then again in January of this year.  Her doctor gave her the go ahead to start secondary school last semester.  She began her studies in Senior One in March and should be finishing up today!  She is also very excited to continue on with her studies and wants to enter the medical profession.

More good news!  We have teamed up with Women of the World, a local organization that helps women refugees.  They are allowing us to operate under their 501c3; this means that all donations to the education fund will now be tax deductible.

Sister Bernadette is our contact from Kitovu.  She has taken these girls under her wing and is following up on their progress.  I will continue to keep you updated as we go along.  I’m working on getting a photo of Judith!