Today we came together to mourn the loss of our dear friend and colleague Jennifer Schlecht and her daughter, Abaynesh. The Riverside Church was full – easily 1500 people all gathered to honor Jenn’s life and to try to come to terms with the tragic circumstances of her death.
I am filled with sadness – and anger. I’ll try to put it all into words now.
Jenn’s death has absolutely devastated us at the Arab Institute for Women. We had a professional relationship at first, but it, of course, developed into a personal relationship – she did her work just as she lived her life, overwhelmingly warm and kind. And we felt this in our work together.
For more than three years, we were lucky enough to work closely with Jenn and her team at the Women’s Refugee Commission on the issue of child marriage in Lebanon. Jenn was patient, driven, supportive, and committed. Her passion for her work was contagious. There are people for whom this is “just a job” – that was not Jenn. This was a part of her values, integral to who she was in the world and what she wanted to achieve. She worked with integrity – and with grace. As a team, we benefitted in countless ways from working closely with Jenn, and will be forever grateful for having had the opportunity.
Last week, many of us were together in Nairobi to mark the 25th anniversary of the International Conference on Population Development – Jenn would have been there, and we felt her absence. We were there to talk about equality, ending violence, ensuring sexual and reproductive health and rights – her voice and her work were everywhere. This event espoused the values she dedicated her life to – and there was an undeniable gaping hole because we lost not only a strong advocate but also “one of our own” to the very injustice we have all been fighting to end.
That’s the work part. Important, but not all.
There is a painful irony. Jenn gave her life to prevent such incidents and to protect women and girls. And she lost her life to the very thing she fought so hard against. And there’s a feeling of powerlessness that we all now have to face as we fight this massive global battle: What good are we at protecting anyone when we can hardly protect our own, or ourselves?
We repeat statistics every day. We say that one in three women worldwide has experienced some form of sexual and/or physical violence. We say it so often that we sometimes forget how many that is. One in THREE. In reality, the number is probably higher. Too many women have experienced some form of male violence against females. This is not something that just “happens” – it is the result of a systematic abuse of power that takes place every day and in every space – including at home. If women cannot be safe in their own homes – where can they be safe?
Intimate partner violence is the most common form worldwide and can result in femicide. Still, this violence continues to be shrouded in shame, stigma, and silence. Systems fail women. Legislation fails women. Security fails women. There are safe spaces and resources – but these are always too few, too far between, and in too many cases, too late.
The deaths of Jenn and Abaynesh serve as a painful reminder of these global realities. They remind us that the fight for gender equality is something we have to address in our own communities, every day. They remind us that we must continue to fight for the safe spaces and networks necessary for women and girls to survive these realities. And they remind us of the courage and strength it takes to face an abusive partner or family member. We need to fight harder and build more and commit more strongly to ending this. We need to be firm in our intent, clear in our language and angrier in our actions – we have had ENOUGH.
This violence is not about other people, out there, in other countries. It is right here. It is close to home. It is IN our homes. This time it wasn’t about other women in places we’ve lived and worked. It is women in New York. And it’s not about women in fields that have nothing to do with this – or don’t know the signs, or don’t understand the system, or don’t have the support. It is about the very women who work on violence – our OWN women.
Jenn’s entire life was a “teaching moment”, so I won’t make a learning experience out of her death – but there’s only this: we can do better. We can do better with and for each other and with our work and – most importantly – with a system that is fundamentally broken for women.
In the end there is no way to understand why someone who committed her life to making the world better would be taken from us, and so tragically. I am angry, for all of us – and for women everywhere. I will never understand. And I will never accept. We are part of a small but strong army that is determined to make the world safer for women – undoubtedly the world’s worst job (that should never even be a job in the first place) – and we can’t even save our own. I wish we didn’t have to do this kind of work – but as long as we live in this kind of world, this is the only work I’ll ever do.
When was the last time I saw Jenn, I kept asking myself? I needed to remember. It was June – in Vancouver, at the Women Deliver Conference. I told her I moved to New York. We said we should have a drink. We never did.
Today’s memorial was touching, a sharing of stories and sorrows. In one story, we learned that Jenn handled a delicate situation by asking “How would your best self respond to this scenario?”. We should all ask ourselves how we will bring our best selves – and our best work – to honor her legacy. How can we do better?
It is impossible not to feel this loss so acutely, so personally. The aid community held this space, acknowledging the loss of a friend, a colleague, a member of the aid family. And there we were together, at the most miserable of reunions, seeing those we’d worked with in far countries over decades. We must do better, we told each other. And we must stay close and support each other.
At the service, Maya Angelou’s poem When Great Trees Fall was read to us. It ends like this:
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
This is a loss for us all – and for women and girls worldwide. But we will be better. There are too many of us who care too much about this work – it has never been just a job, for any of us. We are relentless in our commitment to build a world where women are safe, and where something like this never happens again.
Jenn’s family is establishing a fund to honor her dedication to women and girls worldwide. Please donate https://jenniferschlechtmemorialfund.org/.
And finally – no one should suffer in silence. We should be a safe space for each other. The entire team at the Institute is a resource and can be a haven if anyone needs help. This should not ever happen again. We keep repeating this as a refrain: If women are not safe, NO ONE IS SAFE.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please note that help is often available through your national domestic violence support service. In the United States, you can access the National Domestic Violence Hotline online, or toll-free at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). In Lebanon, you can call the Domestic Violence Helpline +961(3) 018- 019.