Women’s Empowerment

Women Driving Change-JESSALINE

(Jessaline is a fictional character)

Jessaline is a hardworking single mother who has become a tremendous asset to her company. She hasn’t been recognized with a higher position or rewarded monetarily, however, and has had to put up with sexist comments from her male co-workers. After being drugged and raped at a party by one of her boss’ friends, her life is turned upside down when she learns she might be HIV positive. She decides not to report the crime until a few weeks later when she receives the negative results. By that time, the police find Jessaline’s story very hard to believe, especially since she has just gotten fired from her job for accusing her boss’ friend. Feeling betrayed and left down, she starts attending a support group meeting for survivors of gender-based violence. This is where she meets Chi-Chi, a former sex worker, who now works in the corporate world. Both women, feeling very empowered, decide to dedicate their lives to advocating for gender equality. Jessaline even chooses to take things further and run for office.

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Women’s Empowerment

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Underestimated. Underpaid. Undervalued.

Jessaline is frustrated at work. As a hardworking, middle-class, single mother, she worked her way up the professional ladder and created a comfortable life for her seven-year-old daughter, Mona, and herself. Yet despite years of hard work and professional achievements, she has not been promoted to a higher position or sufficiently rewarded monetarily. There is no question that Jessaline deserves more than the verbal accolades and “flattering” perks her boss “generously” gives her. After all, her work is very high quality, and her boss consistently verbally acknowledges her valued contributions—just without considering the appropriate compensation she has repeatedly requested. A source of further aggravation is that Jessaline has too many times witnessed her boss giving less qualified and accomplished male colleagues promotions. It doesn’t help that she puts up with sexist comments from her male co-workers, who include her boss. It’s when her boss’ new male assistant asks her: “What did you have to do to get that job?” that she decides enough is enough. She does not deserve such treatment.

“[World leadership] must ensure the full implementation of the human rights of women and of the girl child as an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

The workplace isn’t the only place where Jessaline works hard without being appreciated. Her ex-husband took personal issue with her role as the breadwinner, and in many respects, the head of household and decision maker. She was the one who juggled being both a provider and nurturer in their home, while he jumped from one job to another, with long stretches of unemployment, and without contributing to the upkeep of their home and responsibilities of raising their daughter. Jessaline continues to struggle with her ex-husband to provide support monetarily, and even to simply show up and participate in the daily and consistent support and care of Mona.

“Women continue to be paid less than men, are often employed in the informal sector, have temporary and insecure jobs, and command less authority.”

A Night That Changed Everything

Before Jessaline has a chance to address her issues with her boss, he informs her that she will be honoured at an event for employees who have produced exemplary work. While she has been down this road before, she can’t help but feel hopeful that her boss will finally reward her with the promotion she deserves. Unfortunately, she is once again disappointed—she is given a certificate and a thank you. Upset, she decides to have one drink. At the bar, she recognizes her boss’ long-time, powerful friend. They begin talking—opening up about their frustrations in life, in the world. They share their hopes and aspirations in a mentor/mentee-style conversation.

“The path to sustainability will demand better leadership and greater innovation to extend human rights and protect all persons from discrimination and violence, in order that all persons have the opportunity to contribute to and benefit from development.”

This conversation is the last thing Jessaline remembers before waking up in a hotel bedroom confused and in pain. She sees her boss’ friend next to her, and feels shock and humiliation. He is much older than her, and she knows she would never put herself in this position willingly. She has no doubt that she was drugged, and the sex was not consensual. In the bathroom, she sees a large assortment of pills. She recognizes the name of one as a treatment for HIV and panics. There are unopened condoms in the bathroom and no opened condoms anywhere.

Jessaline is paralysed with fear. This is a well-known and respected man. How could he do this? How could he do this to her? Always a strong, focused woman who knows her rights, she finds herself uncomfortable immediately reporting the crime. This is so against her instincts, but then again nothing about what has happened feels right. She is fearful that she may have been exposed to the HIV virus, and what that would mean for Mona (who fortunately was with her grandmother last night).

“Globally, 36% of women have experienced intimate partner violence, non-intimate partner violence, or both forms.”

