Thursday, July 22, 2010

71: The Self-Empowered Woman: Kankuben Lalabhai Parmar

Dear Followers,

Today - thanks to Guy Trebay and the New York Times - I'd like to tell you about an amazing woman who has defied all odds and become an international business woman even though, for many years, she'd never traveled outside her own home.

Kankuben Lalabhai Parmar is from the village of Madhutra in the Indian State of Gujarat. To get to Manhattan, where her crafts are being sold at the Asia Society, her journey involved an oxcart, a trishaw, a jeep flatbed. an open-topped shuttle, and then her first-ever airplane ride.

Ms. Parmar officially belongs to a "scheduled caste," which meant that she was considered untouchable; the men were limited to their region or village, and the women were traditionally bound to their homes. She is now 50 years old, but never met a man who wasn't a close relative until she was an adult.

Married at 14, she is the mother of seven children, and her life changed dramatically when (two decades ago) the not-for-profit Sewa Project came to her village to help preserve native handicrafts and create "alternative employment."

Ms. Parmar creates patchwork embroideries that often include small pieces of mirror that she buys (as scrap) by the pound. Her pillow covers, for example, require almost a week's worth of sewing and sell for about $15 at her local market. Today, she earns about $60 a month, which has made her the family's chief breadwinner.

As she told Trebay, "When I was a girl, all the assets belonged to the father or the husband or the that I have my own business and make my own money, my husband shows me respect."

Ms. Parmar is an informal ambassador for Sewa and the Crafts Council of India; it's estimated that in India alone 40 to 60 million people earn part of their living making crafts.

In New York, Ms Parmar visited museums, bought gifts at CVS for her daughters, and enjoyed all the sophistication of Manhattan even though she is illiterate and must use her thumbprint for a signature.

Twenty years have made a huge difference in the lives of the once-untouchable women of Madhutra, India. Their quiet and dignified example of global feminism should inspire us all.

Looking forward to your comments...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

70: The Self-Empowered Woman: Gloria Allred

Dear Followers,Lately these blogs have been introducing readers to accomplished women from a variety of nations, but today I'd like you to meet a home-grown Self-Empowered Woman who has - for most of her life - been comfortable with controversy.

Born in Philadelphia on July 3, 1941, Allred is possibly the most famous female attorney in America. She has consistently welcomed clients and cases that many other attorneys would avoid. According to Allred "My work is not about popularity contests...women can't enjoy equal opportunity if they are sexually harassed at work...[and] the defense just hopes the woman doesn't hire Gloria Allred (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest).

In the 1960s, after her daughter was born Allred and her first husband divorced and in 1987 (after 19 years of marriage) she and her second husband divorced (15: Forget About Prince Charming).

Allred's daughter, Lisa Bloom, who is 20 years younger than her Mom, worked at the same law firm for nine years and the two are very close (16: Intensive Motherhood).

Thane Rosenbaum, a law professor at Fordham University has described Allred as a "moral attorney" because she accepts cases with no concern for her own reputation or for her (often unlikely) chances of winning (11: Risk Addiction). She has made her (7: Magnificent Obsession) defending women who have been taken advantage of by people in power.

Perhaps the key to her passion is that she was - at age 21 - a divorced single mother with no child support. When she was 25, she was a teacher at a high school in Watts (a volatile neighborhood in Los Angeles) and took a vacation to Mexico. While there, she was raped; after undergoing an illegal abortion she almost bled to death, but a nurse in the intensive-care unit told her "This will teach you a lesson." (12: Hard Times). It was that experience that made the young Ms. Allred begin to fight against the systemic way that women were treated in America.

Allred has her share of critics in both the legal and media communities and Comedienne Chelsea Handler has been critical of Allred on both her blog and her late-night talk show and has accused the lawyer of "...setting the women's movement back 100 years." But what other people think (like when a California State Senator called her a "slick butch lawyeress") rarely seems to bother Allred.

Looking forward to your comments...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

69: The Self-Empowered Woman: Somaly Mam

Dear Followers,

I am frequently asked how I "discover" the amazing women who become part of The Self-Empowered Woman blog. Not surprisingly, the answer almost always has something to do with reading. But I was introduced to today's heroine when I read the wedding announcement in the New York Times of Michael Raymond Angelo and Scott Michael MacDougal. I was impressed that they were both involved in New York's Somaly Mam Foundation, which works to end child prostitution and sex slavery, particularly in Southeast Asia. The couple met Ms. Mam in New York and even traveled to Cambodia to visit one of her shelters. Their efforts on her behalf aroused my curiosity, so I did a little research in order to share her story with you.

Almost all of us have complained at one time or another, but when you learn about the amazing story of Cambodia's brave Somaly Mam you'll realize how lucky you are to have your "problems" rather than the ones she has faced!

Somaly Mam has endured enough in 40 years to encompass several lifetimes. She never learned who her parents were (1: No Paternal Safety Net) because she was abandoned; she was first raped at the age of twelve. By the time she was 14 she was sold into a forced marriage to a man who beat her, and eventually sold her to a Phnom Penh brothel where, in her words, "we were treated worse than dogs."

While there, Mam was repeatedly gang raped and tortured (12: Hard Times) and the awful things saw and experienced led her to make rescuing young powerless girls her life's work. The acronym for her organization is AFESIP (the English translation would be Acting For Women In Precarious Circumstances) and it works to rescue young girls from the pimps and brothels that abuse them.

In Cambodia, a five or six year old child can be sold into slavery for as little as $100, and the going price for a young girl prostitute is less than $2. So far, Mam has rescued over 5,000 girls and her shelters offer medical, psychological and educational care for the young girls who look to her for help.

According to the Cambodian Ministry of Women's Affairs there are over 1o0,000 prostitutes in Cambodia, almost half are under 16, and more than half are HIV positive.
The reason Mam was able to escape sexual slavery and work to help others is that her appearance was not appealing to Khmer and Chinese brothel customers. They prefer plump, light skinned girls, but she is tall, slim and dark skinned; the brothel eventually let her go. Since that time Mam's mission has been to help other girls (7: Magnificent Obsession).

Mam married a French expatriate, but they have divorced (15: Forget About Prince Charming). She is a devoted mother to her three children (16: Intensive Motherhood). Thanks to her and the shelters she has established in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, girls who otherwise had no future have been taught to read, write, and acquire skills to support themselves without having to sell their bodies.

Looking forward to your comments...