By Chris Crowstaff, founder of Safe World for Women
2008: The Beginning
When I first met Cynthia, the 88 year-old mother of my partner Andrew, she had just had the second of two heart-attacks.
It was the summer of 2007 and for several months I travelled with Andrew to visit her and his dad and despite the fact that Cynthia was fading very quickly, I found that she and I bonded extraordinarily easily.
And so it came to be while Andrew was with his father, I often sat talking to this lovely lady, or rather listening. Sitting in her armchair next to her oxygen-cylinders, she would use as much energy as she could muster to share her thoughts on the world.
Cynthia was a very strong, humble and thoughtful woman, who spent much of her life volunteering to help others, especially the old and vulnerable, and those less fortunate than herself.
She was also very passionate about women's issues - especially about women's role in communication, networking, and cooperating.
Sadly, the time we were to spend together was to be very short; her body finally succumbed to a stroke in January 2008, and the last time we were connected was when she was semi-conscious in hospital, and I spent a peaceful time massaging her feet with lavendar oil.
Before she left, as always, she was worried about others. On Andrew's last visit she gave him one last instruction - to look after his Dad when she was gone. Words which changed our lives forever.
Andrew's Dad at the time was 85. Like many men of his generation, he had little experience of looking after himself. And so it was that Andrew and I moved within a few weeks to live close by.
Cynthia had always been prudent with money, and in her will she left each of her two sons a small bequest.
Andrew and I decided to put this to good use and there was little doubt it had to be something to do with women.
Women for a Change
Over the next few weeks, in our new home, ideas began to formulate and become clearer.
I had experience in the voluntary sector and Andrew was experienced with IT, internet communication, and website design, and by the time we went with the family to scatter Cynthia's ashes at her favourite small cove in Cornwall, we were ready to start our project which now had a name: Women for a Change (WFAC).
I skyped a friend in Spain, Jane Young, about the idea, and together we spent the next two months writing up our vision, mission, and objectives, planning an online community for women, and writing content for a website - both of which Andrew was designing. Jane and I had never met in person, but for the next two years we skyped each other almost daily, and became great friends; I felt that I knew her home and dogs intimately!
At the end of July 2008, we launched the Women for a Change Community, bringing together women from diverse cultures and backgrounds, to share experiences and look at ways to address the issues we faced. Our aim was that, by pooling our skills, resources, time, and commitment, we would be able to take steps towards resolving some of the issues and helping women in need. 'Connecting women in need with women who care.' Jane made our first movie:
By September, we had a website and on the 1st October 2008 we registered The WFAC International Foundation, known as Women for a Change - with the bi-line: 'Connect, Support, Empower'.
The vision and idea were simple. Cynthia had often said to me that she felt women tend to be better at cooperating than men - which has been my experience too.
What would happen if we could bring together women on the internet and explore together ways of creating change?
The online community was the first stage.
Many people joined the community from all over the world. And soon we found ourselves talking with women who were involved with extraordinary work in developing countries.
It was obvious that we were getting close to the next stage of our work.
This next stage was to bring together volunteers, and develop a website so that we could promote the work of grassroots women's groups and organisations throughout the world.
On International Women's Day 2009, I was invited to speak at a conference. This was the first time I was to meet any of our volunteers in person. Fiona Gaffa is an inspiring Ugandan woman who works to empower ethnic groups in the UK. Irit Hakim, who was visiting from Israel; she is passionate about women's involvement with the peace movement in Israel and Palestine. Irit is now the Safeworld Correspondent for Israel.
Our meeting incredible experience; we all felt like we'd known each other for ages!
Later that Spring, Andrew and I got married. Jane came over from Spain, and four of our online friends flew over from the USA! Again, it was the first time that we'd all met each other!
Israel, Palestine & Jordan
At the end of May and early June, Andrew and I found ourselves in Israel on an unusual sort of honeymoon.
We spent a fortnight travelling around and meeting with women's groups in the Middle East. Irit had kindly invited us to visit her and to meet her friends, and to connect with women's groups there. In the space of two short weeks we had a crash course in the complexities of the region, especially after visiting a women's group in Jordan and travelling in the West Bank.
