Sally Armstrong is a Canadian journalist, speaker, and human rights activist. Throughout her many years of covering stories on girls and women in war zones Sally has heard many moving stories from women who have endured many sickening and sad things. Not only is she a journalist, she is also the author of the books: The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan; The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor; Bitter Roots, Tender Shoots: The Uncertain Fate of Afghanistan’s Women; and her most recent title, Ascent of Women: Our turn, Our Way: A Remarkable Story of World-Wide Change.
Last month I went to hear Sally speak at a family friend’s church. Hearing her speak was very moving and I really learned a lot about not only her experiences, but the lives of the girls in war zones she has spoken too. A few days ago I had the opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation with Sally about her experiences and her thoughts on the rise of women across the world.
- How do you find the courage to go into zones of conflict like Afghanistan and risk your life?
Well, it’s my job – I’m a journalist. I cover conflict from the point of view of what happens to women and girls. So, I’m well prepared for where I go and you’re right – it is sometimes dangerous, these places. But I’m well prepared and I know what to do and I love my job. I love being able to report to people on what is happening to women and girls in these places, so I guess that’s how I manage; I like what I do.
- What advice would you give to young girls like me who want to make a difference and help improve the lives of girls around the world?
My first piece of advice is: don’t ever think for one minute that you can’t do it, because you can. Although loads of people will say you’re too young or you have no experience, they’re the ones who are wrong. You’re not the wrong one. You know what to do and you even know how to do it. The best tool you have, from my advice, is your own voice. As soon as you speak up and say “This is not okay with me”, then, I believe you will start to make change.
- How do you believe we can get the conversation going on more taboo topics like rape?
Well, I think the conversation has started. For a very, very long time and I dare say throughout history, there has been a taboo about talking about rape or any kind of sexual assault. Women were told to keep their mouths shut, whether it was in an undeveloped country in Africa or whether it was Canada, women were told to be quiet and not to say anything. And here even, they would be told, “You know you could wreck your future. You don’t want people knowing these things.” That has stopped. People are now talking and we know, if you can’t talk about it, you can’t change it. Now that doesn’t mean a girl who’s been raped should go public if she doesn’t want to, and most likely she won’t. But that does mean that she can contribute maybe not her own story, but she can contribute to the conversation. The trouble with talking about being raped when you’ve been raped is that it feels a little bit like getting re-raped, and you don’t want anyone to have to go through that. But nobody used to talk about it; they used to use expressions like “Women who were beaten by their husbands really liked it”, or “Women who got raped asked for it.” Nobody talks that way anymore, and if they do it is so heavily censored by the public, by even their own friends, that I think we are seeing the last of that. Now some people like Donald Trump may still talk that way, but we don’t have any respect for them.
- Who is someone who inspires you every day to make a difference?
Do I have to choose only one? Well you inspire me. It inspires me so much that you and your family would travel such a long way just so we could meet. I find that incredibly inspiring after doing this job for thirty years. To know someone else wants to do it too. Sima Samara of Afghanistan inspires me. So many hardworking change makers. Alaina Podmorow in Western Canada inspires me. So a lot of people I think are doing truly outstanding work because they care about what they are doing. That is why they inspire me.
- What challenges did you face when transforming the Homemakers magazine into a magazine that discusses more serious social issues?
Well actually Homemakers magazine was doing that. Homemakers magazine, when I took it over, was known as the thinking women’s magazine. It already started talking about issues for women in Canada such as wife assault and child sexual abuse, those kinds of things were already being discussed on the pages of Homemakers. They were also talking about abortion, and there were a group of women in Canada who tried to close the magazine for that reason, but they didn’t succeed. But by the time I came along I wanted to move the magazine into an International field. The All News Network, like CNN, like CBC, they were now in our living room. We were now seeing things we didn’t see before about the international world. And what women were seeing was incredible mistreatment of women around the world but particularly in war zones, and I wanted to bring that onto the pages of my magazine so that my readers would have something to say about it, and that is what I did at Homemakers.
- What do you think is different about this generation from previous ones in terms of improving things for women?
Well, I could have said the same thing when I was your age about the generation before me. Things change, things progress, and we begin to better understand issues. I could act on issues better than my mother did, and you can act on them better than I did, because the more knowledge you have the better equipped you are to make change. And there is more knowledge available to you today then there was when I was your age. It’s all about equipping yourself with knowledge, and it’s not just rattling off facts, it’s being open-minded so that you can hear what other people are saying, and not just adding another anecdote. You can actually hear whatthose Syrian women are saying, what is a good end result for them, what are they thinking about when they pack and go on this perilous journey. You are open to these things because it is available to you, and that’s different. If my generation went two thirds of the way to the finish line than your generation can definitely get us there.
- What’s your most memorable experience during your many travels across the world?
I’ve had so many experiences that I will never forget. You know the stories of these women, they play on the back of my eyelids and I wonder how they are doing and sometimes I can get a message to them and sometimes they can get a message to me. I think the biggest shock I ever had is when I went to Afghanistan for the first time just after the Taliban took over, and seeing what they had done to the women. That all the women were in burqas and how hard it was to walk in a burqa. If you fell and your legs showed you would get beaten by the Taliban. The girls couldn’t go to school and the women couldn’t go to work and it was almost like they put all the girls and women in prison. On the other hand, I broke the story about the gang rape of the women in the Balkans. The first night that I met the women that I did the story about, that really affected me so powerfully. Even as I tell it to you I can feel the agony of listening to her story.
My other experiences include the feeling I had of helping women to empower themselves so these things can stop. But there are so many, it’s hard to say just one. I feel so privileged; I go to schools and young people tell me their stories, and I teach them to play sports. Not just the boys, the girls too. I feel terribly lucky that people share their stories with me and that they trust me to share what is happening to them with the world.
My Final Thoughts
I really enjoyed listening to Sally’s words as she spoke about the girls she has met in war zones and speaking to her one-on-one. She truly is a remarkable woman and I am honoured to have had the chance to talk to her.
Thank you so much Sally for taking the time to answer my questions!
Thanks for joining me on my journey to change the world!