Celebrating heroes: Angelina Jolie

Nothing would mean anything if I didn’t live a life of use to others

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Angelina Jolie in Chad, Africa ©Per-Anders Pettersson

It was International Women’s Day recently and it got me thinking about the inspirational women around the world. Malala Yousafzai, Angelique Namaika, Bogaletch Gebre, Edna Adan, Dafroza Gauthier…. women who you may not have heard of, probably because the don’t get much attention in the press and if there is an article about them it’s usually tucked away somewhere.

We unfortunately live in a celeb obsessed culture where people can become famous for doing nothing of value. Instead of promoting good role models we’re bombarded with selfies of skinny, ‘perfect’ looking celebs and taught that beauty is only skin deep.

There’s one ‘celebrity’ though that puts her money where her mouth is, using her insane amount of fame to make a big difference in this world.

Most people probably don’t know a lot about Angelina Jolie’s other life. The majority of what we read about her is the tabloid fodder about ‘Brangelina’. With this article I want to highlight the stuff we should be reading about and the stuff we should know her for.

It’s probably unfair to call her a celebrity because as well as being an Oscar-winning film star and mother she is also a humanitarian – in fact she spends more of her time devoting it to others, giving a voice to the voiceless, than she does to making films.

©Per-anders Pettersson

Angelina Jolie in Chad, Africa ©Per-Anders Pettersson

She has worked for the UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) for over ten years now, working tirelessly to highlight the plight of refugees and internally displaced persons in over 30 countries including Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Haiti, Somalia and Thailand. On all of her field missions over the years she has covered all of her costs and shares the same working and living conditions as the UNHCR field staff.

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Her inspiration came from her own mother Marcheline Bertrand, a woman who never had an unkind word to say to or about anyone. On International Women’s Day in 2003, Bertrand produced a benefit concert for Afghan women refugees in conjunction with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, of which Jolie is now a Special Envoy. Sadly, Bertrand died in 2007.

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Jolie and her mother Marcheline

Jolie says about her mother that “she was very clear that nothing would mean anything if I didn’t live a life of use to others. I didn’t know what that meant for a long time,” she said. “I came into this business young and worried about my own experiences and my own pain. And it was only when I began to travel and look and live beyond my home that I understood my responsibility to others.” In November last year Jolie was awarded an honorary Oscar, the Jean Hersholt award, for her humanitarian work.

Jolie’s acceptance speech

Here are some of the many reasons she’s an inspiration:

She puts her life on the line for those in need

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On a recent trip to Afghanistan she revealed that she had written a farewell letter to Brad Pitt after being warned she was a target for attack.

She explained: ‘I had moments where I’ve been in a house and people have pounded on the doors and screamed at you and said, “We know she’s in there and we want her passport,” and I’ve had moments recently when I went to Afghanistan, and I’ve got off the plane thinking, this is fine.’

‘And then I got there and they said, “The people are very angry with you. They are angry that you are a woman and you are American and you are with UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), so you are the target”.

‘And so they gave me a briefing and they said everybody needs to write their blood type down.’

She added: ‘There’s a guy outside with a bulletproof vest, he put his passport in the vest, because he would be the one to take me out. I wrote a note to Brad in the process and figured if anything happens he’ll find it.

‘I was fine, but then two weeks later they did attack the UN and they killed everybody in the bunker.’

Angelina has set up and financed many charity organisations
Jolie in Ecuador ©Gettyimages

Jolie in Ecuador ©Gettyimages

In 2003, she founded the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation (after her first son, Maddox, who she adopted from Cambodia) which is dedicated to community development and environmental conservation in Cambodia.

In 2007 Jolie joined forces with economist Dr. Gene Sperling, Director of The Centre for Universal Education at the Council on Foreign Relations, and founded the Education Partnership for Children of Conflict, which funds education for children affected by man-made or natural disasters. Of the partnership Jolie said “Education can make the difference between whether children of conflict can turn to violence and despair, or whether they become the can be the new leaders of a better future for their families and nations.”

In 2008, she worked with Microsoft to set up the Kids in Need of Defense, a group of law firms and volunteers who have committed to giving legal counsel for immigrant kids in the US.

She spends millions of dollars of her own money helping others

Both Angelina and Brad dig deep when it comes to charity, with the pair donating millions and millions of their own money each year. Records from 2008 show the couple gave over $8m to charitable causes and in 2009 they gave at least $7m.

Jolie and Pitt in Bosnia

Jolie and Pitt in Bosnia

When Brad and Angelina’s twins, Knox and Vivienne, were born the couple sold the first images of the babies to People and Hello! for $14 million, using the entire amount to help fund the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation.