The Assault of Discrimination

The wait to learn whether or not she had become HIV-positive is stressful for Jessaline, physically and mentally. She ultimately learns she has not acquired the virus, and her relief is palpable—a fire in her now replaces her fear. She will tell her boss and the police that this man of great respect and power is not just a rapist, but also putting women at risk of HIV infection.

“Physical health, mental health and productivity are not only compromised by physical harassment, bullying or violence; similar effects are prompted by pervasive negative stereotypes, experience of stigma and fear of discrimination. The ‘cost of inaction’ estimates the significant, and often hidden, consequences of failing to take appropriate action to address injustices and inequalities, and underscores the high toll that such inaction extracts from communities.”

It takes a lot of courage for Jessaline to confront her boss, and the outcome is not what she anticipated. He is appalled by her allegations, and reminds her that his friend is a powerful, deeply respected man. Definitely not a rapist, nor infected with HIV! “You don’t go around accusing people of such things,” her boss says, before telling her it is time for her to move on and find a new job.

“As many as 70% of women surveyed in some countries agree that wife beating is justified under certain circumstances.”

Publicly shamed and furious by such treatment, Jessaline reports the rape to the police. Unfortunately, she does not get a supportive response from them either. Not understanding why she didn’t report the rape before, and finding it very suspicious that she is talking about this now, right after being fired from her job, the police do not take her accusations seriously.

A policewoman even has the nerve to say, “OK, but you are not HIV positive, right? What are you worried about? Why didn’t you come to us right away? You can fill out some paperwork and we’ll see what we can do when we get to it.”

“38% of all murders of women globally are committed by intimate partners.”

Empowered to Empower Others

Facing the possibility of death, losing her job, being humiliated and betrayed by her boss, and feeling let down by the legal system, Jessaline only has to look into the eyes of her young daughter to recognize this isn’t something she can let go of. She fights injustice. If her community won’t support her now, then she will create a community that will. This is the kind of woman she wants to be for Mona and for Mona to grow up to be.

Jessaline is aware of literature she’s seen around about support group meetings for survivors of gender-based violence. She’s never been, but decides to start attending. She needs to connect with something right now. When Jessaline is comforted in the meetings, she also finds her voice, and begins speaking out and leading the sessions. Talking about her experience with other women invigorates her. She recognizes her ability to empower other women like herself, and women who, until her rape, she never noticed. Even though it took a tragedy for her to open her eyes to the struggles of women from different situations, she is committed to being the change that will inspire people at all levels of her society to end all forms of violence against women.

“Over the past two decades sex workers have been the focus of many public health initiatives concerned with the spread of HIV and AIDS, but rarely have their own rights to health been acknowledged, nor their rights to social protection from poverty or violence.”

In her support group, Jessaline meets Chi-Chi, a former sex worker who now works in the corporate world as an executive assistant to a CEO. Chi-Chi opens up to Jessaline about her previous life and her struggle to make healthier choices. She is proud of her successes and triumphs. When Jessaline shares with Chi-Chi how her rape came with an HIV scare, Chi-Chi in turn shares with Jessaline that she is HIV-positive.

Chi-Chi explains to Jessaline that keeping her HIV status to herself is a real struggle, as she works hard to be honest in all aspects of her life. She is afraid of being ostracized and discriminated against by her family, friends, colleagues and community members.

The trust and bond created between the two women inspires Jessaline further. It gives her a sense of personal purpose and contribution that she has never felt before, despite her previous professional successes. She likes being an integral part of a community and a leader, and she feels passionately about advocating for and protecting all women. She will create change and reform so that Mona doesn’t have to experience what she and other women have lived through.

Jessaline and Chi-Chi discuss the latter’s personal desire but also fear around sharing her HIV status. It is risky in their country, but Chi-Chi feels she no longer wants to hide. She decides she will first tell her boss. When she confronts her with the news, the response is one of compassion and support. Chi-Chi learns that her boss has a brother who is HIV+.

Jessaline decides to dedicate her time and energy to creating a platform where she can be a spokeswoman who advocates for gender equality, education around gender-based violence, and an end to stigma around sexually transmitted infections and HIV. Jessaline’s ability to create change compels her to take things further. She will run for office at the local level. A woman leader in her community will be another step towards empowering other women, while also better teaching men to respect and support them in the process.

“In all regions, women remain significantly underrepresented among business leaders and managers.”

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