Unconquered

She stands where the water kisses the sky. No longer afraid of the waves that roll over her bare toes or the sand constantly shape-sifting under her feet, she is drawn to the perpetual motion of the sea. An ancient whisper calls her, tugs her further on, lifting her hair as it dances round her shoulders. She listens, her whole body breathing in the movement of air, water, and the gentle kiss of sunset.

For too long she has lived in the darkness, cowering under a blanket of shame that they gave her. Tears her truest language, despair her closest friend. When she cried out, they shushed her and she almost became accustomed to having no voice. Almost.

They almost had her. Almost convinced her that an existence of inferiority, voicelessness and powerlessness was normal. Almost.

But the ancient whisper would not let them have her. It crept relentlessly from the womb of her truest mother, the earth. Like an umbilical cord, it fed her and nourished her and grew her until she could open her eyes and see for herself, her truest self. As she drank from the waters that both healed her and reflected her truth back to herself, she laughed for the first time. For she saw her self as she truly was.

Enough

Powerful

Beautiful

Strong

Brave

Wise

Unconquered

Stunned and afraid, they came running after her with the blanket of shame, desperate to cover her up again. But she refused and left them standing there, left them awkwardly holding their blanket of shame.

She stands where the water kisses the sky. She tilts her head as the wind calls her name and she realizes with deep gratitude that she is not alone. As the names of her sisters are called out, she turn to find them and together they move and change the world.

She is me. She is you. She is us.

 

Photo courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

The Ripple Effects of Pebble

Rice paddies stretch across rural Bangladesh like an emerald patchwork blanket, dotted with clusters of small huts. Village life ebbs and flows with the seasons and those who live here are deeply connected to and dependent upon the earth. Few jobs exist for women, so those who are desperate for work must entrust their children to their grandparents care and migrate to the city to work in the garment industry. There they sweat long days, stitching together the clothing many of us wear on our back. They pinch every penny by living in a slum or hostel so they can send as much of their earnings as possible home to their families. Tired, lonely and vulnerable, these women are often taken advantage of in devastating ways. But, there is a growing network of more than 120 Hathay Bunano work centers throughout the rural villages of Bangladesh, where women gather daily to create Pebble toys. These centers are a stark contrast to the garment factories of the cities.

Pebble keeps families together. The women can easily walk to work and take their babies with them. If there is not a preschool in the area, Pebble helps to start one.

Their hours are flexible, so they can come in between household tasks. During busy harvest times, they can take the work home with them to work extra hours in the evening.

The women, many of whom did not have educational opportunities when they were young, are able to send their own children to school. Daughters, who are the first to be pulled out of school during times of financial difficulties, are now able to get an education. In addition, many young women are now putting themselves through college by working for Pebble, creating a new world of possibility in a culture where child marriage is quite acceptable.

Pebble creates safe and happy community. Instead of the loud and often dangerous machinery of the garment factories, the women here sit in a circle, with their bowls of yarn and crocheting needles as the breeze rustles through palm trees and the chickens cluck nearby. Here it is safe to laugh together, cry together, swap stories and help shoulder each other’s burdens.

Pebble does so much more than provide a fair wage for their employees; it brings a dignity that goes so much deeper. In traditionally patriarchal communities, women are gathering as a strong force and are being given a voice.

The future is changing for women in Bangladesh. As brightly colored threads of yarn glide through their fingers, these women are stitching together a future that is bright and hopeful for themselves and generations to come.

Since it’s humble beginning fifteen years ago, Pebble has expanded to employ between 12,000 -14,000 women and is growing daily. For more of the Pebble story, check out this video here.

