In a May 22 story in the Washington Post, reporter Ishaan Tharoor details testimony from a United Nations official, Zainab Bangura, on the horrors women in the Middle East suffer at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS). Bangura explained:
“After attacking a village, [the Islamic State] splits women from men and executes boys and men aged 14 and over. The women and mothers are separated; girls are stripped naked, tested for virginity and examined for breast size and prettiness. The youngest, and those considered the prettiest virgins fetch higher prices and are sent to Raqqa, the IS stronghold.
“There is a hierarchy: sheikhs get first choice, then emirs, then fighters. They often take three or four girls each and keep them for a month or so, until they grow tired of a girl, when she goes back to market. At slave auctions, buyers haggle fiercely, driving down prices by disparaging girls as flat-chested or unattractive.
“We heard about one girl who was traded 22 times, and another, who had escaped, told us that the sheikh who had captured her wrote his name on the back of her hand to show that she was his ‘property.’”
“They commit rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution and other acts of extreme brutality. We heard one case of a 20-year-old girl who was burned alive because she refused to perform an extreme sex act. We learned of many other sadistic sexual acts. We struggled to understand the mentality of people who commit such crimes.”
As terrorist groups gain footholds across the Middle East and large swaths of Africa, Americans are temporarily reminded of the unfathomable atrocities committed against women in this region of the world. Unfortunately, stories like these quickly fade from the headlines, and as our country’s dire fiscal situation compounds, we turn our attention to matters at home.
Yet there are some who have committed their lives to changing that.
Nancy Bocskor began her career in public service in 1979 as a staffer for then-Congressman Newt Gingrich (R-GA). After nearly three decades in the political arena, she decided it was time to use her gifts in pursuit of a more charitable cause: promoting human rights across the globe.
“I wanted to show others that public service was still a good and honorable endeavor: that you can change lives and communities by participating in civic engagement, volunteering for non-profits and by running for elected office,” Bocskor said in an interview with Opportunity Lives.
Recognizing her extensive experience in strategic communications, several organizations approached Bocskor to share her talents and expertise with individuals in countries who might not enjoy the same access to an open electoral system that Americans do. She immediately felt drawn to the cause, and she has since dedicated her life to improving civic engagement worldwide.
“I’ve always taught others how to be better candidates, advocates and leaders in my work for the Republican Party. Back in 1994, the International Republican Institute invited me to speak at one of the first women’s leadership seminars in Russia,” Bocskor said. “Since that trip, I’ve worked in 23 countries on five continents and guest lectured in Australia. In the summer of 2011, I was a visiting professor teaching civil society at a university in Moscow. I know first-hand how basic civil rights can disappear quickly.”
Bocskor took a particular interest in advancing the cause of women, especially those facing systemic persecution not only from terrorism, but also from the countries in which they live. She often speaks of the real difference between the so-called “war on women” in the U.S. and the actual “war on women” across the globe.
“You can live your life in fear, or you can live your life to take chances and change lives”
While she concedes that Republicans have significant room for improvement in attracting female voters, she believes that self-proclaimed “feminists” in the U.S. have, indeed, hijacked the word to signify a particular political agenda. Real feminism, she argues, should be concerned with guaranteeing equal opportunities and rights. Instead, Bocskor says that the “real war on women” remains almost entirely outside our borders. She cites child marriage, female genital mutilation, lack of education, stonings, honor killings, food scarcity, non-potable water and human trafficking as the greatest threat to women and girls around the world.
“I counsel young women in particular that there’s a world beyond your own backyard, and while we have challenges in the U.S., we have access to clean drinking water, education, health care and so on, that most of the rest of the world only dreams about,” she said. “There are more issues on the table than access to ‘free’ birth control.”
Bocskor considers the Women’s Economic Forum (WEF) “Global Gender Gap Report” to be the definitive resource for determining a country’s disposition toward women’s rights. Unsurprisingly, the study shows that the vast majority of the worst offenders can be found in the Middle East and Africa.
“Of the 142 nations measured, Yemen always ranks last – it’s a country where nine-year-old girls are often forced into marriage,” Bocskor explained. “Pakistan, Chad, Mali and Syria are also horrendous places, and so is Iran.”
In these countries, it isn’t simply economic disparity. Here, women typically lack basic human rights – things American and, wholly, Western women, often take for granted.
In Saudi Arabia, a critical American ally, women are not allowed to drive, to vote or to walk in public unaccompanied by a husband or male relative. They are also unable to swim, try on clothes at a store or participate freely in sports. Such draconian practices have earned the Saudi Arabian government a ranking of 130 out of 145 on the WEF report.
