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5 Reasons you should follow international news this year

Recent news featured images of black-clad Iranian women protesting against the Saudi government. They took to the public square to take a stand against the government’s — read extreme Sunnis — beheading of 47 Shiites. Even women covered from head to toe know they can be heard across the globe if they gather together in the public square. The question is: Are those of us in the prosperous and relatively safe West listening?

Learn about women taking charge in the most harrowing of circumstances

Yanar Mohammed, president of the Baghdad-based Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, has established a network of secret safe houses for women fleeing rape and terror throughout Syria and Iraq. She even managed to travel to the United Nations in New York to testify about the Islamic State group kidnapping women and forcing them into jihad. She asked the U.N. to put pressure on the Iraqi government and Iraqi police who treat the shelters as illegal.

She made her appeal during the U.N. session to consider the impact of Resolution 1325, the international call for women to be included in peace and security negotiations.

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Jihad marriage, also known as “sexual jihad,” is a term for women who willingly offer sexual comfort to fighters to assist the cause of establishing Islamic rule. Not all women are volunteers — many are forced, Mohammed told the U.N..

Mohammed estimated that the number of Iraqi women kidnapped by the armed militants has climbed to 4,000, of which 3,000 come from the Yazidi religious community in northern Iraq. For two years, ISIS has been organizing a systematic campaign of human enslavement and the trafficking of women and girls to fund themselves, including in government-controlled areas. Although shelters are not legally banned in Iraq, Mohammed said they are treated as such by police and government officials.

In response to growing needs, Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq runs eight shelters in Baghdad, Karbala and Samarra, harboring over 50 women. Mohammed estimates the number of women who have fled ISIS is close to 15,000 right now. The organization plans to open another shelter for Yazidi women.

Discover role models: Women in top leadership can settle wars and fight plagues

If you paid much attention to the recent Ebola outbreak in Liberia, you may have noticed the nation’s president was a woman, and the country quickly enlisted community organizations to halt the spread of the killer virus. This is the second major battle won by the organized market women of Liberia that is transforming the nation.

Liberia is a sub-Saharan African nation founded in part by U.S. slaves looking for freedom that lost its way. The West African nation was the center for two decades of brutal civil war, fought by five armed factions that managed to kill and maim thousands and destroy the nation’s infrastructure.

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Leymah Gbowee began to take charge in 2002 and began to organize the nation’s market women, Christian and Muslim. Together, through daily public protests, they forced the murderous warlords to the negotiating table and humiliated them into signing a peace agreement. In 2006, having ended the war, the Liberian market women became the force behind the successful campaign by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to become the first elected female head of state on the entire continent.

During the Ebola outbreak, President Johnson Sirleaf relied on the market women once again to play a crucial role in the national public health campaign, required to end the spread of a killer virus that could have easily crossed borders and oceans.

In 2011, Gbowee and President Sirleaf won the Nobel Peace Prize. If you haven’t seen it yet, please screen Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a documentary produced by Abigail Disney that provides a powerful narrative of exactly how the women of Liberia beat the devil.

Read about global power: Decisions made in Washington do not stay in Washington

This year, the American voters will elect a new president and the outcome of that election will decide if rape victims in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia will have access to safe abortions. The same goes for victims of incest and those whose lives are in danger if the pregnancy continues.

In 2009, President Obama lifted the so-called “gag rule” that barred health care providers receiving U.S. aid from even mentioning the possibility of abortion to their patients. That was good, but not good enough.

A lesser-known similar law has remained in effect since its adoption in 1973. The Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 does not technically prohibit funding to service providers who perform abortions in cases of life endangerment, incest or rape. The Helms amendment only states that no U.S. aid can support abortion used “as a method of family planning.” The United States Agency for International Development is the world leader in funding international reproductive health care — particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia — the very places where the need is highest and alternatives the fewest.

The policy has always been applied, and continues to be applied broadly, with devastating consequences for victims of sexual violence. (Read more in a report by the Guttmacher Institute.)

The issue is becoming much more urgent, as rape is being used as a weapon of war in at least 21 countries, according to Women’s eNews. The list is growing rapidly, as thousands of female refugees, often without any documents, flee bombing raids and invasions of armed thugs and zealots. After being raped, many thousands of women become pregnant by their assailant and want with every cell of their being to safely terminate their pregnancies.

However, U.S. law requires them, in effect, to give birth to the child of their rapist — or the child of their own father, for that matter — even if their life is at risk. You may wish to consider this when you decided how to cast your ballot or even if you are considering not going to the polls in November.

Find out how you can help: Paying attention is almost better than making a donation

Many U.S.-based organizations are dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls across the globe. These organizations tend to attract fewer funds than all sorts of other organizations, such as colleges, museums, hospitals and gender-neutral relief organizations.

Pick an issue — any issue from water rights to America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia — and become aware how the policy or practice affects women and girls there and here. (If you use fossil fuels, the relationship involves your daily life.) With a little Internet research into who is doing significant work on that issue on behalf of women and girls, you will quickly become your community’s expert on the restrictions faced by the women and girls and the barriers to change. The knowledge you gain will not only assure that you stand out among your peers as knowledgeable about the world, but also you will be building the awareness of those around you, which is how change happens.

Make connections: Learn more about who you are

To quote the Sister Sledge song from the late ’70s, “We are family.”

What traits run in your family, from diseases to dramatic shows of love or playing the violin? When did certain rituals become part of your family’s holiday tradition? Who are these people in the old family albums? When and why did our family leave its homeland?

The answers to these questions often can be answered only by other relatives living where our families emigrated from.

Whatever wave of mass immigration your family was part of — from the Native Americans traveling south from the Arctic to the recent arrivals from South America and the Middle East — we all came from somewhere and those cultures, histories, DNA and current events spawned by the past still reverberate through our lives.

Maybe you go back for vacation every year but avoid the questions you would really like to ask — maybe you could never visit because of your religious or political affiliations. Catholicism still holds sway in my family as it does in Ireland, where contraception and abortion controversies continue with the same intensity as they do in the United States. Knowing that helps me know me.

The Balkans is once again recovering from a genocidal war — the female presidents in South America may be behaving as poorly as their predecessors, new leadership in West Africa might not be corrupt and Eastern Europe is being challenged by a flood of immigrants. What do these trends mean in the daily lives of those living in our homelands? Staying on top of the news from your family’s homeland and its laws and customs can be an enormous aid as we try to put the puzzle pieces of our lives together.

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