We’re in the throes of the 2016 US Presidential election year where once again, reproductive healthcare and women’s bodily rights are on the table to be used as political weapons. It is a crucial time for women and men in this country to stand up, vote for the candidates who will not roll back the clock on human progress citing their own personal religious beliefs as the impetus to pass laws that will restrict women’s rights.
But let’s (constantly) spare a moment for the women around the world who have no hope of being part of a democratic process where their voices can change their futures. Rather, these women are caught in cycles of poverty, oppression and restriction based on antiquated patriarchal systems that see them as less than equal.
American photographer Mark Tuschman is the creator of a new photography project series called ‘Faces Of Courage‘ which tells the stories of women and girls who live in countries where they have little to no rights over their reproductive healthcare decisions. The visual and written storytelling is a compelling reminder why the fight for gender equality is still as important as ever.
A commercial photographer by trade, New York-born Mark was inspired by journalist Nicholas Kristof, who regularly covers human rights issues and has also made a few documentaries with his wife Sheryl WuDunn on the plight of women’s rights globally. While he was making good money in the commercial field, he wasn’t satisfied that his work was making a difference in the world.
“Photography should be used to promote social justice and raise consciousness,” he said in a presentation about his work for the Ford Foundation (video below).
In August 2001 he traveled across Asia working for the Global Fund for Women, photographing some of their grantees, and it was on that trip he was confronted with the harsh realities women and girls face on a daily basis. After hearing the shocking stories of some of the women living in a women’s shelter, he got the idea to use his photography skills to drive awareness to the issues that don’t always get a lot of media coverage.
Faces of Courage was a 13-year long project, and focuses particularly on reproductive healthcare issues for women in countries such as India, Bangladesh, Kenya and Ecuador. Mark initially launched a Kickstarter campaign which raised over $60,000 to help bring his project to life in a way that would impact many more people.
“For the past decade I have been on a mission to document the lack of autonomy that millions of women in developing countries have over their own lives and bodies. Through my photography, I bring these women and their stories to the forefront of global consciousness,” he said.
Mark says it is the first time a project this in-depth has been released about the ongoing struggle for women and girls in the developing world.
“You can read many articles about women in peril, and you can find reams of appalling statistics in countless reports and journals. But to me, these portraits of individual girls and women communicate in a much more direct and compelling way. They tell the story of our changing world, with an eloquence that words can never match,” he explained.
His idea to put individual faces and names to a well-known struggle is what is most compelling about the book. He also balances the personal stories with reports of how women and organizations on the ground are working to change the status quo for those caught in a cycle of poverty due to cultural circumstances.
“This book documents the many advances being made in educating and empowering women and girls. Doctors, nurses, teachers, aid workers, and NGO staff – these are the silent heroes who are working tirelessly to improve the lives of millions of women around the world. This book showcases the noble work they do.”
In his speech for the Ford Foundation, Mark cites recent prominent news stories that have alerted the rest of the world to the struggle of women in a much more profound way. Malal Yousafzai being shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating girls’ education then going on to become an international symbol of hope for girls, the brutal gang rape and subsequent death of a young girl in Delhi, India, 2012, by the hands of 6 men who didn’t think traveling on a bus at night with a male friend was appropriate, and the exposure of ISIS’ sex slaves practices being justified by pseudo-religious beliefs.
But as he outlines, there are many many more girls and women who unfortunately don’t make international news headlines and whose struggles go unnoticed, often resulting in fatal consequences. So this is the reason he published Faces of Courage – to give voice to the women who do not have one.
“It occurred to me during my travels that the quintessential image of poverty is that of a woman with her children. And it turns out that women are the poorest of the poor,” he said.
He particularly focuses on reproductive and maternal health as it is a common struggle among women in countries where they are denied basic human rights. The right to choose when to marry, when to have sex, when to start a family, the right to go to school, to work outside the home, to access and use birth control, to be free from the threat of sexual violence, and maternal mortality. There are many obstacles facing women when it comes to healthcare.
This is an issue Melinda Gates and The Gates Foundation focus heavily on in their global advocacy of women’s rights in poor countries. Closely tied in with the right to control one’s own reproductive health is religious oppression.
“It turns out that the countries where women are treated the worst are usually the most religious countries in the world. It becomes a way to keep women dis-empowered, control women, and control their bodies. It’s definitely had an emotional toll on me, to see the way so many women are treated. It makes me very angry,” Mark told Women In The World.
The stories are confronting, shocking and very real. Nazia from India shares how her husband tried to push her off the back of a motorcycle when she was 7 months pregnant because the dowry her family gave wasn’t enough for him. The woman featured on the cover of the book, Kala, also from India, was a child bride. She was married when she was 3 months old, and while she currently lives at home with her parents, as soon as she is old enough to have a baby she will be sent to live with her husband.
Seni from Indonesia was trafficked to Saudi Arabia where she was made to be a domestic servant and held prisoner for 3 years without being able to contact her family. Thankfully for some of these women, including Seni, help and rescue came from NGO’s such as the Global Fund for Women, but as Mark said, there are thousands upon thousands of others whose stories never see the light of day.
His photos aren’t just meant to be confronting, Mark says he also wants to spur others to take action, like he did on his photography assignment back in 2001. He hopes the stories he has documented will strike a chord with readers.
“They’re so capable. I saw women who were taking care of their families, taking loans out, and really making something for themselves. I think what was important, even more than the money to them, was that they had a sense of hope. It made a really big difference,” he said.
He conveys how much he has learned from seeing how these women and girls, steeped in poverty and struggle, refuse to give up on fighting for a better life for themselves, starting with the determination to go to school.
“I’m most hopeful when I’m in a classroom of young empowered girls, seeing how much energy they have to learn, their focus, their eagerness, and their attention,” he said.
While we can say this is a very important photography series right now when there is increased focus on women and girls living in poverty, especially in light of the United Nation’s recently-announced Sustainable Development Goals which focus heavily on women and girls in order to reduce the global poverty rate by 2050, Mark says we should think twice about its currency.
“People have told me my book is very timely, and I always tell them that unfortunately I think this book will be timely for years to come,” he said.
These intimate portraits outlining what life is like in 17 countries where women do not have the same basic human rights that many of us in the developed world enjoy on a daily basis, are an eye-opening reminder that the fight for gender equality needs to continue with a vengeance.
When British Actress Emma Watson encouraged men in her September 2014 He For She campaign launch speech to be part of the global feminist movement, saying “I am inviting you to step forward, to be seen to speak up, to be the ‘he’ for ‘she’. And to ask yourself if not me, who? If not now, when?” it was a wake up call to the younger generation. But it turns out Mark Tuschman has already been the “He for She” for over a decade now.
His project was named one of the Best Photography Books of 2015 by American Photo, proving his work is already resonating with many people. You can purchase a copy of Faces of Courage by clicking here. Watch Mark talk about the women in his book, the idea behind the project, and why fighting for women’s rights is something important to him in the video below: