Girls changing the world, says journalist-activist Sally Armstrong

Armstrong, called a war correspondent for the world’s women, is the keynote speaker at a 110th Anniversary Tea for St. Margaret’s School on Sunday at the Fairmont Empress Hotel

SPEAKER SERIES

What: 110th Anniversary Tea for St. Margaret’s School, featuring keynote speaker Sally Armstrong
Where: Fairmont Empress Hotel, Crystal Ballroom
When: Nov. 4 from 1- 4 p.m.
Tickets: $150 (include high tea and copy of Ascent of Women by Sally Armstrong and $50 tax receipt), available at the door or online: stmarg.ca/110th-anniversary-tea

Over three decades of reporting on girls and women in conflict zones around the world, Sally Armstrong hadn’t had a good news story to tell.

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Until now.

“There is change; there is change everywhere,” said Armstrong, a journalist, author and human-rights activist. “We’re not there. My God, we’re not even close to crossing the finish line, but the issue is on everybody’s mind.”

Armstrong, called a war correspondent for the world’s women, is the keynote speaker at a 110th Anniversary Tea for St. Margaret’s School on Sunday at the Fairmont Empress Hotel. All proceeds of the fundraiser go to bursaries and scholarships.

Both “iconic” institutions are celebrating 110-year anniversaries with a shared history that includes original buildings designed by architect Francis Rattenbury and a shared belief that the time for full equality and inclusion for girls and young women has come.

“This iconic hotel that’s known for history and excellence teams up with the oldest girls school on the Island. It lets you know the position of girls today,” said Armstrong, a member of the Order of Canada.

“I have very strong feelings about what I want to say to those girls.”

Armstrong has reported on women and girls in Afghanistan, the Congo and the Middle East. With her 2013 book Ascent of Women, she talks about a tipping point in the fight for emancipation, and in her 2014 book Uprising she cites the leading women making change happen.

“There has never been a time in history where girls were this powerful or this influential or important in turning around about what looks like a catastrophe,” she said.

Today’s change-makers are exercising personal will — not political will requiring the stroke of a politician’s pen or public will relying on petitions and protests — but rather a new type of leadership, speaking truth to power and standing up to inequality and injustice, Armstrong said in a phone interview from Cairns, Australia.

“Things you hoped for are starting to happen and I think there is a level of energy that is unstoppable now. These girls are the tomorrow people, I think.”

Education is key, and social media, though flawed, is helping them deliver their message and drum up momentum.

“What we’re seeing now is young girls using personal will,” Armstrong said. “Like Malala, like [Emma] González, like [Alaina] Podmorow standing up and saying: ‘What you are doing is not OK with me.’ And I think that’s incredible. They are empowering other young people and it’s working and that’s the message I want to take to the podium with that speech.”

Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate, was on a bus in October 2012 when she and two other girls were shot by a Taliban gunman in an assassination attempt in retaliation for her activism. It sparked an international outpouring; the Taliban was internationally denounced. She survived and became a prominent activist for the right to education, founded the Malala Fund and co-authored I am Malala.

“Malala has become the world’s daughter,” Armstrong said. “And how did she become the world’s daughter? She said: ‘ I’ll do it my way.’ ”

Emma González, 18, co-founded the gun-control advocacy group Never Again MSD after surviving a mass shooting in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. At the March for Our Lives she stood silent for six minutes and 20 seconds, the time it took for the shooter to kill 17 people.

“This is pretty darn nervy stuff,” Armstrong said.

Alaina Podmorow, 17, a Grade 11 student in Kelowna, inspired by a speech by Armstrong in 2006 about the human-rights violations against Afghan girls, founded Little Women for Little Women in Afghanistan in 2007. It has raised almost $500,000 and started “Littles” across North America. Her motto is “education = peace.”

“As a result there’s thousands of girls in school,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong also cited Shamsia Husseini, 17. While she was on her way to Mirwais Mena School for Girls in insurgency-plagued Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2009, a masked man on a motorcycle sprayed her face with battery acid. Disfigured, she recovered, returned to school and became an influential language and science teacher and fundraiser. She maintains she sought a greater revenge on her attacker than former Afghan president Hamid Karzai who had promised the attacker would be executed.

