Why we’re using poetry to fight violence against women | ActionAid UK

This World Poetry Day, I want to tell you about some amazing activist poets who have inspired our latest campaign to end violence against women. Read about them below and find out how you can join our global, crowd-sourced poem of hope.

Nimah is the volunteer chair of a women’s rights coalition in her community in Somaliland. ActionAid’s Fearless campaign calls on the government to support organisations like Nimah’s.
Nimah is the volunteer chair of a women’s rights coalition in her community in Somaliland. ActionAid’s Fearless campaign calls on the government to support organisations like Nimah’s.

With government ministers receiving lots of petitions every day, we wanted to do something a bit different to help our Fearless campaign stand out. We knew we needed to make a powerful statement that shows the huge support for tackling violence against women.

Inspired by the long tradition of some of the world’s most marginalised groups using the spoken word to stand up for their rights, we’re asking people to contribute a line to a worldwide poem of hope for the women of tomorrow. We’ll present the poem to the government to remind them of their commitments on ending violence against women.

This World Poetry Day, I wanted to pay tribute to the fearless women whose poetry inspired us by telling you some of their stories.

The Afghan women sharing forbidden thoughts through poetry

Pashtun women in Afghanistan and Pakistan have a long tradition of using landays – two-line Pashtun folk poems traditionally sung or spoken aloud, or written and passed around. They are often shared anonymously, like this landay from Afghanistan:

You sold me to an old man, father.
May God destroy your home, I was your daughter.1

Today, women often use them as an outlet for their feelings on taboo subjects. Secret women’s literary groups like the Mirman Baheer compose new poems and update old ones for the modern age, often using mobile phones to share poems or organise gatherings. Some of the women in these societies risk harsh punishment, or even death, if they’re discovered.2

Traditions like landays remind us that even a short poem, or line of poetry, can be powerful.

The second-wave feminists who used poetry to show solidarity

In the seventies, poetry was a big part of the women’s movement in countries like the United States – a way for women to raise their voices together, speak out about the sexism they were facing and show other women that they weren’t alone. Some of the era’s most famous poets, like Audre Lorde, used poetry to share their own experiences of gender, race and sexuality. This is an extract from her poem ‘A Woman Speaks’:

I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic
and the noon’s new fury
with all your wide futures
promised
I am
Woman
and not white.3

Feminist poet Jan Clausen, writing in the early eighties, said that poets had become “some of feminism’s most influential activists, theorists, and spokeswomen; at the same time, poetry has become a favourite means of self-expression”.4

The 21st century women speaking out for gender equality

Though a lot’s changed since the seventies, women today are still using poetry to speak out about gender equality, from street harassment to restrictive beauty standards. At ActionAid, we’ve been lucky enough to have poet and activist Kate Menear support our campaign to end violence against women, and perform her poem ‘Reclaim the Night’ at some of our events last year:

So until we have claimed our equal rights
it is imperative that we continue to fight,
to fight from each platform, each hashtag, each street,
to fight with your voices and vote with your feet,
fight for your short skirts, your lipstick and high heels,
your sisters, your mothers, and others’ ordeals.
Alone we are mighty but together we’re stronger,
let’s reclaim the night and we’ll stand this no longer.5

Like countless generations of women before them, Kate and many other young poets are performing poetry out loud, rather than writing it down, passing on their experiences of homophobia, violence against women or racism via the spoken word.

Ending violence against women this World Poetry Day

We’re inspired by poets like these, but we’ve been absolutely overwhelmed by the lines of poetry written by supporters and campaigners from around the world to back our call to end violence against women. Here are just some of the moving lines people have sent in:

I hope that one day giving birth to a daughter is a blessing from God. – Rusan, Nepal

I hope that we stop asking, ‘what did you do to provoke this?’ – Judith, UK

I hope women can be treated better than they are. – Bankole, Zambia

I hope the women of tomorrow have the freedom to smile. – Sharon, UK

You can read more at our Fearless campaign webpage and, if you have one minute this World Poetry Day, please join the campaign by adding your own!

Add your message of hope for the women of tomorrow

  • 1. Recorded by Eliza Griswold, 2012 (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/media/landays.html)
  • 2. ‘Love, rage and silence: The secret lives of Afghanistan’s female poets’, 2016 (http://www.dawn.com/news/1240121/love-rage-and-silence-the-secret-lives-of-afghanistans-female-poets)
  • 3. ‘A Woman Speaks’, from The Black Unicorn, Audre Lorde, 1978
  • 4. A Movement of Poets, Jan Clausen, 1982
  • 5. ‘Reclaim the Night’, Kate Menear, 2015 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DilUzfHd7lo)

Jennifer Huxta / ActionAid