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Last year Jolie announced that she had opened an all-girls primary school outside of war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan. The school educates between 200 and 300 Afghan girls, many of them refugees whose homes and villages have been destroyed in the years since the Taliban regime came to power. But now that the Taliban’s stronghold over the country has collapsed, people are hoping to resume normal life. Getting kids back to school every day is one way to do just that.
Jolie in Afghanistan

Jolie in Afghanistan ©Marco Di Lauro

To fund this venture, Jolie has released a personal jewellery collection, designed alongside jeweller Robert Procop, through Kansas City-based, high-end jewelry shop, Tivol. The collection is called Style of Jolie and 100% of the proceeds will be donated to her foundation, The Education Partnership for Children of Conflict.

jolie_Tivol_jpg_330x330_q85“Beyond enjoying the artistic satisfaction of designing these jewels, we are inspired by knowing our work is also serving the mutual goal of providing for children in need,” Jolie said.

“We launched this collaborative collection with the intent that 100 percent of the profits will go to charity,” Jolie’s long-time designing partner Procop said. “The beauty of these creations is matched by the beauty of spirit behind Angelina’s most heartfelt mission — to empower children in crisis.”

“Tivol, with their historic reputation and dedication to family values is a wonderful retail partner to launch our collection in the U.S.,” Jolie added.

If this business model proves successful, Jolie and Pitt, hope to fund more schools and educational initiatives in the places that need them most.

She uses film to educate about the horrors of war
Angelina Jolie directing on the set of “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” about the war in Bosnia. ©Dean Semler/FilmDistrict and GK Films

Angelina Jolie directing on the set of “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” about the war in Bosnia. ©Dean Semler/FilmDistrict and GK Films

Angelina used her directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, to highlight the horrors of the war in Bosnia. The war lasted from 1992 to 1995 and around 100,000 people were killed with up to 50,000 women being raped and 2.2 million people displaced.

Jolie and some of the cast of the film received threats due to making the film. At the movie’s premiere in Sarajevo, she said: ‘There were things sent to me, there were things posted online. The cast have never complained to me about these threats but I’ve heard through other people it was happening. One of them did have their windows smashed in on their cars and someone else had an issue when their phone was hacked and emails were sent out saying they were from them and saying they had been hurt.’

She gets involved in politics – and not in a bad way

Recently Angelina joined forces with William Hague to raise awareness about the use of rape as a weapon of war in conflicts. Hague had watched In the Land of Blood and Honey at the urging of his senior special adviser, Arminka Helic, a Bosnian who fled to the U.K. in 1992 to earn a Ph.D. Hague was struck by the power of the film. “I started this campaign with Angelina Jolie because foreign policy has got to be about more than just dealing with urgent crises—it has to be about improving the condition of humanity,” he said.

Jolie and Hague at the G8 in London

Jolie and Hague at the G8 in London

In Rwanda, up to 500,000 people were raped during the genocide 20 years ago. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, which Jolie and Hague visited a year ago as part of their campaign, there an estimated 200,000 surviving rape victims and the issue is still ongoing – it has in fact been called the ‘rape capital of the world’ and in 2011 it was estimated that around 1,000 women a day were raped. In Syria today there are thought to have been countless rapes but there are no approximate figures for this due to the taboo surrounding rape for Muslim women. Many do not report it or even tell their husbands or family.

They were recently at the G8 in London to talk about the £23million pledged towards tackling sexual violence in conflict zones around the world.

Angelina Jolie and William Hague in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Angelina Jolie and William Hague in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Their campaign, called the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI), aims to end the shame that victims feel as well as the impunity that often follows such crimes.

At the end of last month they visited Bosnia where they to raise the awareness of the scale of rape during conflict. About 50,000 women, mostly Muslim, were raped during Bosnia’s inter-ethnic war in the 1990s and so far only 33 people have been convicted for the crimes by local courts and 30 by a UN war crimes tribunal ate the International Criminal Court in The Hague in the Netherlands.

Between 10 – 13th June, Hague and Jolie will host a four-day summit in London that will bring together governments from 141 countries. They aim to create irreversible momentum against sexual violence in conflict and promote practical action that impacts those on the ground (peacekeepers, police and the justice system).

Hague said that today “sexual violence is used deliberately as a weapon of war” in the conflicts in Syria, Central African Republic and South Sudan. He said: “I hope we can all work together to prevent the horrors seen in this region from being repeated in future conflicts anywhere in the world.”

She gives a voice to the voiceless

On World Refugee Day in June last year, Jolie did a report for CNN to bring to the attention the plight of the thousands of Syrian refugees. For many, being a refugee is like being in prison for a crime you didn’t commit, for you don’t know how long. Children in the camp suffer from diarrhoea, respiratory infections, high fever, ear infections and skin diseases, due to poor sanitation and hygiene. In winter the camps are constantly flooded due to rain and snow and in the summer the temperatures regularly top 100°F making living conditions in the dusty camp unbearable. Jolie yet again used her considerable fame to bring attention to a worthy cause.

She wrote about her double mastectomy in the hope that other women would benefit from her decision.

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When Jolie discovered she had the BRCA1 faulty gene, giving her an 87 per cent risk of developing breast cancer and a 50 per cent risk of ovarian cancer, she took the brave decision to have a preventative double mastectomy. She wrote a moving op-ed piece for the New York Times about her decision in the hope that other women would benefit from her experience.

