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Photo: Hazel Thompson / Women for Women International

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The meaning of sisterhood? Solidarity with women around the world

When women are isolated, they are vulnerable. Join the global sisterhood, urges Dame Helen Mirren

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By Helen Mirren on

I have a sister: her name is Vestine, she is 23 years old, a mother of one and she lives in Rwanda, a country that is gradually rewriting its 20-year legacy of genocide and violence. We share no other relatives, we have never met, and we’ve only communicated by letter. Before we became sisters, Vestine was living hand-to-mouth: her daily income was less than 17 pence and she struggled to keep herself and her baby daughter healthy.

Her life could not be more different to mine, but I call Vestine my sister because I sponsor her to participate in Women for Women International’s year-long training programme. During the year she will learn a marketable job skill and business-training to turn this into a stable income for her family. She will also learn practical knowledge about her health, and about her rights on key issues like voting, access to land and domestic abuse.

Each week she joins 24 other women from her village for these training classes. Together, they are forming friendships and learning the skills to rebuild their lives and their community. I can’t begin to imagine what Vestine has experienced in her life, but I do know how important it is to be with other women, share your joys and your worries, and build a sense of sisterhood.

Sisterhood is the sense of community we feel with other women. It’s understanding that our similarities are more powerful than our differences

Women are so often isolated, and I think that to bring women out of isolation, to have a sense of community just among women, is enormously important. Sisterhood is the sense of community we feel with other women. It’s understanding that our similarities are more powerful than our differences. I think sisterhood means identifying with other women, in whatever circumstances they may find themselves.  

There have been many times throughout my life that I’ve felt a bond of sisterhood. Firstly at the familial level with my sister Kate; there’s nothing more wonderful than having a sister. And then I went to a convent school, and that’s another kind of sisterhood. But the larger idea of sisterhood is the communication and support between women of different races, different cultures, different religions, but with this one consistency, which is that we are all women. No matter what the financial or cultural circumstances, very often you find the same issues that women are dealing with – how to handle an abusive situation, how to survive when they are excluded from money-making environments, how to bring up children and work at the same time. These are issues that are universal.

I’ve always felt that the single most important necessity in the world of human endeavour is basically the education of women and bringing women out into active life. I really believe that women have such an important role to play, and in many parts of the world they have been silenced for so long. The sad truth is that with unprecedented levels of violence against women and hard-fought rights under threat in many parts of the world, there has never been a greater need to support our sisters around the world and show our solidarity. Women bear the brunt of war. Many experience torture, brutality and horrific sexual violence. Their basic rights, freedoms and dignity are often targeted as a tactic of war.

Women for Women International works with women in some of the world’s most dangerous places. Syrian refugees and Yazidi women in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq tell us their families are starving, they have no way to earn money, they are not safe, and are struggling each day with the debilitating effects of extreme trauma.

So no matter what gender you are, join the sisterhood! In every country and culture that I have visited, from Sweden to Uganda, from Singapore to Mali, it is clear that when women are given respect, and the ability and freedom to pursue their personal dreams and ambitions, life improves for everyone.  

You can watch What is Sisterhood?, the new short film starring Women for Women International, here

Join the global sisterhood and sign up to sponsor a woman survivor of war today at womenforwomen.org.uk/sisterhood

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Photo: Hazel Thompson / Women for Women International
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