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But, but, but: Challenges to creating accessible and safe spaces for women

May 16, 2010

In everything we do, we strive to create spaces and programs that are safe and accessible to all women. But with limited financial, staff, and educational resources, sometimes we seem to come up against a wall. How can we make our programs welcoming and beneficial for everyone?

Here are a few examples of the problems we’ve encountered in the last week:

Icebreakers and Games

Most of our workshop groups include at least one woman with a physical disability that makes it hard, if not impossible, for her to walk or run. Usually these women use wheelchairs, but leave them outside the room and sit on the floor with everyone else.* There are always women who bring their babies to breastfeed, making it difficult for them to get up and move around. Most of the time, we scratch the games and do stretching exercises from a sitting down position instead.

But I know there are women who need to be able to get up so they don’t get jittery or distracted– two hours is a long time to sit still! And games together build community and trust, which is essential for open and honest conversation about sensitive topics. This community could never be complete as long as some women are sitting on the sidelines though. What to do? Usually we lead stretching exercises from a sitting position, so that everyone can participate. We wanted some more variety though.

One of our youth suggested a game she knew from a conference: split women into two groups, and give each one a coin. The women each have to put the coin down their pants or skirt, and jump up and down until it falls out and gets passed to the next person. She said it was a big hit when they did it at her seminar, and I’m sure that it was. But given the recent news announcing that Skinny Jeans Mean You Are Un-Rapeable, there was no way I wanted to be part of a game that could bring embarrassment to a woman for wearing tight pants.

We tried another game (another volunteer suggestion) in a community where all of the women appear able-bodied: the women split into two groups and each group was given a sarong, a button up shirt, and a scarf. The women had to race to put the articles of clothing on and off of each person, and the first group to finish won. On the surface, the women seemed to love it. The room shook with laughter, screaming, and women flailing at each other, trying to button and unbutton as quickly as possible. But I wonder how triggering it could be for a survivor of sexual assault to have clothes ripped off of her, even as part of a game among women.

Posters, Pictures, and Visual Aids

More than half of the women who join our session are not literate. We incorporate pictures and visual representations of our lessons as much as possible; often they take the place of written posters. Many participants can read and write though, and would like to take notes when we’re teaching. At first, we gave notebooks and pencils to everyone who participated. Realizing how underutilized they were though, we started only providing them for the women who need them. I know this makes some of the illiterate women embarrassed. But I also want to encourage the educated women to take our workshops seriously and pass the information along to their families and friends.

Our reliance on visual aids, like pictures and posters, is also meaningless or even counter-productive for our many participants who are blind or have very poor eyesight. What to do to accommodate them? Braille’s not an option. Are there people who can train our staff to work better with visually impaired or blind participants? Of course. But they’re far away and expensive.

Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation

I wish I could give an overview of Khmer cultural understandings about gender identity and sexual orientation, but… it’s just so complicated. Every time I think I understand, I ask a clarifying question and realize I have it all wrong. Suffice it to say, our Western boxes (heterosexual, homosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer…) do not apply. When I ask people if they know any “women who love women,” they can usually tell me about someone a friend met in her cousin’s village when she was a child, but never can identify any woman in our community who is a lesbian. So based on self-reporting and community perception, all of our women are heterosexual. But I wonder if the heteronormative bias of our lessons reinforces the societal discomfort with lesbians’ existence and sexuality. Are we reinforcing heterosexuality as the only valid form of sexual relationship, or being sensitive to local norms and cultural practices? What if it’s both? Then what?

There are many gay men whose gender identity is fluid and sometimes use female pronouns and language for themselves. What would it mean to include them in the workshops? But since we teach about women’s anatomy, menstruation, pregnancy and breastfeeding, would the sessions be useful, productive, or meaningful for them?

*                    *                     *

I don’t mean to pose these questions as if they’re unanswerable. They absolutely need to be addressed, even if the answers are inconvenient or uncomfortable for our me or our program. But I’m not in a position to answer them – I’m just not. And we’re not in a financial or geographic (or political) place to be able to invest in consultants or  trainings to help us address them.

One obvious option would be to narrow our target group. If we only worked with polio survivors, we could devote plenty of time and money to creating physical spaces for our workshops that would perfectly fit their needs. Similar steps could be taken to meet the needs of landmine survivors, those who have experienced domestic violence, illiterate women, or trans women.

But this program doesn’t exist to draw lines between women. These groups all have distinct needs, but as women, they share experiences and health concerns that we hope can be addressed together as a group.

So we keep going. We experiment with new ice-breaker games, we try new visual aids and handouts, we invite the trans women in our community to join our exercise and dance classes. It’s not enough. But it’s what we’ve got.

* I know this arrangement may raise red flags for some readers, and rightly so, since asking people who use wheelchairs to leave them outside can put them in an unfair and unsafe position. This is common practice here though because most visiting and social activities take place sitting on the floor. These women have said that they like leaving their wheelchairs outside, so that they can sit with all of the other women too.

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