27 September 2010

An organization that gets it... [UPDATE]

...and wants the rest of us to follow suit.

This post is an email interview with Jessica Gordon - a member of Women at Risk (WAR) International. WAR is an organization striving to put stability - through sustainable business and job opportunities - back into the lives of women around the world that have been abused and/or discriminated against.

In my conversation with Jessica my goal was to not only share a beautiful organization with the rest of the world, but to also show everyone how easy it is to participate and sow great seeds back into the lives of those who would otherwise be left in their desperate state.

Follow carefully, because Jessica not only shares her background and current role in the organization, but she also allows us to see her heart. And that has clearly made this interview special.

First Jessica, what is your role with WAR International?
I am the Retail Manager for WAR. I get the joy of running the two boutiques that we now operate to sell the womens' hand-made pieces. Both boutiques are in the greater Grand Rapids area, as our headquarters are located in the area as well. We have sought to create an environment where individuals, especially women, can come in and feel that they are in a safe-haven. We have also created an elegant and upscale atmosphere to represent the beauty and great value of the women and their products.
What inspired you to become an active member of the organization?
Since I was young God has given me a heart of compassion and justice. My mother used to call me her "little justice Jessica". I remember always feeling a desire to stick-up for those who were defenseless or treated unfairly. As I got older this passion grew as I had the opportunity to help at-risk young ladies on a Native Reserve in Canada for 10 summers and then my ultimate dream to travel to India to love on women and children there. When I left college I was approached by WAR, International because of a mutual friend that Rebecca, the Director of WAR, and I shared. I learned about the organization and all that they were doing to help women worldwide and could not wait to get involved! I was then taken on full-time to manage their first retail store.
Why is sustainable business or job opportunities important for women in desperate situations?
Women in these desperate situations need to be empowered, sustainable business/job opportunities facilitate this. We often say that if you "rescue" a woman from slavery and do not provide her with aftercare and job skills training/education you haven't actually rescued her. The circumstances that made her a target before have not been changed. We want to provide women with the opportunity to grow and have hope. Not only do job opportunities provide economic stability for these women, making them less of a target for traffickers' scams, but it also encourages these women that they CAN do something different, that they ARE valuable. Also sustainable business models allow for these women to accomplish something for themselves without becoming dependent on someone else. They have learned a skill and received an education that protects and provides independence and a better chance for their children. They have a truly marketable skill that is valued both in their culture and here in the U.S.
What results have you seen in these programs?
I think the most amazing results that we have seen is women who no longer think of themselves as "bar girls" or prostitutes. There is a lot of healing that needs to happen and a lot of shame that these women experience even though they have often been the victim. To hear a woman be able to say, I hardly think of those days anymore and no longer think of myself in that light but as a beautiful daughter of the King! Wow! What a beautiful thing. God is the great healer and I think this is the most amazing result we have seen from men and women investing their time and hearts into these women.

We see women rescued, we see them going from believing that they could never make anything beautiful out of their life to making beautiful jewelry, we see women repatriated to the countries they have been trafficked from, we see women who formerly worked in the red-light districts going back to reach out to their friends, we have couples returning to villages who send a majority of their women to work in the "bars" and starting training programs. The list could go on and on.
In the long run, would you say you're empowering these women by giving them a fish, teaching them how to fish, how to fish and make money by selling it, or how to live with dignity, support their family, and be a positive producer in their community till they retire?
All of the above. We start by giving them a fish: a chance to hope, love and acceptance and a safe-haven to heal. Then when they are ready we teach them how to fish through education (varies dependent on what education they have received), job skills training and employment. Some of the women stay and are employed by our programs while others may choose, with their education, to move on and pursue other passions. These are all individual women with individual dreams that we want to help them accomplish. Many of the women come with children whose education is also provided for. By the time they leave a program they have learned how to live with dignity, support their families, and positively impact their community.
With WAR being a Christian organization, whats a unique challenge you had to overcome while working in countries of a different religion?
Our worldview often clashes with those of some of the countries we work with. Our faith informs our views on the value of human life and on how we are to respond to injustice. What we have found, however, is that there are culturally sensitive ways to address the issues. For example: when working in a Middle Eastern country with a domestic violence case, instead of helping a women to legally obtain a divorce or go against her husband (how some American agencies have gone about addressing the problem) we helped the woman by providing a scholarship to attend a training program to learn the skill of embroidery (a skill that could be used out of the home). This removed the woman from immediate danger for a couple of weeks and also gave her a skill which raised her value in the eyes of her husband. Eventually she was making more money than he was and his view of his wife was changing. The abuse stopped. If we had encouraged this woman to get a divorce she would have lost custody to her children, been shunned by her community, and put at great risk as a "fallen woman" in the eyes of the men of the community. We were able to work with the abuser to change his mindset without ever suggesting that was what we were going to do. Often we do not bring our faith into it unto later when they inevitably ask..."why do you care?" and "why do you help?" which is when we can share appropriately that the God of the Bible sees and cares for the hurts of women and that he has asked us to help. We never force our beliefs but offer the hope we have and trust God with the rest all while respecting the cultures we work in.
Is it possible for Americans to help your cause without making plans to leave the country in the next 6 months?
Absolutely! We have so many opportunities for individuals to make a huge impact in the lives of women and children worldwide right where they live. Not everyone has the means to travel abroad or the skills to rescue and counsel women but everyone purchases little gifts for others throughout the year. We invite people to "SHOP with a Purpose" and literally support not only the livelihood of the women who make each piece but the future rescue and empowerment of women who are still enslaved. We also invite people to be advocates by hosting jewelry parties/educational events in their homes, place of business, church, etc. Not to mention that our organization is blessed with over 200 volunteers a year who help us get the womens' pieces ready to sell and keep our overhead costs low ensuring that the money you spend goes back to help the women. 90% of the sale of any of our hand-made pieces goes back to the women and their programs!
With the efforts of organizations like WAR, do you really believe crimes like human trafficking and the lack of women's equality that exist can truly be rectified in the coming years? What signs have you seen to support your answer?
This is tough one to answer. I don't know that I believe that the problem can be entirely eradicated in our day....but does that mean we don't try? Does that mean we don't help every single person that we can? NO. This problem is widespread and growing. Greed, corruption and injustice fuel its growth. Yet, we have been CALLED to do all that we can, to make a difference. What will you do? How will you respond? Through the efforts of WAR and organizations like WAR we have seen thousands of women rescued from slavery, not only through our partners who are actively rescuing women but through all of our partners who are proactively addressing the issue through preventative training programs! Even if the crimes and inequality cannot fully be eradicated in the coming years we will continue to do what we do. To help even one woman is a victory. I do believe that the more and more we can educate and involve the American public in the fight against trafficking the better.
Lastly, if a male believes in your cause and wants to support, what could he do to get involved?
We are SO grateful for the men who support our cause. What a wonderful thing to hear men who feel passionate about protecting not only the women in their lives but those around the world. Men who value and treat women with respect! We do have some wonderful male supporters and they are involved in a variety of ways: some our advocates for our cause and invite us to their churches or places of business to spread the word about what we do, some buy gifts for all of the women in their life, some offer their muscle at our warehouse (since us women need some help in this department sometimes), they offer their skills at carpentry and handy work, they write stories. One gentleman is actually planning a bike-ride across the US and will have a banner for us on his trailer along with literature to hand-out wherever he goes. The possibilities are endless!

Learn more about Women at Risk International by vistiting their site at http://www.warinternational.org/.

Contact the organization directly, see their varies programs or donate to the cause.