SheForShe: Why Women’s Solidarity is Still the Answer

Those of us in the gender biz who like to bring every conversation back to equality (yes, that’s me!) have rightly embraced the UN’s HeForShe campaign. While the movement for gender equality was originally conceived as a struggle led only by women for women in recent years men have begun to stand-up in addressing inequalities and discrimination faced by women and girls. HeForShe was created as a solidarity movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity, for the benefit of all.

I say, “hurrah!” We need you men! We cannot possibly achieve equality without your support and advocacy. Plus, many of you are hot, so it’s nice to have you around. (See what I did right there? A little bit of reverse sexism just to keep things interesting). And good one UN Women for coming with this term and organizing around it.

In fact, a great new application of this concept can be found in an excellent IFES report on male allies for women’s equality in Syria.

Yet, as I begin another year of digging into strategies to help women gain more meaningful power over their lives and choices, I still feel more urgency about ensuring that we women are supporting women, not tearing each other down. The interest in male allies is a new and important phenomenon, but let us not lift the pressure to create female solidarity at the same time. Paradigm shifts are not going to happen without this. Men will simply never be as self-interested in helping women as much as women.

I was reminded of this in three ways over the last couple of weeks:

  1. Women are women’s worst enemy. If you believe it, what’s up with that? 

I had a conversation with a newly made friend the other day about what happens when women work together —  just women. The notion was that terrible things ensue! Popular culture would have us picturing cat fights, hair pulling, and high drama when too many women are forced together. Is this really fair? Everyone has their own experience, which I won’t argue against.  But what we forget to consider is that perhaps the lack of desire to work together (or effectiveness at working together) is merely a byproduct of not having equal power. Women utilize what powers we have at our disposal, and sometimes that is the form of negative words and actions, competitions and rivalries to get ahead when we aren’t operating on a level playing field to begin with.

But, why do we want ALL of something, anyway? All female or all male is, literally, missing something. A  workplace, a school, a local city council is more balanced with a diversity of everything – gender, sexual orientation, education, experience, socio-economic backgrounds and so on and so forth.  I don’t want to live on a planet just of women, (insert stereotype or joke here), but I also reject the notion that some character flaw exists in women that prevents them from supporting each other. Let’s flip the conversation by recognizing the ways in which society actively prevents us from supporting each other when we are stopped from attaining equal power in meaningful ways in our lives.

One Turkish organizations that I am honored to work with on women’s leadership actively confronts this by doing sessions about the negative role of gossip among college-age women, which is a particularly viscous tool in the Middle East. I don’t meant to pick on the Middle East. Every country needs to do better by women. But there is an absolute correlation with women having weaker structures and less institutional power in society and the presence of discrimination. There are few political parties, very few women in elected office and conditions that prevent women from organizing politically in much of the Middle East. Take a look at the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report to see where the Middle East ranks. It ain’t pretty. So the role of gossip in these countries becomes a de facto tool of power.

2. We are a product of an environment that does not see women equally

Let’s bring it back to politics, my favorite topic. Some women don’t consider themselves as being subjected to sexism, personally. Really? Okay, I guess lucky you! You my dear are the one exception! Sorry to break the news, this isn’t how it works.  Gender discrimination is not just an individual experience, but a systemic one that we have to accept is a problem for all women (yes, all women!) before we remedy this. It does not mean that all women are victims, but it means we face something unique by virtue of having a uterus!

If women don’t consider their individual role in a world that is unequal for women, how can a movement be built?  A well-defined problem is half the solution. There’s loads of evidence about the way that sexism and discrimination effects voting patterns, for example. And voting is part of this little thing we call elections, which impacts whose in office, which impacts decision-making structures, which leads to whether policies to address discrimination are promoted so that women have rights and opportunities equal to men. Men comprise 78% of parliaments across the world. No wonder things are not going so smashingly!! Not because men suck, of course they don’t (see HeForShe above), but because of that little called diversity and pluralism.

