TheRED ELEPHANT FOUNDATION An Initiative for Peace and Gender Equality through Storytelling

A collective of young women in Singapore work hard to break stereotypes and reinstate women's voices in public spaces and discourses. Speaking about their work with Beyond The Hijab, the collective of young women, talk about their collective motivations, accomplishments and journey so far. 

Let's start with your story. Could you talk about your work, education and motivations to do the work that you're doing?
We’re a collective of women driven to creating a community where other Singaporean Muslim women can gather together in a safe space to share their stories. We all come from pretty diverse backgrounds, education and are working in different fields, but we all feel strongly that women should be able to have their own voices be heard in a climate and culture where male voices often take priority even on issues that pertain to women.

What is Beyond the Hijab all about? When and how did it all begin?
"Beyond the Hijab" was first conceptualised by 4 friends. We have since grown to a group of 6! We wanted to explore the intersectionality of being a Muslim, a Singaporean and a women and create awareness about the unique experiences we face.
We wanted to create a platform where Muslim women in Singapore would be able to speak and express their mind, free from the stereotype that society projects onto them - which led to the creation of this blog. That is also mainly the reason we chose the name BEYOND the hijab because we are tired of the hijab seemingly being the only issue people talk about when it comes to Muslim women.

Could you talk a bit about the work that you do at BTH? What are some of your key activities?
We are centred mainly on providing a safe space for women to share their experiences and thoughts pertaining to issues that affect them. The range of topics are wide since of course, Muslim women have a wide range of issues that they would want to talk about whether it's dealing with identity, negotiating supposed tensions between religion and sexuality, sexual health issues, issues of marginalisation or the current experience of someone about to convert. We’ve recently put out a couple of series, the first on the issue of female genital cutting in Singapore, which drew a lot of positive and empathic reaction and the most recent series was about questions Muslim women get asked often. I guess you could say our key activity is consciousness-raising, to the general public, but mainly with women in the Muslim community.

What are your challenges in the work that you do? How do you overcome them?
I think a challenge is really starting the conversation in a more public space, out in the open. It’s not that women do not talk about these issues that we see in the blog, it’s just that they have often been isolated to the domestic or personal sphere. This phenomenon isn’t really anything new, when we simply look to how much of womens’ voices are marginalised, how in the past one has to look to personal diaries to find the voices of women that were so absent in the main texts of history. Till now it doesn’t really feel natural to think that we can talk openly about things like our concerns or doubts or fears when it comes to issues like sexual health, sexuality, the role of women in the family, our responsibilities as wives or children or simply our opinions regarding certain things. So frankly a lot of how we break through that is simply to throw out what we want to say out in the open. And we’ve seen how simply having a person speak frankly about what she thinks or what she’s afraid of; simply that statement is enough of an act to encourage other women to speak as well. They don’t have to agree with each other but at least the conversation has begun and it’s a conversation that is worthy of happening in the public domain so that our opinions and concerns can be considered in the realm of opinion.

What inspires you to keep going?
It’s touching to see how connected women feel to each other once we share our stories, to be able to say to each other “that’s how I feel too,” “thank you for writing this,” or even “I might not agree with all of this but I’m glad you brought it up.” There is something radical in being able to connect with each other on a very personal level because feeling isolated and feeling lonely with your feelings; these are actually pretty political things! There’s a reason why your concerns are not given precedence, and the reason is because women’s voices are simply not taken as important even in issues that directly affect them. One need only see how conversations on the hijab in Singapore is dominated by male community leaders who can’t possibly fully understand or represent the experiences of women. It’s pretty absurd. So being able to make women feel like they are not alone, that their voices are important and deserving of fair consideration — these are important realisations that keep us going.

Would you like to share any anecdotes of success from your work so far?
The recent increased attention to the series were definitely an encouragement, especially with the theme of female genital cutting which is something that is pretty taboo to bring out into the open since it’s quite a sensitive issue in Singapore. As aforementioned, success is best measured through how women can feel safe enough to express their opinion, own it and connect with each other about such issues, issues that might have been relegated to the sidelines simply because they weren’t considered important enough. We hope more of this enthusiasm can be generated even if it’s in this small space. As long as this space exists, and its maintained, and people know there is somewhere where they can speak, then that is a good start.

What do you envisage for the future of your work? 
We’re really hoping to keep up the current momentum and have more women share their opinions and experiences, about things that we ourselves might be oblivious to. We’re aware that there a host of experiences that we are not privy too, for example, what is it like living as someone who belongs to a denomination of Islam that isn’t openly accepted or even treated with a measure of contempt? What is it like holding the identity of Muslim and also as a minority within the community, such as being Indian Muslim? What is it like being queer in a community that can at times be virulently homophobic? What are some experiences of marginalisation that you experience, how can the community be more inclusive. We hope that through sharing experiences we can be more mindful and compassionate with each other and really work to being more inclusive to the people in the community.
Angry Indian Goddesses, an Indian film, was hailed as one of the most significant films centred around women, in the country. Directed by Pan Nalin, the film struck chords with a massive chunk of people in India and abroad – with the intellectual and relate-able dimension of the film being a major catalyst in achieving this. Pan Nalin shares his story and inspiration behind the film with us.

What inspired Angry Indian Goddesses?
Modern Indian women and their stories inspired me to make an all-out female buddy film. I also realized that the gap between the Rekha-starrer Umrao Jaan and the Kangana Ranaut-starrer Queen is way too wide. About five years ago, when I started research with my co-writer, Subhadra Mahajan and Dilip Shankar, there was an outcry from women. They wanted to know why there were such few movies about women, why there were no female buddy films at all. For decades, we have had our shares of buddy movies: Rang De Basanti, Dil Chahta hai, Kai Po Che, 3 Idiots, Delhi Belly – all great movies, but they all ran high on testosterones, as if women don’t “buddy” each other! The inspiration behind Angry Indian Goddesses was an organic process. I love great stories. Our country witnessed rapid economic growth and crashed right into the conflict of modernity versus traditions. Contemporary Indian women are at the centre of this unfolding torn, troubled and tarnished modern era. Should they move with time or stay with traditional values, or do both? I wanted to make a film which would be a reflection of this state of affairs that Indian women are experiencing: career, society, love, family, sex… so while researching and writing Angry Indian Goddesses, it naturally transformed into one of the first film to put the buddy-hood of Indian women at the heart of the story. That was a kind of an aha moment!

