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In Conversation with Sally Armstrong

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Canadian journalist and human rights activist Sally Armstrong often says that in her 25 years of reporting on women and girls in zones of conflict, she hasn't had a good-news story to tell.

Indeed, the gender-based discrimination and violence she regularly reports on is horrifying. Girls being denied the right to go to school. Girls and women suffering acid attacks. Girls and women having their genitals mutilated. Girls and women being systematically raped as a weapon of war. Girls and women being murdered in so-called honour killings. Girls and women disappearing.

But Armstrong is telling more good-news stories these days. She says there's reason to be optimistic: Girls and women all over the world are rallying. Her most recent book, 2013's The Ascent of Women, tells the stories of the remarkable, courageous and tenacious women worldwide who are fighting for their rights -- and emerging victorious.

Women like Mercy Chidi, who runs a shelter called Ripples International for young rape survivors in Meru, Kenya -- a country in which a girl is raped every half hour. One of the reasons for that grim stat: Many men in sub-Saharan Africa believe the cure for HIV/AIDs is "sex" with a little girl. The younger the girl, the more powerful the cure.

Laws exist to protect girls in the Kenyan criminal code, but they are very rarely, if ever, enforced. So Chidi -- along with Toronto lawyer/human rights champion Fiona Sampson and 160 Kenyan rape survivors, aged three to 17 -- sued the Kenyan government for failing to protect its girls.

In 2013, they made legal history with a landmark win. "Through a constitutional challenge -- holding the state accountable for the police treatment of defilement claims -- the girls secured access to justice for themselves and legal protection from rape for all 10 million girls in Kenya," Armstrong wrote in a New York Times op-ed.

Armstrong was recently in Winnipeg to deliver a keynote speech at a gala presented by The Institute for International Women's Rights -- Manitoba. In advance of her talk, Free Press reporter Jen Zoratti sat down with the three-time Amnesty International Canada award winner to discuss the ascent of women, the power of social media and why the global reaction to the abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria is another precedent-setting story.

FP: When did you first notice this ascent of women?

ARMSTRONG: I report from zones of conflict, and my beat is to find out what happens to women and girls. About three years ago, I felt the earth was shifting under the status of women. And at first, I thought it was wishful thinking on my part; I've been doing this for 25 years and I've not had a good story to report. But I did the research, and I was right -- and I wanted to be the first one to tell the women of the world that they were winning. There's a lot of evidence that's very encouraging. The book is also in places hard to read, because if I didn't tell the truth about what was been happening to women, I wouldn't be telling the whole story. But there is a lot of evidence, not the least of which is going on in Nigeria today.

It's a terrible event, but it is making history. Never, in the history of the world, has anyone ever gone anywhere to rescue women and girls. Never. This is the first. I was so shocked when I heard that President Obama was sending military aid and policy advisors -- then the U.K. was doing the same, now Canada's in, and everyone's getting in. This is not the same as sending a donation. There's five million signatures on the petition that I'm involved with, and all of that is terrific. But you send a drone in there to find this guy who's stolen these girls -- the message they're sending out is that girls count... The world is saying, 'No more. Don't give me that religious baloney. You are breaking the laws of the world, the laws of your own country, and you're hiding behind claiming you're doing it all in the name of God. No more.'


FP: There was a time when the Western press wouldn't have given much play to this story. What's changed?

ARMSTRONG: I just explained it -- the earth has shifted under the status of women. When Malala Yousafzai (the young Pakistani student who was nearly killed for advocating for girls' education rights) arrived on the scene, it was like she was sent by central casting. Even three years ago, we wouldn't have heard her story. Over there, they would have said, 'Eh, it's a girl, who cares?' If we heard it, we'd say 'Well, you know, the way they treat their women and girls is pretty disgusting, but there's nothing we can do about it.' Malala hit every newspaper in the world, every radio and every TV broadcast -- and she's never left the news. Malala became the world's daughter. In her case, it's like we've lifted a curtain and said, 'What the heck have we been thinking? Of course girls have to go to school. Because otherwise, you can't think for yourself.' And now this story in Nigeria follows. It shows there's a big, big change all over the world.

FP: You broke a story no one wanted in 1993 when you were the first to report on the rape camps of the Bosnian War in Homemakers magazine. (In 1992, Armstrong was on assignment in Sarajevo when she started hearing disturbing rumours about rape camps. After investigating the brutalization of Bosnian Muslim and Croat women in these camps, Armstrong, who worked for magazines at the time, brought contacts, phone numbers, anecdotes and data back home to a Toronto news agency. Unbelievably, the agency chose not to pursue it.) Was that when you knew that it was up to you to tell these stories?

ARMSTRONG: I went back there just a few days after I realized no one was going to pick up the story. And I gave (the agency) all the data -- God, it would have so easy for them -- but our readers had a massive reaction to that story. So I knew the readers wanted it, but I also knew then that the media didn't see women's stories as significant -- even when it was the gang raping of women from age eight to 80 in rape camps -- and I did. You know, no one wanted that story, but if it happened today I'd be way back at the back of the line because CNN and BBC and CBC and The Guardian and the New York Times would all be in front of me. To me, that's a win. Look at Nigeria. That's the difference. In '92, nobody wanted the story. In 2014, everybody wants the story.


FP: People often feel helpless when it comes to injustices happening abroad. What can an individual do?

ARMSTRONG: People feel helpless because people think, 'I'm not rich enough, I'm not famous enough, I'm not powerful enough, I can't make a difference, I'm only one voice.' We need to get over that. Your voice is really, really, important. I was addressing 400 high school students in Saskatoon and I was trying to say that to them, and they were just aghast. I've wrecked a few dinner parties in my day by speaking up. When someone says, 'Oh, that's just the way they treat their girls, it's not my business,' it makes me crazy. All you have to do is say, 'It's not OK with me that that's the way they treat their girls.' You may not end it there, but you've planted a seed. People will think twice about saying such an outrageous thing. I think people have to understand how powerful they really are.

FP: To that end, let's talk about the power social media has to galvanize a community.

ARMSTRONG:I spend a lot of time in my book trying to examine how this earth shifting started, because this is huge; the pendulum is swinging hard and fast now. And I looked at so many areas. But you know where it lifted off? Facebook. Facebook did it.... What happened is women and girls around the world started to talk to each other. Women wearing hijab found out that despite what the fundamentalists said, women wearing jeans were not whores. And women wearing jeans found out that despite what they'd heard, women wearing hijab had loads of very important opinions that had to come to the table. So I dare say the worst day in the lives of fundamentalists, extremists and misogynists was the day those women started to talk. Because now, they're asking questions they never asked before. "Show me where it's written in the Koran that my daughter can't go to school." Well, it's not there. "Show me where it's written that I can't go to work." That's not there either. And it's not just about Islam; every single religion oppresses women and every single religion will use their holy book to keep women back. They may not do it presumably 'on purpose,' but they do it in the name of God. The women started talking and they found out that their futures were being harmed, that their children were being harmed by opportunistic men who, for centuries, got away with it.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2014 D3

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