HeForShe – Finding a means for Gender Equality

In light of International Women’s Day which was yesterday, I wanted to write this post. Many people over the years have asked me who I find inspirational, and which women I look up to. My answer has evolved over the years, but one thing remains constant; the women I look up to are independent, strong, and amazing individuals.

In Madagascar, International Women’s Day is a big deal. It is referred to as Fety Vehivavy, or Women’s Holiday/Party. The women in my village talked about this day for months leading up to it; what events would take place and the parade that would happen. Hand in hand, it is just as important as Madagascar’s Independence Day. I observed, 364 days out the year, women being repressed into the shadows and afraid to speak their voices. I saw women just accept the sexual harassment and inappropriate gestures and behaviors by men in the country. But for one day a year, this was a day for them. Women in my village shut down their businesses, closed their doors. They walked down the street hand in hand with their fellow friends and family. They took part in the parade, proud to be a woman.

One day out of the year. Every day, I feel, should be International Women’s Day, or at least Women’s Day in general. On March 9th, I witnessed these same women step back into the roles society assigned to them. Seamstresses, cooks, homemakers. What happened to the girls that said they wanted to work in government, the women that wanted to open their own businesses with their own money? They were there, still present in the village, but hid their ambitions.

One of my biggest regrets for my Peace Corps experience was not participating in GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) Camp. I worked predominantly with men, and I didn’t make the time to participate in what would have been an amazing teaching and learning experience. I heard stories of other volunteers having enlightening experiences from bringing a handful of girls from their community to this camp and letting them interact with girls from other villages, empowering each other. If I could do it again, I would care less about my perception and the nervousness that overtakes me, and more about what I was trying to achieve. I fought for gender equality in other, but more discreet ways, but the widespread knowledge and understanding the community had for GLOW because it was hosted every year, makes it one of those things that I’d wish I had done.

From Eleanor Roosevelt and the strength she embodied to Hilary Clinton and the boundaries she has pushed as Secretary of State and a Presidential Candidate, there are many women today that deserve recognition. If you were to ask me today who I find inspirational, my answer would “anyone that stands up for the rights of women and equality across all genders.” That doesn’t necessarily just mean women, but rather both men and women.

Last year, Emma Watson made a spectacular speech at the UN for HeForShe, an organization that seeks for men and women to support each other in the fight for gender equality. Just yesterday, she held another press conference about HeForShe and what she wants see done for the movement. She is one of the women I look up to now. She is using the fame and recognition she got from the franchise she is known so well for to do good.

The fight for gender equality is not just a woman’s fight, but a fight for all. It’s about not seeing men as weak for showing emotions. It’s about seeing everyone, regardless of what parts you have as an equal in today’s world. That men and women deserve the same pay. That women shouldn’t be pitied and babied because they are seen as emotionally and physically weaker. So ask me again who I find inspirational. I find the over 250,000 men who have taken the pledge to fight gender equality as an inspiration.


Being an Angel or Being a Human

As the countdown to tonight’s Victoria Secret Fashion Show begins, I can’t help but revisit how much has changed over the past decade. I remember being partially disgusted by how much hype there was come every year for the VS Fashion Show. I didn’t see the appeal. Why would I want to watch women parade around in lingerie? It went against everything I had studied and worked for in life, and I considered it demeaning to women who were working so hard to break the glass ceilings.

Maybe it was my experiences in Peace Corps, where the showing of skin eluded to you being a prostitute. Or maybe it was because I started actually considering both sides of everything and realizing what is my voice and what was the voice of peer pressure, but I have come to respect these women. To have the confidence in their appearance and body to be able to walk down a runway that is being televised to millions of people takes a lot of strength. Strength that I don’t have, as well as a majority of the female population in the United States.

My generation lives in a world of peer pressure and low self esteem. You can never be pretty enough. There is always something to fix or work on. I see so many more children bullied today in schools then when I went to school. But I also see many people more vocal about it. Celebrities are starting to become more open about their own experiences and are becoming positive role models for their fans.

Last year was the first year I watched the Victoria Secret Fashion Show. Ever. I was 24 years old. I had spent the later part of 10 years being strongly opposed to something that I hadn’t even watched to be able to pass judgement. I wasn’t very content about watching it either. I remember being in the transit house for Peace Corps and everyone asked if I had seen it. I gave them a puzzled look and spit out three words: “of course not.” I thereafter fell to the peer pressure of my friends to watch it and we huddled around around a small computer streaming it from youtube.

My preconceptions were shattered when it started. It wasn’t just girls walking down the runway in high heels wearing practically nothing. There was behind the scenes and backstage footage of the models. Who they are. What they stand for. They talked about the pressure of the job. How one photo on social media could make or break their career. I had always seen them as Barbie doll plastics that just wanted to show off their bodies and were just plain “Mean Girls.” Surprise! They were humans. They dealt with body issues, were spokespeople for organizations that meant a lot to them, and were hurt by the mean comments of people so anti what they did for a living.

