After watching “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” last spring I found myself feeling a lot of bitterness towards men. Over and over again I was being bombarded by stories of men at war, men in power struggles, men inflicting violence against women, men denying basic human rights to girls, men unwilling to sit at the peace table. I was beginning to wonder… what would it take for a feminine wave to crash over the world, turning centuries of patriarchal ways upside down… and out? The answer came to me from a boy child. A boy saying loud and clear: “I want to be a part of the solution too. See the future in me!” And, with that, I was on a mission to find some role models for my son, dudes who were, as photographer and GirlUp activist Nigel Barker would say, truly “manning up” for girls and women. “Girls, girls, girls… that’s all you ever talk about.” “What about boys?” We hear this kind of thing a lot at thinkpeace workshop for girls. Some people blatantly roll their eyes. Some say, “A girl in this country is lucky. She can do anything.” Some say, “Boys have it harder.” We say, FACT: worldwide, historically and currently, girls’ voices are not heard. Girls are not given the same opportunities as boys. Girls are too often the casualties and victims of male-created wars. We say, IT’S TIME: for a new way of thinking, a new way of understanding, a new way of communicating, and new way of sharing. We say, JOIN US.
In late Spring my son decided that he wanted his 10th birthday party to be a benefit for GirlUp, a United Nations Foundation campaign which raises awareness and funds for programs that help some of the world’s hardest-to-reach adolescent girls. With the help of his sisters and their friends, he threw an amazing party where 30 kids traveled around the world, learning about the issues facing girls in developing countries. After the party one friend wrote a blog post about it. His is a voice of hope for the future:
“The party was a lot of fun and it felt good to learn new things and also be part of the solution. This party really made me think and thinking is the start.
I like the vision of Girl Up . . .
Girl Up envisions a world where all girls around the world, have the opportunity to become educated, healthy, safe, counted and positioned to be the next generation of leaders.
I am glad I “Boy’d Up” for Girl Up and I would love to see all children of this world have the same basic opportunities. Thanks B for opening my eyes!”
Hm, I thought… boys care. But who, besides the obvious (Desmond Tutu, Bono, George Clooney) can show my son and his friends that caring about girls and women is not only important, but also kinda cool? Enter Justin Reeves, Director of NGO Partnerships, 10x10act.org.
Justin’s experience working in development in Latin America has been refined working as a journalist and humanitarian throughout Ecuador, Argentina and Chile. Most recently, he has focused his humanitarian work on women and children living with HIV/AIDS and his production work on women marginalized by mental illness in Chile. Joining forces with 10×10 aligns with his vision that empowering and educating girls and women is the key to a more harmonious world.
Justin and I met at a GirlUp event in NYC last year and I immediately knew that he was one of the good guys. As he slipped a ring on my finger and asked me to say “I do… take a stand against child marriage” I smiled. There really are incredible men out there standing up for women and girls. Regular men. Not just actors, activists, and politicians. Justin is a really cool dude with compassion flowing through his veins. I asked him for advice on educating boys and I can’t wait to go there with a posse of young hopefuls! Justin is an amazing role model for boys!
While I was flying high from connecting with Justin, another hero came along. Meet Gavin Weston, author of the book, Harmattan. Gavin and I quickly became “twitter friends” with like-minded goals, especially for ending the practice of child marriage. I asked him to share his journey with me and my son:
“As a former aid worker (with Africare) I have had a strong interest in humanitarian issues for as long as I can remember, particularly in relation to Niger. When my children were very young it struck me that ‘sponsoring’ a child through an NGO would be an effective way of both doing something constructive and ensuring that my children gained some understanding of the huge disparities that life can throw up.
Over the next few years we communicated regularly with my ‘sponsored daughter’ (as six year-old Ramatou referred to herself) and, perhaps naively, I assumed that we would maintain contact. It was, then, a great shock – especially to my daughter – when we discovered that Ramatou had been married off by her family, just before her twelfth birthday. We never heard from her again. My daughter had just turned thirteen and was particularly upset by the development. I suggested that she write about it for a school project, little realising quite how much it was niggling away inside me too.