The problem is two-fold:

(1) women are not running for office in equal number to men in part because party leaders are not nominating them in equal numbers. When more women run, more women win, but we need parties to see the value of female candidates and support them in advance through training, financing, leadership development, and all the activities that lead to winning candidates AND winning parties

(2) when women do run, they face discrimination just because they are women. Women have less access to resources based on their gender (and less developed networks of support), and they are often subjected to sexist media coverage as a way to demean them or remind voters that they are the lesser gender.

We have ways to fight this. Many efforts are underway in the world to support women in politics. But let’s be real, sexism and discrimination toward women has an impact. A new study shows that it’s harder for female candidates to prevail in an election because many people don’t see women as leaders as a result of hidden bias that can emerge in the voting booth. My case study from Ukraine shows how we can overcome that through evidence-based research and campaigns to change attitudes about leadership in advance of elections.

We have smart and well executed strategies to turn this around, so don’t throw up your arms in despair and believe all is lost. Yet, we need more of these, and we need to start by  recognizing that this common thread of discrimination is present in politics and in everyday life in order to motivate people to embrace efforts to change it, together, women and men.

3. History shows, that when women support each other, good things happen.


I was back home for the holidays and reminded again of the pioneering kick ass women who fought for women’s rights in the part of the US where I grew up. Jeannette Rankin was the first woman to serve in the U.S. Congress. She helped pass the 19th Amendment, giving all women the right to vote, and was a committed pacifist. She was born in Missoula, Montana in 1880 and died the year I was born, in Kalispell, Montana, in 1973. Yes, Ms. Rankin, I got the baton hand off, we’re all good now. (Oh, if it were only that easy.)

I am proud of the pioneering women from the American West who fought for their voice and importantly, for the the voice of others, because they knew we were stronger, together.

“If I am remembered for no other act, I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.”-Jeanette Rankin

I just finished reading Mona Eltahawy’s revealing book, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. There are many lessons and observations to orient one to the challenges of the Middle East. But what I am left with is the notion that no matter the country or the context, we are stronger when our voices and hands are raised together. We are emboldened to speak truth to power when we share our common stories and experiences about what it means to be a woman, together. We will have more power to address issues like child marriages, domestic violence, labor force policies, and women’s political participation when we create the conditions for women’s solidarity in spirit and voice. We are STRONGER TOGETHER. But that means we have to actually be together.

So what can YOU do?
  1. Be kinder to your sisters in arms! It starts at a very basic level, which is to suggest, be nice! In that vein, check yourself. I love Lilly Singh’s YouTube channel with positive messages for women, including this recent #GirlLove campaign to encourage women to go easy on other women.
  2. Recognize our leadership biases and challenge that the next time you go to the voting booth or in your professional life. One  study showed that the higher a woman rose to power, the less likely she might be to help other women do the same. I have seen this in politics too. We have to recognize and fight our own biases.
  3. Whether you are politically active or not, try to organize a project in 2016 that puts you in place of encouraging women’s solidarity, through your actions, not just your words.  Do something different to show that you are part of the solution, not part of the problem.
  4. Mentor someone. Be a role model. Reach out.  You don’t have to do this in a formal capacity, but think about someone who has asked you for help, or for whom you know extra encouragement and kind words would go a long ways.  As Lao Tzu so wisely said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Help make that first step with a woman or girl in your life.

This is where the path to solidarity starts, in simple acts of grace and compassion toward our soul sisters in our community and around the world.

May it be a better year for women in 2016 because we want it to be, and our actions follow our desires!


Feminism Does Not Work Here

I hear this far too often when working on strategies to increase women´s political participation, especially in counties where such efforts are most desperately needed. The idea stems from this argument: feminism is an “export” or a Western phenomenon that does not translate because of the “cultural constructs of gender in our country.” News bulletin, feminism isn´t a widely popular construct anywhere, even in the United States and Western Europe.

Are you a feministYet, this rationalization in developing democracies ends up sounding reasonable, even among advocates for the cause, and here´s why that´s wrong.

