MA World Health hosts the U.S. coalition to end sexual and gender-based violence, the We Will Speak Out campaign. As I share our advocacy efforts with people across the country and the world, I’ve grown accustomed to one very particular question: “Since when did we stop helping boys and men?” The first time I received this question the person didn’t have the courage to ask me publicly, but rather sent me an anonymous note a few days later.
Admittedly, I didn’t understand the question at first. Had I missed something? What had I said that led this person to believe that IMA World Health and its We Will Speak Out campaign no longer supported half the human species? I was utterly confused. How had I given the impression that we pick and choose, or that we somehow discriminate? Hadn’t I been clear that we help anyone in need?
To be sure, I always lift up the particular needs of girls and women. Why? Because for far too long our needs have not been met. Our bodies have been neglected, abused and objectified. Our potential has not been reached. Our minds have not been given access to health care or education. Our power has not been unleashed. IMA’s work to provide primary health services to the most vulnerable; reduce maternal morbidity and mortality; end sexual and gender-based violence; and address harmful gender norms and inequities to reduce the risk of contracting HIV, mitigating its impact, and increasing access to services; targets girls and women in our tireless quest to contribute to the social and economic development of this imbalanced world and achieve IMA’s vision of a world of health, healing and well-being for all. Yes, I mean all.
I have been engaged in international health and development my entire professional life. It is not only my job; it is my ministry and my passion, encompassing many aspects of what it means to be a development worker, pastor, theologian, educator and social justice activist. But the thread woven throughout is having always promoted, struggled for, and invested in the health, education and empowerment of girls and women. It is the key to our progress—all of our progress—girls, women, boys and men. Yes, women and girls hold up half the sky, as the Chinese proverb claims, but men and boys hold up the other half.
Our domestic and global efforts, both programmatically and through our advocacy initiatives to uplift girls is not easy work, mind you. And seemingly so perplexing and even controversial that folks feel compelled to write anonymous notes demanding to know why we no longer support boys and men.
Nothing could be more inaccurate, of course. But the mere idea that the question had to be raised at all is significant, a stark reminder of how much education is still necessary. The plight of girls and women will only be solved when boys and men are engaged in the solutions. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel the frustration knowing that our efforts to shine a light on girls does not mean that we are not shining the light on boys, but rather just the opposite. It’s just that girls are the ones who aren’t vaccinated or sent to the hospital right away in many areas of the world, even though their brothers’ health is prioritized. It’s just that girls aren’t the ones being sent to school, made to stay at home to help with the work of the household, whereas boys are encouraged to get an education. It’s just that girls are, statistically speaking, more at risk for being sexually assaulted, raped or the victims of gender-based violence than boys.
It’s just that blatant.
So I pull myself together, take a deep breath, and listen to “The Untold Story” by Sibongile Khumalo and Themba Mkhize to help invoke the spirits of all the girls who have inspired me, and IMA and We Will Speak Out, thus far.
Some of their names I know, some I do not. But I see their faces as clearly as I did upon first meeting them. I remember their stories. I fulfill the promise I made, that we would share their stories so that the world might know. So that we could transform the world into a safe, equitable and healthy place just waiting for the gifts girls bring to it.
To the schoolgirls participating in our Healthy Schools, Successful Children program across Haiti, I honor you. To the girls in the Nairobi slums we are treating and helping to gain access to health services, I honor you. To the young women across Eastern Congo at risk of being the next victims of sexual violence, I honor you. To the American girls with stars in their eyes as they embark on their college careers and are sexually assaulted or even raped while on campus, I honor you. To the girls sitting in our houses of worship whose health and bodies have already been damaged as a result of unjust power and gender dynamics, I honor you.
But today I also honor the men of the world who are outraged by the plight of girls, and who are speaking out, standing up, and doing something about it. Men like our very own Rick Santos, CEO and President of IMA, without whose leadership the We Will Speak Out campaign never would have been launched. Men like our remarkable partner, Dr. Denis Mukwege of Panzi Hospital, once again short-listed for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, whose miraculous hands and heart as a reconstructive surgeon have healed countless women survivors in Eastern Congo. Men like Quentin Walcott, Co-Executive Director of NYC’s CONNECT, a member of WWSO, whose bold work is pushing communities to redefine manhood and is building a society that embraces equality, mutuality and rejects violence in communities as the status quo. An anti-violence activist and educator, he has spent the last 18 years addressing a critical part of the equation to stopping violence against girls and women: men. Yes, today, I also honor all of you. For as Tony Porter of A Call to Men proclaimed, “If she’s not free, I’m not free.”
Girls of the world, and the men who champion them, IMA World Health and We Will Speak Out honor you. Today is for you. Today is for us. But in our heart of hearts, we pray that one day there will no longer be a need for an International Day of the Girl, because each and every day will be a day to celebrate and honor girls. We will no longer need to be “empowered” because we will have truly turned our pain into power, our obstacles into opportunities, and our vulnerability into victory. And this will only happen with boys and men by our side.