Portrayal requires a lot of effort - one runs the rusk of allowing characters to lapse into caricatures. But Angry Indian Goddesses has been able to steer clear of it. How did you manage that? What went into the casting / preparation for the roles?
I had short-listed about 12-15 characters in an attempt to form a great bunch. All those characters are inspired from real-life characters. Each character was a story in itself. The casting of seven female talents was a big preparation. Auditions shaped the characters and their stories. One day, like magic, there it was! A wild bunch of girls were selected and their photos were pinned to the wall of our office. This was it. The Casting Director, Dilip Shankar, counted them: “..but there are seven of them!” I said that number did not matter. This bunch emanated energy and the aura of womanhood and buddyhood. Once the wild bunch was formed, we did a workshop with them with the help of Dilip Shankar where each of them worked day and night in building their persona and bringing their character to life. Each of the actresses influenced the script and characters heavily. I really wanted that. Together with my co-writers Subhadra Mahajan, Arasala Qureshi and Dilip Shankar, we devised a system where the actresses would transform their characters and dialogues but without being aware of it. Their influence had to be so natural and organic that they did not even know that they were affecting the narrative.

As a fighter for Gender Equality, what are your thoughts on the gains of the movement fighting for Gender Equality, and what needs to be done in the future for it?
It should neither be a movement nor a fight. I believe both are bad for seeking Gender Equality. Like everything else in life, it has to start at a very young age, and continue while growing up. This is the place where mothers play a very big role in raising children equally. But that's not what happens in reality. There are still mothers who serve hot chapattis to her son and cold ones to her daughter! If we change little things like that in our lives, it will shake the whole society.

What has the response for the film been? Has there been an absorption of the messages by different sections?
Angry Indian Goddesses has garnered a phenomenal reception across many countries and continues to do so. And all this prior to its International theatrical release, which will start from June 2016! I’ve tasted such worldwide response with my earlier movies. As a filmmaker I always hope to be loved by my viewers, if that was not the case I will not be making movies. So, first, I hope that viewers will be entertained and enlightened. If they do so, they will certainly be inspired to talk about what they have just watched. As I have always said, there is no message, but we all have our own way of consuming stories. It’s not about men or women but each individual who opens up to stories. When we read a book or watch a movie, the gesture in itself is sign of opening up yourself and positioning your mind in ready-to-receive mode. Each of us interacts and receives stories differently and thank goddess for that! If we received and interacted in exactly the same manner, what a boring place this earth be! I want viewers to react differently, I want them to agree and disagree – and that alone can start a dialogue. I am content with the way different sections of society have absorbed Angry Indian Goddesses and interpreted it from their point-of-view rather than just mine.

Angry Indian Goddesses was unnecessarily censored in parts by the censor board. What are your thoughts on it?
What we were asked to mute or blur in AIG was truly shocking. I was so dumbstruck that for days I had no idea how to react to it. Certainly, to me, many of their objections seem unfair and unnecessary. We live in the 21st Century, it’s a digital era, I can consume porn with a click. I can see all kinds of violence on the net. Who are we trying to protect? Who are we censoring for? Above all, four-five people sitting in a dark room decide what the entire population of 1.2 billion should watch or not! I though that institution was in charge of ‘certification’, but why do they have rights to ‘censor’? Angry Indian Goddesses has been appreciated world over for its positive portrayal of women and inspiring storytelling. It will be released almost all over the world in June 2016. Not one country wants to censor anything in the film. But back home, we have a problem with the film because it gives voice to women. We blur images of Goddesses because it is blasphemy to compare women with Goddesses! Come on! Every politician in the country starts his speech with “Deviyon aur Sajjano!”

Steve S.J. Lee is a Climate Change and Gender Equality Activist. All set to take on a massive drive comprising five national tours with his 3% Project, Steve's story is filled with inspiring and interesting take homes. 

I am a climate change activist, a policy advocate to the UN and a global speaker. I am also the Executive Director of the Foundation for Environmental Stewardship and the founder of PassionExplorer, empowering the final generation that can solve climate change. I've had the opportunity to represent the Canadian Youth on issues of Climate Change, Sustainable Development and Youth Empowerment.

I was personally trained by Al Gore as a Climate Reality Leader and have been scientifically trained in Physiology and Human Biology at the University of Toronto. I was a partner with RevIT2 Solutions, a market research consulting form for private investing firms. I am also the CEO of Steve's Guidebook, a publishing company for university-level calculus and biology study guides.

I came to Canada in second semester grade 9 and of course I didn't have any friends at the time and this guy came up to me and asked if I would want to join a competition for UNICEF to go to the G8 Summit and I thought, "Oh I don't have any friends!" and this guy was a very smart guy, so I wanted to hang out with him. So I agreed to join the project and one thing led to another, I represented the Canadian Youth at the G8 Summit back in 2009. One of the topics that were discussed at the time was climate change. I came back from the Summit being more aware of the understanding of the reality of climate crisis, how it's such an urgent issue and very complex issue. I did more research, I learned more about it and the more I learned about it I had this urge to really share that with my friends because they should know about this as well.

I started going to elementary schools and high schools, sharing about what it is that I know about climate change, and my experience through UNICEF at the G8 Summit. Then that experience opened more doors for me in policy advocacy and doing more political engagement.

So few years fast forward in 2012, there was a Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development and it was held at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. I went there thinking, oh you know, I get to fly to another country, how cool is that! I saw this huge presence of civil society of NGOs, activists, and local volunteers who were there demanding action for climate change and for sustainable future. That's where I understood that I've been flying around doing all kinds of policy work because it was self-glorifying not because it was really the best thing that I could contribute to solving the problem.
I remember sitting at the airport coming back to Canada, crying in the airport really reflecting what is it that I'm really contributing to solve this issue and wondering what the best thing I could do here and the best thing was that I enjoyed engaging my friends on the issue. I began talking to my friends in high schools and universities, and letting them know the reality of climate change, and how we can together solve the issue effectively in the local ground because the real change happens from person to person just like you and me talking right now from families from communities and that's where real change happens and that's what I was missing out on.