Pebble is run by an amazing staff, including Rayhan Khabir, the executive director, pictured above.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

 

 

The People Nobody Wants

I have been following the story of the Rohingya Refugees for quite some time now and have been moved to blog about them here several times before. My dream of one day visiting their refugee camps had finally become a reality. I woke eagerly on Day 3 of my sickness, sure that this would be a better day. I texted my friend, who is a nurse in one of the medical clinics inside the camp, and she confirmed my suspicion that the antibiotics were intensifying my nausea. I put off taking my final pill, in hopes that I could feel more normal for the day ahead. I was able to eat breakfast with my team and we set out for the camp. The road leading out of town was the size of a narrow one-way street, huge holes gaped out of the edges in places, as if a ravenous monster had taken bites of it during the night. We left the town behind and soon the road gave way to lovely views of the ocean on one side and rolling hills on the other. After nearly an hour of driving, we met a sweet Canadian couple who gave us drinks of cold water before catching CNGs (similar to Baby Taxis or Auto Rickshaws) to take us the rest of the way into the camp. As we jostled along the dusty and bumpy brick road, we learn that the road had only been built a few months prior. Before that, it had just been a dirt path, which fast turned to mud during the monsoon. Nearly one million people are crammed into this tiny space that was once a national forest. Now the trees are gone and thousands of tiny huts cluster together on any acreage deemed safe enough for building. I was struck by the organization, the number of blue latrines that dotted the hillsides, and water pumps everywhere.

We passed many NGO centers, women-friendly spaces and even a playing field where kids played soccer together. Many refugees are hired to work at building roads and reinforcing dirt hillsides with intricately laced bamboo in an effort to keep the hills from eroding and turning to mud during the monsoon. Little children greeted us in English as we drove by while Burka-clad women looked on.

It was nearly noon by the time we arrived at the clinic.The heat inside of the tiny metal structure struck me with shocking force, though it was still supposedly the cool season. A tiny pharmacy was located inside along with a waiting room lined with benches, and 4 exam rooms. More benches lined the front of the clinic, to hold the overflow of patient who still had hopes of being seen that day. After finding my friend and being introduced to some of the staff, I was able to be part of one of the exams. An American midwife gently looked into the ears of a two-year-old boy who had an ear infection. He lay asleep in his mother’s lap, made small by her protruding belly which spoke of a sibling soon to be born. Soon the mom was on the exam table, cradling her boy as best she could while lifting up her burka so the midwife could check on her baby. As I perched on my stool in front of the window, I could soon recognize the swooshing song of the baby’s heartbeat. I wondered if I was feeling faint faint from the excitement of it all, or if my traveler’s belly was threatening to do me in again.

I swapped places with one of my team mates and sat outside to try to catch a breeze, but my body just wasn’t having it. They took me to the one empty exam room and I stretched out on the table, rolling up my scarf as a pillow. Nurses fluttered in and out to get supplies while the sounds of crying babies, mothers chatting in one corner of the building, men in the other, all melded together. Sounds and smells collided and bounced off the walls of this tiny life-saving structure that had been carried in piece by piece and put together out of love. I lay, unable to do anything else, on the bed used to diagnose and heal their pain, this pale foreigner, stripped of her strength and left only with an inner kernel of humanity, nothing to give but exhausted love, in much need of rest and healing herself. A tiny speck in a camp of a million refugees, a people no one wants. It was there that I recognized the humanity of suffering and need

The sacred truth revealed that day is with me still. To be human is to be equal. Ethnicity, citizenship, religion, wealth or lack thereof, mean absolutely nothing in the big picture. These categories are lines that we have drawn in the sand, lines that distract us and cause us to miss out on all that life could be if we just remembered this sacred truth. May we actively remember.

To be human is to be equal.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

 

Traveler’s Belly Continues

Day 2 of my sickness found me collapsed in exhaustion, despite having slept all afternoon the day before and all through night. My amazing team went out, on their own, bought groceries and fended for themselves. They help me pack up and Ramjan, our driver, picked us up to transport us to the airport for our next adventure. Hours later, we found ourselves in the southeast corner of Bangladesh, in Cox’s Bazar. I was completely spent by the time we arrived at our hotel, so once again, my amazing team ventured out on their own. While I slept, they ate at a local restaurant, ordering by gesturing as there were no English menus. They said the place was packed and by the time they had finished eating, their table was surrounded by people who had called dibs on it.

