Gender-Based Violence: An Interview with Anne Firth Murray

By Brie Linkenhoker

Anne Firth Murray is the Founding President of The Global Fund for Women, which provides funds internationally to seed, strengthen, and link groups committed to women’s well being. Currently, she is a scholar/activist at the Union Institute and a Consulting Professor in Human Biology at Stanford University. Ms. Murray serves on several boards and councils of non-profit organizations, including the African Women’s Development Fund, Commonweal, the Global Justice Center, GRACE (a group working on HIV/AIDS in East Africa), Hesperian Foundation and UNNITI, a women’s foundation in India. She is the recipient of many awards and honors for her work on women’s health and philanthropy, and in 2005 she was nominated as one of a group of 1,000 women for the Nobel Peace Prize. She is author of Paradigm Found: Leading and Managing for Positive Change, and From Outrage to Courage: Women Taking Action for Health and Justice.

Ms. Murray’s personal interests include gardening, beekeeping, and writing. She resides in Menlo Park, California. She has one daughter who is an attorney in California.

This interview was conducted by Brie Linkenhoker, the Director of Worldview Stanford, a project at Stanford University that creates media and learning experiences for public audiences. She is a member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, CA.

Brie Linkenhoker: Let’s start with an easy question. Tell me the story of your life.

Anne Firth Murray: Well, it’s been a long life so far, and so there’s an awful lot to cover! I grew up as an outsider, but with an international view. I’m a New Zealand citizen, but my father represented the New Zealand government overseas, so I spent the first 12 or 13 years of my life in the US and Canada. My father’s work brought us in touch with people from other countries. So I grew up in an atmosphere seeing myself more as a global person and internationally minded.

I went to the University of California at Berkeley and majored in economics and political science, and also studied anthropology. My goals were always international. My dream was to work for the UN, and indeed, I ended up getting hired to work at the secretariat in New York.

Image for post
Image for post

Anne Firth Murray.

It’s a long story, but I soon became disillusioned with the UN, and left thinking that it was not the solution to the world’s problems. I traveled around Europe, ran out of money, and came back “home,” which was then California, where my parents were living. I started working for the Asia Foundation, and ended up going to Hong Kong to teach English. I met a man there, got married, and came back to the US. Then we moved again to Asia, this time with our daughter. That move was as a wife; we moved for my husband’s career. I was a product of that age: if you got married, you moved where your husband wanted to go, even if you had your own ambitions.

We moved back to the US, and I got a graduate degree at New York University in public administration, and ended up working at the UN again, this time as a writer. I got divorced, moved back to California, and worked as a writer, editor, or program manager, always trying to bridge being a good (single) mother and doing work that I found interesting and useful.

Around the time I was 40, I looked at my life and thought, “I’m not balancing a marriage and work anymore. I’d better get on with it, instead of dabbling in writing and editing and this and that and the other. I need to plunge in to something meaningful.”

I became involved in the philanthropic world and was hired by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to run their population and environment programs. I stayed there for 10 years. In my last couple of years there, I become very concerned that women’s groups who applied for funding weren’t having much luck at our foundation, or in much of the rest of the philanthropic world. I tried hard to set up a program to fund women’s groups — groups that were managed and governed by women, and focused on women’s empowerment and issues — at the Hewlett Foundation, but I didn’t succeed.

Talking to my friends about what I was seeing and experiencing, we hatched the idea for the Global Fund for Women, which I ran for the next nine and half years.

My dream for the Global Fund was that we would listen to women and respond to them. We would not assign our own agenda. We would work with respect and with love, and do all those things at the staff level, too. We would practice what we preached.

Was it in your work at the Global Fund for Women that you became interested in the issues surrounding violence against women?

Yes, that’s when it struck me that violence against women was such an important issue. If violence against women were an infectious disease, we’d absolutely declare an epidemic. One out of three women worldwide experience a pattern of violence in their lives — not just a shove across the kitchen, but a pattern of violence they live with daily. Those numbers are based on very good research out of the World Health Organization and the London School of Tropical Medicine.

