In downtown Atlanta, a casually dressed young woman with an impeccable hairstyle sits in an office chair filling out a form, the first step that would eventually see her transformed for the world of work.
She is at the Atlanta office of Dress for Success, a worldwide organization that not only provides working outfits for women in need but also gives them holistic preparation for work. She may have just walked in, or was referred by one of the more than 50 non-profit agencies the office works with.
This is just one of the many innovative ways activists in the US have banded themselves together to not only fight the scourge of domestic violence but to empower women. Yet, as is the case globally, the problem remains a huge one and women, the government and activists continue the struggle in what is in fact, a long uphill battle.
Dress for Success
Executive Director of Dress for Success, Atlanta, Lori Marshall Cowie, said the organization assists women with their personal as well as their professional goal setting. She pointed out if a woman has a vision and a plan to get to that vision, the organization would help to give her that motivation, “but if you don’t know where you want to be then it is not going to happen.”
There is also a programme called Professional Women’s Group, which was designed for women who have gone through the programme and are now employed or professional women who are not employed. And then there is a Going Places Network, which is a 12-week programme for women who are not employed but need additional support. They visit the office once a week and learn resume writing, interviewing skills, and are given financial education.
When the woman is ready to face the working world she is equipped with three ‘good outfits’ and she is also helped with her image. Makeup, shoes and other accessories are all part of the package she receives and all of this comes from the organization’s donors–individual and corporate alike.
But it is more about the coaching Marshall-Cowie said, adding, “we dress them on the inside and the outside”. The coaching is done by professional women who are volunteers and while it is not mandated that the coaching be part of the woman’s overall interaction with the organization it is strongly encouraged.
Located in 13 countries, Jamaica being the only one in the Caribbean, Dress for Success Worldwide serves around 600,000 women a year. It describes itself as a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of women.
“The professional clothing, employment retention programmes and ongoing support that we provide our clients symbolize our faith in every woman’s ability to be self-sufficient and successful in her career,” the organization says on its website.
It depends on a team of “qualified, passionate and dedicated individuals, organizations and companies, each of whom plays an indispensable role in our success.”
Dress for Success was founded by Nancy Lublin in 1996 and she used a US$5,000 inheritance from her great-grandfather, Poppy Max for the start up.
Dress for Success is one of the many organizations that 11 Caribbean journalists visited during their one-week Women’s Empowerment Reporting Tour to Washington DC and Atlanta. The tour was organized by the US State Department’s Foreign Press Centre in conjunction with the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. The aim of tour was to demonstrate US leadership in combatting domestic violence, show grassroots efforts to empower women socially and economically and also to discuss tactics for developing programmes to help women.
Over 350 calls
While Dress for Success prepares women for the world of work, the Partnership Against Domestic Violence is fighting to keep them alive and safe.
Director of the Fulton Safe House, Constance Willis, revealed to the Caribbean journalists that just last month the hotlines received some 358 calls. While not all of the women who called ended up at the safe house, counsellors would have counselled them and some would have been given assistance in freeing themselves while others would have been directed to other organizations more suited to their needs. Willis said that calls peaked during the summer or in the tax return period.
The safe house has 41 beds, including cribs, but Willis said they have never turned a woman who is in danger away. If the woman cannot be accommodated there she would be sent to a sister home or another home with which the Fulton has relations.
While most homes do not take in boy children who are over the age of 13, Willis said Fulton accepts male children as old as 18. During the three months the women spend there, they are helped with securing jobs and housing.
A woman is not condemned if she chooses to go back to her abusive partner and she is not turned away if she seeks help again. The women who need it are also assisted with a one to two-year financial housing assistance which helps them with rent and utility bills.
Forty-nine per cent of the home’s funds come from the US government.
“I care about this issue a lot…,” were the words of former US President Bill Clinton who made a surprise stopover at the 2nd World Conference of Women’s Shelters at the Gaylord National Hotel & Convention Center in Washington.
The first governor to have a policy against sexual harassment against women, Clinton told more than 1,000 women from around the world that violence against women has been a “big issue for me and has been for a very long time…”
In the US, he said, the law has provided more than US$1.6 billion to improve the response to the criminal justice system to reduce sexual assault and give direct service to abused women.
Clinton also continues to use the Clinton Global Initiative to help to highlight this issue; “not only to stop bad things, but to help the good things to happen” like the empowerment of women and children.
Noting that the world just reached 7 billion people, Clinton admitted—to great applause from the women, many of whom were snapping photographs of him and recording his speech–that abortion and contraceptives continue to be an issue for many countries including the US. He said the only thing that has worked to slow the rate of population growth worldwide “is to put all the girls in school and give all young women access to the labour market.
“It works everywhere. There are now more women than men in universities in Saudi Arabia and the only reason it hasn’t slowed the birth rate is that the work force is still only 15 per cent female. Once they figure out how to clear out the backlog nobody would have to do anything else just give women a chance to chart their own future and live their own lives,” he said.
He said it is important to remember that the violence and the abuse which “we hate and which is against the law is still acceptable culture in too many places.”
The Clinton Global Initiative works throughout the world and helps people who are involved in such work. For the last two years the foundation has devoted sessions to trafficking of women and girls who are not only trafficked for sexual favours but for slave labour.
“It is amazing that here we are in 2012 and it is still a big issue but it shouldn’t be [a surprise] because around the world there are people whose identity depends on people they control. There are cultures where you don’t count unless you can tell somebody what to do. Emotional responses are triggered by age-old patterns that are drilled into men,” he stated.
He told the women that every time they take in an abused woman and her children they are striking a “blow to one of the oldest problems of human kind.
This is a huge problem, it has been since a dawn of time it has been falling away step by step but you see it in the emotional reaction of people in America, where too many men without education don’t have good jobs anymore, where people’s disappointments in life pile up one after the other and all that’s left is being able to whack somebody around who can’t stop you.
“It is a part of this whole system of having one gender telling the other what to do sometimes all the way to death and we have to stop it.”
The women at the conference, he said, are part of a global struggle to liberate both women and children from that “destructive hell”.