As honeymooners, we manged to have a lot of freedom in our travels, far more than the people who live there. One day, we even found ourselves, by accident - in one of the most heavily guarded settlements on the West Bank. A disturbing experience made more so by the presence of a slightly hostile, armed sentry, and an army jeep, which came to check us out. There were plenty of more pleasant moments, of course. In particular, spending an evening sitting outside at a Palestinian restaurant in Jerusalem watching Manchester United and Barcelona on a big screen. I think we were the only Man United supporters there - and also the only tourists. We were made to feel very much at home.
The last day is one which also sticks in our minds to this day: Irit took us to meet her wonderful mum, Tzippi. We spent a delightful couple of hours in her flat as she told us fascinating stories from her youth, working for the resistance against the British! And showing us photos. An afternoon made especially bizarre as that day the whole of Israel had to stay indoors while an air raid drill was practiced complete with ear-piercing loud sirens.
When we left we had one regret: on the online WFAC Community, we had connected with a young woman in Gaza who had written to us chilling accounts of snipers and bombs during the war, a few months previously. Despite our attempts to try and get permission for her to visit us, it sadly wasn't possible.
When we arrived back in the UK we had a whole spectrum of feelings. We had met so many wonderful people and encountered so much diversity, and seen beautiful landscapes - and at the same time, we glimpsed the sense of ongoing intransigence, despair, and even hopelessness.
Just before we went away, we had been talking to Fiona about the possibility of going to Uganda, I had heard about an amazing woman who was running a women's group in a poverty-stricken isolated part of north-eastern Uganda.
In July we travelled to Uganda, meeting with Fiona's family and our online friends there. With help, we had managed to track down a particular woman I'd been keen to make contact with: Grace Loumo.
Grace had founded a women's group, AWARE Uganda, 25 years ago, in a poverty-stricken isolated part of north-eastern Uganda. I had found something she'd written on the internet and had determined to try and meet her.
The trip to Uganda was exhausting and inspiring both at the same time. Besides travelling up to meet Grace in Kaabong, we visited several small women's groups in rural villages. Our whole journey was filmed. The first film produced was about Grace and the AWARE women's group:
AWARE Uganda became the first Safe World Field Partner.
Women and Peace
In between our visit to the Middle East and Uganda, we came a cross a remarkable woman called Jo Berry, who we arranged to meet and interview in July 2009:
When we returned from Uganda, Jo was due to launch her charity: Building Bridges for Peace. The launch was to take place in Brighton in October 2009, where, 25 years earlier, Jo's father - Sir Anthony Berry, had been killed in an IRA bomb attack. The planter of the bomb, Pat Magee, was also to be there. Jo and Pat now work closely together for peace. A team from Women for a Change helped with the organising of the event. Again, Irit was visiting from Israel and came along to help. It was a truly inspirational event, with a screening of the film, Soldiers of Peace.
Safe World for Women
It was now time to move towards providing a public platform to give a voice to women and women's groups throughout the world.
With our growing number of Field Partners, our new campaigning arm, and our expanding volunteer base, the next step was to develop a webzine.
We also developed an active presence and following on the social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, which we found to be highly effective for advocacy work, and we closed the online community.
The Safe World for Women Campaign was conceived, and introduced with another short film by Jane Young:
Our premise, at the launch of the Safe World Campaign, was that women's issues should become the number one global concern.
In March 2010, our Safe World for Women Webzine was launched, with articles submitted by leading activists throughout the world.
Later in the Spring, we offically changed the name of the organisation to The Safeworld International Foundation. Over that period, Jane Young resigned from the board to make more time in her retirement, and Fernanda Amaral, a young sociology graduate in Brazil - who I had 'met' in our online community some months earlier, joined me as a co-Trustee.
Starting to Campaign - Sarah Shourd
In January 2010, on Twitter, we had come across the case of American prisoner, Sarah Shourd, who was being held in prison in Iran with her two friends. We connected with the coordinator of the Free the Hikers Campaign, Farah Mawani, and made contact with Sarah's mother, Nora. Nora told us that Sarah was being held without charge, and that she had not heard from her.