“I have given him the worst punishment more than the president could have ever given him — I am teaching the girls,” Armstrong said, relaying Shamsia’s words.

Weeks ago, Armstrong was in south Sudan teaching female journalists.

“They are in the most ghastly situation. Every damn thing is wrong in that country and here they are, they don’t want to leave, they want to learn, they want to practise better journalism,” she said. If you can’t talk about the injustices, you can’t change them, Armstrong said. And education is key, she noted.

“Women and girls, they are driving the bus today.”

That wasn’t the case in 1992 when Armstrong was in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. On her last day there, she heard rumours of rape camps: “I could not believe it was true, but through the day, I got more and more evidence it was true.”

She gathered names, mobile numbers, anecdotes, “everything I could get.” She returned the next day to Canada and handed over the information to a large news organization with daily deadlines as opposed to months-long deadlines at Homemakers magazine where she was editor-in-chief. Seven weeks passed after which a four-line blurb appeared in Newsweek about gang rapes in the Balkans.

“Twenty thousand women were gang raped, some of them eight years old, some of them 80 years old,” she said. This was before the 2003 Darfur genocide in Western Sudan and Rwandan genocide in 1994.

Furious and dismayed, Armstrong returned to Sarajevo to report on Eva Penavic, 44, a Croat brutalized in the Balkan War.

Homemaker’s broke the story in 1993: “The story went into the stratosphere,” she said.

She recalls the same happened in Afghanistan.

“Nobody cared about Afghanistan until 9/11,” Armstrong said. “I was there all throughout the Taliban. I had no competition. There was absolutely nothing about the women.”

Today, Malala is front-page news, she said. That has changed.

In Canada, when charges of sexual assault or harassment against CBC broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi went to court in 2016: “It had liftoff in Canada, but it didn’t stay up there, but #MeToo is staying there and I think it’s a sign of the times, I really do.”

#MeToo is a phrase about sexual harassment and sexual assault popularized by American actor Alyssa Milano on Twitter last year following sexual-misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein.

“Look at the way they speak about the Never Again March and the #MeToo campaign and the fight to save the environment and against the bullies in our midst — including the one in the White House,” Armstrong said. “Kids are speaking out about this.”

And the world, albeit slowly is moving toward gender equality — Iceland became the first country in the world to enforce equal pay; Saudi Arabia ended the world’s only ban on women drivers; Lebanon scrapped its rape-marriage law under which a rapist could be exempt from punishment if he married his victim, she said.

“It’s happening,” Armstrong said.

At the tea, St. Margaret’s will introduce its inaugural emerging leaders award presented to four alumnae: Actor Katherine Evans; scientist and engineer Jean Hsu, mechanical engineer Kate Strachan and government relations worker Karina Sihota.

“We’ll celebrate our 110 years and show how we are part of a global empowerment movement,” said Barbara Sutton, director of external relations for the school. And the Empress is focused on diversity and inclusion, so the partnership is a perfect fit, said Tracey Drake, the hotel’s director of public relations.

St. Margaret’s was the first girls’ school in Canada to have a fully fledged STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) program.

“I see this event Sunday as such a huge celebration. Good on them for using that new curriculum driving engineering and technology and telling those girls to go ahead and be an astronaut,” she said.

As she speaks, Armstrong said she will be looking into the faces of tomorrow’s change-makers in the Crystal Ballroom on Sunday.

Armstrong hasn’t had a good story to tell until recently, so she’s enjoying telling it now.

“I think this is the time to talk about girls, how they relate to each other, about gender, about bullies, about the role they play,” Armstrong said. “Every single one of them in the world today is playing an important, exciting and maybe even history-in-the-making role. I’ve seen it in Afghanistan, South Sudan, all over the world and absolutely in Canada.”

“I hope they walk away and say: ‘Yes that’s me, I’m that girl, I can do that, I can do anything,’ because they can,” Armstrong said. “I hope they feel proud of themselves and fill the tomorrow promise because they are the ‘it’ crowd.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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