I started my activism in gender equality when my mentor, Ravi Karkara, Senior Advisor to Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, challenged me to look at how climate change and gender equality intersects. You don't understand how dark it is until you walk into it. That was the case with gender equality for me. I never knew how prevalent violence against women and girls were. You hear about it, but until you start engaging in conversations with people about it, it's very easy to think it's some women overreacting and men have nothing to do with it. Engaging young men and boys to uproot the toxic masculinity from our culture is essential to achieving gender equality. I made gender equality the priority of my activism after climate change. I was an organizing partner for the first-ever Youth CSW Forum by UN Women in March and co-chair of its declaration drafting committee. I'm also a member of UN Inter-Agency Network for Youth Development's Working Group on Youth and Gender Equality and its taskforce on Young Men in Gender Equality. 

I founded the 3% Project recently, which mobilizes 1,000,000 Canadian youth through 5 national tours across 400 towns in 2 years. 1 million young Canadians - that's 3% of Canada, will be educated and empowered to solve climate change in their local communities. The result will be a nation-wide conviction that climate change is happening right now, that is mainly caused by human activities, and that we are the final generation with the opportunity to solve Climate Change. I would love to have your support on this project, and here's how you can help.

Climate change affects women and girls disproportionately more than men and boys. Women are underrepresented in decision-making process on climate change adaptation and mitigation. Women and girls die more during disasters. Emergency preparation programs are designed by men for men. Climate change increases the rate of gender-based violence. Climate change worsens agricultural outcomes that are worked by women. Girls walk longer under hotter sun to collect receding source of water while their brothers go to school. I could go on and on. If you care about climate change, you have to care about gender equality, and vice versa. Climate change is a women issue; it's a human issue.

In terms of challenges, I find three things a bit daunting: Loneliness, Burning out and Financial instability. In our local communities of action, there is more indifference than support. But being connected to youth leaders from around the world and listening to their work inspires me to keep moving forward. We're one big human family! Stories of youth leaders from around the world always keep me going. Knowing that we are working together to achieve the same goals really inspires me. 

Helle Duus Alex founded and runs the SistaEnable initiative. A powerful example of resilience and inspiration, Helle’s story in her own words will leave you inspired.

I was born and raised in Denmark in 1960. Denmark is a very liberated country, and women achieved the right to vote in 1915. My maternal great grandmother, my maternal grandmother and my mother were all nurses, like I am too – women in my family all have a strong tradition for caring for other people. I grew up being very close to my grandmother. She was a world traveler, born in 1910, educated in Canada and extremely independent. She said to me “men might think they are the head of the family, but women are the ‘neck that turn the head’.” It was the way women made decisions back in the days in Denmark, and I see how this is done in other parts of the world too. It is about time we take our own credits now, and realize the head and the neck are one – one part of a body with many different parts, which is only a strong whole, when we do not handicap it by keeping parts separate.

I moved to the USA in 1985, and my kids have dual citizenship. In 1997 we started spending all our vacations in Italy, so my five kids have grown up with three very different cultures.
I have been married a couple of times, had a few partners, enjoyed my relationships, and left in respect when the joy was hard to find. My kids are now grown, I am currently single and liking my independence. I have spent a great deal of my adult years as a volunteer for different organizations.

Helle Duus Alex
I have always traveled a lot and I have visited most continents – always making it a priority to stay with locals, to learn from them. In 2010 I visited Central Africa to research for an article I wrote on small coffee growers, that I wrote for an American NGO. After having spent six weeks visiting different local projects, I came back really disillusioned, because it was so obvious that women were the driving force in everything that got done, and men were the ones to ripe the benefits. It seemed so unfair.

After walking in Manhattan NY day and night for two weeks not being able to rest, one night I finally realized my disillusion was caused by the fact, that most projects were not sustainable. This word kept pounding my head – so one night I sat down and wrote the word on a piece of paper, thinking, what IS it about this word that wants something from me! Suddenly, I saw the obvious – in changing two letters – it said SISTAENABLE, which is pronounced the same, with a meaning that made so much sense – sista enable – the only way to make the world grow in all aspects, because a society with gender equal rights, has higher social, humanitarian and economic standards.

There are SO many wonderful projects out there, all promoting gender equality, but we lack the overall sense of UNITY.  So I came up with the name SISTAENABLE, and as Churchill came up with the hand sign of V for Victory, I came up with W for Women Will.
Sistaenable Women Will!

We work with strong women and quality men promoting equality for women. We are all one. We move from an anthropological understanding against any kind of imperialistic thinking based on a desire for plain human rights, knowing that gender equality furthers social, economic and humanitarian standards. Therefore, 350+ people in 70+ countries worldwide have added SistaEnable to their Facebook list of work!
We have a lot of people and organizations that have committed to the sistaenable thought, but at times it also seems as if our challenge comes from within the gender equality movement, as a lot of women are afraid to share connections, share ideas, share moving on together, as if there is a slight fear of competition between the different NGO’s. This is sad – we should all realize that we overcome much more if we unite and support each other and that our only real growth will take place when we work together and GIVE attention to what others have going on, and do our best to PROMOTE each others projects, instead of finding them a challenge to fight. I think we still have some male dominance left in the culture of practice, that we need to overcome.

We overcome these challenges in keeping a focus on just continuing being the giving part. Through our Facebook page SISTAENABLE and our web-site we keep promoting as many women and as many projects as we can, because this is really our main business. We do this through story-telling, short docs, news and information.

We want to UNITE strong women and quality men and organizations who promote gender equality. We want the word SISTAENABLE to replace the word sustainable in all aspects where it makes sense to enable women to participate. We want to create a mutual identity through the use of our hand sign of W for Women Will. We work with a lot of “quality men who promote equality for women”, because men are just as important for our work, and in some cultures even more, as women.

