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Doing Good in Rwanda

 I met Ayla Schlosser a couple of years ago at a conference at the UN.  Ayla had already started her ground-breaking organization called Resonate, which helps women gain strength and confidence through storytelling.  From the very start, Ayla’s passion has shown through.  She is a social entrepreneur through and through and I admire her greatly.  I hope to one day, be able to visit Rwanda and see Ayla in action.  

Changing things up a bit, I’ve asked Ayla to speak about Resonate herself.  I hope reading about what Resonate stands for and the positive impact Ayla’s work has had on women inspires you as much as it has inspired me.  With Love, Dilshad

What is Resonate?

Resonate uses storytelling to empower women and girls to build self-confidence and unlock leadership potential. We believe that, in addition to external skills, women also need the internal resources to be agents of change in their lives and their communities. The confidence gap exists globally – and in Rwanda and throughout East Africa that gap translates to missed opportunities for social and economic advancement. We partner with organizations teaching skills and education, and integrate our leadership training into their programs. Through this combination women not only get access to the skills and tools they need, they also develop the confidence and leadership to put those skills to use.

Ayla

What inspired you to start Resonate?  Tell us about your personal journey which brought you here.

I grew up in a household with a strong feminist mother, a supportive father, and with the understanding that I could do anything I put my mind to. I got good grades, I played sports, I stood up for my friends, and I loudly voiced my opinions. I considered myself strong and in control. Yet I was unable to recognize or admit to myself or others that I was in an abusive relationship during college until almost 7 years after it ended. I was able to extricate myself from that relationship, but it changed my perception of strength and the origin of confidence. Despite my comfortable upbringing and feminist values, as a 20-year-old I didn’t have the ability to stand up for myself.

It wasn’t until I discovered the Storytelling for Leadership framework while working as a community organizer that I was able to fully understand the difference between standing up for an idea, and having the confidence to stand up for myself, and I knew that I couldn’t keep that important revelation to myself. We know that it is smart economics to invest in women, and that they have the potential to be drivers for social and economic development. Yet providing access to skills is not enough; in addition to hard skills and education women also need the internal resources required to take action. I want to contribute to a world in which every woman is confident and empowered to reach her full potential, and to create the changes that she wants to see in her own life, her family, and her community.

Why Rwanda?  Had you ever been before or did you arrive for the first time with the purpose to stay on?

After learning about the Storytelling for Leadership model in the US, I was intrigued by the power of the tool, and eager to use it to unlock the biggest pool of latent leadership potential: women in the developing world. When I discovered that no other organizations were using this model for women’s empowerment I knew I had to try it. I decided to pilot the program in Rwanda because of it’s unique situation regarding women’s leadership. 64% of Rwanda’s lower parliament is female – yet on a local level women are underrepresented in leadership roles. Resonate’s programs are designed to move participants from opportunity to action, and this is an incredible environment to demonstrate what is possible when top-down policies are coupled with grassroots efforts to close gender gaps.

Tell me about your initial steps to create Resonate.

Shortly after moving to Rwanda to pilot Resonate I met my co-founder, Solange Impanoyimana. Our backgrounds were incredibly different, but we had both independently arrived at the same passion: supporting women to reach their full potential. Solange was instrumental in helping me adapt US community organizing tools to the Rwandan context, and together we built out a program that suits the needs of our end-users.

What advice can you offer someone who is looking to make a positive change in this world?

At Resonate, one of our five core values is:

Believe in yourself: We engage in our work with confidence, knowing that each of us brings unique skills to the table. We see strength in authenticity and lead with the best, most honest version of ourselves.

Each of us has a unique capacity to make change, but the first step to doing so is recognizing our strengths and believing that we can. It sounds simple, but it’s supremely important, and it’s the same spirit we are trying to cultivate with the women we work with in our programs. If we allow the magnitude of the problems in our world to stop us before we even get started, we will never find solutions. There is no perfect time, and no perfect way…the most important thing is to just get started.

Or as we might say at Resonate…be like the hummingbird.

Did you know Resonate was going to be your end goal or was it an evolution through trial and error?