One evening (at a meeting of my Writer’s Club) an American writer made the sweeping statement, ‘men can’t write as women’. I disagreed with her strongly and soon afterwards sat down to attempt to write something from a solely female perspective, initially perhaps just to prove her wrong. When I read out what became the prologue to ‘Harmattan’, and listened to people’s responses, I soon realised that I had started something that had to be completed. I realised that writing a novel from a first person perspective might be an opportunity to ‘give voice’ to the millions of underage girls who are married off every year, a problem that many people find just too difficult to read about in fact sheets or newspapers. I was well aware that this might be perceived as arrogance, on several levels, (not least in terms of culture, race and gender). How could a middle-aged European man express the feelings and experiences of a twelve year-old West African girl? To achieve any kind of success I knew that I had to really try to ‘inhabit’ my character, Haoua. Hardly surprising, then, that over the next five years I frequently dreamt about both her and her family as if they were real people whom I actually knew.
When I began my research in earnest there was not a lot of information readily available on child marriage. However, thankfully there are now quite a few organisations and individuals working diligently to bring about an end to this disturbing practice. I am bolstered to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu declaring that ‘We can end child marriage now!’ and that addressing the issue is as important to him as apartheid was. However, I think that there is a long way to go before we can convince not just governments, but village elders and even women (in some areas) that education for girls is much more beneficial than early marriage and servitude.
So far, I have been surprised at how positively my book has been received, although by its nature there is still resistance to it. (It is not a ‘sexy’ topic and ‘Harmattan’ is clearly neither easy reading or a coffee table book.) I am discovering that most men simply don’t wish to acknowledge the subject. Many of my male friends have been supportive in terms of buying the book and slapping me on the back for my achievement, but few are willing to actually engage in an in depth conversation about how we can bring about real change on a global and societal scale. This saddens me, because although I can write and articulate certain aspects of these horrors, I am lacking in other skills (political, business skills etc.) that are, I feel, essential in terms of mustering a global ‘movement’ that dovetails with what other organisations are doing. I intend to continue campaigning to end child marriage in whatever way I can.”
I encourage you all to read this book and join us on our mission to end the practice of child marriage.
So now my son had a couple of heros to look up to who were ‘manning up’ for women and girls. He was feeling empowered. He realized that there was a community of males out there wanting to be a part of the solution too. Go ahead, ask him to tell you about a young man named Andrew. Pull up a chair…
“Andrew is proof that guys know why Girl Up matters. At a health clinic in Blantyre, Malawi, 21-year-old Andrew is a volunteer youth health counselor. He’s got a busy schedule because he’s the only youth counselor at the clinic. The clinic helps hundreds of girls get the information they need for all of their general health needs.
It’s his passion for helping others that brings Andrew to the clinic in his spare time. Andrew feels a responsibility to his community and an interest in promoting good health, especially for young people. As the only youth counselor — and a young man — it took some time for Andrew to gain the trust of the girls coming to the clinic. But as he has guided the girls over time, they have in turn spread the word that Andrew is trustworthy and that he can help them live healthier lives. Now he has many clients — both girls and boys — and there are more that need help.
Andrew thinks his respect for girls is due to having a strong mother who raised him and his sister by herself. He sees that he can support girls by speaking honestly with them about their health, showing them that they have great potential, and talking to his friends about how they deal with their girl peers. Andrew is inspirational — he demonstrates how boys are girl champions, too. His mother must be very proud!”
Glimmers of hope abound! This summer my son and I watched some of the Democratic National Convention together. There was someone I wanted him to hear. Thinkpeace co-director Liz had met him this summer at the marriage of her close friends Corey and Jason. Corey Smith, by the way, just happens to be a great role model for boys and men as well! Afterall, he chose a WOMAN (Liz) to stand up with him as his Best Person! He’s also Senior Manager of Diversity and Inclusion at Best Buy and a Board Member of the Human Rights Campaign. When I asked Corey what makes him do what he does, he responded with:
“Personally, my driving force is knowing one day everyone will be considered equal, not the same, but equal. In my work at Best Buy and with the Human Rights Campaign, my constant goal is to create relevant ways for people to learn how to move toward acceptance of others.”
