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

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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…..so 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 https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/116000/asa230042002en.pdf
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 http://www.eccc.gov.kh/sites/default/files/media/02Feb2010Plenary-VicePresident-speech%28Eng%29_.pdf
CBRE Cambodia. (2012, August 9). Understanding land ownership in Cambodia. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from http://www.phnompenhpost.com/real-estate/understanding-land-ownership-cambodia
CDP (Cambodian Defenders Project). (2013). List of Critical Issues submitted to CEDAW. Retrieved from http://gbvkr.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/CEDAW-List-of-Issues-final.pdf
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 http://www.eccc.gov.kh/en/articles/eccc-surpasses-100000-visitors-milestone
ECCC (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia). (2016). Case 002. Retrieved from http://www.eccc.gov.kh/case/topic/2
ECCC (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia). (2016). Case Load. Retrieved from http://www.eccc.gov.kh/en/caseload
GBVKR. (2016). Survivor Profiles. Retrieved from http://gbvkr.org/gender-based-violence-under-khmer-rouge/survivor-profiles/
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 https://www.ictj.org/sites/default/files/ICTJ-Global-Legacy-Tribunal-2009-English.pdf
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 https://kh.boell.org/sites/default/files/forced_marriage_study_report_tpo_october_2014.pdf
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 http://tpocambodia.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/TPO_GBV-under-the-Khmer-Rouge_Report_20151.pdf
Ruffins, E. (2010, July 30). Cambodian man clears land mines he set decades ago. CNN. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/asiapcf/07/29/cnnheroes.cambodia.demining/
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 http://www.eccc.gov.kh/sites/default/files/documents/courtdoc/E72_3_EN.pdf
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 http://www.unakrt-online.org/sites/default/files/documents/A-57-769%281%29.pdf
UNSC (2004). The Rule of Law and Transitional Justice in Conflict and Post-conflict Societies. Retrieved from http://www.ipu.org/splz-e/unga07/law.pdf
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. 
Ruben Wissing
Ruben Wissing is a lawyer, who has had experience working with Refugee issues relating to asylum and immigration. His experience shows him that the refugee crisis is more a crisis of solidarity than anything else. Read on to know his story. 

I started with law school, when nothing interested me as much as international law, migration and human rights. I started working about ten to twelve years ago in the field as an intern, and then as an independent lawyer in Antwerp. I was involved in working on asylum cases out of passion, but it was not high paying. I did that for about four or five years, and then switched over to the Belgium Refugee Council, an Ngo, which is partnered with the UNHCR to assist them. Part of what the NGO does is to offer free legal aid and legal support to asylum seekers and family reunification programs. We have a special status as operational partner of the UNHCR, which allows us to interfere directly with the authorities without being the lawyers of the asylum seekers themselves. We can intervene in asylum procedures, and we use it selectively to help complicated cases. We also do a lot of work around policy and advocacy issues. Recently, though, we lost a lot of funding – the point is that now, the focus is centered around the refugee crisis in Europe, and in getting material aid out there, not legal aid.

The refugee issue in Europe is not a crisis in numbers. It is true that the number of people asking for asylum is high, but it is not true that it has never happened before in these proportions. Look at the Second World War or the Yugoslavia War in 1999. The numbers continue to rise now, dramatically, but the point is that the crisis is really one of politics and solidarity. The European Union was a project of integrating countries – but now, that is falling apart. We could deal with this crisis – I mean, look at Germany. They said we can do this together, and now it is one country that is doing it entirely on its own! Instead of building an integrated asylum procedure, we are going against the greatest advantage of the European Union – which is a community of people living without internal borders. Now, there are these very countries that are putting up borders. Now, there is more and more funding going into control, detention and return of refused refugees. In Belgium, we had a good system before, but now, public funding for NGOs has decreased, as has the remuneration for lawyers defending refugees.