When I started Resonate really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I had a crazy idea a way to use a proven methodology in a new context, and really didn’t know whether or not it would work. When I first moved to Rwanda I planned to go for six months for a pilot program…now it has been 3.5 years and we have conducted leadership training with more than 2,500 participants across East Africa!

Tell us about some of the positive impact Resonate has had…the fruits of your labor, so to speak…inspirational stories.

To me, the best part of my work is hearing the stories of the women we work with. As an example, we worked with a community in a coffee-growing region in Rwanda that had never had a female council member. Six months after our training two of our program graduates, Francine and Caritas, ran for and were elected to village council. Another past participant, Egidie, gained the confidence to start a shoe business and provide for her family, while Josette used her story to persuade a hospital to let her adopt a baby girl. Diane broke a long period of unemployment by using her story to win a prestigious job at UNHCR, and Aline now speaks so confidently about herself that she was offered a job at UAP Insurance. As these examples show, Resonate’s alumnae start businesses, join the workforce or improve their pay, join or start savings groups, put their children back in school, and invest in land purchases– to name just a few of the positive outcomes of our programs. Our success is in our ability to support the positive changes that our participants make in their own lives and communities.

Hear participants talking about their experience with the program here.

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Describe a Resonate workshop for us.

Our core Storytelling for Leadership workshop usually takes place over 2 to 3 days. During that time, participants learn how to reframe how they think of themselves, and communicate in a way that reframes them in the eyes of others, and opens doors for new opportunities. In an overview format, participants:

      • Redefine leadership. We see leadership as a way of being: proactive in the face of a challenge
      • Identify Values. By examining how those values  influenced choices in their lives, participants  see themselves as agents of change in the trajectories of their lives.
      • Personal Story. Participants take one of those moments and use it to tell a personal story of a time when they have overcome challenge – after our redefinition of leadership this allows them to see and talk about themselves as leaders.
      • Inspire Action. Finally, participants learn to use that story as a way to get support or inspire action in an academic setting, community, or professional environment.

What are your next steps on your journey?  What goals do you have for yourself?

We have big goals for Resonate in 2017. After three years of operations we are still a startup, but it’s time for us to start getting serious about our long-term planning. We are embarking on a 3-year strategic planning process, and through our participation in the GSBI Accelerator build the systems and infrastructure necessary to scale our programs throughout East Africa and support more women leading change.

I hope you enjoyed this read!

Keep exploring and learn more about Resonate through their website and Twitter! If you’d like to support Resonate you can do so here. #BeInspired xx

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The Women Who Fought Honor Killings

For me, storytelling is a powerful form of inciting change.  It can reach people in ways that facts, figures and news stories don’t always succeed in doing.  An incredible example of the type of storytelling I am talking about is the Oscar winning documentary short, A Girl in the River:  The Price of Forgiveness by director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.

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This documentary shed light to honor killings in Pakistan in a way that had never been done before.  It resonated with so many people that political pressure mounted and forced Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, to speak up against honor killings and about closing the Forgiveness Loophole in the law which let murderers off the hook.  This set the ground for two women, from two very different backgrounds to be able to work together to close this loophole.

Let’s start with the documentary.

The documentary follows a young, 18 year old girl, Saba, who was shot and thrown into a river by her father and uncle.  She married a man whom her parents originally did want her to marry.  However, they changed their minds but Saba had already fallen in love with her original match.  The two married and Saba moved in with her in-laws.  (In Pakistan, it is traditional to move in with your husband’s family after marriage.)

Under the guise of supporting the marriage Saba’s father and uncle persuaded her to come home so they could give her a proper send off.  Instead, they stopped on the side of the road and attempted to kill her.  Somehow, Saba survived and her father and uncle were arrested.  Saba vowed never to forgive them.

When I watched the interviews with Saba’s family, I was taken back by their self-righteousness.  This included the mother and sister, as well.  They stood by the shooting.  They blamed Saba, saying she had brought this upon herself.  They spoke of her as an object.  Something they owned.  It was all eye-opening and shocking.  I couldn’t help drawing comparisons to domestic crime and rape victims.  There are lots of stories out there about honor killings, but rarely do we get to see this level of insight into the mentality behind honor killings.

