Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Mothering in the Culture of Rape

As a mother of both sons and daughters I sometimes feel that life holds a lot of dualities. As an American it’s easy to assume that women and men are living in relative equality. As a citizen of the world, I know that reality is far from true. When I began writing this I was particularly aware that if my opening paragraph mentioned gender equality it would immediately bring to mind the word “feminism” and some readers would back away. I’m afraid that the idea of feminism conjures up 1970s images of angry, harsh women burning their bras. I feel rather grateful to those feminist of the early 70s. It is because of their actions that I can call myself a feminist and be the physical antithesis of that much conjured image. As a parent I know that gender equality is not just about my daughters it is very much an issue that strongly affects my sons.

American women have traveled a tremendous distance in the journey to equality but some might be surprised to learn that we haven’t come as far as it seems. There are obvious issues like equal pay and employment opportunity or even the results of the 2012 Gender Gap Report performed by the World Forum that indicates that the US ranks 21rst in international gender equality. The less discussed issue is sexual violence against women which quite frankly is driven by the belief that we live with equality.

RAINN ( reports that every two minutes someone in the US is sexually assaulted. 54% of those assaults are never reported to the police and 97% of rapists reported to the police will never spend a day in jail. One in four US women is a victim of sexual assault. Men are victims of rape too. The US judicial process is still influenced by myths about what promotes rape. The clothes that a woman was wearing, the beverage that she was drinking and her relationship to her rapist still seems to be consequential in a rape conviction. The fact is that none of these issues should influence the decision to rape. A person’s behavior does not promote rape. The shame attached to rape protects rapists and keeps them warm and cozy in society where they are free to rape again.

In September 2010, St. Mary’s College freshman, Lizzy Seeburg committed suicide. It was just 10 days after she was allegedly sexually assaulted by a Notre Dame football player. After she reported the assault to campus police she was threatened, her reputation was questioned and her behavior with the boy was analyzed. The police did not question the accused football player until five days after Lizzie’s death. More recently we have heard of the Steubenville Rape in which 2 high school football players raped a drunk 16 year old girl. Witnesses took pictures and video and posted them on various social media. These are not isolated cases nor are they limited to athletes.

Somehow in the last 40 years of the women’s movement we didn’t manage to progress in the area of rape. We somehow swept the topic neatly under the rug. Perhaps it was because we would have to discuss sex, body parts, unwanted pregnancy and even abortion. Perhaps it was just that we were afraid to discuss a topic which made us feel vulnerable, but like any issue that lays ignored, it hasn’t magically disappeared.

As a parent I am unwilling to sweep the topic of rape under the rug any longer. I don’t think that ignorance concerning sexuality should continue to promote the idea that women and girls invite rape. I don’t think that rape myths should encourage the shame that prevents rape from being reported. I don’t want my son or yours to have any question about what rape is. I don’t want my son to be the witness to rape who takes pictures and video and can be heard laughing in the background.

Our children need to understand that smaller or physically weaker does not equate to less. We have to stop feeling embarrassed by sex and we need to start discussing it with our children early. It needs to be a natural conversation that evolves and occurs often over time. When we attach embarrassment to sexuality it promotes ignorance and ignorance promotes rape. We need to stop referring to women as sluts or “cheap” regardless of what they wear or how they behave. The term “cheap” implies that the woman has no value, all people have value. 

Gender Equality is a major player in the battle against the culture of rape. Feminism is not a bad word, it is the belief in the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. It is an investment in the future of our children, both female and male.

To learn more about Rape Prevention please visit

Saturday, January 26, 2013


If you don’t live in the US you might not have heard the story of the Steubenville, Ohio Rape. To offer a brief explanation, last August a 16 year old girl was allegedly raped by two teenaged football players while she was drunk. It has been reported that they carried her drunken, limp body to three different parties. Rather than trying to protect the girl, guests took photos and video, made jokes and posted them using various social media. The rape was reported and the boys have been charged. However, many people feel that the boys were given preferential treatment because they are football players. A “hacktivist” group known as “Anonymous” made the story public by exposing a 12 minute video in which one of the boys jokes and laughs about the rape a few minutes after it occurred. Had the video not been made public this story probably would not be known by many of us.