In March, Nora received one short phone-call from Sarah, in which Sarah had confirmed that she was still being held in solitary confinement. At this time, we had no experience of campaigning for prisoners; however, there were no NGOs advocating on behalf of the 'hikers'. Safe World took up Sarah's case and we arranged to interview Nora. We also worked to raise awareness about Sarah's two imprisoned friends, Shane and Josh. All three had been working to raise awareness of humanitarian issues, and we felt that this fact was not widely known. We produced a series of campaign films; the first of which was 'The Real Hikers':
Nora decided to come to London, as did Shane's mother, Cindy, where we all met up. We arranged media interviews, a visit to the Amnesty International Offices, and coordinated with the police a small protest at the Iranian Embassy.
When we took up Sarah's case, we had very little experience of the mainstream media, and very few if any contacts there. By the end of the summer, we had developed working relationships with journalists and key individuals within the mainstream media who showed an interest in human rights - and women’s rights in particular. Amnesty International in particular was very helpful by referring media contacts to us. I was interviewed several times on BBC radio, and quoted in the UK Times newspaper. We connected with sympathetic journalists in other countries, from Brazil to the Middle East and South East Asia. We also made contact with a Special Rapporteur at the United Nations, who subsequently made a statement demanding an end to Sarah's solitary confinement.
Sarah was released in September, 2010. Her friends, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, were still in prison, but we felt that now Sarah was freed, their release would be imminent.
Through our work for Sarah Shourd, we quickly became aware of the many other prisoners unjustly detained in Iran. We began campaigning for imprisoned women’s rights advocates.
We very quickly became aware of the even greater challenges faced by Iranian prisoners in terms of advocacy. While the hikers' families were relatively free to speak out, this is certainly not the case for prisoners who have family in Iran. The regime recognised the impact that families' voices have in terms of raising public support and very commonly 'advise' them against speaking out.
Joanne Michele joined our team of correspondents, as Iran correspondent. As an experienced and passionate advocate, Joanne advised on some of the complexities and sensitivities involved in advocating for Iranian prisoners.
Safe World helped to raise the profile of prisoners such as Hengameh Shahidi and human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, in the UK media.
Joanne also interviewed Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat, whose music is banned in Iran.
Joanne led our campaign to free Navid Mohebbi, young Iranian teenage women's rights advocate who had been arrested at 17 years of age, for his involvement in an International Women's Day event and for blogging about women's rights.
Navid was released, on a suspended sentence, on Christmas day 2010.
However, advocacy is full of highs and lows. Our elation at Navid's release was followed by devastating news.
Through a third party, Joanne had made contact with the family of imprisoned Dutch-Iranian woman, Zahra Bahrami. Zahra's case was especially close to our hearts, as she had known Sarah Shourd while in Evin prison. However, Joanne was informed that Zahra's family had apparently been told by the Regime that Zahra stood a better chance if there was no publicity about her case. We felt perhaps it was best for Zahra if we didn't make a fuss at this point. She had dual citizenship and a Dutch lawyer was involved.
We were therefore all in shock when, in January 2011, Zahra received the death sentence. And in even greater shock when - a few weeks later, before anyone could protest and even before Zahra's Dutch lawyer had completed the file relating to her 'political activities', Zarah Bahrami was executed.
A heart-breaking start to 2011. Advocacy work can feel soul-destroying at times.
2011 - Expanding, Focussing, and Team-Building
While Iran went quietly ahead and executed Zahra Bahrami, the world (including us) was busy covering the Egyptian revolution. Suddenly, the social media came into its own. Especially Twitter. Events were happening so quickly that the mainstream media couldn't keep up. And Twitter became an essential tool for transmitting messages. Several of our Twitter contacts were directly involved, to the extent that I felt personally involved myself. For 18 days I was on Twitter almost every waking moment - keeping an eye on many different Twitter accounts which I knew to be authentic sources of news - and generally doing what I could to show support from afar. It was an incredible feeling to be in touch with women in Tahrir Square and that we could in some way help to broadcast messages.
The day after Mubarak stood down, I spoke with one of the revolutionaries, Mona Seif - skyping to her landline, and we were able to publish the recording. A moment in the making of history:
We continue to do what we can to support for those who are oppressed by dictatorships. However many more revolutions there are, those days in early 2010 will stay forever in my mind. Another inspiring occasion where personal connections brought even more impact, and when the seemingly impossible became possible.
