Last month, as a last organizing hoorah on campus (I’m graduating!), the Westminster Amnesty International chapter and I brought together a wonderful panel of women to highlight the incredible work that they and their respective NGOs are doing to combat violence against women, both here in Western Pennsylvania and globally.

On the panel were Jacqui Patterson, the amazing co-founder of Women of Color United (WOCU) and the director of the NAACP’s Climate Justice Initiative; Mary Day Kent, CARE’s Policy and Advocacy Coordinator for the Middle Atlantic region; and, for a local emphasis, Melissa Stellfox of the Lawrence County Crisis Shelter.

Speaking to an audience of around 60, Jacqui kicked things off with two clips from two great documentaries–No! The Rape Documentary and SASA!, which you can also find at WOCU’s webpage–that brought attention to the often perilous intersection between women of color, women infected with HIV/AIDS and women who are victims of systematic violence. Jacqui also told the stories of several women from the developing world, including Siri, “bringing the voices of women into the room”.

I will share Siri’s story here:

Siri is a 15 year old sex worker from Thailand, who was sold into a debt-bondage agreement by her parents and has sex with 10-15 men every night. What’s worse, she was sold with the expectation that she would eventually pay off this debt and be set free. But, unfortunately, her pimp will continually raise her debt, through erroneous charges, and keep her until she “looks too old” where, mostly likely, she will then be kicked out on the street, or, worse, sold to a more violent pimp.

After about 15 minutes, Melissa of the Lawrence Country Crisis Shelter jumped in and profiled women who’ve been victim to domestic abuse locally. Mostly, though, Melissa focused on the services the Crisis Shelter provides and how they have been able to effectively establish their presence in our community over the past three decades. Our discussion moved from heavy stories like Siri’s to examples of effective, female-led organizing in Lawrence County, PA.

Speaking third, Mary Day of CARE decided to profile not the victims of violence, but the leaders of change and, most importantly, how we can help. If you’re a regular follower of this blog, you’ve likely heard about the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA). And, if you’re really good, you know whether or not your Senator or Representative has co-sponsored or come out in support of IVAWA. Luckily, PA Senators Specter and Casey have both signed out to IVAWA–which is G-R-E-A-T news–our House Rep, on the other hand, is a different story. A conservative Dem who’s fighting challenges from the far-right, Jason Altmire (PA – 4) has resisted our calls for him to sign on. Mary Day discussed conversations she has had, recently, with all three Members of Congress and reassured us that if we kept at it, we’d get to Altmire.

So, after a quick Q&A (we were running low on time), we jumped right to the action component. Many of the students in the audience had never written to their representative before (even getting them to sign the petition at the door was hard enough), but Jacqui provided some great words of encouragement, and we got the remaining stragglers to pen individual letters to Altmire to implore him to sign on to IVAWA.

Overall, the event was well worth it. The stories and experiences our panelists shared were gripping, and mostly sad.  The bleak portrait they painted, however, was brightened by the knowledge that these women work tirelessly, whether that’s on the ground, in the halls of Congress, our on college campuses, to combat violence against women. And, as soon as we get Altmire to sign-on, know you’ll be hearing from us again!

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