As a woman living in North America, it seldom enters my mind that I can't do something simply because I am a woman.
True, even in 2013, women face different challenges than men do. Ask any single mom trying to raise children on a salary much lower than that of her male co-worker. You'll get a pretty clear sense of what these challenges are.
But such struggles have nothing to do with a woman's gifts, talents, or inner strength. And while I've had my own hurdles to clear along the way, I've never thought that gender would be the one variable to stop me making my goals reality.
The one variable
For countless women around the world, however, gender is that one variable. In my travels, I've been stunned to encounter belief systems that absolutely enforce the inequality of women. Not only do these systems prevent women from rising up, they push them down.
I want to support women around the world in their fight for freedom. But at the same time, I realize that in some regions of the world, working for change is easier said than done. The courage and strength required is greater than anything I have encountered. So is the cost of motivating progress. It can literally be a matter of life or death.
By the time you read this, I will have boarded a plane for the Dominican Republic (DR) with the international aid and development agency World Vision. In my travels around the world -- particularly with World Vision -- I've already met girls and women who have experienced unimaginable oppression and abuse. As I pack for this trip, I'm bracing myself for more stories like this.
A bouquet of death
While doing my research for the trip, I came across the story of an amazing woman, Miguelina Martizez. She was so afraid of her husband that she'd gone to the country's courts 18 times, just to try for a restraining order. In desperation, she even made a video and posted it on YouTube.
But the justice system in the DR is slow to protect women, often tragically so. It failed the 31-year-old mother and her four young children. When her husband came into the beauty parlour where Miguelina works, he was holding a bouquet of flowers. But this was no peace offering. Within the blossoms was hidden a knife, which he used to stab Miguelina more than two dozen times.
I was heartbroken to read that Miguelina's story is no anomaly. Statistics show that every 48 hours, a woman in the DR is killed by her husband or ex-husband. That number may vary slightly from Afghanistan to Colombia to India -- but the general idea is the tragically similar.
Dreaming of a better life
Amazingly though, in spite of their circumstances, these women still desire to fight against these wrongs. They dream of a better life. I was encouraged to read about a World Vision program in the DR which helps young people pave the way for the future, by repairing the gap between genders.
Teenage girls and boys play sports and games together. Then, with the help of a leader gifted at working with youth, they sit on plastic lawn chairs to talk about issues affecting them all.
"He included me," says a girl, sixteen-year-old Beri, of the kind and gentle group leader. "He said 'How do you feel? How are things going?'" Beri's own father had left her family when she was just a little girl. Before coming to the group, she'd been struggling with depression.
As the young women speak, the young men learn to listen. Boys who witnessed their fathers beating their mothers are able to choose a new path for their futures.
"I've learned how to stop domestic violence, and how to treat women right," said one 19-year-old man, who says he's learning things his parents did not know. "I am different from the former generation."
Strong as steel
When I touch down in the DR next week, I'll be visiting a place where World Vision provides music education to girls and young women, helping them discover their talents. With more self-confidence, they can find the strength to make their own decisions about when to become sexually active. A delay in pregnancy, even marriage, will give them more of a chance to finish school and perhaps even start a career.
In situations where women are deprived of their fundamental rights and freedoms, I always find myself wondering what I can do to help. I do know that education and open communication creates awareness, and the possibility for change. I want to be a part of that.
If I can be a part of something that supports them in their fight, I have to do that.
Perhaps I will share some of my music with the girls I meet next week. As a songwriter, I give words to my experiences and observations. The chorus for my new single, "Strong", was written for women like these, and so many others around the world. They inspire me and I want to be there for them.
She's strong as steel
Forged in the fire
Fighting through the scared and the tired
Always darkest before the dawn
She's strong enough to bend
But never breaking
Strong in the face of the battle raging
Set on moving on