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Credit: Michael Goerlitz

Fighting oppression is more effective through smaller, more individual grassroots movements, activists told Penn students Monday at a Perry World House panel to celebrate International Women's Day earlier this month. 

Four speakers from around the world discussed their personal experiences working to fight sexual violence and harassment and shared their own stories as women's rights activists involved with various grassroots movements. The event, part of Penn Women's Week, was moderated by Anthropology professor Deborah A. Thomas, who is also a core faculty member in the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies department. 

Argentinian academic Verónica Gago spoke about Ni Una Menos, a Latin American grassroots organization that she is involved with, and its effort to combat femicide across the Americas. Nadeen Spence, a Jamaican educator who founded the I'm Glad I'm a Girl Foundation, focused on violence within the church and other religious institutions. 

The panelists were joined by Veronica Avila, the National Campaign co-manager for Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an organization which works to improve restaurant workers' wages and working conditions. Avila spoke about harassment in the restaurant industry and the larger workplace.

“It’s really no surprise the restaurant industry is the sector that year after year after year has the highest rate of sexual violence seen,” Avila said. “Women have to tolerate conditions that they would normally find unacceptable.” 

Fellow panelist Joanne N. Smith, the founding president and CEO of the advocacy group Girls for Gender Equity, told the story of a young girl who was raped, highlighting the need to change the narrative surrounding sexual violence. 

“It’s clear to us as black women who saw ourselves in that little 8-year-old girl that this was going to be lifelong work, that this was going to be work that we needed to do not only in our community but also to address the issues that impact our community that allow an 8 year old to be seen as prey,” Smith said.

Perry World House Deputy Director LaShawn Jefferson said the organization wanted to hold an event on gender-based violence in light of the sweeping #MeToo movement. 

“We thought it would be important given everything that’s been happening and the attention that’s been paid to violence against women, in particular sexual harassment and assault,” Jefferson said. 

The event was co-sponsored by Perry World House, the Alice Paul Center for Research on Gender, Sexuality & Women, Penn Women’s Center, the Latin American and Latino Studies program, and the Ortner Center on Violence & Abuse in Relationships. 

Attendees agreed that the event gave them new perspectives on the different ways of addressing sexual violence. 

“I thought that was really interesting how they synthesized all the issues and see the commonalities between different countries and also see that institutions are slightly different as well,” first-year veterinary medicine graduate student Allison Rooney said.