Over the past year, I have watched them on various social media sites. I have learned more about what makes them people, and each time, their untouchable perfect image slowly melts away. If after dealing with the same issues you and I deal with, they can get up, and continue their jobs, I look up to them. Come 10pm tonight, I will be tuning in with millions of other people, watching them do what they do best while thinking “if only I had that confidence.”

From A to Z. From Z to the controversial. Inspiration from Jodi Picoult.

I was on the Jodi Picoult train before there really was one. Before Cameron Diaz stared in the movie adaption of My Sister’s Keeper. Before Ellen DeGeneres bought the rights to Sing You Home. Definitely before The Storyteller gained so much publicity for Jodi. Ironic enough, the first book I read of Jodi’s was My Sister’s Keeper. Note that, however, the book came out in 2004 and the movie in 2009. The only reason I picked up the book in the first place was because I stumbled across it in the clearance section of Barnes and Noble. But the story of Anna and Kate and Anna’s fight for medical emancipation kept me wanting more; and buying more.

One of the reasons I am so protective of Jodi Picoult and her works when my friends or acquaintances judge her is the fact that after JK Rowling, I struggled to find an author that really persuaded me to pick up a book and read. I was that child—not that 14 would really be considered a child nowadays—that had to be given mandatory reading time every night because I would rather do the alternative; sit in front of a small television screen and absorb copious amounts of information that would most likely do me no good in the future. I didn’t have an interest in reading. I account this to the association I had of books with school assignments; books I did not want to read in the first place. Why read for pleasure when I was being bombarded with reading questions and essays for school assignments? Thanks, but no thanks. I have enough trouble trying to find the symbolism. With Jodi’s books, however, I was intrigued.

Intrigued by everything. By her stories. By her courage to write about what she does. By her humbleness no matter how much publicity and fans she has gained over the years. I remember a few years back, at one of her book signings, Jodi mentioned to her audience that she would never be one of those record breaking authors because of the topics she writes about. In my personal opinion however, that’s why she such the large fan base that she does. She doesn’t shy away from writing about things that are considered taboo to bring up at the dinner table. The death penalty, gay marriage, and pulling the plug on life support. I applaud her for that. And with that, she also touches on the emotionally draining subjects of a high school shooting, raising a child with special needs, a survivor of the Holocaust, being in a mentally abusive relationship, and the likes; very touchy subjects to write about and get right. But if we’re being honest again like I have been this entire piece, that was why I bought book after book of hers.

Her books capture both sides of the story. She writes from the different perspectives of different characters, on both sides of the argument. She can take on the personas of a male within a coma to a fictional character of her fictional character and make them seem so realistic. That everything could actually happen. That it is truly acceptable to believe a storybook could come to life and the fairy tale character is rationally able to communicate with a person in society. To that, I owe her daughter credit as well. They co-wrote it.

I don’t claim to be a great writer. This opinion piece probably has so many grammatical and flow errors that it shows just that. But the one thing that I do have is the inspiration to write. What’s on my mind. The random stories that I create in the chaos of my brain. Realistically, the things that I write and publish will never see the light of day past the few subscribers on my website, but I write for no one but myself. I owe Jodi Picoult for that. Her determination and dedication to writing about things that I wish I had the guts to inspires me to get my voice out there, whether it actually reaches someone or not. Thank you Jodi for being my role model, even though you may not know that you are.

I leave with this quote from her latest published book, The Storyteller: “Fiction comes in all shapes and sizes. Secrets, lies, stories. We all tell them. Sometimes, because we hope to entertain. Sometimes, because we need to distract. And sometimes, because we have to.”

The shape and size of bullies

**Warning: This will be a very controversial post, as well as very truthful and I would like to remind my viewers, that these are my views and do not reflect the views and opinions of Peace Corps**

Bullies come in every shape, size, and color. I have dealt with bullies in high school, in college, and at work. Maybe that’s why I am a huge supporter of organizations that try and stop bullying, because although it may be difficult to believe, I was a victim of bullying myself. For some diluted reason, I thought coming into Peace Corps would be different. After all, you have to be a little bit quirky and crazy to join the Peace Corps, or so they say. That makes everyone just as quirky as the next, meaning you are on common ground with each other. There’s this unspoken bond you share with other volunteers in country and while the reasons of joining Peace Corps are endless, it all centralizes around one idea: you want to make a difference. That idea creates that everlasting bond between each other. You become a family. So, imagine my surprise when I thought I had escaped bullies for two years, but in fact came in contact with one of the worst ones I have dealt with since high school.

You always imagine bullies being this aggressive, “I’m going to shove you in your locker” type of person. But just like the name of this blog, they do come in all shapes and sizes. Even given the setting you are in, it’s bound to happen. Take a group of 30 and drop them into a foreign country together, personalities our bound to clash. Lock them into a training center, where their only contact is their other stagemates, people will get on each other nerves and ‘leaders’ will arise from the crowd.