So far all our work is voluntary – we have no money, we seek no funds, we pay no salaries – we do not even have a budget. Our work is done among the burning souls, those who really make a difference. I personally spend about six hours a day being in contact with people who work in or run gender equality projects, and I advise them through mails or skype, I promote their work and mainly and very important, I connect them with each other. I have huge database of connections, and people write me from left and right with ALL sorts of issues that I cannot solve, but most often I can find someone who can.

We have lots of success stories to share – as we have grown to be globally recognized within the four years we have existed. Our partnerships range from anything between educating about the damage of the culture of child brides, FGM, marital oppression of wives,  the importance of education, the stop of violence of women, human trafficking, equal pay, trans gender issues, freedom of speech, independence, etc … all based on an anthropological understanding, as we do not believe in imperialism but instead on mutual respect, based on human rights for all.

Naturally our long term goals are to UNITE women, whether organized or not, under one flag; the hand sign of W, which should be used in all gender equal demonstrations, speeches, shows and gatherings, to peacefully show the world that Women Will, promote gender equal rights. We will continue moving towards this goal through promoting others as much as we can.

Tony Kiambi Mwebia
Tony Kiambi Mwebia fights the practice of FGM not only through his advocacy online, but through active offline workshops with different communities. Here is his story in his own words. 

I am Tony Kiambi Mwebia, born and brought up in Meru County at the slopes of Mount Kenya. I come from a middle class family in Kenya. I was brought up by my mum, a primary school teacher, and my dad, a professional chef, with one of the international chain hotels in Kenya. Both of them are retired now.

My childhood was a normal one, but being brought up in the rural setting and with my mum being a teacher, it was a very big challenge to me. Everyone in society was looking up to us as role models and we were expected to be always perfect and right. My family environment was very conducive and my parents were always there to provide me with everything I wanted. I have a sister and three brothers and I am the second last born in the family. I schooled in a local public school with my mum being my teacher from classes one to three. At class five, I was transferred to a boarding school where my sister was also schooling. Later, in Class 7, I was transferred to another boarding school because I was always number one. From the boarding school, I proceeded to a boarding secondary school where I attained a mean grade of A- in my KCSE. Thereafter, I joined the University of Nairobi, where I studied for a Bachelor’s Degree in Arts, specializing in social work. That was from 2007 to 2011, when I graduated. While on campus, I also studied accounts part time and qualified as a public accountant.

I am a professional social worker now, with a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Nairobi. I will say that social work is quite a new career path in Kenya. I hardly knew about it until I was admitted into university. Once there, I got interested as we were oriented on the field, and I can now say that it’s such a fulfilling profession! At the end of the day, you can take stock of the lives that you have changed or have touched in one way or another.

Immediately after school, I was able to get a job in an NGO working with youth, called Youth Alive! Kenya. This was on a fixed contract basis from 2011 to 2012. When my contracted ended, I thought that other than staying at home, I could volunteer with an NGO and build on my experience. That’s the way I found myself at the HIAS Refugee Trust of Kenya as a volunteer. After two months of volunteer work dealing with urban refugees, there was a vacancy for being a temporary project assistant in the FGM division. This was a pilot project funded by the UNHCR and it was supposed to go for two months. I must admit that until this time, I had heard very little about FGM.

Now, the position required me to know at least the basics of FGM and especially Kenyan laws on the subject. This acted as a motivation and in no time, I found myself reading extensively on FGM and gaining a lot of knowledge on it. We held several dialogues and sensitization meetings in Nairobi. I was able to meet refugees from Congo, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Somali who shared their different stories and experiences with FGM during the community dialogues. Some of the stories were really touching and they made me want to learn more and more about FGM. I heard things that I could not even imagine. We had doctors and midwives sharing their experiences in the labor ward especially with women that had undergone infibulations.

Men openly spoke about how they lost their loved ones as a result of complications during birth and during the cutting process. Women shared the pain they had to encounter every time they had sex. This completely changed my heart and I swore to try the best I could to try and end this menace. When my contract ended, I immediately open a twitter account where I carry out an online campaign against FGM, I also created a blog where I also write about my experiences with FGM. I believe that information is power and through these two social media sites most of my friends now know what FGM is. By my good luck after the expiry of my contract in 2013, I got another job with a government Parastatal and I was posted to Kuria in Migori County. Over here, rates of FGM are very high. This has enabled me to continue my work towards ending FGM to date.

The biggest challenge has been ignorance from community members who attend the trainings and seminars and not follow whatever they are taught. You also find out some of the communities where I work, that there is some spiritual attachment to the ceremony and community members believe that if you don’t carry out the rite of passage your family could have a bad omen. The girls also face a lot of discrimination and negative peer pressure from the community members. All these factors have a negative effect on the fight against FGM and they slow down the achievements

From experience I have come to appreciate that community dialogues and sensitization aimed at changing people’s perception is the greatest weapon that anyone who is fighting any Negative culture can use to conquer the society. Technically speaking every community is unique in its own way and an intervention applied in one community or country will not work sufficiently or will fail if applied in another community. Community dialogue allow the community member to come up with own solutions for own problems and hence reduce resistance to change.

As a social worker I feel fulfilled every time I put a smile on the face of a young girl who could have faced difficulties in future as a result of undergoing FGM.  I also do believe that Girls are our sisters, friends, wives to be, cousins and mothers and hence it’s our responsibility to protect them as men. Men should also appreciate that they were carried by a woman for nine months and that woman who is a vessel should be respected at all cost.

I have been able to facilitate the rescue of more than 100 girls in one way or another for the     time I have been working in the fight against FGM. I can also say that through effective use of my social media campaign especially my twitter handle I have lobbied for the inclusion of Men in the fight against FGM .

Nicole Joseph is the founder of Ms Brafit - an initiative that deals with breast care, education, retail services and consultancy. Supporting everything from medicine to fashion, Nicole’s work traverses a massive spectrum of needs and provides solutions to them. Here’s her story in her own words.

I am a fan of the outdoors and the ocean. I also love good food and love spicy food. I am a huge fan of anything that says home-made because that means it is an old family tradition or recipe and I love meeting people.

I am the last of 6 children and grew up in a small suburb in Trinidad and Tobago, going to school in the community where I lived and enjoying the days of growing up with elder siblings, loads of cousins, aunties, the extended family and a neighborhood that was very caring. It was like the adage of the village raising the child - a close knit and caring community.

