Tag Archives: Women

Violence Against Women. Make it stop!

Today, Nov. 25th is the United Nations Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women. Here is my article for Innovate Development in honour of the Day.

Livi laBomake – Women’s Voices: A Yebo ArtReach Project in Swaziland

"Powerful Woman"

“Powerful Woman”

Yesterday I took a kombi to Swaziland National Museum in Lobamba to see the Women’s Voices exhibit. Organized by Aleta Armstrong, owner of Yebo Gallery, the exhibit was a combination of creativity and community women’s voices. “I invited rural women with no previous art training to take part. The idea was to tap into their creativity and also explore issues that were important to them,” Aleta explained. She noted that 80 percent of the artwork’s listed price would go to the artist and 20 percent would go to her non-profit organization ArtReach for follow-up classes.
Swaziland, a patriarchal society, does not usually have much space for women’s voices and around 20 women from all regions of the country eagerly embraced Aleta’s initiative.
Walking through the show, I was struck by the vibrant colours and raw talent.
Margaret Dlamin, with flowers of hope.

Margaret Dlamin, with flowers of hope.

A call for self-love and sisterhood were common themes –lots of pictures of flowers and upraised hands–but the strongest works were anguished cries against inequality and abuse.
Phumaphi Dlamini’s “The Left Hand” was of a donkey with a woman’s head, crying. Below was inscribed, “Why thank me for what I have done for the family? I am a donkey, the damned left hand.” Thabsile Vilane’s “Hope” also showed a woman crying. “Rocks of oppression weigh on my shoulders, tears fill my stomach but doves of hope set me free,” said her written description.
Men are cabbages, women are tortoises.

Men are cabbages, women are tortoises.

Zanele Buthelezi had two canvases lined up. The first was of a tortoise with a human foot on top of it. “Women are like trapped tortoises,” she explained. Next to it was a painting of a cabbage. “Men are like cabbages. They sit in the fields and do nothing,” she said.
Many powerful pieces were responding to the horrendous amount of abuse that women and girls suffer in Swaziland–a report by Unicef in 2007 found that one in three women have been sexually assaulted before the age of 18. Dumsile Mthupha’s stark red canvas shone with a single item, a cleaver. It was titled “Cut off the rapist’s penis.”
"Cut off the rapist's penis."

“Cut off the rapist’s penis.”

"I am not a cow."

“I am not a cow.”

My two favorites were by Rose Mamba and Nonzwakezi Dlamini. Mamba’s image was a horned woman on a blood red background. “I am not a cow and I am not for sale. My love is not for sale. My hand in marriage is not for sale. I have no price tag. I will not love you because you paid for me,” read her description. Mamba was responding to the Swazi traditional marriage, where the groom pays the bride’s parents a dowry called Lobola, comprising a negotiated number of cows. Once the cows are paid, the woman is often treated as chattel with no voice or rights within the household.
Tapping into the inner strength that so many Swazi women, despite difficult home situations, Nonzwakezi Dlamini’s painting was of a shimmering woman holding a lamb and simply titled “Powerful Woman.”
The Swazi National Museum is located next door to the Swazi Parliament building. One can only hope that some of those ministers (almost all male) take in the exhibit and understand that it is time to address the concerns of half of their constituents and make Swaziland a safer and more equitable nation.
Poster for the show.

Poster for the show.

Bethlehem’s Crusade for HIV+ Women

Bethlehem Ashebir is one of the most courageous women I have ever met.

Negem Lela Ken New's program director, Bayessa Erena, Maureen and co-founder Bethlehem Ashebir.

Modern and stylish, the Addis Ababa-based founder and director of Negem Lela Ken New (Tomorrow is Another Day) is a 39-year-old powerhouse clad in a tailored pantsuit and stilettos. She is also HIV positive and an inspiring role model for Ethiopian women who suffer severe ostracism from husbands, friends, family and employers when they disclose their status.

Of Ethiopian’s 85 million people, 1 million have HIV/AIDS. The number is likely much higher since many people refuse to be tested, or disclose their status. Going by the conservative numbers, that’s 1 in 85 people with the virus.

Although education about transmission is available throughout the country, it is not widespread and the disease is usually looked upon as a death sentence. When women are tested and found to be positive, husbands often divorce them in a fit of fear and outrage (many refusing to be tested themselves). Cast out from their families and communities, these women often become sex workers to survive…or worse, they commit suicide.

Bethlehem’s story is different. When her partner got a job offer in another country, they decided to go together. Acceptance into the country was based on HIV testing and Bethlehem’s test came up positive. She was shocked and despondent, not even knowing where she had contracted the disease. Her partner stood by her. She got medical treatment, they married and produced a beautiful, virus-free son named Binyam who is now nine years old. Determined to help not only herself, but also other women in her Addis community, she founded Negem Lela Ken New with four other HIV+ friends.

What Bethlehem and her co-founders have achieved so far is heartening. In Ethiopia 60 per cent of HIV/AIDS sufferers are women and the organization helps the most vulnerable of these – sexual workers, house servants, factory workers, street children and orphans. Their training centre offers students the opportunity for economic empowerment – more than 1,000 women have learned weaving, spinning, sewing and hair dressing skills. When they graduate they receive 2500 birr in seed money to start up their own businesses, and in the case of seamstresses, a sewing machine is also awarded.

Another aspect of the organization’s work is home care. More than 200 volunteers in three regions of the country help beneficiaries maintain their medical treatments, take them to their appointments, help fight off depression, give advice on eating properly and provide friendship.

There’s a Canadian connection, too. The Stephen Lewis Foundation is a big supporter and funded a film about the organization called Best Practices in Its Five Years that Bethlehem uses to attract new donors.

Negem Lela Ken New is a small organization that has made big changes in many women’s lives. Taking one small step at a time, Bethlehem Ashebir and her colleagues are replacing despair with hope and encouraging Ethiopian women with the virus to live positively and be dynamic members of their communities.