In Spring 2011, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were still in prison in Iran and their trial had begun. Sarah Shourd and their mothers were still endlessly campaigning for them. There seemed to be no end in sight to their situation.
So in June 2011, Sarah Shourd came to London to raise awareness of her two imprisoned friends. Andrew and I went to stay in London for the duration of Sarah's visit, organised media interviews and accompanied Sarah to the Amnesty International offices.
In September 2011, Shane and Josh were freed.
We felt a renewed sense of freedom ourselves now. We had devoted much of our time to Sarah, Shane and Josh over the last year and a half. We also felt close to their families and we felt personally involved, so our hearts and minds were with them for much of the time.
And they had been the catalyst which inspired us to work for other prisoners. Of course, their freedom further inspired us - we realised that the seemingly impossible can sometimes be possible. They had changed our lives - and the work of Safe World, in many ways.
Joanne Michele, meanwhile, was busy working on an extenstive report: 'Iran: Execution of Women and Children', which we published on World Day Against the Death Penalty in October 2011.
Jennifer Timmons joined Safe World for Women in December 2009, initially helping with general liaising, communications and editing. It soon became obvious that Jen's passion lay with the grassroots.
In January 2011, Jen was appointed Field Partners Manager and Editor.
During the many months that Andrew, Joanne and I were busying ourselves with campaigning work, Jen had been almost single-handedly devoting day after day to building relationships with the Safe World Field Partners and expanding the network, which now extends from Nigeria to DR Congo and Malawi, to Afghanistan, to Pakistan and India, to Nepal and the Thai-Burma border.
The more we learn about the many grassroots organisations already working successfully in their regions, the more obvious it becomes that we need to focus on partnering with existing groups, rather than setting up projects 'on the ground' ourselves. Many of these organisations don't have websites or any real internet presence. And yet, with a bit of financial help they could do so much more. And much more effectively than anyone else, because the groups are comprised of local people who already know the local schools, leaders, government officials etc. They are best-placed to find the most effective solutions to the problems they face and the most sensitive way to tackle cultural issues. However, often they are unknown to potential funding organisations.
So we feel that raising the online profiles of our Field Partners is the best way to empower people at a local level - and help them to help themselves. Providing a platform for our Field Partners helps individual donors to more easily identify grassroots organisations which they may wish to support.So it also empowers private donors to make an informed choice about the recipients of their gifts.
Jen's life is increasingly consumed by her passion for the Safe World Field Partners, and we are all very excited about the potential in helping to give a voice to these groups.
Articles, News and Interviews
Clara Boxall joined the board of Safeworld, as Trustee and Director of Communications. Clara has considerably helped to expand our team of correspondents, bloggers and content partners.In October 2011,
Over the years, Safe World has developed a global, dedicated core team of volunteers, contributors, and supporters. We have a team of volunteer correspondents throughout the world, and we partner with news outlets such as Trustlaw Women (Reuters), to help keep up-to-date with news items which impact on women's rights.
We now have thousands of articles on the webzine, including exclusive interviews with key women's rights activists. When we interview someone, we often feel so personally involved, that each interview can end up taking ages! And often, we continue to stay in touch afterwards.
2012 - Highs and Lows
2012 began with the addition of a new member of our team - Linnet Griffith Jones, a graduate in politics from Lancaster University. Linnet very soon came up with the inspiration of the Safe World Student Writers Project, which she proceeded to pioneer and coordinate, working closely with Clara.
On International Women's Day 2012, we partnered with Women for Women International in their Join Me on the Bridge campaign, with many of our Field Partners taking part.
In May 2012, we heard that Safe World for Women had been nominated for a Katerva Award. We were invited to complete an in-depth application form, which we worked on together, as a team, in an online google document and submitted it a few minutes before the deadline at the end of May! If our entry was successful, then there was to then be a lengthy selection process, lasting several months, during which we would be assessed in various capacities by teams of experts.
In July 2012, we learnt the devastatingly sad and shocking news that Farida Afridi had been murdered in the tribal regions of Pakistan, following threasts relating to her work.