Honor killings do result in arrests.  However, there is a large loophole.  If the family or in this case, the victim forgives the assailant, then the assailants are free to go.  Sometimes the families are given money to compensate for the loss of life and the assailant is free to go.  In the case that the family resists, there can be enormous pressure from the village elders and others within the community to put the issue to rest.  To move on with life so to speak.

That is what happened with Saba.  She did not want to forgive, but did so after enormous pressure was mounted on her and her husband’s family, by the village elders.  Her father and uncle were ultimately released from prison.

Enter two lawmakers from completely opposite sides of the aisle.  Their names are Shugra Imam and Naeema Kishwar.

When Sughra Imam joined Parliament, people began coming to her about women who had been killed in the name of “honor”.  Women who were forgotten about because they didn’t receive any media coverage.  Sughra started to draft a bill against these killings which would protect these women.  She wanted to do away with the forgiveness clause all together.  Her party being the majority, she knew she could get the bill passed, but she knew that in order for the new law to be enforced amongst law enforcement she would need the backing of the religious party as well.  Ultimately, her bill, though making it through the Senate, was lost in the National Assembly.

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Naeema Kishwar is a conservative who has been consistently fighting for women’s rights.  She agreed with Sughra that “honor” killings should be punished but she believed in the forgiveness clause.

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Together, Sughra and Naeema needed to work together to find a compromise.

By the time Naeema entered the picture, Sughra was no longer a member of the Senate.  It came upon Naeema to act as the go between, between her party and the government.  She knew taking out the forgiveness clause was something her party’s leader would not agree to.  She had to tread carefully.

Eventually with Sughra and Naeema at the helm, a compromise was reached.  Honor killings would carry a mandatory 25 year sentence.  However, the death penalty could be avoided through forgiveness.

You can read more details of how things unfolded here.

Thanks to the storytelling of Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy which received worldwide attention, the atmosphere was prime for change.  It only took Sughra Imam and Naeema Kishwar coming together to fight for that change to take place.

So many women have lost their lives to this barbaric act.  My heart is with Saba and every woman whose only crime was to try to live their lives for themselves.  To do what makes them happy.  To question, defy and break societal chains meant to keep them tamed.

With this posting, in my own small way, I honor every woman in every country who is fighting for something as simple as a voice of her own in this world.

With love to each and every one of you. xx

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My letter for you…

Ghandi once said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” I believe these words could not be truer today.

Like a great many Americans I have been dealing with tears and a palpable fear. Fear that the very institutions and pillars, which are there to protect our basic human rights, are in danger. Unfortunately, I have not been proven wrong.

Grappling with this, I have come to realize that this will the toughest challenge yet. But where do we fall in this? What can we do? The greatest challenges define us.

What I have LOVED is seeing the outpouring of support and solidarity. People’s kindnesses in the face of hate. The simple hellos to and from strangers, seeing a gentleman carry a chair for an elderly lady, people checking in with those in their lives asking how they are holding up and letting them know that they are not alone.

Well I am here to tell you, you are not alone. I may or may not know you, but I know your pain and I know your fear and I will stand right beside you.

We each have a voice. We each have a choice. What we do with it is ours.

I will continue to write on my blog to raise awareness about incredible people so that we can learn about the greatness and goodness in human beings. So that we can learn from them and in their example know how powerful we can each be.

I will be factually informed and spread knowledge to the best of my ability.

I will stand up to bigotry and prejudices of all forms with love, kindness, awareness, knowledge and positive action. 

I will support organizations, which are in place to give voice to those who have none.

We will all come out on the other side of this. It’s what we do on the road there, which will define our humanity.

With Love, Dilshad

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My sister, Naheed Vadsaria

This is my third attempt at writing this post.  Not for any other reason than that this post is about my sister and I am so proud of her that I have found it difficult to write anything I felt was up to par.  So here is my latest attempt…trying keeping it sweet and simple.

My sister, Naheed Vadsaria, has just had her first book published!  I know there are many more adventures down the road for her but let me tell you a little bit about how she started.