The asylum procedure in Belgium is not very rigorous. One has to go to the Alien’s Office at the Immigration Services and apply for asylum. You have a short interview. They register you and have your fingerprints checked for security reason, and then check them against a database to see if you have claimed asylum elsewhere, to be send back to that member state (the so called Dublin Procedure). This is the basis of the current crisis – you have the criteria applied different and a lack of unity. . Then, most applications go to the Commissary General for Refugees and Stateless Persons that have the authority to interview applicants and check their credentials, They then apply the Geneva Convention or the Subsidiary Protection for War Refugees as a general protection. Judicial appeals are allowed as well.

The legal definition of refugees may not cover all situations where people may need protection. But, there is something in the right wing political discourse that suggests that the convention was made for a different time and situation. While I would agree that its articles may be discussed and debated, I don’t think that the definition is too broad. It can be interpreted differently at different times. The thing is, people have not heard asylum seekers tell their personal stories. We assume that they invent political stories to claim asylum. The truth is, in many places they do escape poverty, and isn’t poverty created by politics, after all? The anti refugee and anti migration view is that the Geneva Convention is a migration issue , while it is actually about protection. The truth is that even if you take away this international treaty, there are other international and European laws that protect and offer these very rights.

There are many aspects to the problem as it stands. The public and political debate is still about whether we want migration or not – and that is a pity because people will continue to come in  this globalized world. People will do it the other way if there is no legal route or if we keep them out, risking their lives. We should start investing in integration of newcomers. It is a big problem in Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany that we have never truly focused on integrating those who came in two generations ago. We have had North African migrants who came in after World War II, in fact, they were asked for, to help rebuild the war torn land. But, we never integrated them, because we thought they would return. 

Now their children and grandchildren feel discriminated against.  This has indirectly lead to security issues. Thus, integration should be a focal point. Announcing measures against smugglers only creates more of them, new routes. For over a decade, the UNHCR has been asking the EU to handle resettlements. We can do it, but we don’t seem to be doing so. We can manage these things so that people don’t have to lose lives in the Mediterranean Sea.

I am not easily scared, but it is getting to me now. People say things that they never dared to say in public a couple of years ago. We should open our minds to being able to do this together, and to respond to the crisis with solidarity. 
Michael Di Maria, the International Programs Coordinator at the Lions Clubs Foundation shares his story and talks about his work, his personal story and what he hopes to see in the future through his work on building stronger children for sustainable futures. 

Even as a child growing up an upper middle class neighborhood in suburban Detroit, I had a bit of a global perspective. Not only geographically, but also around human issues. My father being a working class immigrant from Italy helped shape this perspective of being aware of situations beyond my immediate community.

I grew up in a female-dominated household. I have two strong sisters, a mother who has a very strong personality. She was also the financial head of the household. This was very different from the norm in my community. The men were the financial providers and main decision makers. We were different in this sense. I saw a different dynamic. But I did not have anything to compare it to. We were not the norm. I had been sensitized to women’s issues, struggles and even opportunities from a very young age. But because I did not have that comparison model, it confused me and caused some anxiety growing up. My father was kind of the stereotypical old-world European man. He was very hard-working but emotionally quiet and reserved. My mother was the bigger personality.

My first career was in educational publishing as research editor of textbooks; math, science, social studies, biology, economics, and so on. This was a very analytical career of correcting facts and being precise. I was good at it. But my focus did not veer from factual and precise. But global perspective and interest in community moved me down another path. I began working for the Goldin Institute, an international grassroots NGO that works to build community-based solutions for change. I was involved in a Gender-Based Violence project, based in the displacement camps in Haiti after the devastating earthquake, where the number of cases of Gender-Based Violence in these camps was astounding. The approach was not to impose our solutions on them, instead, we wanted to guide them towards their own solutions, based on their collective skills. They started by building a local security platform with men that these women knew and trusted – such as their fathers, brothers and uncles. Most of the instances of Gender-Based Violence occurred at night, when the women used the latrines or fetched water. The simple solution of creating a security platform was the vital behavior. And when the other men saw this they wanted to join the platform as well. We saw that with a team of about 25, in 18 months, what once used to be a rate of a hundred odd cases of sexual violence in a month had become zero. Through this, we also saw that a lot of women who were otherwise not visible or seen, suddenly were visible, seen as influencers and gained access to resources. We also did a digital storytelling project with them where we taught them the use of digital tools – be it audio, video, photography, writing and everything else – to tell their stories of “why I do what I do.” One of the things I learned as an organizer was that it is never right to ask someone else to do what you wouldn’t do, yourself. So if I wanted them to tell their stories, I would have to lead by telling my own story. That helped create the level playing field that helped us all start equally. So I created my own digital story that told my own personal story of dealing with family violence, one that affected my father on a profound level. 