He also consciously connects with people, creating a circle of friends who propel him on his journey. Among them, Zach Wahls. Zach spoke at the DNC and left me and my son feeling like standing up for equality is a pretty cool thing.
I can’t wait to collaborate with Mark Bertrand, founder of The Giving Circle, Inc. His organization “celebrates community and the concept of one person, one community reaching out to another in a cycle of giving. Through interconnectedness, interdependence, and the expanded power and possibility created by love, support, compassion, and cooperation, they make a difference in the quality of people’s lives.” The Giving Circle was initially founded in response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and has since expanded its efforts working locally with the underserved in New York. The rehabilitation efforts in the Gulf Coast continue and internationally (in partnership with a team of Ugandans) The Giving Circle Africa ( NGO) has built an orphanage and school in Wairaka, Uganda. It’s an all volunteer non-profit organization with a mission to connect communities in need with those with the resources to help. Mark actively encourages youth involvement. He’s a total dude with a supersensitive heart. “It’s not about giving a hand out; it’s about providing a hand up.” To him that means rolling up the sleeves and placing your hand in the dirt right alongside someone in need. Awesome! What a role model for boys!
Two men I know are bringing their visions into schools and teaching boys (and girls) that the bottom line is respect and tolerance. Coach Rich Johns started a program in New York called, Act With Respect Always.
The purpose of Act With Respect Always! is to spread the importance of respect in athletics, academics, and daily life. Through “ambassadors” of respect, person to person, team to team, school to school, and to the community at large–students and athletes will be empowered to be good citizens in all walks of life. Act With Respect Always gives everyone the opportunity to make the most important statement in today’s society.”
Coach Johns is out there every day, talking to kids from elementary school through college about living life practicing respect towards all. Important stuff! And then there is Hiroshi Imase, co-founder of Feelosopher’s Path, an afterschool enrichment program for kids. Sensei Hiroshi describes himself with this word: 虚心坦懐（Kyoshintankai). Kyoshin: Open mind, empty mind, no prejudgement, ready to accept as is. Tankai: Calmness. I feel better about humanity just thinking about Kyoshintankai! Hiroshi believes that the world will live in peace when we use our emotional intelligence for the good of all. Recently he left his position as Dean of Students and teacher at a middle school for gifted children to start Feelosopher’s Path. It’s an amazing concept.
What is a Feelosopher? A Feelosopher is someone who knows him or herself well enough to connect positively with others. Feelosophers enjoy everyone’s similarities and celebrate everyone’s differences. A Feelosopher focuses on “feeling successful” instead of just “being a success.” Feelosophers are excited for the future, find their passions and explore the unknown with friends.
Hiroshi’s feelosophers value relationships, communicate with others, enjoy diversity, feel compassion, and practice kindness. They think globally and act positively. They feel and they think… and they act. I want to be a feelosopher, and so does my son. It’s all coming together, do you see it?
It’s taken me all summer to swim around in a pool of positive, forward-thinking, concerned, respectful men and boys to see that we’re on this journey together, not separately. Yes, girls need lots of encouragement and training to use their voices for change. They need to be convinced that they will be heard, valued and safe. Boys and men need to step up to the plate and hit a home run for the girls and women in their lives. As they round the bases, they need to embrace their abilities to listen, empathize and stand in solidarity with their sisters, mothers and wives. I want to believe we can truly win the World Series, with boys and girls on the same team, humanity’s team. And men and women in the stands, supporting, nurturing and cheering them on to greatness! At thinkpeace we often say, “we are all in this together.” It really is “wonderful to walk with arms wide open to catch the wonderful” as Sarah Kay says. Happily what my son and I have caught is a bunch of involved, passionate, nurturing, dynamic, warrior boys and men who want to join with us on this journey to heal the world and make it a better place for girls, women, boys and men. Thank you to all the boys and men out there helping us hold up our half of the sky. Through peace, love and understanding, we will get there together. As together we will think it, create it, and share it.