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Women Forging New Bonds to Break Old Chains

Betty Makoni with one of the Girl Child Network clubs she developed in Zimbabwe to provide counseling and support.
Betty Makoni with one of the Girl Child Network clubs she developed in Zimbabwe to provide counseling and support. ( Paola Gianturco - Women Who Light The Dark )

"Polar bears, elephants and ivory have more preservation rights. The world must reprioritize for women," Makoni said. "If we do not get these girls at a young age, we lose them. Creating a preventative culture is key."

Dealing With the Displaced

In 1990, Shreen Abdul Saroor and her family were displaced from the Mannar region of northern Sri Lanka by a militant group fighting for a separate Tamil state. She started working with some of the 75,000 other Muslims evicted to the eastern region of Puttalam, and was struck by their conservative Islamist transformation.

Secular women who once donned saris were wearing head-to-toe burqas, gloves and black veils that prevented them from making it down a street without an escort. Young women were being bullied into covering up.

"Our community was seeking its identity through religion. In Puttalam, the place of birth written into identity cards is Camp A or B. I feared this radicalism would make them take arms," Saroor said.

She started a volunteer group to tend to the displaced. Her Mannar Women's Development Federation brought together 15 Muslim and Tamil women, and started off with a $30 micro loan to a woman who wanted to start a pancake stall. Their activities spread to 36 villages, launching small industries for roasting cashews and canning fish paste.

Supervisors monitoring their progress began seeing bruises on the women and hearing about brawls. Mullahs and Catholic priests were brought in to counsel the men. For the women, the federation provided guidance and legal coaching, and sought court orders when needed.

"We don't deal with the men directly," Saroor said.

The most brutal beatings occurred at night when men returned from work, so Saroor and her colleagues held silent vigils outside the homes of vulnerable women. "The issue stopped being private and became public," she said.

Challenging 'Honor Killings'

So-called honor killings make victims of as many as 5,000 women and girls each year, mostly in the Middle East and Asia, according to the U.N. Population Fund. In Turkey, media attention fueled public outrage over the practice and led to a change in the law that allowed all charges against a rapist to be dropped if he married his victim.

In 2004, Guldunya Toren, 22, from a village in southeastern Turkey, was shot by her brothers for refusing to marry the rapist who had impregnated her. She survived, but the brothers tracked her down in the hospital and shot her dead.

The tragedy both angered and inspired Vuslat Dogan Sabanci, chief executive of the Hurriyet publishing group. She urged editors to expose honor killings as crimes and to cast shame on the tradition. Hurriyet launched a crusade for change in its coverage and organized bus trips for doctors and lawyers to raise awareness. A new editorial policy included instructions not to refer to women as helpless victims.

The rest of the media followed, as did celebrities. With funding from European and private sources, a 24-hour hotline was set up. Turkey's government launched its own hotline to assist women in distress.

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