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Following my experience at Goldin I began working for Lions Clubs International Foundation, the fundraising and grant making arm of Lions Clubs International Association. LCI is the world’s largest service club organization. It is really a volunteer service organisation at its heart, and the foundation sits within to support our members. The foundation has four main areas of focus  – one being disaster relief where we work around reaching disaster areas with aid the work of our volunteers; sight-saving program where we work to prevent trachoma, low vision support and eyeglass recycling and other screening programs for sight health; a humanitarian dimension where we build schools, work on vaccination drives for measles and rubella for example; and finally, a youth silo in which I work.
Our flagship youth program is called the Lion’s Quest, a PreK-12 social and emotional learning (SEL) program that has seen activity in over 90 countries around the world. SEL provides the foundation for dealing with anger and frustration, preventing negative behaviors, while developing positive behaviors.  It teaches youth self-awareness and self-management, which helps inform and lead to social awareness. After learning social awareness, they become better at managing relationships. The program is entirely based on this, and the idea is to bring the home, community and school together around the child. It fosters character education, social learning, and service learning. This runs parallel to Lions Clubs mission of service. Through SEL youth have the support and temperament to resist drugs and to be open to address issues like fostering gender equality, empathy towards all, and environmental protection. We really believe in expanding the space to say equality for all, irrespective of gender, race, religion, age, and socio-economic status.

We are currently working on a pilot built around our core lessons to foster gender equality in school, home and community in India. We are partnering with gender-equality focused organizations, such as; Breakthrough, the Man Up Campaign, The Independent television Services (ITVS), and Priya’s Shakti to engage youth in schools and the community at large to challenge cultural, societal, and generational norms in regards to gender equality. Social and Emotional Learning will be at the core of this intervention, reaching mixed-gender classrooms so that by learning earlier on, we ensure that youth learn gender equality as a norm rather than the exception.

 I like to draw on a quote by Fredrick Douglas, who said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults.”

The challenges with any change movement are many. But so are the opportunities. Grassroots groups need the buy-in from the decision makers. We need schools, teachers, and administrators to be part of the discussion. We also need political and cultural/tribal leaders to help set the community agenda. It is also most important to have the grassroots buy-in, the boots on the ground. We are heavily volunteer-driven and Lions are proud of that. We know that no movement is sustainable without volunteers.

Another point to keep in mind while working with something that involves changing behaviours, we are shaking up the status quo and the norms. When we shake-up norms, we are essentially taking something away. By changing gender norm for example, we are taking a view or perception away from men, something that might be comfortable to them as they are things that were handed down to them – for instance, patriarchy and male privilege is often a hand-me-down. So when we take away what they are familiar with as a norm, it is very important that we put something back in place of what we take away – and that would be to bring them to the negotiation table, and to present their voices as being integral to shaping the future, because the future involves both men and women, boys and girls, equally

Last year I was in New York for events commemorating International Women’s day.  I spoke at an event about how inequality and violence invariably have an equal impact on society. Violence has a direct impact on the one targeted by the violence or inequality, and a ripple effect on those who are connected with the person targeted. For example, in the 1970s my grandparents owned a petrol station in Coventry England where they lived. They were victims of a random killing spree that left them dead on the ground in front of their station. They were the direct absorbers of the violence. But the ripple effect tore my family apart, especially my father. My father, being expressive, full of life and love, emotionally died that day. I was 5 years old and now had a father that was emotionally dead, and was that way until he physically died when I was 28. That became a sort of a norm for me, emotional blockage. Violence has a ripple effect.