I still remember Naheed going away for the Peace Corps.  I remember people trying to talk her out of it as I sat there thinking…what do they know?  I am so glad she didn’t listen to the nay-sayers because that first step led Naheed to doing some incredible things, all the while giving back to the world.  She’s got the biggest heart, though she may not give herself credit for how big it really is.

Naheed has taught English and computers to children in villages in Pakistan, she’s worked in The  Gambia researching land and labor issues and has been a social scientist in Afghanistan with the Department of Army’s Human Terrain Systems and the French Brigade Task Force Lafayette.

This book is a compilation of her essays, her vignettes from her time as a social scientist.  It focuses on Tajik women in the Kapisa Province in Afghanistan.

Remember Tina Fey in Whisky Tango Foxtrot?  The part where she follows a woman into a hut to find out that it was the women who were actually destroying the well so that they would have to walk for miles to get water because this was the only time they could socialize…that’s along the lines of what Naheed did, but not as a journalist and in a much more complicated, non-movie type of way.  The end goal was to have an open dialogue with villagers to learn what their needs and concerns were.

That meant learning their language, gaining trust, being sensitive to their culture…not impose her views or opinions…but be open to their world, their needs, their values and respect that.  She acted as a bridge between them and the organizations she represented…and here is a snippet of her work in this book.

So yes, Naheed is the smart, awesome, amazing, brave, kick-ass woman I am proud to call my sister.

Here is the link to where you can download her e-book Tajik Hope for free:

xx

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Laxmi Saa

I first learned about Laxmi Saa’s story from a BBC article.  Maybe some of you read the same article.

Laxmi was attacked with acid by a 32 year old man when she was only 15 years old.  She had rejected his advances, rightfully so.

I can’t imagine what she went through and what she still goes through…on a physical, emotional and societal level…the pain, the stigmas, the judgement, the alienation, all for doing nothing wrong.  The one thing Laxmi had control over was to decide when was not a victim.  She fought back.  She started her own non-profit, Stop Acid Attacks (@StopAcidAttacks) and succeeded in getting India’s Supreme Court to form a policy to regulate over-the-counter sales of acid.

She recently signed up to be the face of the fashion house Viva N Diva in India.  They wanted Laxmi to define beauty as bravery, as strength.  They went against every grain and for that I find them to be incredible too.

Check out this video of Laxmi’s photoshoot.

For me, reading about Laxmi is reading about someone who represents bravery, strength, courage, resilience and love.  So yes, she is incredible.

xx

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Mellissa Fung

I first learned about Melissa Fung (@mellissafung) a couple of months ago, while filming in Canada.  Her news broadcast, Losing Afghanistan, was on and I stopped what I was doing to watch.  Ms. Fung’s career as a journalist has been dedicated to documenting the struggle for basic human rights for women.

She was in Afghanistan.  The part of the broadcast I came in on was about the brutal stoning death of 19 year old Rokhshana who was killed for not wanting to marry an older man.  The video is brutal so if you are going to watch, please know this.

Ms. Fung’s broadcast then followed her to one of the largest and desolate refugee camps in Afghanistan, Charahi Qambar.  What I didn’t know was that Ms. Fung was returning to the very place from which she had been kidnapped just years before.  This was her first time back.

If you take the time to watch, her story will speak for itself.  The mud houses.  The people.  The tragedy of these families, these children….AND the bravery and compassion of Ms. Fung.

After watching, I was in awe of her and I hope to one day soon read her book, Under The Afghan Sky.

xx

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The Beginnings…

Hi!  Welcome!  I’m so happy you’re reading this.

I wanted to have a place where I could share my thoughts about issues, events and experiences which are important to me, in a bit more detail than I have been on Twitter.

Specifically, I don’t know what exactly this will lead me to talk about, but I like the thought of stepping into the unknown.

So I will take it one brush stroke at a time, starting with today, being                             International Women’s Day 2016.

Quite some time ago, I was inspired to dedicate a series of tweets to women who are making a change in this world.  I’ve been thinking about those tweets and those women for a while, which led me to want to do it again, here.

Starting today and for the next few days, I will write about women who I have read about or met  whose actions I have found inspirational.  The                                       changemakers.  The heroes.

I hope you will enjoy and I hope you will come back because I am really excited to share this with you.

Dilshad

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