Earlier this afternoon, Variety honored a number of women from the entertainment industry at the Power of Women event. Billy Eichner was host to the slate of inspirational talks at the New York City luncheon.
Lupita Nyong’o gave a speech promoting Mother Health International, a nonprofit helping pregnant women in underdeveloped countries and areas of disaster by providing safe birth practices and experts. Nyong’o emphasized that women need to help each other in order to use the power of solidarity to help heal one another. Read highlights from the speech below:
I’m here today because of my work with women and my love for the work of [executive director] Rachel Zaslow. Thank you to Variety for the recognition of women and the work we do and all the ways in which we drift. Thank you so much for celebrating that.
In preparation for my performance in “Eclipsed” on Broadway, every night I listen to tape of Liberian women speaking. One of the women devised a fantastic saying. I’m going to do it in my best Liberian accent: “Our Liberian people are not separate but one. If woman falling down and women are around, they will make circle for that woman to not be disgraced.” I have been thinking a lot about this quote. I have been thinking of the ways in which it is so vital to women to help other women. To support women, to lift one another up. We are often encouraged or even taught to bring one another down. To fight one another. We are taught that we can only survive in this world if there are no other viable women near us. But I’ve also been thinking about all the ways women’s bodies are also under attack.
How do we turn that pain into power? I’ve been thinking about this great quote because of the brilliant play Danai Gurira [“Eclipsed”] has written. By not turning away from the true pain of the more, by seeing these women so clearly in all their messy, complex lives, she gives them back their power. She takes the trope of the sex slave and explores how they can fight for their lives and their shows. This show is not only the first to feature an all-female cast, author and director on Broadway, but it is also very specifically about five women who have been brought together by the perils of war and the way in which they are to do battle with themselves and one another and the way in which they are brought together to heal. The only possibility for healing lies within this gathering of women. The way in which women tell our specific story — warts, welts, runny noses and all — when we will be a brave enough to to be seen and to allow our world views to be expressed.
We welcome a catharsis through the art of storytelling. We welcome a healing by transforming our pain into our power. I’ve always been thinking about this quote and the way it exemplifies the core values of Mother Health International in Uganda. You see, the Mother Health International set up to serve women survivors of the 23 years of civil war there. As happens in “Eclipsed,” these women’s bodies were reused as tools of war, as sex slaves, as “wives of offices,” or as soldiers themselves.
Mother Health International trains rural midwives to offer care that is insensitive to the unique needs and backgrounds of war survivors and women with trauma. The trauma they experience is one more potential complication in childbirth and it manifests into difficult symptoms. Imagine a woman who has been a sex slave for a long time. This means that she has been raped repeatedly. Then she becomes pregnant. The act of birthing is often a reminder of being raped. The mission of Mother Health International is to ease away from the trauma of her assault. To be a compassionate, loving environment to give birth, so they might in some profound way go about the business of ending the cycle of violence associated with that itself. So that these women can transform their pain into power. The parallels between the Mother Health International and the story in “Eclipsed” are profound, but not unique in that it is happening to women throughout the world. In South Uganda, in Columbia, in Congo, in Syria, and in Nigeria — and that’s just the places we know about.
At Mother Health International, we are actively assuring a new generation of life and love to break the cycle of trauma. This is vital, not just for women, but for the world. We live in a world where the war on women can be felt around the world. We are attacked upon our bodies, our choices, our agencies, but we live in a world where incredible things are happening. We are fighting back. We are refusing to be silent, refusing to shut down. We are doing the work in so many amazing ways. We are telling our story. We are creating clinics and institutions or one another. We are using our power to heal. We are using our power to lift each other up. We are gathering together and we are transforming art into our power. I am so excited and thrilled to be in this room today. I hope that this gathering can open minds and bring conversation. I hope that this too can ignite our passion and galvanize women around the world to come together in solidarity.