Why feminism is needed more than ever, and how one woman's dream is empowering others around the world.
The F-word: divisive, controversial, and frequently misunderstood. But what does feminism actually mean, and why does a concept so crucial to girls and women often cause such negative reactions? To find out, we interviewed Maz Kessler, founder of Catapult. This inspirational crowd-funding site has a special focus on hot topics affecting females around the world- from FGM to child marriage, sexual abuse to trafficking, domestic violence to slavery.
TA: Reading comment threads on any article using the F-word, it´s clear that many people, including women, believe feminism is no longer relevant in the 21st century. Can you explain why that´s not the case, and give us your own definition for what feminism actually means?
“Nobody owns a definition, but for me it´s simple: feminism means the equal human rights of girls and women. For people under 30 today, feminism is not a key issue. When Germaine Greer ripped on to the scene in the 1970s, women couldn´t have a mortgage or a credit card; they couldn´t get abortions. Then there was this incredible surge of change and all these ridiculous laws fell away. Now, people think there are no problems because they see women graduate, they see women working. But the global issues we are now getting to- widespread violence against girls and women, female genital mutilation, slavery and trafficking, rape and sexual assault- these are more difficult to tackle because they are structural issues relating to culture and tradition, and laws can´t change attitudes. That´s why it´s so important to keep raising the issues that are devastating to girls and women all over the world.”
TA: Can you talk a little more about these crucial issues?
“One of the things that´s important to us is that we´re not just talking about issues somewhere else. The average age of girls forced into prostitution in New York is 13. So when we talk about sex trafficking and point at something happening in Cambodia or Eastern Europe, we need to realize there are so many things that are going on in our backyards, in New York or London. It´s not about pointing the finger: when the New Delhi story (Ed´s note: an infamous gang rape case in India, which caused a global outcry) was hitting the headlines, everyone was clucking about how terrible it was. And of course it was horrific. But the Steubenville case in the USA was an important illustration of how this is happening everywhere, right under our noses. Domestic violence against women is epidemic in Britain and Northern Europe, and this is the one issue shared by all countries. Everyday sexism and economic inequality are also topics we still need to address.”
TA: You mentioned the New Delhi case. This tragic story inspired you to launch Catapult. Can you tell us more about that, and how the platform works?
“Yes, it was around that time that I came up with the idea. It was clear to me that we need to create an online space to engage with issues; to make them go viral. Girls have the right not to be forced into marriage with an old man at eight years old; they have the right to go to school. I saw an opportunity to allow people to take action on these crucial issues by crowd-funding grassroots projects, and the great thing about Catapult is that people then share the campaigns on facebook. Not everybody can quit their jobs and go work on these issues, but we can all give a few dollars to help support the people who know best, so we´re bringing together tons of people to change the world.
Our website is easy to use, allowing you to browse many different projects and choose an issue you feel strongly about. We have a Youtube video to explain how it all works. When you give $5 to a project, we don´t take a fee: it goes directly to the the people working on the front lines of the issue. They tell you exactly what they are going to do with the money and they report back to you over the year. So you´ll receive emails, budget reports and regular updates about where your money went. Catapult is 100% transparent and accountable. We know that people are cynical; they don´t want their money to disappear. Like all charities, we make money by fundraising, and if we work with corporations, we bill them.”
TA: What has Catapult achieved so far?
“You know, when I was working on this thing everyone said it would never work; that I´m an idiot for trying. But we built it, and they came. It´s just been amazing, but the sad thing is that we now have over 400 organizations on our waiting list- which shows how crucial these issues are, and how high the demand is. We have some amazing curators spreading the word, like Salma Hayek and Beyoncé, and for International Women´s Day we launched some spoof magazine covers to draw attention to the issues we are fighting against. That was great; it got Catapult the publicity needed to keep growing and supporting all these wonderful people making real differences to vulnerable women and girls worldwide. Because of these powerful magazine covers, we raised enough money to build a second floor for a school for Afghan girls in New York, as well as funding a project for trafficked girls. We´ve funded literally hundreds of projects worldwide, and we are only a year and a half old.
What can men do to make a difference going forward?
In order to grow and be able to help every organization that needs support, we need to start building a mass audience. The only way to keep up the pressure and change attitudes towards women is by changing the hearts and minds of boys and men, which could take generations. We are dealing with centuries of harmful attitudes towards women here, so it won´t happen overnight. We must turn our outrage into social change at a structural level, and that means we all have a role to play: schools, parents, and the whole of society. (Ed´s note: a fantastic article on the importance of raising boys to be kind can be found here).
And what can women themselves do to create positive change on gender equality?
Women are terrible about criticizing each other. And it does hurt is. It hurts us from making change, mobilizing more resources, getting funds. We need to end this tear-down culture of feminist in-fighting about the best ways of drawing attention to these crucial issues. Because actually, any way we tackle these issues is positive. Anyone who steps up to the plate is welcome, and I am so sick of everyone´s efforts being criticized by other women. Femen (Ed´s note: an activist group who use their bare breasts to make a political point) get tons of attention, so let´s support that. Instead of arguing amongst ourselves, we have to pull together to fight the other side – which by the way is not men; it´s tradition, cultural norms, power and oppression. Women are half the world: we need to work in coalition.
To browse Catapult´s current projects or find out more about how you can get involved, click here.