As men, we do face the rough side of patriarchy, too. As I said early on, I lived in a household with a strong mother and two strong sisters. It made us an exception in a community where the norm was the opposite. It was a challenge because I realized that we were different and worried that I would not be accepted among those who adhered to the common norm. So as a young man I had these internal conflicts that created anxiety and tended to make me lash out. It was and sometimes still is hard.

Today, I am a father to two beautiful daughters, and their mother is a very strong and wonderful role model to them I don’t believe it is fair of us to impose our choices for our children on them. As their father, I want my girls to be who they want to be, and to make their choices in life, and go in the direction that strengthens their identity. Just like their mother. Because if they become like her, I will be very happy. 
With the international community recognizing the importance of gender mainstreaming, it has become important to understand how to evaluate and create an implementation plan that will help a business or organization obtain gender equality. The report discusses the importance of gender equality in the workplace and how to achieve it. There is a focus on the steps of the process, which includes structural and cultural evaluations, organizational learning, corporate responsibility, as well as policy assessments. With the evaluation and implementation, one can bring to light specific aspects that hinder or benefit gender mainstreaming. Success relies on the multiple aspects of execution, in order to deliver the outcomes desired.
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By Mohammed Ghabriss

I was born in Lebanon and raised outside of it. Our visits as a family were during summer times only. It was great going back to one’s country, land and people. Being with my cousins, playing under the warmth of a summer time’s sun, eating from the berries and the figs from my grandmother’s tree, and swimming in the village’s fresh and cold river, was everything a kid would ask for. I remember that summer, before going through my mother’s village to visit our grandmother; we used to pass through checkpoints. And on these checkpoints were strange men dressed as soldiers with a blue star on the helmets and shoulder s. I used to stick my head from the window, smile at them and wave. At that time I never knew that my country was under an Israeli occupation, in particular the south where I come from. Until that day, we were gathered at my father’s aunt’s place in the evening, it was such a warm memory. I was drinking my juice sitting next to my grandmother holding her hand while I was listening to what the other adults had to say. As we were sitting, I started hearing sounds that went ‘pop, pop, pop’. I was confused, everybody went silent, my father rushed to the window and looked at my grandmother. I knew something was wrong. 

My mom rushed to me and held me, I started looking at them and how the scenery suddenly changed, everyone was on their feet not knowing what to do or how to react. My heart was heavy, and beating fast, tears started pouring on my face, as the ‘Pop, pop, pop, pop’ increased and increased they were endless and didn’t stop at all, they were getting louder, lasting even longer. They all rushed at me. My father said: “Hamode, don’t worry dear that’s a birthday party, these are just crackers, they’re celebrating”. “Really?” I replied in a shaky voice trying to restore my confidence, “Yes, Really” my father responded in a warm smile. As the ‘pops’ outside ceased, it was time for us to leave. As we drove in the car I remember sleeping n my mother’s lap, holding that necklace that she wore, as tight as I could. That necklace said “Allah”, God’s name. The nest day I realized that these popping sounds were nothing but shootings between the resistance and the Israeli forces. That was the turning point of awareness for me that my country is bleeding, and by time I got to know that it was torn by a civil war that lasted almost 10 years, and two Israeli occupations.

On the summer of 2006, we visited Lebanon as usual for our holidays. I was on the balcony with my brothers, playing on our bicycles, overlooking a beautiful vast green valley, with lots of trees and houses from far. The sky was so clear, birds were swarming the sky, and the clouds were gently passing by. All of the sudden, I saw the hill facing us from a not very far distance splattering in the air. As if part of it was thrown up in the air little pieces, and then few seconds later a huge wave of heat and vibration blew on us, as the curtains and the walls started to shake. My mom and dad rushed to us, hugged us and carried us in. We all stared in shock at the hill as smoke was floating up in the sky. We switched on the TV, and after of 6 years of freeing our land from the Israeli occupation, Israel went into clashes again with the resistance on the borders, and Israel was conducting a series of air-strikes on Lebanon targeting infrastructure, hospitals, gas stations, and any moving car on the road. It was war again.