From there, they walked on to the beach, expecting to find a quiet beach front where they could sit and relax. What they found instead was hundreds folks on holiday, enjoying the sand and the water along with the coastal breezes.

Thoughtfully, they hunted down biscuits I could tolerate, bananas, 7-Up, and Orsaline, a local re-hydration drink. As I nodded off that evening, I found myself deeply grateful for such strong and tender female friends.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

100 Women!

I am not gonna lie. I woke up Wednesday morning feeling a little deflated and angry that the divide in our country is still so great. I fear for how families I care deeply about will be affected in the coming months and years. I grieve for good people, who worked so hard, had much to offer, yet lost the election. Yet one common thread of hope keeps popping up in my news feed; 100 women elected to the House! Native American Women. Muslim Women. Queer Women. Democrat Women, Republican Women, Women of all ages and backgrounds. Women!

I think that across the aisle, the commonality we find is that we all want change. The beauty of this movement, of these 100 women, is that women innately know in the marrow of our bones that, while change can be sparked in a second, delivery of that change first requires a long time in a safe womb. This understanding is in our DNA and it gives us the strength to persist, to endure, to carry,  to bring forth and to nurture. These women give me hope because I know that they have it within them to birth change, to be forces that are life-giving in a life-threatening world.

I think back to those precious moments right before the birth of my sons. The moments I hurt so badly that I wanted to die were also the moments I was the strongest. As women, we are the strongest when we are in the most pain, because we choose to push through that pain until a new reality is born. That is who we are and that is what gives our country hope.

 

Press for Progress

This is Chonda. The real deal. Not an actor paid to play the part. She is the heart and soul of a change that is gaining momentum in Bangladesh. Her face will tell you a story, if you take the time to let it capture you.

Nestled across the river from the Sundarbans, the world’s largest coastal mangrove forest and home to the Bengal Tiger, is the small village where Chonda and her husband Rabindranath have made their home. For years, Rabindranath caught larvae from the river and sold it in the market to support his family. If he caught enough, the family ate well. If not, they were hungry. When the Bangladesh Forest Department banned the taking of natural resources from the Sundarban as part of a conservation program, Rabindranath had no choice but to become a day laborer. Now, instead of being at the mercy of nature, he is at the mercy of local employers who may or may not need temporary help.

Chonda longed to do something to help. As a woman in a conservative Hindu village, she was not allowed to become a day laborer and no local shops would hire women either. She dreamed of starting a small business in her home but lacked the capital to do so. Then one day she heard about Hathay Bunano, which means handmade in Bangla. Hathay Bunano had started a work center near her, where other women gathered daily to knit and crochet  soft and colorful Pebble toys. Robindranath agreed that Chonda could take the training. During her training, she not only learned how to knit and crochet, she also learned the values of Fair Trade, as well as her value as a woman deserving of equal opportunity. For three years now, she has been working as an equal to her husband in providing for the family. They no longer worry about whether they will have enough to eat. They are able to send their daughter to school, which is significant in a country where schooling is not free and education is not mandatory. Chonda has opened a bank account and has been saving money, instead of living hand to mouth, dependent upon her husband’s earnings. She and her husband are now talking about starting their own business together someday. Chonda has become a powerful voice in her community, challenging other women to realize their value and equality, pressing them towards progress and being a living example of hope and change.

 

Pro Life?

Standing among friends and strangers at a rally in the town of my birth, I wore my heart on my sign. I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say. How do you fit a journey of the heart into a tiny sign? After a night of little sleep and unsettling dreams, this is what came to me.

Pro Life? Then stand with those who fear for theirs.