Farida was co-founder of SAWERA, our Field Partner from the region, and had been working to promote women's empowerment, peace and education. As you can imagine, to say this hit us hard is an understatement. I think it's true to say that this changed our whole perspective and outlook on our work and, moreover, brought home the reality of the immense challenges faced by many grassroots organisations - and the courage of those working at the grassroots. It is also true to say that Farida's cruel murder further impassioned our work and increased our motivation.
We vowed that if we did win the Katerva Award - which felt very far off at that moment - we would dedicate it to Farida Afridi, RIP.
On the 22nd September 2012, we received a surprise email informing us that we had been selected as one of five finalists in the Katerva Award Gender Equality category. Our nomination had been reviewed by 'two expert panels in our category, the Validation panel and the Scalability panel." The next phase of the competition, we were told, would involve the Impact panel and would evaluate the finalists in order to choose a Category winner.
On the 27th November 2012, we received an even more surprising email from Katerva: "Congratulations! You have been identified as having one of the best ideas of the planet.." the email began! It was explained that all Katerva finalists will be eligible to enter for the Katerva People's Choice Award, which would invovle online voting by the public, which would open at the start of 2013.
2013 - A Good Start
Driven by our determination to dedicate a Katerva Award to Farida Afridi, RIP, and to highlight the work of everyone working with courage and dedication at the grassroots, we began an intense campaign on the social media for votes towards winning the Katerva People's Award.
At the end of January 2013, to our utmost delight and amazement, we heard that we had won both the Katerva Gender Equality Award and the Katerva People's Award. We were to be able to give a voice to our grassroots partners at a major ceremony!
This was real recognition of our work - by both the public and by the Katerva panelists including inspiring and influencial people working for women's rights, such as Mary Robinson.
In July, 2013, I travelled with my husband, Andrew, to the United Nations in Geneva (at the Annual Ministerial Review), to meet with Jennifer Timmons, where I was officially presented with the Katerva People's Award and invited to give a speech.
I dedicated our award to Farida Afridi, RIP.
In my speech, I highlighted the work of many our graasroots partners and helped to give them a voice and to draw attention to the courage of women human rights defenders throughout the world.
Before my speech, the following video was shown on a big screen:
Our more detailed summary of our work in the year 2013 is written up here: Safe World for Women - Reflecting on the Year 2013
What next after empowering?
The year 2014 has so far been very much focussed on sustainability - that of Safe World for Women and also our Field Partners.
The year began with the news, from Katerva, that our award had brought us to the attention of a team of MBA students at the prestigious Kelley School of Business based at Indiana University, USA, who had offered us a pro-bono series of consultancy sessions. The course would take place over the summer, via the internet.
Then in June, we had a surprise email informing us that Safe World for Women had been shortlisted for a Nominet Internat Award - 'celebrating the very best of British excellence...'!
We were shortlisted in the 'Doing Good Online' category and, in July 2014, Andrew and I set off for a 'black tie' event at the London Film Museum. Most exciting of all, Courtenay Forbes had arranged to come with us. Courtenay had started with us back in 2012, as one of our first 'student writers'. Courtenay soon progressed to become a Safe World Correspondent, had now graduated from university and was about to start studying Law. We'd never met before so this was a momentous evening!
The winner of the 'Doing Good Online' award was a project of Cancer Research UK, called the Citizen Science Programme. In fact, many of those shortlisted were major and well-established organisations and businesses so, though we did not win, we felt privaleged to be there with very impressive company!
In July 2014, we began our 'summer school' with the Kelley MBA student team. This wonderful team became passionately involved in helping advise not only our core team here at Safe World, but also two of our grassroots Field Partners which they selected for a pilot study: COFAPRI in DR Congo, and Compassion CBO in Kenya. The result was that funds were raised by the Kelley MBA team for these two groups, a comprehensive business training manual was collaboratively developed for grassroots women, and members of both groups are training to set up micro-businesses.
Courtenay has recently been appointed Student Liaison Officer for Safe World and we have relaunched our very successful Student Writers Project.
Even more recently, we have launched our Shop for a Safe World, with Linnet Griffith-Jones as Project Manager. Linnet was our Student Liaison Officer from 2012 to 2013, before studying for a Masters in Politics and then going on to intern in Karamoja with Safe World Field Partner, AWARE Uganda.