I continue to wear many hats but my work seems to always revolve around being a leader and a teacher, whilst it truly also has social impact at the core. For example, after graduating from my alma mater – St. Georges College, I found the need to return and teach voluntarily, just my give back to the place that molded and shaped me alongside my family and other communities. The best thing that could have happened to me as a young woman growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, was the co-educational college experience.

Learning from a very early time, how to harmoniously dwell amongst the opposite gender yet not be sexually or emotionally engaged and to be able to negotiate, broker and disagree but respectfully. That was amazing….so anyway, yes then my career segued into banking and in that area, I found the “teacher” in me being aroused very frequently.  And so did the organization, as I was assigned to conduct/facilitate many leadership training programs for new trainees for intake at the bank after every formal training module that was run by the technology centre – ROYTEC, which is now a division of the local university. I moved up the ranks in banking and enjoyed my 15 year career immensely, especially when I had to create programs or develop product packages for our clients. I spent many years in Business Development, Private Banking and VIP Banking. All very specialized areas where we build relationships and managed client’s needs!

Then during my tenure, I felt the need to serve differently and to offer a more specialized and focused service to women and to help develop the self esteem and confidence of women and girls, but more than that.  I felt that I need to offer women solutions that would bring about more informed actions for their health, lifestyle, well-being and family/community sense. I have always been passionate about people and serving people.

Let me share something about the genesis of the name “Brafit” for my company. Brathwaite or Braithwaite is a very popular Caribbean name and it is pronounced “Brafit”. So, I took some poetic license and used a household name to become a household brand akin to women of the Caribbean and by extension the world! We are a BRA FITTING company and we deal with breast care, education, retail services and consultancy.

We have done lots of research over the years within our work environment and we have developed a strong collection of very viable protocols for breast health beyond the clinical aspect. We support medical needs, fashion needs and educational needs. We have developed programming and created systems for wider conversations on breast health beyond the clinical needs of women. We have innovated in areas of breast health research that focuses on women and girls to engage conversations about confidence, about comfort in the workplace, about comfort during exercise about changes that the body may be subject to at many stages of the life of a woman.
But, Ms. Brafit came about somewhere in my childhood to be the next path of my adult service, because at age 9, I was already blessed with a fair share of breast tissue which made me an early candidate for using a full-fledged adult sized bra. So my parents and my dear Godmother, found the need to ensure that I always had a good and secure foundation and this was absolutely the catalyst to my comfort and my confidence growing up.

I cannot imagine my life any other way, but to have always worn a good fitting and comfortable bra….thanks to these women in my life who always ensured that I had great bras!

From my Godmother in the US to my auntie in the UK, I was always “fortified” with a good hold and loads of back support… today I can be assured that my good posture was part of the love and attention that was brought to me and so I found this was a good focus for my enterprise, whilst ensuring that we engaged in a strong educational, community and social advocacy component to empower women. I am fully educated in my area of work and have been certified in diverse areas that all sum up the needs for girls and women with healthy breasts no matter what her situation, age or stage of life.

Breasts are the first form of nourishment for the newborn baby once there is no mother to child viral transmission. They also define gender and most of all, they are the catalysts for many global discussions from “free the nipple” campaigns to “breastfeeding in the workplace” debates to “plastic surgery mishaps” to reality television shows, to malpractice lawsuits and even down to transsexual surgery. Breasts are a global topic that stretches beyond economics, beyond gender and way beyond even the old civilizations. Look at ancient art and sculptures, read mythology, and then watch an awards show, with all the red carpet models. What do we see? Boobies! Everywhere!

But then, we also have to delve into the psychology of breasts, who dictates what is the perfect pair, the perfect size, the perfect mound and who names them??? Boobies, boobs, knockers and all the rest! We are often forced to dislike our bodies by the way the breasts are glorified. We forget the importance of a self-breast examination but would pay tons for a push up bra. We would wear tight shoes but complain that breast screening (if necessary for some) is not comfortable! So the debates are extensive but girls are also forced into sexual dysfunction because they do not accept their bodies and their breasts. Women are objectified by the size of their breasts. It is a very long conversation

The education and advocacy programming that Ms. Brafit have developed engages discussion for girls and women in diverse settings (corporate, health, fashion, developing teens, maternity) understanding that there are diverse needs for each woman and she must take full responsibility for her comfort and her self-care, where it is possible, professionals like Ms Brafit has engineered professional solutions for women and girls and to support the medical and clinical communities.
Our policy development allows women to understand they can and should engage discussion for post-surgical care needs and to educate women on solutions-oriented ways of addressing medical and clinical needs – our reach with this needs to expand, but it has already been very effective.

Our Treatment Companion Medical Journal was designed for women to take full charge of their health care way beyond a diagnosis and to keep a comprehensive medical personalized medical records system that would allow her to make health decisions with confidence, understanding that she has all her personal details as a fully accessible personal catalogue designed just for her needs.

We are still doing huge research and development and we continue to add value to women’s lifestyle as a key component of our Social Enterprise

I believe in hugs. It is the only currency that has a similar exchange rate: You Give ONE You Get ONE!

Olga Cowings and Gavin Cowings

The Khmer Rouge regime is another black mark on humanity’s history, among other tragic conflicts such as those in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, which saw genocide and other crimes against humanity committed that have since been tried in international criminal tribunals. In Cambodia, roughly two million people, or a quarter of the entire population, died by means of torture, execution, disease, famine and exhaustion (Tyner, 2015) under the leadership of the Khmer Rouge who sought to return the country to an agrarian utopian society (Dicklitch & Malik, 2010).  This vision required the adoption of disastrous, draconian leadership and abandonment of vital evolutionary components of human history such as medicine, education and law through “the extermination of the elite and educated, a complete evacuation of urban centres, the incineration of books, libraries, banks, places of worship, and university facilities, the execution of ethnic minorities; and the prohibition of religious practice and education.” (Van Schaack, 1997).