Something fundamental is lost when a pro life stance is only pro birth. If I only care about preserving the life of a wee babe until it is pushed out from the safety and comfort of the womb, then I care nothing about that wee babe, only about making sure that someone else is keeping the letter of the law.

There is a pretty big difference between being anti-abortion and being pro-life. Anti-abortion will do anything to make abortion illegal. It is a political stance that hopes to influence policies, without personally needing to put in any of the work needed to serve those wee babes or their mothers.

I carried this sign because I wanted people to reflect on the idea that being pro-life should change the way you do life. Living eight years in a country where abortion was illegal showed me that laws do very little to change things. Abortions happened frequently there and they were only more dangerous to the mother because of the ways in which they were done. It got me thinking a lot.

Can we say we are pro-life if we marginalize and demonize the woman who has had an abortion instead of seeking to restore her to community? Can we say we are pro-life if, when that babe is hungry and her mom can’t make it on minimum wages and applies for food stamps, we judge her and call her lazy or entitled?  What about when the babe grows up and can’t get health care because of a preexisting condition and he dies? Are we pro-life when another babe grows up and spends days running through the jungle from a genocide in her country and we close our borders because she might be a terrorist? When the babe of one skin tone grows up and ends up having his blood splattered on the sidewalk though he was unarmed and was not threatening anyone but the one who took his life walks away scot-free, whose life are we really for? What about the babe who grows up and embraces his culture and decides to kneel during the national anthem as a way to signal to the rest of us that there is a group of people who fear for their lives because of events that keep happening throughout our country?

Pro-life is for life on either side of the womb. It gets to know the moms contemplating abortion and does life with them helping to carry their load. It shares food with the hungry. It works tirelessly to ensure that lives of all races are treated with dignity and it speaks out against injustice. Pro-life does not discriminate. It listens to people of other races, socioeconomic levels, religions and beliefs. It loves. It serves. It is never only pro (rich white American) life. It is for all life.

I also wanted to signal to those who are living in fear for their lives that they are not alone. Their voices are heard. Their pain matters.  Their life has value. I’m adding my voice to the cry, putting my body on the sidewalk with them and for them.

Pro life. It’s not a political or religious stance.  It’s a way of living.

 

Honoring the Mother of our Nation

Like a moth is drawn to the light, I flutter as near as I can. Quiet soul that I am, I struggle to find the words to tell her what I see. History is wrapped in her ebony skin and in the map of her face I see that she is the daughter of a noble people. Through no fault of her own she was kidnapped, beaten, sold as property, raped again and again by white men who said they followed God. Stripped of her clothing and put on display, dignity in shreds, she stands. Forced to bear children only to have them wrenched from her, she is treated like an animal for 200+ years. Her life not her own. Hunger, exhaustion and shame her only constants.

When I see her today, I see the horror of her history and I weep. Like a sack of rocks she continues to carry it – not because she wants to but because we, the children of a not-so-noble people continue to treat her as less-than…but she is strong and brave. This country was built on her back. She cut the cane to satisfy our sweet tooth. She cleaned up the messes that no one else would. Her fingers plucked the cotton that built our economy and her womb birthed greatness. She nursed the children of her “owner”. She, more than anyone, is the mother of our nation.

Today I honor her, the unsung hero who paid a price that we were so very wrong to demand of her.

To her daughters today, wrapped in beautiful shades of ebony, cinnamon, butterscotch and caramel, I say you are not less-than. You are more-than for you have endured. You are strong and brave and beautiful.

I look in your eyes and I see your nobility still. I am not worthy to say it…that I am sorry for all you endured. Thanking you for your service to this country seems paltry and lacking but I want to honor you. So, when I see you, I see your skin and I honor you by acknowledging the story it brings with it…painful as it is.

I dream of the day when the last rock will be removed from your bag and you can walk with your head high as the equal you are without fear or discrimination. In the meantime, I won’t hold back when talking to my sons and those near me about the history of our nation, hoping to help fashion a future that is different from but doesn’t gloss over our past.

