Last week I was invited to a very important event about so many topics I care about rolled into one: feminism, prostitution, pop culture, exploitation and a feminist foreign policy (sounds dreamy, yes?). Yes, all of this being talked about with some of the top feminist experts in these fields. I was thrilled and honored to be invited by We are Women Online and Donor Direct Action, a non-profit n strengthens women’s rights organizations around the world by increasing access to funds, advocacy, and visibility.
I won’t go into detail why, but the event was timed perfectly as I really craved a dose of inspiration. I had a feeling the morning would provide just that, and I was not disappointed. Problems and solutions. Three people leading the right in the battle for women’s rights. All this early on a weekday morning in Manhattan, right near Grand Central. It was inspiring to say the least. They are proof that when you believe very strongly in something and are determined to make change, you can. We can all be change makers with the right tools.
To lead the discussion, Donor Direct Action brought in Gloria Steinem, a well known feminist and my long time personal hero, Rachel Moran, a survivor of the sex trade and Margot Wallström, Sweden’s Foreign Minister who summed up the discussion very well when she said: “The empowerment of women and girls is a true example of smart politics. Gender equality is not only about women’s rights but is a matter of ensuring peace and security for all.”
She was commenting on the fact that Sweden had just been elected to a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council where she hoped to have the opportunity to “make a feminist foreign policy for the world”, perhaps at a time when also the UN and the US will also be headed by women, she observed.
A Feminist Policy
Sweden’s feminist foreign policy is made up of the three ‘Rs’, Wallström explained: Rights, Representation and Resources. Does this policy ensure women enjoy the same rights as men and ensure that human rights are also seen as women’s rights? Are women around the negotiating table and represented everywhere? How are resources and power distributed? “When you ask these questions it will lead to our policy.”
Making the connections is the media’s challenge today, commented Steinem. “Our biggest struggle now is to understand that so-called women’s issues are connected to every issue. The status of females, in all our diversity is part of absolutely every story.”
Prostitution: A Media Image
She then compared the challenge of the media image of prostitution, which many people have a Pretty Woman image of in their mind, and is completely false: “There may be 12 women someplace who have that much power and run into Richard Gere – I don’t know. But it’s not the reality.”
Moran then spoke from her heart, as a survivor and the leader of her own organization, SPACE International. ““We know from the experience of having been prostituted across thousands of encounters exactly what the nature of prostitution is. What was happening to us in the brothels wasn’t work or anything remotely resembling work. It was compensated sexual violation. That’s how we experienced it. That’s how we lived it. That’s what we suffered from.”
Prostitution: The Reality
She went onto say: “We have to recognize that this is damaging in all directions. Never mentioned are the wives and girlfriends who haven’t done a thing. There is no element that isn’t damaging and hurtful. It harms everybody. I believe that the recognition of that damage to the social fabric was hugely important in Sweden.”
She was referring to the adoption in Sweden in 1999 of a progressive feminist law to address commercial sexual exploitation and the sex trade. The law has become a model in other countries, such as Norway and Iceland, Northern Ireland, Canada and France. The law makes the purchase or attempted purchase of sex a criminal offense while the seller is not punished.
In Steinem’s opinion, the best indicator of violence is the extent of the polarization of masculine and feminine roles. “We need to consider this as part of our foreign policy” such as when considering what groups to be in discussion with in Syria. “The best indicator of their will to violence is their attitude towards women.”
After the event, full of ammunition and empowerment to go out there and make change, I went right up to my hero. She confirmed that my voice has power – that all of our voices have power. With the right words and context, we can make a difference and use our voice to speak for the voiceless. If you want to help give women a voice who have suffered the abuses of prostitution, consider a donation to Moran’s organization, SPACE or directly to Donor Direct Action. Together, we can make a difference.
Disclosure: I attended this event as media.