After 10 days of living in fear, and sleeping all in one room, so that if an airstrike shelled our house we’ll then all die together at once. We drove from one place to another along with my grandmother, my aunt and her family from one place to another, heading to Mount Lebanon, since it was the safest, all the way to the Bekaa valley on the other side of the mountain and to Syria. Were we took refuge there. The war ended after lasting 33 days.

Days went by and passed, we travelled back to Lebanon after two years with intention of settling down there. I went to high school in Lebanon, and the two universities, graduating after 3-years. In my final semester, I remember I was at my grandmother’s place along with my brother, stuck because of a snow storm, and we couldn’t drive since the roads were slippery and risky. As I was surfing the internet I stumbled into an organization called ‘Initiatives of change’. That organization offered internships on personal development through the enhancement of leadership, and communication skills; its motto “Be the Change you want to see in the world”. It sounded very appealing to me, what a great experience it would be after graduation. At that day I applied for the internship in Switzerland, and later on to the one in India; One thing leading to the other. During my stay in India as an intern, it were my inner personal journey began. 

One of the things that we used to do were our quiet times, in which we used to sit down in silence, reflecting upon our own personal life’s, and writing down whatever thoughts and/or inspirations would come to our minds. During my quiet times, there was this thought that kept on coming to me, a very unsettling one, but I kept on pushing it down every time. During one of the workshops, we had to prepare our country presentations. During that time I wasn’t the only Lebanese intern there, I had my friend with me from university whom also applied for the internship. We prepared and thought of what to present on that day. We started by introducing our culture, and showing pictures of the beautiful landscapes and diversity that our country possesses, the food, the climate, the articheture and the ancient monuments. We soon started to talk about the history, and the wars that we went through. Sharing our personal experiences during the wars, and our will to survive, and our love and attachment to our land, I was emotional and couldn’t hold back my tears as I spoke with pride how we managed to defend our land, and protect it, and how we are now working on reconciliation, with the will and intention to create peace.

Days after as I went further more in my quiet times, that thought that I was trying to avoid the whole time kept of emerging again, and again. Until one day the center we were interning in hosted a conference. And in that conference we were divided into groups that we called family groups in which each person would share the life stories briefly with the intention to get to know each other more and connect on a deeper level.  In that group that I was part of, a man from a state called “Meghalaya” in Inia. That man spoke about his father, with a sharp burden that showed as he spoke. He said that during his as he was brought up, his father used to work hard to provide for him and him family, but he was so disrespectful and rude towards his father, he never had a good relationship with him as he grew up. As years passed that distance between him and his father maintained, and that anger and misunderstanding that he carried in his heart grew up with him. Until one day, his father was no more. That’s when he started crying uncontrollably, he said “I wish he was alive so that I could apologize to him, and tell him that I appreciate what you’ve done for us that I love you, and please forgive me for being Rude and disrespectful, but now I can’t it’s a pain that I have to live with for the rest of my life”.

During that day, my mind couldn’t stop thinking about what that man had to say. Days later I realized that that thought that kept in emerging during my quiet time was the thought of my own father.  Realized that what the guy expressed was exactly what I was still experiencing with my father. Since I was a kid I had constant clashes with my dad. We used to always fight especially during my teenage years. I used to be extremely ungrateful and disrespectful. My father is an electric engineer, a freelancer. He always worked with his dignity preserved, and hard work to pay for our pricey school fees, luxurious gadgets, and high end food. He works with his bare hands, I swear he used to come back home wet head to toe; and that was his own sweat, his black boots were shinny because of the heat he had to bear outside. And I used to welcome him with insults and constant fights, on various reasons. The school that I was in was a luxurious school that only wealthy people could comfortably afford. Therefore all of my friends had their fathers working in their fancy offices, and coming with their shiny and fancy cars to pick them up from school, or even having their drivers to do so. And I had to persuade my dad into parking far from my school’s gate so that my friends won’t see him in his working clothes, and with his old car. And he used to do so, so that I won’t feel embarrassed.