“After many years of delay, Saudi Arabia is scheduled to finally let women vote in local elections this year– but of course, those voting areas are segregated,” Bocskor explained.
In addition to empowering women to participate in the electoral process, Bocskor says that their rights would be improved tremendously by three principal reforms:
- Providing access to basic health care. This includes pre-natal care, maternity wards, eliminating female genital mutilation and breast-flattening, HIV/AIDS prevention and sex education (STDs are rampant because males often have multiple partners).
- Thwarting rampant corruption. “More women need to be trained, inspired and encouraged to enter public service,” Bocskor said. She points to a report from Transparency International that explains, “Women are less likely to pay bribes but are more disadvantaged in corruption systems. Corruption has a disproportionately negative effect on women.”
- Guaranteeing equal access to education. “Girls who stay in school are much more likely to not be forced into child marriage, as many families still marry off girls by age nine, since girls are considered a burden to their families,” Bocskor said. “These are the girls who die in child birth because their bodies are not mature; these are the girls who self-immolate because they’re married to men 20 to 40 years older. These are the girls who have no hope and are mired in poverty and fear.” Education, Bocskor believes, changes that.
While these tasks certainly seem daunting, change is already emerging, and even in places where it is least expected.
“Rwanda is tops in the world for women’s political participation; 64 of 100 members of Parliament are women. Why? In 1994, more than 800,000 men, women and children were slaughtered in a massive genocide. Women had to pick up the pieces – and quotas were established so women would have basic rights,” Bocskor said. “Women ruled so well – corruption plummeted, health care and education improved – that more and more women were elected. Add women, change everything.”
The U.S. has been and will continue to be a crucial part of instituting reforms in countries where women’s rights are uncertain or nonexistent. Bocskor argued that while Americans are often focused inward or on the problems at home, the U.S. still has an obligation to be participatory in world affairs, especially when human rights are at stake.
“Women ruled so well – corruption plummeted, health care and education improved – that more and more women were elected. Add women, change everything”
“Not everyone has the need to serve others – sometimes their own struggles are overwhelming. Nonetheless, we are a global community. What happens around the world can happen here if we don’t continue to be vigilant,” Bocskor said. “Social media, with 24-7 coverage, is overwhelming. It’s harder and harder to encourage people to focus on one thing for long. Today’s crisis in Nigeria with Boko Harem quickly fades into another crisis elsewhere. Focus is difficult. For some of us, it is our passion. And we’ll continue to advocate for those affected by the ‘real’ war on women.”
Thanks to the selfless efforts of people like Nancy Bocskor, Americans are, despite a lack of sustained media coverage, making a difference. She notes that prominent American organizations, like the bipartisan Vital Voices Global Partnership, are responsible for doing some of the greatest good in the promotion of women’s rights across the globe. She cites Americans such as Melanne Verveer, Alyse Nelson and Dr. Terry Nease as the foremost experts in this field who are making tangible contributions to the cause.
Artists are using their skills to spotlight the women’s rights crisis, too. Two documentaries, “It’s A Girl” and “Girl Rising,” provide American audiences a chance to discover the challenges women and girls face worldwide, from femicide (the killing of unwanted females) and the difficulties for girls attempting to receive an education.
Even America’s political parties have gotten involved. Bocskor says that both the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute demonstrate their commitment to women’s rights on a global scale by sponsoring programs that focus on empowering female citizens in every corner of the world.
“I have taught workshops for both organizations for women in Russia, Georgia, Moldova, Mongolia, Belarus and Haiti,” Bocskor said.
While she recognizes the trepidation some might feel in traveling to distant places that are unsafe or hostile to Westerners, Bocskor insists that advancing the cause of women’s rights – those who live every day amidst an actual “war on women” – is well worth it.
“You can live your life in fear, or you can live your life to take chances and change lives. As my soon-to-be 90-year-old mom says, ‘I’d rather die in a terrorist attack than in a nursing home.’ Be bold. Be brave,” Bocskor said. “I’d be a lot wealthier working in U.S. politics. Instead, I use what I’ve learned here – messaging, strategies, coalition building – and help women who walk in with a dream and walk out with a plan.”
Ellen Carmichael is president of The Lafayette Company, a Washington, D.C.-based political consulting firm. She has served as a senior communications adviser for a Republican presidential campaign, Members of Congress and statewide elected officials. Follow her on Twitter at @ellencarmichael.