First, it´s important to recognize that creating more equitable systems for women does not automatically work anywhere. It takes effort to get women to take up the mantle of equality, even women MPs. It takes work to motivate people in countries with broken politics to believe that they can change the situation, and that women are valuable partners in that change. It is difficult to figure out what issues are most ripe for action. You cannot boil the ocean, so choices have to be made about which issues are most likely to capture attention, influence the public dialogue, and help create a greater space for women. But, it´s less work when you develop a strategy, and pushback a bit at the same time.

Secondly, let´s keep in mind that resistance to “feminism” is often the result of resistance to the values behind feminism. Simply stated, some people are rejecting to the concept that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities (see the clever infographic to the right). Some people don´t like the idea of equality, no matter what words you use. The trick is to find those people and avoid them in your communication´s strategy, because you will not likely win them over, at least in stage one of your efforts, which should build a base of messengers first in order to move to broader persuasion later.

Advice for dealing with the anti-feminists

There are three ways to constructively create a movement for women´s equality, no matter the country.

1. Find the right words.

So if feminism does not work here (wherever “here” may be), find the words that do. What is the shorthand, what language best connects? I am a big advocate of using research-based evidence to form arguments around women´s political participation and have been involved in several polls and focus groups to figure out the right language, and better understand the barriers. Sitting in focus group after focus group, I can confirm, concepts of women´s equality are not well understood because the conversation is often muted. It is no coincidence that the countries most resistant to the language of feminism are the ones with the lowest participation of women. As advocates we have to find the balance of being culturally relevant with our terminology (and just as importantly the narratives) that move public opinion versus being overly timid because we think we have a problem of syntax when really we have a conflict of values.  Country´s like Georgia and Ukraine have done in-depth research to examine public opinion and use this information to shape smart advocacy campaigns, like the Women are 50% campaign. Efforts to help illustrate the impact of sexism are also necessary.

2. Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.

This famous quote is music to an organizer´s ear. Every country is at a difference place in the spectrum of women´s rights. Decide where to start, what issue to tackle, and what tactics to use. Progress will happen over time, but there has to be movement in this trajectory. Choose not to be cynical and convince others of the value. Even in the US and Europe feminism has gotten a bad rap. To some it is a proud way to identify not only their work, but their entire believe system which defines who they are. To others it is an old and tired concept with issues and ideas that a new generation of women don´t relate to. And so what? The walkaway lesson is to develop a theory of change, find your targets and organize around them. Do what you can, but do something. And spend less time worrying about the critics and instead build power with people who share the same values.

3. Put your communication`s strategy at the forefront.

The road to women´s equality is not filled with a bunch of handbooks (although I have helped author some of those!). Like any movement, change comes through the actions of people. You have to move from theoretical to the actual. I could talk for hours about quotas formulas (constitutional or legislative), mechanisms within political party for gender equity, and model legislation to protect women against domestic violence. None of these things matter if we don´t have the political will to challenge stereotypes about women and fight sexism in media and politics — the very foundation of feminism. Our policy cart is often before the organizing cart of social change.

Opportunities TOMATO

There is good news. There are new openings in many countries where women activists and policymakers are pushing the boundaries on gender equality, by focusing not just on technical parameters for equality, but rather communication strategies to create an enabling environment for women´s participation.

  • Technology, such as social media, enables advocates to change the conversation and question stereotypes about women as well as expose everyday experiences with sexism. Such campaigns are opportunities to bring more people into a conversation about the political implications of gender. Crowdsourcing or crowdmapping platforms are being used creatively to focus attention on a range of women´s issues, from projects to prevent violence, to those that motivate the armchair activists to action.
  • As mentioned above, framing matters. There is more sophistication in efforts to engage the public in a dialogue around gender roles and how this impacts women’s political participation. Public opinion research has given advocates better tools to evaluate effective messages, choose the right messengers and make specific word choices in order to talk effectively about the implications of rigid gender roles and impact of discrimination. For more on effective message development, download my how to guide and Toolkit. 
  • Public attention to violence against women creates openings in which to redefine women’s roles in society. Creating a groundswell of “outrage” is important (check out recent examples from a range of different countries and cultures, Toolkit-Domestic Violence Campaigns). When women are subjected to inequality or violence, especially of a high-profile nature, we can turn these tragedies into opportunities and create a strong and more stable platform in which to demand changes for women. The role of civil society in this regard is extremely important.


