On this “A Day Without a Woman,” I’m wearing red, doing my best to work as little as possible and spend money only at the appropriately directed small businesses. The day feels somehow shallow, though — nothing like the Women’s March of January.
Today is, more importantly in my opinion, International Women’s Day. I think part of my struggle is that I’ve seen how women are treated in other parts of the world. And while I am channeling my inner feminist in ways I didn’t before November 8, it’s difficult for me to maintain the same level of outrage for the plight of American women as I do for, say, women in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I leave for my second trip to Eastern Congo in a little more than three weeks. I will visit my friend Gorethy, who founded the Congo Restoration Sewing School. I will attend the graduation of 40 women who had little future before they learned to sew at Gorethy’s school. I will see other women, who did not have the chance to go to our school, used as beasts of burden.
Here’s something I wrote on International Women’s Day seven years ago:
I grew up in a middle-class family in small-town Texas. My dad called me Princess and Blue Eyes. I wanted to be the Dallas Cowboys’ first female quarterback, so my dad tossed the football with me for hours in the yard to practice.
I was never stoned or had acid thrown in my face because my dad heard rumors that I kissed a boy. I was never sold into sexual slavery because my parents needed money and were too uneducated to ask questions. I have never had my genitals cut out because my parents felt I couldn’t be married otherwise.
I graduated from college and traveled around Europe in my mid-20s, never afraid to try anything, because my mother taught me to speak up for myself. I married the man I love, gave birth to two healthy boys with excellent medical care, and make a living working out of a home that has running water and electricity.
I have never been raped while gathering water for my family. If I were raped, my husband would not abandon me. I’ve never suffered a fistula — from rape or a dangerous childbirth — leaving my body uncontrollably leaking urine and feces. I’ve never been put on the outskirts of my town by my family for the wild animals to kill because of a fistula.
I am lucky. All those things that have never happened to me — or to you or to any woman or girl you love — happen every day in other parts of the world, most often in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, as reported by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in their book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.
Kristof and WuDunn’s book and organizations such as Women for Women International are bringing attention to International Women’s Day on its 100th anniversary Monday. Women for Women, which connects women in the Western world with women in war-torn countries, is bringing together women from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo on a bridge that connects their two countries.
This peaceful joining of hands is a symbol of bridging the countries’ differences and ending the war that has plagued the region since the Rwandan genocide in 1994 that killed almost 1 million people spilled over into Congo, killing 5.5 million more.
Women (and men) will gather on bridges elsewhere in the world, too. For example, North Texas women planned to gather Sunday on Mockingbird Bridge over White Rock Lake.
International Women’s Day was first celebrated in Europe in 1910 and is now an official holiday in 15 countries. Yet in the United States, where we buy greeting cards for pet birthdays and kindergarten graduations, it goes by without notice.
Gorethy Nabushosi, a Congolese attorney who fought for women’s rights in her home country and now lives in McKinney, has a theory about why American women haven’t historically celebrated this day — because they have a voice and freedom.
Gorethy is the founder of Congo Restoration, which pairs orphans with brutalized women, giving the children a stable home, the women an income and — most importantly — a respectable place within a society that considers them among its lowest members.
“We [Congolese] try hard to break the silence about all the rape, the sexual slavery, but the entire world remains in silence. Congolese blood is in the street, and no one says anything. It is so painful. You have no idea.”
Gorethy and I both planned to be on the Mockingbird Bridge on Sunday. I am lucky. I do have a voice. And I intend to use it.
That was 2010. I crossed over the original bridge connecting Rwanda and the DRC in April of 2015. (You aren’t supposed to take photos there, but I couldn’t resist snapping a quick one.)
What I would see and experience in Congo would forever change the way I saw women’s place in the world. I have traveled to many developing countries. I knew women were marginalized, which is an aesthetic way to describe the way women are viewed and treated in much of the world. But I have never seen women in such circumstances as I did in Eastern Congo. Literally beasts of burden.
My well-traveled, feminist friend and I left with one perhaps simplified but overriding thought about the state of the DRC: Birth control could change everything.
Women in Eastern Congo, and much of Africa, simply don’t have much of a chance. They do not have control over whether they have children (from a lack of education and a lack of access to birth control). They do not have control over whether they attend school (everything from poverty to a lack of tampons/pads during their periods to pregnancy at a young age keeps them from going to school). Consider these statistics from the Democratic Republic of Congo Demographic and Health Survey, 2013-14):
- 64% of women are illiterate.
- Women have an average of 6.6 children (women with a secondary education have an average of 2.9 children; women with no education, 7.4).
- 27% of women between the ages of 15-19 are pregnant or already have a child. The average age of a woman giving birth to her first child is 19.9.
- 35% of the women in the region I visited (along the border of Congo and Rwanda) have experienced sexual violence. Congo is still referred to as the rape capital of the world.
I saw this woman as we drove through the rural areas around Bukavu one day. And then, I saw the women who graduated from our sewing school. Educated in many ways — Mama Gorethy makes no secret of her thoughts on young women having babies — they leave this school empowered and hopeful. I am guessing these are not words or emotions they are used to.
Which takes me back to today’s “A Day Without a Woman.” At 49 years old, I am used to being hopeful and empowered. I am used to using my freedom and my voice. As an American women, I can in no way compare my plight with the women of Eastern Congo. I have privilege the women in this picture may never know in their lifetimes.
Yet my home state of Texas, which is run by conservatives, has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world. We marched on January 21 for many reasons. “Women’s rights are human rights” as HRC said. And on that day — after pussy-grabbing Trump’s first night in the White House — it felt perfectly right to fight for American women.
But today’s protest feels too America-centered, unlike the International Women’s Day it intentionally falls on. I believe that is the crux of my struggle today. While it is true that we must not go backward, it is equally true that we must pull women like those I met in Eastern Congo forward. We must not let Trump’s “America first” language seep into our movement.
In three weeks, I will once again cross that bridge in Eastern Congo. I will once again attend the graduation of another class of women who now know hope and empowerment. Today I wear red and honor the women of the world as we stand together against all that oppresses us. Every woman. Everywhere. As we should every March 8. As we should every single day.