The legacy of the Khmer Rouge has been far-reaching and lives on in many aspects of Cambodian society. Land disputes resulting in forced eviction are a common and controversial problem given the issues regarding ownership of private land prior to the Khmer Rouge regime, who put an end to private land ownership (CBRE Cambodia, 2012). A more grim example is the legacy of the four to six million land mines that were laid during three decades of conflict, with about 63,000 civilians and soldiers involved in land mine accidents, resulting in one of the highest amputee ratios in the world (Ruffins, 2010). Furthermore, the effects of an abolished education system can be derived from census data; those of school age in the 1970s have lower educational attainment than younger generations (de Walque, 2006).

As the education system collapsed, so did the population of professionals and intellectuals, who were virtually exterminated (Ghouse, Coughlan & Smith, 2012), leaving ten qualified lawyers in the country when the Khmer Rouge fell (AI, 2002). It was therefore hopeful that the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), established in 2003, would become a model court of the domestic legal system and leave a legacy bolstering the rule of law in Cambodia while building the national judiciary’s capacity (ICTJ, 2009). Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated that the ECCC should have “considerable legacy value, inasmuch as it will result in the transfer of skills and know-how to Cambodian court personnel”(UNAKRT, 2003).

Although the extent of the ECCC’s legacy is debatable given various obstacles including corruption and political interference (Ghouse, Coughlan & Smith, 2012), it has successfully tried and convicted members of the top leadership of the Khmer Rouge of war crimes in case 001 and 002/01 (ECCC, 2016, “Case Load”). Additional allegations of crimes against humanity were brought in the closing order of case 002/01 that would form the basis of case 002/02, including forced marriage and rape (ECCC, 2016, “Case 002”), both instances of gender-based violence (GBV) and sexualized crime (TPO, 2015). As mentioned by several authors of the Khmer Rouge period, sexualized and gender based violence included the mutilation of sexual organs, the exchange of sex for food, rape of males and females, sexual assaults,  fetuses taken from pregnant women and virginity controls (TPO, 2015). With an aim to increase the population and control sexuality, the forced marriage policy was a cornerstone of GBV and sexualized violence under the Khmer Rouge (TPO, 2015).

Civil Parties, who have the right to submit investigative requests to the Co-Investigating Judges, largely used this mechanism in case 002/01 to have sexualized violence investigated (TPO, 2015). Nearly 4000 victims participated as Civil Parties, of which 70% were female (Laidlaw, 2014). Females, and especially women aged 15-29 in 1976 were most likely to survive the genocide (de Walque, 2006) and consequently form a majority of the Civil Parties participating in the tribunal, which are largely supported by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Cambodia. Empowered by local civil society, GBV victims are leaving a powerful legacy of the Khmer Rouge period through an internationalized judicial setting by bringing justice to other victims and contributing to an international standard of classifying GBV and sexualized crimes as crimes against humanity.  

The tribunal on the former Yugoslavia was the first to give distinct attention to gender-based crimes, reflecting the work of feminist journalists detailing accounts of rape, forced prostitution and forced pregnancy by women’s support groups and women’s projects at human rights organizations (Anderson, 2005).  Unlike victims participating in the Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia, victims of sexualized and gender-based violence under the Khmer Rouge are older women who are, without support from civil society, reluctant to share their stories and experiences. Ms. Net Savoen is such a victim, and shared her story in hopes of making the next generation know more about such crimes (GBVKR, 2016).

 “In 1978, after the harvesting season, she was moved to Pursat province. She is the only survivor of around 30 women who were taken to be killed by the Khmer Rouge and who were raped before being killed. This happened in the cooperative of Prek Chig in Pursat province. At around six in the evening when they were taking a rest from carrying earth, Khmer Rouge chlob selected 30 strongly built women who were told they had to go carry salt. There were around ten Khmer Rouge chlob who led them into a forest. When they were close to the forest, the chlob made them sit down and tied them up immediately. After they tied them up, they continued to lead them into the forest. On the road, some realized that they were taken to be killed and refused to follow them but they were beaten.

When they arrived at the execution site in the forest, they started to rape the women and beat them to death with axes and finally they cut their throats. The pretty women were raped by them as they wished. Some women were raped by three to four men before they were killed. She could clearly see everything that happened because it was full moon. They started to kill and rape the women from the time the moon was rising at sunset until the moon was fully up in the middle of the sky. Then it was her turn. She was the last person among all who was standing and waiting for her turn until her whole body was numb because she did not know what to do.

She was raped by two people with her hands tied up. After that she did not know what else they did to her. When she regained consciousness, the sun was already rising. She had no clothes on her and was full of blood because the perpetrators hit her three times on the middle of the head with an axe. Barely alive, she looked for clothes near the dead bodies to cover herself. She saw dead bodies around her and looked around for some time to see if there were any survivors but did not see any. She tried to walk back to the village but she was not sure about the direction. She followed the sound of the chickens. When she arrived at the house of her mother her mother did not let her stay because she knew that sooner or later the murderers would know about this and then would come to take her again to be killed and they could take the family or the people close to her. Her mother told her to run away. She started walking without knowing the direction. When she arrived in a village the people there helped her to recover from her injuries. Around 15 days later, the Vietnamese troops marched in.

As for the perpetrators, she did not know them because she was a new person. The perpetrators were very young, around 17 to 18 years old and most of them were chlob. Until today, she does not know where they live and what happened to them.

The torture committed against her was severe and hard to endure. But she also feels very lucky to have survived until today. Now she can control herself much better. At the beginning, every night of the full moon she felt as if she was still sick and always remembered the story. Sometimes she would walk to other houses in the village or walk around in her house. Through the psychological support of the organization CDP, she feels much better. She has told this story to other people before. When she spoke about what happened to her she felt even more relieved. To preserve the memory, she is willing to tell the story to others if they want to know the truth. She is telling this story to make the next generation understand about such crimes.”

