As cofounder of We Advance, a grassroots organization providing much-needed programs for women and girls in some of the poorest slums in the Western Hemisphere - Wharf Jeremie and Cite Soleil, Haiti - I spend a lot of time listening to the voices of women. We advocate for and empower women by providing tools, training, education, and compassion to improve their lives and lift their communities. Today, we are happy to be able to provide help to 350 women's groups across the country.
During a recent visit to Haiti, I learned of one young woman in need of help. She had survived an attempted gang rape during the two-hour daily trip from her village to sell mangoes for her family's support. She knew she was at risk for further assaults, and wanted to protect herself and her family's income. But first she needed to hire a lawyer to fill out a police report. With help from We Advance, a Haitian women's advocacy organization - which is 4,000 members strong - was able to hire a lawyer for $75 a month to fill out the police report for this young woman and others like her. Now, she will have protection as she travels the long road each day to provide for her family.
I first heard stories like this many years ago, when I interned as a telephone counselor with the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia. As a peace and social justice major at Villanova University (with law school down the line, or so I thought at the time), I spent a summer listening to the women of Philadelphia. They shared disturbingly similar stories about their need to escape domestic violence and the lack of legal resources available to help them.
My job was to listen to their stories, explain the law and legal processes, connect them to resources, and then assist with safety planning and other critical concerns. Years later, I realized that one of the most satisfying parts of that internship was the gratitude expressed by the callers. They were so grateful that we took the time to listen to them. Needless to say, that experience awakened me to the depths of discrimination women and girls faced in our own country, particularly those who are impoverished or trapped in violent relationships.
Unfortunately, these problems continue. As a Philadelphia-area native, I am saddened to reflect on the fact that the City of Brotherly Love has the largest number of residents living in deep poverty of any large urban area in the United States. About 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. For female-headed households, that figure jumps to more than 38 percent. Additionally, 20 percent of Philadelphia adults cannot read, and one section of the city is ranked as the fourth hungriest in the nation. It is truly shocking to find conditions in Philadelphia - the cradle of liberty and one of the largest cities in the richest country of the world - that rival some of what I see in Haiti.
At the Women's Law Project and We Advance, we learn from women; we hear problems, notice patterns, and develop effective advocacy strategies and resources aimed at creating change for all women. As an advocate in the Western Hemisphere's poorest communities, and as a former telephone counselor at the Women's Law Project, I see powerful connections among women everywhere.
Yes, the problems are overwhelming. But the power to listen and respond and understand transcends neighborhoods, cultures, and oceans. What binds all women together across continents is our compassion, our deep commitment to our children and our communities, our joie de vivre, and the clarity to seek help when wrong is done. Together, we will empower one another and move as one toward a safer, better world.
Maria Bello is a native of Norristown and a film and TV actress
Maria Bello will receive the Women's Law Project's Myra Bradwell Award at 4:30 p.m. Friday at the Independence Visitor Center, Sixth and Market Streets.
For ticket information, visit www.womenslawproject.org. To speak to a Law Project counselor, call 215-928-9801, Ext. 5760.