Unfortunately, there are many, many stories of sexual assaults involving athletes at the high school, university level and also at the professional level. Sadly, there seems to be a sort of “code of silence” where athletes are concerned. The athletes are protected by coaches and staff and a male dominated sports media. The victims are harassed and threatened and in the end many are afraid to report their rapes.

The internet and social media has made the task of sharing information almost effortless. Gender equality and the rape epidemic is a topic that has many advocates and these advocates are using social media very effectively to be heard all over the world. Each day I am excited to find that I have new readers in Bangladesh, Ecuador, The Arab Emirates or Russia. It is an Ego “rush” but the information that we are sharing is only reaching those who are “interested in” or pursuing information on the topics we are presenting. In other words, “we are singing to the choir”. 

The demographic that needs to be reached is men of all ages. There are a small percentage of men who are actively advocating for gender equality. They are sharing information, writing blogs and even taking part in demonstrations. My sense is that a large number of men are similar to my husband. He is outraged by sexual violence, he would never tell rape jokes or jokes that degrade women but given the choice between reading an article about gender equality and an article about the NFL draft (the process of choosing new players in National Football League) he would probably choose the article on the draft.  I would venture to guess that it is not that he consciously believes that the draft is more important, it’s just that the draft requires less of an emotional commitment from him. When he reads this he will feel slightly embarrassed but will not deny that it is true.

I don’t believe that we can truly begin to fight in the war against sexual violence until men join us in battle. It’s not that women don’t have the power to fight, it’s just that our strongest weapon is education and we can’t educate people who don’t want to listen. 

In an earlier entry,, I wrote about Solaiman Shukhon, a Bangladeshi comedian who advocates for gender equality. Solaiman, a former Bangladeshi Naval Officer, has managed to put the “cool” into advocating for gender equality in Bangladesh. He has thousands of followers and in a country with a high rape incidence like Bangladesh his advocacy speaks volumes.

The US needs men like Bangladeshi comedian Solaiman Shukhon, who don’t believe that speaking up against rape emasculates them. We need athletic organizations like the NFL to take a brave stand against the “code of silence” concerning athletes and rape. We need good men like my husband to demonstrate to their son’s and other boys that look up to them that gender equality is a priority. We need the editors of magazines read by men to run regular columns on the epidemic of rape. The US can take the lead in the fight against sexual violence but we need a “few good men” to join us in battle.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Being Number One

Bill Gates has been quoted as saying, “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the Top 10.” I’ve read that this was in response to a question in Saudi Arabia but I’ve also read that it was addressed to an audience in India. I’m unsure of  which but the fact is that although we know that gender inequality is an issue in many countries that seem so remote to us that it is easy to point fingers, it is still an issue in the US and Europe also.

In 2009 the Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum, indicated that the US ranked 31rst, Not surprisingly, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden ranked in the top 4 but the US fell right behind Lithuania. In 2012 the US ranking rose to 22nd, one place ahead of Mozambique. France was ranked 51rst.  Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden held their positions from 2009.

I recently had a conversation with a learner that was based on a Washington Post article, which questions women’s equality in France. The male learner was surprised by the information provided in the article and felt that it was important but felt that it was less important than other topics that France presently faces. Although I acknowledge that concerns like the economy, unemployment and the environment are important issues, I would venture to guess that if the “shoe” was on the other gender it would be a priority. 

There are many reasons why US women should be more vigilant to the facts concerning gender equality. Perhaps the most obvious is the fact that even after the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was implemented, women still earn less than their male counterparts. One issue that seems to be easily forgotten is the fact that women’s reproductive rights seem to be in question during every election. The issue that I find most compelling is the fact that gender inequality promotes violence against women and nearly 1 in 5 US women are the victim of sexual assault. If you are reading this and thinking that those statistics are inaccurate, ask yourself how many of your closest friends you would tell if you were sexually humiliated by your boss, co-worker, doctor, brother, father, husband, boyfriend or complete stranger. If it still seems inaccurate, count yourself lucky. The complacency or perhaps the misconception that women in western cultures are living with equality promotes the problem but worse it perpetuates violence against women. Myths that are created about what promotes rape are still strongly rooted within the US judicial system and victims of sexual assault continue to be treated more like the perpetrator than the victim. Shame prevents most victims from ever reporting the assault. 