Brad Pitt said of his fiancé – ‘She’s faced her problems head on and found out her options to make the smartest decision for her, and she’s shared that knowledge with everyone else.

‘It’s important that this testing is not available for everyone and it should be, and that there are surgical options and everyone should have these options.’

‘I always want her by my side. Life will go on and we’re taking care of business as usual. We’re on the other side of that.

‘It’s the bravest thing and I get a little emotional about the act she did for our family and telling her story to others. She’s a very special woman.’

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Bogaletch Gebre: The woman fighting female genital mutilation in Ethiopia

Bogaletch Gebre ©KMG

Bogaletch Gebre ©KMG

“Change takes commitment, not a miracle.”

Hidden away in the Africa section of the BBC news website yesterday there was a wonderful article about a woman who is trying to make the world a better place.

Her name is Bogaletch Gebre and this week she was awarded the King Baudouin African Development Prize in recognition for her work in women’s rights, specifically her campaigning to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) in Ethiopia.

Also known as female circumcision, female genital mutilation is practised mainly in communities in Africa and the Middle East. It is the deliberate, non-medical removal or cutting of female genitalia and is often considered a necessary part of raising a girl “properly”, and a way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage. In many communities it is also believed to reduce a woman’s libido and therefore believed to help her resist “illicit” sexual acts.

It is usually carried out by local traditional practitioners without anaesthesia, using instruments such as knives, scissors and razors and causes long-term severe health problems, such as infertility, childbirth complications, cysts, recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections – not to mention the short-term effects such as severe pain, shock and haemorrhaging.

140 million girls worldwide have been affected by FGM

140 million girls worldwide have been affected by FGM

Bogaletch Gebre is herself a victim of female genital mutilation. She doesn’t know when she was born but believes it was sometime in the 1950s in Kembatta, Ethiopia, a region where FGM was endemic. At the age of 12 she was subjected to brutal FGM and also lost one of her sisters to the practice.

Coming from an area where girls were largely uneducated, Gebre decided to run away to a missionary school and became the first girl from her village to receive a primary education. She won a scholarship to attend high school in Addis Ababa then moved to Jerusalem to study Microbiology and this led on to a scholarship at the University of Massachusetts.

Whilst studying for her PhD in Epidemiology in Los Angeles, she set up a charity called Development Through Education and started running marathons to raise money. In total, she raised $26,000 which was spent on books that were sent to universities and schools in Ethiopia.

Not long after this, Gebre returned home with $5,000 in her pocket and a dream. Along with her sister, Fikirte, she founded the Kembatti Mentti Gezzimma (KMG) group with the aim of increasing the trust of the elders in communities where FGM is endemic. They hoped that by developing a dialogue with them and questioning their practices, they might be able to make an impact and lower the rate of FGM.

Through her hard work with the elders, she came to realise that many of them did not know where FGM originated and that it was not prescribed in the Bible or the Koran.

Bogaletch Gebre ©KMG

Bogaletch Gebre ©KMG

“For social change, you must go to the people, to really listen to them and learn from them. It is all about commitment. As a young girl when I spoke to elders, I had to look at their feet, not their faces. As an adult, I stood in front of a congregation of 800 men, women and children. I said female genital mutilation is not prescribed in the Bible or the Koran. So where did the practice come from?”

Gebre’s dedication has paid of because in just ten years of working with the communities, she has managed to lower the incidence of female genital mutilation from 100% to less than 3% in newborn girls – an extraordinary achievement.

Gebre hopes the King Baudouin prize will bring more attention to the issue of women’s rights in Africa. “Today only 1% of all aid that goes to African countries goes to women, just 1%. Yet we are half the population in every country if not more,” she said.

“We started in four districts and now we are in 700. We have developed tools and approaches to how can we eliminate not only FGM but gender inequality. We want a woman to be recognised as a person with human value, with dignity, who can hope and think,” she said.

A short documentary about Bogaletch

Female Genital Mutilation: The facts

Key facts about female genital mutilation from the World Health Organisation (WHO):

  • Female genital mutilation (FGM) includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
  • The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women.
  • Procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth increased risk of newborn deaths.
  • About 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM.
  • FGM is mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 15.
  • In Africa an estimated 101 million girls 10 years old and above have undergone FGM.
  • FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

How you can help:

Kembatti Mentti Gezzimma – KMG has 106 employees and 6,000 volunteers.  The organisation is present in 700 villages and about 2.5 million people are touched by its action. Find out more at http://kmg-ethiopia.org/

Orchid Project – A London based charity working to eradicate FGM around the world. To find out more about the charity please click here. To donate please visit: http://orchidproject.org/donate/

Daughters of Eve is a non-profit organisation working to protect girls and young women who are at risk from female genital mutilation. Find out more here: http://www.dofeve.org/index.html

FORWARD – A charity dedicated to advancing and safeguarding the sexual and reproductive health and rights of African girls and women. Find out more here: http://www.forwarduk.org.uk/about. To donate, please click here.