There is a woman in Somalia Scraping for pearls on the roadside There's a force stronger than nature Keeps her will alive This is how she's dying She's dying to survive Don't know what she's made of I would like to be that brave.Sade “Pearls”
Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have.Margaret Mead
I will donate all of my proceeds from The Hard Thing About Hard Things to American Jewish World Service to support their efforts to help women fight for their basic rights throughout the world. Since there are many important causes, I thought that it would be worth explaining why I am supporting this one.
When I was 11 years old, I was exposed to chronic cruelty on a global scale. I watched the miniseries “Roots” based on Alex Haley’s bestselling novel about slavery in the United States. I was riveted and horrified. It was my first real introduction to slavery and I could not believe what I was seeing. I saw families broken apart as they were sold to different owners. I saw slaves pleading for their lives only to be brutalized and killed. How could anybody be so cruel? How could everybody sit by and watch it happen? How was this even possible? I could not have been more shocked.
I was deeply disturbed by the whole experience and sought to find out how it happened. I studied humankind’s long history with slavery. I learned that in the 1600s, 75% of the world’s population was enslaved. I learned that the Caribbean form of the African slave trade was far more brutal than the U.S. version. I studied the complex economics of slavery and why it was difficult to unwind once started. I began to wonder how slavery ever ended.
Then I began to study the abolitionists. Men like former slave ship captain John Newton who later wrote the song “Amazing Grace”. People like the great Thomas Clarkson who at times seemed to be alone in taking on the world. I learned how a few unimaginably brave people took on the entire globe and its brutal institution. They did not care about the twisted history or corrupt cultures that created slavery. They just wanted it stopped. Clarkson took great personal risk in traveling by boat back and forth across the Atlantic to record and tell the story of slavery for no reason other than he wanted it ended. He dedicated his life to stopping the cruelty. His story is among the most inspirational in human history.
It had to be, because the most incredible thing about slavery was how it ended. An institution that was embedded into human culture, endorsed by the Bible, promoted by the Qur’an, pervasive in society, and embedded in the global economy was taken on and defeated by a movement started by a tiny number of people. These brave souls had no Twitter or Facebook. They had no Internet or telephones or automobiles, but they organized people across the world and largely stopped slavery globally.
After understanding how slavery ended, I promised myself that if something like that ever happened in my time, I would be part of the group who tried to stop it.
Sadly, something like slavery is happening in my time. It’s not happening in the United States, but it is happening and the victims are women. In many parts of the world, women are literally owned by men. Women do not enjoy basic rights, are denied access to education, can be arbitrarily raped, robbed, and killed, and live in fear with no chance for self-determination. A few revealing statistics:
Every year 10 million girls under the age 18 enter into early and forced marriages
2 million girls a year undergo genital cutting
Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women
Women constitute about 70% of the world’s absolute poor (i.e., those living on less than a dollar a day)
Meanwhile, the rhetoric deployed in resistance to women’s rights is eerily reminiscent of resistance to freeing slaves. Consider this statement from the Muslim Brotherhood in resistance to a U.N. declaration calling for an end to violence against women:
This declaration, if ratified, would lead to complete disintegration of society, and would certainly be the final step in the intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries, eliminating the moral specificity that helps preserve cohesion of Islamic societies.1
And compare it to this poem written in defense of slavery in England in 1789:
If our slave trade had gone, there’s an end to our lives
Beggars all we must be, our children and wives
No ships from our ports, their proud sails e’er would spread,
And our streets grown with grass where the cows might be fed.2
Like Thomas Clarkson and the abolitionists, Ruth Messinger and AJWS are starting at the grass roots level, but are already making great progress.
Consider Rehana Adib. At age 12, she was raped by a group of older relatives. She bravely told her father, but he responded by arranging for her to marry a middle-aged man—a match designed to protect her security and reputation. Like many other girls her age, she was forced to drop out of school and was expected to be a subservient wife and mother. She was not free to make choices about her daily life and her own future.
But Rehana refused to be silent. She found a women’s organization in her neighborhood and began to learn about her rights. She took workshops in leadership and activism and gained the courage to speak out about her experiences. By the time Rehana was 18, she was an active member of the local women’s movement and was already helping other girls overcome the challenges they faced. Although her family and community criticized her work at first, she slowly gained their respect and is now looked to as a leader in her community.
In 2005, Rehana founded her own organization, Astitva, in Muzzafarnagar—a rural area in Uttar Pradesh, India. With AJWS’s support, Astitva works today to stop both sexual violence and child marriage, helping give girls a chance at a brighter future.
The systematic cultural abuse of women worldwide must end. Let’s end it.