Time passed and the tension between me and my father decreased, but the tension remained. I used to avoid him, and reacted over the slightest interaction or approach he initiated to communicate with me. Even on the day I was leaving to India, I had a major fight with him over the phone, because I refused to leave early to the airport, since I didn’t want to wait there  I wanted to arrive on time and my dad insisted to leave early just in case; and that argument turned into a huge fight, in which I ended up hanging the phone on him telling him it’s not your business to worry about it’s mine.

Going back to the time I was India, I was aware that I want at peace at all. I felt that I was being a hypocrite, speaking of peace and bringing peace to my country, and wanting to be part of the reconciliation for my country. And then it hit me. Even if I was the next Mahatma Gandhi of Lebanon, and opened wide doors of peace and reconciliation, and even if miraculously my country was at peace, my heart will never be, and I’d never feel that external peace.

I had to do something, I wanted to free myself, I wanted to set my heart on peace instead of a fire of fear, anger and instability. Days later I wrote my father a letter. And in that letter I explained everything that I had to say to him. I started by expressing how much I appreciate what he’s doing to me and my brothers, and our family as a whole. Something that I never expressed to him before directly which was how much I loved him, and that he inspires me by his sacrifices and that I look up to him, and that he is indeed my hero.

I kept that letter in my drawer for 2 weeks, and my friends at that time knew that I wrote him a letter, and during that time they kept on checking and asking me if I did send that letter or not. Everyone was so interested to know his reaction, and would that affect me. Since each one of them had their own stories, and each one of them had their battles.

Finally after two weeks, it happened to be Eid Al-Ahda, which is a Muslim holiday, and on that day I thought to myself that it was the day that I should send my dad the letter. I borrowed my friend’s phone wrote texted him the letter and sent. Few minutes later, he called. My heart started beating, my friends looked at me with eyes I’ve never seen them sparkle as such ever before. I went to a private room called the mami room were we usually had our quiet times. I answered the phone, “Hello” I started. “Hay Hamode”, My dad replied, and he started talking to me and asking me, how’s India, how’s the food, are you sleeping well, are you eating well, how are your friends doing. And I interrupted, “Dad! Did you receive my text?”, he said yes, “Then?” I replied anxiously. “It’s just that that’s my duty son, to sacrifice, and I’m doing all of this for you, and now I know that my hard-work is paying off”, I expressed how much I loved him and he did the same. At that moment it was such a feeling that I never experienced before, I felt liberated. I felt a burning sensation on my chest that was relieving my heart was light, and I was free. With teary eyes, I opened the door and I saw all of my friends gathered at the door. “So? How did it go? What happened?”, and I told them what he said, they rushed at me and started hugging and one of my friends who had a similar issue with her father hugged me and started crying, saying that I will send my letter to him, I want to be free too.

At that day, it was only when I understood what “Be the change you want to see in the world” actually meant, and what it means to start with oneself. I mean I want to bring change to my country and to the world, what about my family? What about starting with changing myself. I wanted to be part of the reconciliation process in Lebanon, then what about reconciling with my own flesh and blood, my father.

Later than day, my mother called in the evening expressing how proud she is, and how that affected my father. After that day I felt like that wall that was built on my heart started cracking and collapsing, soon I apologized to my brother for hurting him and bullying, also from my ex-girlfriend for hurting her feelings, and I just felt like I wanted to be free of every burden, I wanted to set everything right in my life.

Nothing changed around, but my view on the world around me started changing, I realized that I’m equally part of the bigger problem, and that I had an equal responsibility no matter how small it is, to do things right and to fix what I’m capable of fixing.


Soon peace knocked the door of my heart and illuminated by being. Am I perfect now? Definitely not, but now I’m aware that peace and change starts from within, and in order to be an instrument to serve others and be guided by God, then this instrument should be clean and functioning gracefully without any burdens. Indeed, the first step to build peace and bring change to one’s country and to the world, is to simply start by oneself.
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