After the death of Bin Laden was announced the world saw Americans celebrating holding up one finger and chanting, “USA, USA, USA”. We take comfort in the idea that we are a military super power. We live for seeing our great and talented Olympic athletes take the gold. Shouldn’t we also strive for being number one in gender equality or at least somewhere in the top five?

Crowd Chants USA at Mets Game

Monday, January 14, 2013

MARGOT LIEFTINCK, a foot soldier for change

I have always been fascinated by the global community. Today the global community has been made smaller by the use of the internet. Not only can my words be read on the other side of the earth, but you can share your stories with me. It is nothing short of miraculous. After the world response to the gang rape and death of 23 year old, Jyoti Singh, in New Dehli, I've begun to believe that change to this shameful culture of rape can really happen. 

Kantha is a form of embroidery from Bangladesh and West Bengal, India. Kantha means ‘old cloth’ in Sanskrit.

Unsurprisingly, the battle against poverty is a major player in the war against rape. I have been amazed by the number of organizations that have taken a stand in this process. The thing that has astonished me most are the foot soldiers. These are the individuals that stand independently to promote women in countries far from their own. Margot Lieftinck the founder of Tulsi Crafts ( is one of those foot soldiers. She has taken a stand to promote the fair trade model while empowering women with a way to earn a living.

When I was a child one of my beloved family possessions was a world globe that was textured by the topographical peaks and valleys of the lay of the land. I would sit alone with the globe in my lap and spin the world as fast as I could. I would stop the spinning by placing one finger on it and explore the texture with my fingers trying to put into context the vastness that it represented. I tried to imagine the lives that were lived there. Although I remember clearly my excitement at landing in the highly textured area of the Himalayas or disappointment of landing in the middle of the ocean, I can’t say that I recall landing on Bangladesh. In fact, my knowledge of Bangladesh is minimal.

Bangladesh also known as the “Country of Bengal” is bordered by India, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan. It is the eighth most populated country, with one of the highest population densities in the world. The country is highly challenged by poverty, corruption and natural disasters such as floods and cyclones. The Bengali Deltas are nourished by large rivers flowing from the Himalayas. Of the roughly 2500 remaining Bengal tigers living in the wild, approximately 440 are in Bangladesh.

Margot Lieftinck traveled to Bangladesh for the first time in 2011. She says that it wasn’t a country that she was longing to visit but traveled with her partner, a board member and architect for the Dutch NGO Niketan, ( to Bangladesh for a building project. Wanting to make good use of her time she took part in some market research for the NGO in their vocational training center that was working with textiles.

Margot describes her first experience with Bangladesh as a love-hate relationship. She describes it as a densely populated country in which 49% of the people are living below the poverty line. Dhaka the location of her travel is ridden with poor infrastructure and corruption while also being handicapped by a substandard power supply and a nearly nonexistent public transport system. She said she was overwhelmed by the noise and difficult way of life.

On the other hand, Margot describes Bangladesh as a country of opposites. She said the people were the most friendly, curious and hospitable she had ever met. She said that because tourism is not commonplace, visitors are not viewed as monetary opportunities, the warmth offered is genuine. Margot went on to describe a street scene that left my heart longing. She said. “The old part of Dhaka, while very run down and at risk of being destroyed, showcases the former grandeur of the city. There are stalls everywhere. There is bread baking, tea brewing, water pumping, goats being slaughtered and everyone welcomes you into their home. They want to know why you are in Bangladesh. It’s all a very full and vibrant way of life despite that it is a difficult life for many.”

