Joan Hanna: We were so excited to have your essay “Bridestealing” as part of our October issue. This essay is moving and chilling on so many levels. Can you share with our readers a little more about your experiences and the non-profit organization you are working with?
Renée Giovarelli: I have been working at Landesa (formerly RDI) since 1995, with a 5-6 year break when I worked for myself. I’m a lawyer, and I work with governments of developing countries to help make legal and policy changes that will enable women to have secure rights to the land they farm. Right now I am working on projects in India, China, and Uganda. I am the Executive Director of the Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights, and our focus is to train other lawyers to do this work, to pilot innovative ideas that might facilitate change in practice, and to develop a digital library that will have laws from all around the world that affect women’s land rights, specifically a collection of family laws.
My favorite part of the work is talking to rural women. It is such a gift to be able to listen to women tell the stories of their daily lives and to think with them about what changes could be made to improve their situation.
JH: One of the messages that comes through in this essay is the immense divide between cultures that at first seems somewhat easy to approach but becomes a very different practical matter when all of the cultural, religious and traditional beliefs are taken into consideration. Can you give our readers some insight into how you were able to balance your own beliefs with those of these women within their own cultural aspects?
RG: If I have learned nothing else, it is to work with what’s possible. Women may want a hundred things to change, and each of those things may be horrible in my view, but only a few are possible to change in that village or state or country at that time. So, why not start there? We try to take on the hard stuff–cultural change. For example in India we have a project that is working with very poor adolescent girls to help them use land their family has recently been given from the government so that they become more valuable to the family and as a consequence are less likely to be married at an early age. It’s a really complicated project involving the community and community attitudes, but I think it’s important to try. For me, the question is, what do the girls want for their lives? Then helping to figure out how to achieve those goals, one at a time–starting with what seems most possible.
JH: Anara goes through a very significant change by the end of “Bridestealing.” While appearing very idealistic in the beginning, her retelling of the story of the young rape victim and the ultimate choice made to deal with the problem in the end, appears to give us a more realistic understanding of the cultural needs of, not only the young girl and her attacker, but also the far reaching ramifications for their families and basically the entire village. Can you explain how you think working within these cultures and understanding how decisions like these are sometimes the only ones that can be made changes your perspective as a woman and also as a writer?
RG: I have come to believe that real change cannot happen for women unless they organize.
Women all over the world are beaten, sold, under-paid, over-worked, and treated as property. The kind of change that is needed requires a social movement, and women are difficult to organize. They are generally tied to the household by cultural norms, household duties, and responsibilities to children. As a writer, I would like to motivate people to care about how women are treated and to join a larger movement for change.
JH: Do you have any websites you would like to share with our readers? Either websites containing more information on these topics or your own personal website and/or publications?
RG: My organization’s website is: www.landesa.org. I have written a good deal about women’s land rights, and if you google my name, you’ll find my stuff. There seem to be no other Renée Giovarelli in the world at the moment who show up on google. My stuff is mostly academic/policy oriented–written for a foreign aid organization or the like. But, I am working on a collection of essays like “Bridestealing” that I hope to have published someday.
JH: What do you think recovery means for these women? And can they have recovery without help from groups like yours?
RG: Recovery means empowerment. I don’t think empowerment can happen without a real focus and effort from the larger world community.
JH: Again, we thank you so much for sharing “Bridestealing” with r.kv.r.y. Now that you have shared what you think recovery means for these women, can you also share what recovery means to you, personally?
RG: Ah, that’s a whole different thing, isn’t it? I am a recovering child of religious zealots and all that happens in a family when adults are afraid for their souls and their children’s souls. For me recovery is showing up as myself in person and in writing–a struggle always, but worth the effort.