Women Saving the World: South Sudan, Kunduz and Hillary Clinton

As others have said before, notably the Dalai Lama , perhaps the only way to save the world is through women. This really hit home recently because of the juxtaposition of three events.

The first was a talk I heard from a young American woman who is working for an organization called Nonviolent Peaceforce in South Sudan. For those of you who missed it, our newest nation in the world has completely disintegrated, rivaling Syria for chaos and suffering.   As always, it is most dangerous for women. Men and children in war zones are subject to starvation, disease, and death but women are also in danger of being raped.

One of the points the speaker made was that the fighting in South Sudan is no longer just an ethnic conflict or the same kind of cattle raids that have occurred for ages. Things have really fallen apart. Because of the chaos created in the initial stages of the crisis, there are now armed bands of youths traversing the country under no one’s command. They want cattle and they want women. In her refugee center of Bentiu there are now 125,000 displaced persons with UN peacekeepers protecting them. They have their food airdropped in because as soon as you try to grow food, you are targeted by armed groups. But you can’t cook without fuel, and that means women need to go out and forage for firewood. After many months, they have to walk all day to find any, and then carry it in heavy bundles on their heads back to the camp. There have been many attacks and rapes, kidnappings and killings, so the women are naturally scared to leave the camps. The peacekeepers wouldn’t accompany them at first because it’s too dangerous: you’re making your way through grass that is taller than you are, a perfect hiding place for ambushes. So this brave young woman and others from her organization, accompany the African women on their foraging expeditions, prepared to confront any armed youths who show up, and warn them off by saying “We’re humanitarians, and if you attack us it’s a crime!”

For those whose initial reaction, like mine, is incredulity at their naïveté, let me add that apparently in that part of the world, saying you’re a humanitarian actually carries some talismanic weight with it, particularly because Nonviolent Peaceforce makes it a point to get to know all the players involved in a conflict zone and makes it clear that they take no sides. Still, with so many young men with guns, so much chaos, you can’t help but feel it’s more foolhardy than brave to put yourself in the position of these young women out in the bush. Certainly Boko Haram or IS would laugh in your face.  Nevertheless, they stand shoulder to shoulder with their African sisters, risking their lives to protect them, and, in the end, the UN peacekeepers were persuaded to start patrolling where the women were foraging.

The second event was the rape of a city: Kunduz in northern Afghanistan in early October. The Taliban managed to infiltrate and take over long enough to pillage anything they wanted, and what they especially wanted was to send a message to women’s group to shut up, shut down, and get back to the 7th century where you belong. Those noble women who ran shelters for abused wives had to flee for their lives or they would have been hanging from the lampposts in the city squares.   Scaring women into submission is apparently one of the main goals of the Taliban, and if anything could galvanize half the population into serious opposition to them, it would be the knowledge that under a Taliban regime, women can expect to be locked into the hijab once again, respected as breeders of men, but not as human beings. Try to break out of that mold and a horrible death awaits you.

The third event was the tour de force of Hillary Clinton in the first Democratic debate.   Whatever you think of her politics she showed the world what a woman can do, a woman with brains, ability, and moxy. Let’s hope her example can reach the women of Africa and Asia and give them some much-needed encouragement in what will be a long, hard road to equality.

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