Forty million girls in Africa are married before by the time they are 14 years old. Seventy-five percent of casualties of modern-day armed conflict are women and children. One billion women and girls lack the necessary education and skills to participate in today’s quickly changing labor market.
These are statistics with which women’s rights advocate and global development expert Karen Sherman is all too familiar. She will speak Sunday morning at the Wilkinson Public Library.
For the past 30 years of her career as an advocate for women, Sherman has worked with women in conflict zones and transitional countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Congo, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Sudan, Kosovo and the former Soviet Union. She’s listened to the stories of thousands of women. She’s worked with governments, NGOs and business leaders. She’s spoken to audiences around the globe to educate and bring awareness to the realities experienced by millions of women living in areas of conflict and poverty. With such an accumulated depth of knowledge, Sherman has come to a firmly held conclusion: women — and by extension families, communities, society and, ultimately, the world — benefit when women have access to educational opportunity and the ability to participate in economic activities.
Sherman has recently written a memoir, sharing a narrative of personal and professional experiences from decades of far-ranging work in complex contexts with women survivors of conflict, abuse and adversity. Titled “Brick by Brick: Building Hope and Opportunity for Women Survivors Everywhere,” Sherman also shares powerful stories of the resilience, resourcefulness, pragmatism and courage of many of the women with whom she’s worked during her career. Sunday morning at 10 a.m., Wilkinson Public Library and Between the Covers bookstore present “Authors Uncovered,” a bagels-and-books talk at the library during which attendees can listen to Sherman relate experiences and takeaways from her fascinating career, ask questions and purchase a copy of the book to have signed. Sherman will provide all-you-can-eat food for thought, while the library will provide the coffee and bagels.
After so many years of working in such varied international contexts, from the recently collapsed Soviet Union in the 1990s to countries struggling to overcome the mass trauma of conflict such as Afghanistan and Rwanda, Sherman isn’t interested in the low-hanging fruit of tugging heartstrings simply to elicit sympathy.
“It’s really about seeing these women as agents of change, and changing that social construct about how we view people who we might thing are “other” but actually are not,” said Sherman, adding that while the tendency might be to see people living in vastly different circumstances as very different from us, her work has actually reinforced the opposite conclusion.
“I wanted people to see how women live around the world,” she continued, “and see that people aren’t so different. I really wanted to connect the dots between women’s experiences across country contexts. On the face of it, we in America might say, ‘I don’t have anything in common with these Afghan women, or these Rwandan women, or these Nigerian women, or these South Sudanese women.’ But actually, in my work and travels I have found that that is not the case at all, that at a very fundamental level regardless of place or circumstance, that there is so much that unites us as women, such as the desire to support and educate our children, to build a better future, to live a life free of violence, abuse, and harassment, and to live in dignity and in peace.”
For the past six years, Sherman has served as the president of the Akilah Institute, the only women’s college in Rwanda. In her work there, she has seen yet again “the power of voice and choice through education and income.” In her book, she relates the story of Teresa, a young Rwandan woman whose life, along with her family, was transformed by this power.
“Teresa was forced to drop out of school when she was 16 years old after her father died, and her mother was left to support her and her ten siblings. Very often the family would go hungry,” Sherman said. “So Teresa got married to a neighbor and in very quick succession had five children. She was really dependent on her husband, who was very controlling.”
Sherman recounted how Teresa eventually convinced her husband to allow her to join a program called Women for Women, through which she received agricultural training. There, other women in the group encouraged her to start a small business, which she did, buying and selling cattle in the market, starting a small banana plantation, and more. Eventually she was able to earn enough through her businesses to buy land, build a house, even teaching her husband to read and finding him work as a bricklayer.
“She’s really the one who’s supporting her whole family,” Sherman said. “Her husband has changed completely. It just shows what’s possible with this little bit of opportunity that’s so transformative not only for her life but also the lives of everyone she touches.”
Sherman addresses not only women’s stories and her own story throughout the book, but much more as well, including themes of maintaining hope and optimism in the face of conflict and a divided society, and how everyday people are capable of contributing to the cause of improving women’s lives “as far away as Rwanda or perhaps just 20 minutes down the road.”
Laura Colbert, adult programs specialist at the library, is looking forward to bringing Sherman to the community.
“Karen has been working all over the world for women's empowerment for three decades, and I know that our curious, compassionate and engaged Telluride region residents will want to hear the story of her work, as well as her personal story of overcoming abuse in her past and her wild leap moving to Rwanda with her three sons,” she said, adding, “Plus, free coffee and bagels!”