Georgia case study and women taking the lead

A great example of all of these efforts can be seen in Georgia, a country I have been lucky enough to support in their efforts to increase women´s political participation, which is growing stronger month by month, year after year. Watch a newly released documentary on how the women´s movement is organizing their efforts, all across Georgia, to pivot from violence against women to women´s political participation.

Pointing out the hypocrisy of focusing on women politicians and what they wear and not offering the same scrutiny toward notable male politicians.
Pointing out the hypocrisy of focusing on women politicians and what they wear and not offering the same scrutiny toward notable male politicians.

It was a privilege to present some of these concepts at a recent forum on women´s leadership organized by National Democratic Institute with the support of USAID and in cooperation with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR). My ideas for developing a strategic communications campaign around pushback can be found here, Tools for Women´s Leadership-Research, Communications & Technology.

Sixty women came together representing 15 countries in southeastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Each participant was from a position of power in government, politics, civil society, and/or the private sector. A lot of great lessons were shared that give me reason to be more hopeful than discouraged at the power and potential of change happening all around the world for women.

In sum, there is no shortcut to the hard work involved in bring attention to discrimination, building resistance to it, and ultimately changing attitudes and behavior that make the world more open to the ideals of feminism, regardless of what you call it.


Belgrade group picture
Changemakers across Southeast Europe and Eurasia working to redefine women´s leadership by example.


Superheroes as rape survivors? Creative ways to fight violence against women

A new comic book with a female rape survivor as its “super hero” has been launched to focus attention on the problem of sexual violence in India. When I first read this my thought was, “Wow, this is really innovative!” For social marketing campaigns in today’s age we simply must learn how to use the tools of popular culture to influence our target audience. Cutting through the clutter to approach an issue like rape, sexual violence and harassment in a way that actually changes behavior demands a great deal of creativity. Which is the goal, right? We are aiming to change behavior of perpetrators, and if not that, at least we can create the conditions that require a community to rethink their role in helping prevent violence.


My second reaction was a depressing “Wow!” We are in a major crisis around the world if the genre of comics and superheroes has moved from the buxomy Wonder Woman to girls who are victims of sexual violence. So long are the days of a warrior princess from the Amazon who fights for justice, love, peace, and sexual equality, using her jewelry as weapons (ladies, let’s be real, who doesn’t want a pair of indestructible bracelets and a tiara that serves as a projectile?). The comic version of Wonder Woman was later turned into a TV show. I fondly remember watching it with my sister in front of the television on Thursday nights in the 1980’s, simply mesmerized, eating our SpaghettiOs while subtly being fed a fair dose of women’s equality at the same time. I won’t delve into the sexism and gender stereotypes surrounding the Lasso of Truth (a weapon wielded around men mostly to force them to confess). The point being, the fact that stories are being created for young girls and boys with messages to either protect themselves against rape, or not be the rapist, is a sad indication of how dangerous the world is for young girls. All things considered, I would prefer our superheroes center around female leaders, not victims.

We have a problem today and problems require innovation

Violence against girls and women feels like it is at an all time high, even if statistically speaking there are many indicators that show women are doing better in the world. Yet, the crisis unfolds in story after story, country after country. In 2014 the world mobilized online against the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria through the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Months later with 219 girls still held captive, we can see the limitations of online mostly activism. Globally, Afghanistan, Congo and Pakistan remain the world’s most dangerous countries for women due to a barrage of threats ranging from violence and rape to dismal healthcare and “honor killings.” In India, one rape is reported every 16 minutes, which means women are being raped by the minute every hour across the country. In the US, one in three women report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives. Ray Rice, a former NFL running back, brought the issue of domestic violence to the forefront after a security camera showed him knocking his then-fiancee Janay Rice out in a casino elevator.