Unfortunately, Ms. Net Savoen is hardly an exception to the personal experience of victims of war crimes under the Khmer Rouge. The Transcultural Psychological Organization published a study in 2015 detailing the findings of a survey of 222 respondents who were Civil Parties to Case 002 (TPO, 2015). 30.6% reported to have witnessed rape, while 4.6% reported to having experienced it outside of forced marriage. Several confirmed that rape was committed before victims were executed, and a significant majority pointed to Khmer Rouge cadres as the perpetrators of rape.  A quarter said to have witnessed or directly experienced (8.3%) sexual humiliation and abuse including forced nudity and unwelcome sexual contact; 10% of respondents reported witnessing an abortion, which were made dangerous and painful by a lack of medical care and often resulted in death. 68.9% of the victims of forced marriage revealed that they still worry about others’ opinion of themselves in light of their experience of sexualized violence.

Forced marriage was a common, impersonal practice under the Khmer Rouge; marriage ceremonies involved 3-160 couples, who usually had no choice in their partner, and many of whom had never met each other before; refusal to marry and later consummate often resulted in imprisonment, torture or death (CDP, 2013). This policy stripped Cambodians of their fundamental right to choice and consent, and nearly a quarter of forced marriages are reported to have involved spousal abuse (TPO, 2014). Even after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, cultural and circumstantial barriers prevented divorce and couples remained in ill-matched unions until the end of their lives (CDP, 2013).

The TPO found that 60% of respondents said that they had never spoken about their experiences (TPO, 2015). The ECCC and local civil society play a crucial role in filling the knowledge gap regarding GBV under the Khmer Rouge by providing outreach and support to Civil Parties; 95.4% of respondents expressed that participating in the ECCC has had a positive impact on them and their families, emphasizing the importance of justice and the importance of being part of a Civil Party as a mechanism for pain and the reduction of anger. 99.1% agreed that participating as Civil Parties gave them a sense of justice.

The ECCC’s model is premised on the notion that in situ proceedings with strong national participation help connect survivors to the criminal process (UNSC, 2004); this is the first internationalized criminal court to include victims as Civil Parties in the proceedings (Ciorciari & Hiendel, 2014). Its unique opportunities for direct survivor participation and ability to connect with victims and the general public have made up one of its greatest achievements; victims can observe or participate in the proceeding while engaging in truth-telling (Ciorciari & Hiendel, 2014). In 2010, Judge Silvia Cartwright explained that non-judicial measures (such as transitional justice) “will be a major legacy of this Tribunal”, and that the ECCC considers the involvement of victims at trial of great importance (Cartwright, 2010). Civil Parties are able to question the accused, witnesses, other Civil Parties and experts through their lawyers at the ECCC; they can submit their own witness, Civil Party or expert lists to the Trial Chamber to take a stand and ensure their perspective is voiced (TPO, 2015).

The sense of transitional justice taking root in Cambodia is in large part due to the efforts of local civil society as a result of monetary and human resource constraints at the ECCC. For example, the ECCC set a limited initial budget for outreach activities, and it was assumed that the court would lean on local civil society to fill the gap in outreach to victims and survivors (Ciorciari & Hiendel, 2014). Between the start of case 001 in 2009 and the end in 2011, 111,543 people visited the court to view live proceedings or as part of a study tour (ECCC, 2012), with over 83% of them Cambodians who used the ECCC’s free transportation service, organized in partnership with civil society organizations (Ciorciari & Hiendel, 2014). Likewise, the initial budget for the Victim Support Section was limited, and a large majority of victims who chose to participate in the ECCC learned their rights through NGOs, which serve as their primary connection to the court (Phuong et al., 2011). NGOs, such as the Cambodian Defenders Project, which provides free legal services to Cambodians wishing to register as Civil Parties, have been prolific in this area, undertaking ambitious outreach and capacity-building programmers (Ghouse, Coughlan & Smith, 2012).

Despite the largely unlimited scope of the legal right to participation by Civil Parties at the ECCC, their rights were restrained in case 001, where the Trial Chamber determined that the role of the Civil Parties was foremost to seek repatriations (Trial Chamber, 2009). Changes to victim participation mechanisms since case 001 means that victims are collectively rather than individually represented at the Tribunal (UNSC, 2004), reducing the chance that their personal account will be heard before the court. While case 002/02 includes allegations of a policy of forced marriage and rape, the Trial Chamber omitted rape outside of forced marriage, claiming that the accused cannot be liable as this was not a policy of the Khmer Rouge leaders and sexual violence was in fact prohibited (TPO, 2015). This top-down approach is a significant short-coming of the ECCC, presuming that the responsibility for crimes rests in the top leadership of the Khmer Rouge and not among the lower-level officers (Anderson, 2005).

Despite the flaws of victim participation mechanisms at the ECCC, limiting the scope of allegations against the accused in case 002/02 and representing Civil Parties collectively will ensure that the trial is more efficient. This is of paramount importance given the advanced age and state of fragile health of the accused, where proceedings were dropped against one in case 002/01 after his death in March 2013 and another accused found unfit to stand trial due to dementia (Laidlaw, 2014). As Surya P Subedi, the UN Human Rights Council ‘s Independent Expert on Cambodia, stated following these events in 2013, “We know from other instances of accountability processes around the world that, although a final judgment was not reached, the mere fact of seeing Ieng Sary forced to face his accusers will have brought some degree of comfort to the surviving victims of the Khmer Rouge, the families of the victims, and the whole of Cambodian society that continues to suffer from the impact of the Khmer Rouge to this day” (Laidlaw,  2014). With the parallel progressing age and deteriorating health of Civil Parties, the effort of civil society to represent Civil Parties at the ECCC has been crucial to ensuring that their ghosts will continue to justify a legacy of sexualized and gender based violence in conflict as a crime against humanity long after case 002/02 comes to an end.

