Good news in the battle for women's rights

by Juliet Waters

When I bring up a recent description of Sally Armstrong’s career -- “war correspondent for the world’s women” -- she laughs. “I want that on my tombstone.” Gallows humour is to be expected from a journalist who has spent 20 years writing about the atrocities women have suffered in danger zones across the world. But this is about as dark as Armstrong gets during a recent chat in Montreal.

Her new book, The Ascent of Women, is optimistic about the future of women around the world, and argues that the fight for their status in the developed and developing world has reached a tipping point. “The earth is shifting,” she writes, “a new age is dawning. From Kabul and Cairo to Cape Town and New York, women are claiming their space at home, at work and in the public square. They are propelling changes so immense they’re likely to affect intractable issues such as poverty, interstate conflict, culture and religion, and the power brokers are finally listening.”

When I ask her about these changes, Armstrong, BEd'66, DLitt'02, is quick to offer examples of recent activism in places like Afghanistan and India. “In Kenya, 160 little girls between the ages of three and seventeen are suing the Kenyan government for failing to protect them from being raped. That would never have happened before, because people would have said, oh it’s girls, it doesn’t matter. And we would have dismissed it on this side of the water as ‘that’s the way they treat their girls.’” Armstrong dedicated the book to Malaha Yousafzai, the 15-year-old education rights activist who the Taliban attempted to assassinate last year. “She is the epitome of what this book is about. She went to school despite what the Taliban said and the whole world is listening instead of ignoring her.”

But this shift in the world’s attention has been a long time coming. In 1992, Armstrong was in Sarajevo, covering the effect of the Baltic War on children, and putting her McGill degree in phys-ed to good use. “I loved being a gym teacher. It’s the kind of job that’s like putting tools in your kit bag. You use them all the rest of your life. I’m in zones of conflict all the time, and there is invariably a bunch of terrified children hiding during some bombing. And I know 300 games.”

A day before she was set to leave, she started hearing the rumours of rape camps. At the time, Armstrong was still editor-in-chief of Homemakers. But this was breaking news, not the sort of stuff a magazine, with its usual months-long lead time, published. “I brought that story back and gave it to a major news agency. I said, give it to one of your reporters. They didn’t do it. Seven weeks later I phoned the editor I’d given it to.” He’d been too busy he told her. “Twenty thousand women were gang raped. Some of them eight years old, some of them 80. What? ‘Oh, Sally’, he said, ‘don’t be so hard on me.’ So I decided then that if nobody else is going to tell these stories, I was.”

This was how the brutal story of Eva Penavic, a camp survivor, came to be published alongside the seasonal recipes the digest style magazine was better known for.

It won a National Magazine award, and successive stories like this one helped make Homemakers one of the most widely circulated and commercially successful magazines in Canada.

Still, “I had to fight like a cat to have those stories published,”she recalls. “The 11 years I was at was at Homemakers, I fought for every one of those stories. My publisher would say to me, no advertiser wants to be on the same page as a story of a woman who’s been raped in the Balkans. And I used to say, an advertiser wants to be on the same page that’s the best read page in the magazine. I still believe women want more meat on the bones of their stories. But that’s a very hard dragon to fight. When I left Homemakers, they hired a new editor and asked her to turn it into a health and wellness magazine. They lost 350,000 readers in the first five months." Armstrong's daring reporting had given Homemakers an edge that differentiated it from similar magazines aimed at women. Once that was gone, the magazine lost much of its personality. Homemakers ceased publication in 2011. "They didn’t get it then and they don’t get it today.”

Fortunately, there are an increasing number of influential people who do. From the economist Jeffrey Sachs, who has spearheaded the UN's Millennium Development Project, to Isabel Coleman, a fellow for the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, who writes: “countries that oppress their women are doomed to be failed states.” These, Armstrong argues, are important, influential voices joining the rising number of women across the world who are now standing up to repressive states and religions despite the often horrific consequences.

“These are very scarring stories. They play on the back of my eyelids and I had not had good news to tell. I was in Afghanistan during the Taliban. It was barbaric, those thugs reigned with terror and the world was looking away. But the women were incredible.” She pauses to savour what seems a sudden profound sense of the passage of time. “I’m so proud of them.”