Georgia DV
“We are together and we are many”, read one of the slogans on posters at a recent rally against domestic violence in Georgia

I spent a great deal of time in Georgia last year where the murder of 25 women in the first 10 months of 2014 (in a country of 4.4 million people), has sparked activism and outrage. The focus on women as victims has led to questions about the impact of women’s low participation in Georgia’s parliament. Would we pay more attention to problems like domestic violence and remedies to prevent violence if more women were policymakers? And the answer is yes, ding, ding, ding! Absolutely!

Let’s keep it simple. Violence against women starts with disrespect for women and girls. Violence against women is a worldwide phenomenon, irrespective of race, class or socioeconomic status. Democracy or no democracy, your country still has a problem with violence against women, just look at the explosion of campus-based sexual violence across American universities for a start.

Rape in places like India is the result of deep seeded attitudes toward women and their role in society. In working with Egyptian activists recently who are leading campaigns against sexual harassment, I was reminded of the roots of violence which first and foremost are about the perceived role of women and girls in society. Egyptians face obstacles not only with the harassers, but the police and everyday men who believe that if a woman is walking alone on the street she deserves “it,” which could mean she deserves anything from unwanted attention, luring looks, being called a whore, groping, and even gang rape. In order to get to the roots of violence, we have to start with changing attitudes toward women by asking ourselves: Are women in my country respected? Will they have opportunities? Do they have equal access to education? Do they control decisions about who they can marry and how many children they want to have? Do they have access to jobs that provide economic independence? Do we value their participation in public life? We can’t resolve the small issues, like walking alone, until we address the larger dynamics around women’s inequality.

So, we have a problem. A problem that demands we work on multiple levels to resolve.

Solutions: Combating Violence, Women’s Political Representation & Smarter Activism  

Creating alternative narratives through popular culture is one path to a solution. Which is why places like India and Pakistan are using the tools of comics to win hearts and minds of younger generations. The Peabody Award winning ‘Burka Avenger’ is another example, based on a mild-mannered Pakistani teacher with secret martial arts skills who fights local thugs seeking to shut down the girls’ school where she works. She has now moved on to fighting polio! Kudos to the men, by the way, who created these campaigns.


With the Disney princess culture across the globe, an anonymous Middle Eastern artist created Happy Never After, to raise awareness campaigns targeting any girl or woman who has been subject to domestic violence. The aim of the poster series is to encourage victims to report their cases.

Another path to reducing violence against women is at the ballot box, one of the building blocks of equality. When women are at the policymaking table issues of violence against women are moved from outside of the shadows and dealt with as public problems, with practical solutions. The evidence is clear. Societies are better off when women are politically and economically empowered. Across the globe we need more women in power (and men, but come on guys, enough of you are there)  who are in touch with the lives of girls and women and working to raise issues of violence prevention to be just as important as inflation, jobs and national security.


We also need to be smart about creative campaigns to change behavior. We need to share ways to spur the conversation with activist tools that are more strategic. Unlike some issues that just don’t translate country-to-country, lessons learned from campaigns against domestic violence apply all across the globe. Download my Toolkit-Domestic Violence Campaigns to find out more about innovative approaches and creative ideas from Serbia to Saudi Arabia.

If engaging in a campaign, first, decide who your target is:

  • Are you trying to motivate the community to act to prevent violence? What is the aim of raising awareness?
  • If you are trying to raise awareness, decide among who you are trying to raise awareness and for what purpose.
  • Are there specific members of the community you are trying to target? Men or women? Family members? And if so, mothers, fathers? Victims?
  • Are you trying to get victims to seek help, the abuser to stop abusing, the community to care, or the government to take action?
  • Then, decide what your goal is and which type of action-oriented communications campaign best supports your goal.

Download the toolkit for more details. For more in the way of TV ads and public service announcements, check out my YouTube Channel on Domestic Violence.

I love the cartoons and comic strips that are helping us change the violent and complex world that unfolds before us on TV every single day. Such campaigns do their part to raise attention to these issues in a way that legislation only or technical support for gender equality can’t. But this alone is not enough. We need more serious attention and more stakeholders involved if we really want to create safety and justice for women and girls. It should not take a Wonder Woman to fight for gender equality, we need Everyday Woman to get organized and say, “enough is enough!” — although a projectile tiara to the head once in awhile could be fun.