Somebody’s Daughter (A book review)

Somebody Daughter Image

Somebody’s Daughter: The Hidden Story of America’s Prostituted Children and the Battle to Save Them

It took me months to get through this book. I was busy, yes, but the real reason was the way it tore at my heart. Here in our own country 100,000 children are trafficked for sex every year.  Sometimes that means a child is kidnapped and sold but most kids involved in prostitution began either as runaways or throwaways, trying to escape sexual abuse and violence at home.  Rape Is, a website that seeks to educate about rape culture, compares the experience of prostitution to that of rape. Nobody chooses to be raped. While prostitution may look like a choice in this country, the only ones with real choice in this multi-million dollar industry are the pimps and the johns.

Prostitution is another face of modern day slavery.  90% of prostitutes have pimps. Whether they are kept in a hotel room or walking the tracks, he owns them. The author describes it this way:

Once a desperate teenager finds herself under the spell of a pimp, once she is drawn in by the lure of fancy clothes, money, and undying love, she clings to the promise of emotional and economic security, things every child needs – and every neglected child craves. Abusive relationships at any age involve control, dependence, and elements of brainwashing.

If we could see prostitution as a symptom instead of a crime, we would be able to take some baby steps towards true dignity for women and children.

Halle Berry wrote a moving letter to the girls of our country and opened with these words:

Being a girl isn’t easy. Today in New York City, a girl will flee an abusive home, only to be approached by a pimp-trafficker who will promise her love and protection. He will not deliver on these promises. Instead, he will assault and degrade her, and later sell her repeatedly to johns. I have never met this girl, but she is my daughter.

America, it is time to value our daughters…every one of them!

Is There Finally a Sensible Prostitution Solution?

 

Pebble's Limited Edition Rag Doll

I heard a modern day abolitionist state that, “The effort to end modern day slavery and the fair trade movement, are not two separate things, they are Siamese twins.” I could not agree more. In Bangladesh women receiving a fair wage for their work will seldom resort to sex work.

I believe that there is only a fine line between prostitution and human trafficking. In many cases, that line has ceased to exist. The sex workers I have been privileged to know have been victims of horrific crimes. Not one of them woke up one morning and said, “Hmm! I could make a lot of money selling my body. This is what I want to do with my life.” No, it’s been a result of being victimized… of being so bloody beaten down, sometimes literally, that there is not much left for them to do or be. The whys behind prostitution are much deeper and complex than I can put into words but what I have seen in my experience makes me agree with something I read last night in an article entitled Sweden’s Prostitution Solution – in it Marie De Santis states that, “prostitution is a form of male violence against women.” In 1999, Sweden made it illegal to buy sex and, instead of punishing the one selling sex, now offer help and alternatives. Not only has this greatly diminished prostitution, it has had a huge effect on human trafficking. An estimated 200-400 women and girls are being trafficked into Sweden yearly, compared to the 15,000 – 17,000 being trafficked into Finland every year.

Dignity is priceless. That has become a mantra in my life. Something is twisted when a woman feels she has no options but to sell her body and is then criminalized for doing so. Her dignity was lost long before the arrest, long before she sold her body and yet, the one who bought the sex can walk away from her with his dignity more or less intact. This is seriously twisted! Words cannot do justice to how wrong this scenario is. If Sweden’s government can “get it” and make real, lasting changes, maybe there is hope for the the rest of us.

I’m enchanted by women’s stories and love uncovering the ways in which they connect. I’m a bit of a mystic, and see these stories as threads spinning the issues of fair trade and sex work together. Pebble addresses sex work by creating a compelling alternative and preventing it in the first place. Our goal as Kahiniwalla (which means “storyteller”) is to tell Pebble’s story and create a market for Pebble products creating even more opportunities for employment. We want to use the stories that we spin together and turn them into warm blankets to soothe the cold, desperate and hungry that have been wounded and left out in the cold.