Margot said that she had always been fascinated with the colorful textiles found in India and was excited to find similar textiles in Bangladesh as well. As she visited fair trade shows in Dhaka she was surprised by quality of the products and wondered why she had never found anything like it in the Netherlands. She later found that some organizations don’t like to trade with Bangladesh because Fair Trade organizations making larger volume products are subject to the country's corruption making it harder to produce from within Bangladesh. She explored using organizations that she knew and trusted and found that she could purchase smaller quantities. 

Tulsi Crafts is a Rotterdam based store that sells fair trade products that are manufactured in Bangladesh. The products sold are made from re-purposed, recycled or natural materials. Products include bags, electronics sleeves, jewelry and my personal favorites beautiful, colorful Sari Scarves and blankets. 

Most of the items sold by Tulsi Crafts are recycled. I told Margot that as I reflect on my Indonesian mother’s habits, I realize that recycling was always part of her custom. An empty cottage cheese container became a compost bucket long before the idea of recycling and composting was trendy and common. Margot explained that in Bangladesh everything has value, when you have no money you don’t throw anything away. 

One of the items that Tulsi Crafts sells that appeals very much to me are the Sari Blankets. The method known as “Kantha” is a technique used to create two sided quilts. They are presently made to be sold, but originally their use had been to keep the family warm. Traditionally Kanthas used motifs with a religious or spiritual meaning. Today the fact remains that the blankets are made from Saris. I love the idea of wrapping my child in the protective warmth of a blanket of saris that were worn by other mothers. The blankets and scarves sold by Tulsi Crafts provide work to women by Basha in Dhaka. Through dignified work the women are provided a sustainable livelihood and offered shelter from the risk of human trafficking.

I asked Margot her thoughts about implementing change for women in countries like Bangladesh. Margot said that she felt that we have the power to make small changes individually. She said that she knows that she can only start with small steps towards making changes in what seems to be an incomprehensible need. She said that it is easy to become overwhelmed by the idea that you can’t change things alone. Margot stated that she has to focus on the handful of women whose lives she can change and recognize that that change also occurs for the children of these women.

Margot discussed the value of the internet as a tool of awareness. I asked her what single issue she thought that she would like to share with the world. This is her response, “The textiles industry in Bangladesh exports $18 Billion (USD) in merchandise annually and yet the textile workers earn about $37.00 dollars a month while working work six days a week. That it is not nearly enough to support families or secure a better future for their children. The working conditions are brutal and yet we all continue to buy clothes manufactured in Bangladesh without any consideration for its origin. We need to have an awareness for the wages earned by the workers and the working conditions to which the workers are subjected. The manufacturers and designers need to be held to a higher esteem".

Before our conversation ended Margot told me a story that I won’t soon forget. Margot said that before she and her partner left The Netherlands for Bangladesh they made a pact not to give money to panhandlers. They jointly made the decision to find other ways to give, to find ways that provided a more long term method of helping. When they arrived it was nearly the end of Ramadan a time when many people “give” and a time when many people travel to Dhaka to beg. She said that there was one boy who was extremely persistent and made a nuisance of himself by obstructing their path. She said that finally upon becoming irritated and without looking at him she stated clearly that she would not give him money. She said that she was not only irritated with his persistence but with his parents for bringing another child into the world for which they could not provide care. She felt angry that parents use their children as a way to generate money. As he walked away she looked behind her and saw that he was carrying the limp body of a younger sibling. She realized later that she had bread in her bag that she could’ve given them.

Today when I see a globe I can’t help but think about that game that I played alone as a child and the way the textures felt beneath my fingers. The internet has allowed me to put faces and personalities into the vastness of those textures. When I pay too much for a beautiful Ralph Lauren blouse made by a mother who earns pennies each day, I have to give her a face. I have to imagine the children she loves and what the future holds for her daughter. We can all be foot soldiers in the fight for change. We can each do little things that touch the lives of others in a magnificent way. We can help make change happen for women on the other side of the earth before we turn back and see a mother walking away without hope.

Thank you, Margot Lieftinck.

Please visit Tulsi Crafts

For more information about Niketan and the building project designed by Tony Nelis, please visit these sites:

If you would like to share a story about your corner of the world or tell me about a person who is promoting change, please feel free to email me at