I didn’t encounter my bully until towards the end of my service. Previously, we had been great friends, coworkers, and fellow Californians, or so I thought. We shared a lot in common, and I was convinced our friendship would last past our service. Maybe that was part of the problem though. We spent too much time together. There was no personal time. We worked on large projects together, we lived an hour from each other, and we saw each other nearly ever weekend at the local transit house.

There’s no set definition for the word ‘bully’. All the dictionary gives is that a bully is “a person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.” Bullies can be friends, family members, or significant others. It doesn’t always have to be someone you go to school with or barely know. It can be someone you are the closest to. Funny enough, our downfall started with my wish to bring my dog home. I mentioned in earlier segments people in this country were not as supportive as I thought they would be to me taking my little one to the States. This person was one of them. She made it very vocal she did not approve of my love for my dog, and so it began.

I could go though you every little thing that lead the transition from friend to bully, but that would be wasting time, both yours and mine. If you don’t know the individual, then you wouldn’t want to read what seems like a neverending story of how a bully was made anyways. However, it happened. I became an outsider in my region. This person worked so hard to not include me in events and functions happening anywhere within traveling distance. She visably ignored me and make it awkward for others with her to hold a conversation with me. She broke me down emotionally multiple times by sending very pointed emails telling me my Peace Corps experience only amounted to anything because she took pity on me and “included” me in her projects. She made it clear that all of my projects were not accomplishments but rather handed to me by people who felt sorry for me.

When everything started to happen, I was distraught. I was losing a good friend. I tried to save what was left, letting myself be walked over and not allowed to contribute. I was introduced to Malagasy people as “her helper” in public, and given trivial duties like tearing pieces of tape, take notes in the meetings, sit there quietly without saying anything. If there was any meeting involving higher ups from local organizations, I was told to remain silent. “You are not allowed to talk.”

It was after a month of this submissive behavior that I realized I didn’t need this. Someone who called me a ‘friend’ shouldn’t try to control me, put me down in front of my bosses, dictate what I could write on my final Peace Corps report, etc. Yes, it was difficult to cut things off between us. We had spent nearly 1 year together, she personally helped me not Early Terminate at the beginning of my service, but this emotional rollercoaster wasn’t healthy. The end of the relationship made me a stronger person, inside and out. I gained the confidence to stand up to bullies in community, and I gained confidence in myself. Bullies are discouraging things in society, but they are also great learning experiences. You can learn and grow from them. I will always support organizations like The Trevor Project, Stomp Out Bullying, and Stop Bullying. I don’t know when society felt it was okay to put other people down and make them feel like less of a person, but it’s not acceptable. Hopefully my voice will help these campaigns, even if in a small way.

When is giving too much?

I’ve been here long enough to become very aware of my surroundings. The amount of French organizations that pass through Alakamisy is astounding. They reside for around a month, pack up and return to France, to return the next year. An organization comes every year with a large shipping container of donations. Another organization comes every July to build wells and schools (Alakamisy has one of the highest schools to fokontany (burrows) ratio in the Fianarantsoa area. Yet another organization donates hospital supplies each year (in which case it sits in an office in the village hall because the hospital is fully stocked already with hospital beds, wheelchairs, blankets and the such. Organizations donate computers, computers that due to lack of education and inexperience break and pile up in yet another room in village hall. Books get donated in languages the villagers have never seen before and build up dust in the corner of the Maison des Jeunes.

This raises a question in my mind, when is giving too much? Humanitarian aid is a commonality in Generation Yers. We want to see that our life has meaning; that we tried to make the world a better place. For many, that means giving. Giving supplies, money, donations. Heck, I donated my time. But my time, that’s just the point. Peace Corps is not only just building relationships with other countries; it’s sharing our knowledge and gaining some in return.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

I can easily translate this to fit.

“Give a village some computers with no training, and they last at most a month. Teach them how to maintain them, and endless amounts of students can learn and build business skills.”

When I first arrived in Alakamisy, my village had 12 computers, newly donated by one the French organizations. To date, we have 2. 10 computers in one year. That means one computer on average broke around every month. Can you imagine going out and purchasing a new laptop every month?

So rather than just making charitable donations to an organization, maybe invest some time in what is to become of your giving. Will the organization just send the money abroad? Will they purchase supplies and ship it? And if so, will they send someone to accompany the shipment and teach the importance of the supplies? Example, mosquito nets in Africa. Great project. Africa still suffers from an overwhelming rate of Malaria deaths. Mosquito nets are to prevent the mosquito carrying the disease from biting and infecting someone. Will someone be sent with those nets to teach the importance of the nets and what it does? Or will it just be distributed, no explanation given, to families and then turned into a fishing net the next day? (True story, that does happen, mosquito nets made into fishing nets.)

Just a thought…