Works Cited
AI (Amnesty International). (2002). Kingdom of Cambodia, Urgent Need for Judicial Reform. Retrieved from
Anderson, K. (2005). Turning Reconciliation on Its Head: Responding to Sexual Violence Under the Khmer Rouge. Seattle Journal for Social Science, 3.
Cartwright, J. (2010). Opening Speech, ECCC 7th Plenary Session. Retrieved from
CBRE Cambodia. (2012, August 9). Understanding land ownership in Cambodia. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from
CDP (Cambodian Defenders Project). (2013). List of Critical Issues submitted to CEDAW. Retrieved from
Ciorciari, J., & Heindel, A. (2014). Experiments in International Criminal Justice: Lessons from the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Michigan Journal of International Law, 35(2).
De Walque, D. (2006). The socio-demographic legacy of the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia. Population Studies, 60 (2).
Dicklitch, S., & Malik, A. (2010). Justice, Human Rights and Reconciliation in Postconflict Cambodia. Human Rights Review, 11 (4).
ECCC (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia) (2012). ECCC surpasses 100,000 visitors milestone. Retrieved from
ECCC (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia). (2016). Case 002. Retrieved from
ECCC (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia). (2016). Case Load. Retrieved from
GBVKR. (2016). Survivor Profiles. Retrieved from
Ghouse, S., Coughlan, J., & Smith, R. (2012). The Legacy of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal: Maintaining the Status Quo of Cambodia's Legal and Judicial System. Amsterdam Law Forum, 4 (2).
ICTJ (International Center for Transitional Justice). (2009). Where to From Here for International Tribunals?. Retrieved from
Laidlaw, A. K. (2014). Bringing Justice to Cambodia: Reflections on Dame Silvia Cartwright's Role at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Victoria University Wellington Law Review, 45.
Phuong N. Pham, et al. (2011). Victim Participation at the Trial of Duch at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. Human Rights Practice, 3(3).
TPO (Transcultural Psychological Organization Cambodia) (2014). Like Ghost Changes Body. Retrieved from
TPO (Transcultural Psychological Organization Cambodia) (2015). A Study about Victims’ Participation at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and Gender-Based Violence under the Khmer Rouge Regime. Retrieved from
Ruffins, E. (2010, July 30). Cambodian man clears land mines he set decades ago. CNN. Retrieved from
Trial Chamber, Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (2009). Decision on Civil Party Co-Lawyers Joint Request for a Ruling on the Standing of Civil Party Lawyers to Make Submissions on Sentencing and Directions Concerning the Questioning of the Accused, Experts and Witnesses Testifying on Character. Retrieved from
Tyner, J. A. (2015). Radical Geography and the Legacy of the Khmer Rouge. Geopolitics, 20 (4).
UNAKRT. (2003). Report of the Secretary-General on the Khmer Rouge Trials. Retrieved from
UNSC (2004). The Rule of Law and Transitional Justice in Conflict and Post-conflict Societies. Retrieved from
Van Schaack, B. (1997). The Crime of Political Genocide: Repairing the Genocide Convention’s Blind Spot. The Yale Law Journal, 106.

Following the Orlando Incident, a reader and follower of The Red Elephant Foundation's work felt moved to share a letter that she wrote to her son. While initially, she intended for it to be for her son, she felt that the emotional process of writing the article made it a compelling need for her to share it with the world. 

Dear Son,
I choose not to name you, because coming out to the world beyond your family is your decision to make, and we know you will make the decision when you feel it is right, comfortable and the right step for you to take. But I want to make this letter public, because I have something to say that goes out to everyone in the world that is willing to listen.  

Orlando became a tragedy overnight for those that lost loved ones. It became a hashtag for those that are outraged enough to spare a thought online. It became another reason to be angry for those that are wronged over and over again on the same journey. What happened in Orlando is a reminder, that such hate crimes happen everywhere, and that it shouldn’t take inertia on our part and a massacre for us to wake up to the truth. That, to me and to many parents like me, makes it the grimmest reminder of all.
People are angry. They are confused. They don’t know why it happened, or how it could happen. I mean, we are a free country. We talk about a free world. We are raised to believe that we can chase our dreams. We grow up thinking that this is the truth – that we can and should be who we are, and shouldn’t back down for anyone. But the trouble, my dear son, is that even those who choose violence think that this justifies their choice to be violent. Sadly, innocent people pay the price for that.

What do I tell you today, son? That the times that I told you that you could be anything you wanted to be, that the times that I told you that the world was your oyster – I was not telling you the truth? Or that every time you tell me you are going out for a drink or to watch a movie with your friends, there is a deep rumbling tsunami of fear building up inside of me? Do I tell you that there is a lump in my throat when you call, as I hope that you are not calling with distress to report? Or do I tell you how it feels to be relieved of the pain at the end of each day, when I see you walking in through the door at home?

You are fifteen. Three more years until school becomes college. Three more years until you leave home. Three more years until I will wait to hear your voice on the phone, telling me that you are fine.
What I’m going through is not something I face alone. And this has nothing to do with you, son. You are a bright, wonderful and beautiful boy, and you will always be your father’s and my star. It doesn’t matter to us that you are gay. It doesn’t matter to us that you spent a year questioning faith enough to even refuse gifts on Christmas. It doesn’t matter to me that you hate broccoli, but you can somehow eat that awful plate of kale salad and still ask for more. What matters most to us is your safety. And because of that, what matters to us is that there are people who don’t think you deserve to live, or if you do live, to have a happy and peaceful life, because of your sexual orientation. And that worries me.

Today, they’re in your life in the form of seniors and juniors who think that it’s cool to wear hatred on their sleeves. Tomorrow, it’s these that grow up to enable hate, and to allow that hate to turn into something so vile and inhuman, that taking lives seems so easy for them to do.

I started writing this letter three days ago (June 14, 2016). It took me until today (June 16, 2016) to finish it. I stayed up last night, thinking about you. And it struck me then. Why should you live in fear? Who is anyone to decide that you don’t deserve to live? Who can tell you what you do with your mind, your body and your sexual orientation? Only YOU have the right over yourself, and only you should be the one to decide what your life should be like.

This is not just a letter to you, but to every parent and every child who identifies as gay. You, just like everyone else, deserves to live and live a life of dignity, with the freedom of choice that is inherent in you. You, like everyone else, have hopes and dreams, ambitions and goals. You, like everyone else, deserves to live. 

Pride is more than a word for us. It is about personality, it is about standing for who you are, and by extension, who we are. I take PRIDE in being your mother. I take PRIDE in having been born the day you were born. I take PRIDE in every moment of your life that we have shared together. 

And that is why, when we celebrate pride, I will celebrate you – like I celebrate you every day.

With love,

Your mother, Sam. 
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