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NewsMay 6, 2021

Exploring ways to protect women worldwide

Violence Against Women Initiative highlights the challenges and progress to creating a safer, more just society

Physical and psychological violence against women is global, insidious and as old as human history itself, and it is exacerbated in the isolation and sapped social services resources of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our Violence Against Women Initiative’s half-day virtual conference, held Wednesday morning, quickly offered an example of the challenges facing women and activists fighting violence as a coordinated confederation of Zoom bombers momentarily interrupted the conference.

One of the forum’s organizers, Dr. Lisa Fiore, pointed out that behavior illustrates the need to keep striving for a more equitable and just world for women and transwomen. Soon, the conference reconvened as a smaller working group to produce a video of the discussion and the challenges ahead.

An international panel of speakers, invited by Fiore and fellow faculty members and initiative coordinators Drs. Meenakshi Chhabra and Sonia Perez-Villanueva, expressed similar, though direr, sentiments about the threats to women in girls worldwide. The panelists discussed violence ranging from assault and battery in the home to gang rape to genital mutilation to economic and workplace discrimination.

“I don’t think we ever get to a violence-free world, because we are human beings,” said Pakistani journalist and activist Beena Sarwar, “but we are moving toward a better world.”

At the outset of the conference, President Janet L. Steinmayer highlighted the university’s historic role in advancing the cause of women.

“As a former women’s college, Lesley has always taken a strong interest in advancing educational and employment opportunities for women,” the president said, later shedding light on the effects of the pandemic on women.

“With the impact of the pandemic, we are witnessing how the erosion of women’s economic security contributes to the epidemic of violence against women,” President Steinmayer said. “We know the pandemic has disproportionately affected employment for women and women of color.”

The guest speakers of diverse races and professional backgrounds each highlighted the jeopardy women are in at all economic levels and racial backgrounds, though women of color and immigrants face an additional level of danger.

Conference panelists included:

  • Sarwar, a multimedia journalist, editor and documentary filmmaker who focuses on human rights, gender, media, peace, extremism, violence and South Asia. She has taught journalism at Princeton University, Brown University and Harvard Summer School. She contributes news and commentary to media outlets around the world including New York Times, Guardian, Boston Globe, BBC, CNN, Voice of America and NPR.
  • Laura Viñuela, a musicologist from Spain, with a master’s in Women’s Studies from the University of Oviedo, who is a gender consultant and expert in feminist education and preventing teenage gender violence.
  • Karina Breceda, executive director of a women’s shelter in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, who in 2020 founded her own organization, Haznos Valer, to serve the border community and confront the humanitarian crisis.
  • Mariya Taher, who has worked in gender-based violence for over a decade in the areas of teaching, research, policy, program development and direct service. In 2015, she cofounded Sahiyo, an award-winning, transnational organization with the mission to empower Asian communities to end female genital cutting (FGC). She was the subject of an ABC News feature “Underground: American Woman Who Underwent Female Genital Mutilation Comes Forward to Help Others.”
  • Dr. Helen M. Glenn-Beady, the second daughter and ninth child born to the late Essie B. and William Earl Glenn, and who leads fundraising for both the Glenn Family Foundation and the ACEs Awareness Foundation. She also has served as president/CEO of two female/minority-owned businesses.
  • Rep. Tram Nguyen, state representative for the 18th Essex District of Massachusetts, which includes parts of Andover, Boxford, North Andover, and Tewksbury. She is a first-generation Vietnamese-American immigrant and was the first person in her family to attend college and law school. She earned a bachelor's degree from Tufts University and a juris doctor from Northeastern University School of Law. Nguyen was the first Vietnamese American elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
  • Iliana Valentín ’20, a poet, educator and activist, and an alumna who is a founding member of Informed: Immigrants & Allies — a web-based group committed to presenting information of critical importance to the public.
“The only way to prevent violence against women
is to create gender equality.”
Laura Viñuela

State Rep. Nguyen spoke about the cultural barriers to finding solutions to domestic violence, as women from many other countries have a different understanding of the issue — believing they are only victims if they need to be hospitalized, for example — or are resistant to “airing your dirty laundry” in public. As a result, many women who are abused never seek help.

But even when they do, Nguyen explained, they are too often met by indifference. Her own state legislator before she ran for office, a man, couldn’t be bothered to inform himself about the issues facing women.

“It’s so important for us to work together, to build a pipeline, to get more women in elected office,” Nguyen said.

Viñuela also touched on the subject of cultural norms, describing how patriarchy has so infused her home country of Spain, many people couldn’t truly fathom that five men in one high-profile criminal case could be guilty of sexually assaulting an 18-year-old woman.

“The only way to prevent violence against women is to create gender equality,” Viñuela said, adding that the cultural shift must start early. “It’s a process where you have to support and go hand-in-hand with the teenagers and everybody. You help them.”

Taher underscored another dramatic example of cultural and religious norms fueling violence against women: female genital cutting, which is practiced in at least 92 countries, including the United States, despite laws barring the practice. And the pandemic has inflamed the crisis since, in the middle of the lockdowns, women have found no refuge, especially when social services are scarce.

Breceda shared her experiences and the U.S.-Mexico border during the years of the Trump Administration, indicating that migrant women on either side of the line were often denied medical care, even after giving birth to a child.

Even well inside the United States, the situation facing women can be treacherous.

Beady raised the alert about the COVID “tsunami” and its effect on women in the Mississippi Delta, where she’s from. In terms of poverty, malnutrition, substandard schools and other issues particularly oppressive to women and children, she said Mississippi is often labeled “the first of the worst.”

Nevertheless, service organizations, churches and individuals are making a difference.

“COVID is not stronger than hope and love,” she said.

Still, two poems read by Valentìn, who graduated in 2020 with a dual degree in secondary education and English literature, underscored the fear and anger women experience because of unwanted attention, intimidation, overt disrespect and the threat of violence.

“He watches me / And I think he likes that I am scared,” Valentìn read from her poem “Too Busy to Hear Me.”