Has the situation improved at all in the time for which this has been a focus for you?

I think there’s more recognition in society in general that violence against women is not just a personal problem for women but also an economic problem and a human rights issue. To see violence against women as a human rights abuse elevates the conversation significantly. I think it’s important to think of violence against women, whatever form it may take, as a violation of human rights because then all of a sudden, it’s not just some poor little wife or daughter being violated. It is a human being with rights.

So I think there is an improvement in the seriousness with which violence against women is being taken, and I think women are becoming more comfortable reporting violence and talking about it. Conviction rates are still terribly low worldwide, but at least the problem is moving into the open.

I do think that we saw a significant shift in attitudes maybe around twenty years ago. Before that time, violence against women was in the private domain. It wasn’t public. It was at home or in a dark corner somewhere. Even in situations of war, it was just taken for granted that women would be violated; they were considered collateral damage. We didn’t write about it or report it. Now I think women — and violence against them — are being seen and reported.

But in terms of prevalence, I don’t think we can say that it’s declining. We need much better data, and better approaches to preventing violence. Many of the interventions supported by organizations like the Global Fund for Women operate after the fact. They might be refuges, or education programs for women escaping violence, or networks that can help women fleeing from violent situations. But how do you prevent violence in the first place? We know a lot less about that.

Having spent so much of your life trying to help women who experience violence and other forms of oppression, does that depress you?

When I was writing the book From Outrage to Courage, and teaching on international women’s health and human rights, I became really concerned about violence. I began to think about it as a scourge of mankind and I thought, “I must be careful. I must not allow myself to be dragged down by this.” I’m really a very optimistic and positive person, so when I became enmeshed in thinking about violence, I had to develop other practices to help me remain that way. I worked more in my garden, played my guitar, walked on beaches, and decided to start reading about nonviolence.

Image for post
Image for post

Brie Linkenhoker.

Soon after, I was asked to teach a class at Stanford as part of a set of seminars on many different topics. I said that I wanted to teach a class about love. The only other Stanford course with “love” in the title was a course on Italian love poetry, so my course was pretty unusual. It was to be called “Love as a Force for Social Justice.” As I started the research for the course, I ran across a book called True Love by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk.

He wrote four mantras that I found so simple and so true to my way of thinking about love as a foundation for social justice. The first mantra is, “Dear one, I am here for you.” That’s how I see my relationship with people that I love. The second one is, “Dear one, I see you and it makes me happy.” The third one is, “Dear one, I see that you are in pain and that is why I am here for you.” I feel that that is the essence of compassion, and when I first read it, I thought, “That’s what we’re trying to do at the Global Fund for Women.” The fourth mantra is, “Dear one, I am in pain, please help me.”

These four mantras, which really are more circular than a list, are brilliant. If you begin with that greeting, “Dear one,” to me that is what immediately sets the tone as a conversation between or among equals. These mantras became important to me personally, and formed an important part of the foundation for my course.

Did you discuss the role of religion in your course? Do you think that religion can be a force for good in improving the lives of women?

We start the course talking about love, what do we mean by it, and what does it have to do with social justice. We focus then on agape love, that is, on compassion and kindness. I think of agape love as having two sides: of compassion, that is, trying to prevent pain or alleviate pain, and kindness, that is, trying to promote happiness.

We talk about love as a basic concept of most religions. We look specifically at Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and find that they’re very similar in terms of concepts like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” honoring or looking after your neighbor. We interview religious leaders in these faiths, and also touch on Buddhism and the writings of Gandhi on non-violence.

I’m not a religious person, but I think that religion can be absolutely a force for good and for love. Unfortunately, the fundamental concepts at the heart of the religions we talk about in the course are not always what have been practiced. For reasons I’ve never understood, people too often attach themselves to religions unquestioningly, and then they can be manipulated by people who do not keep in mind the basic tenets of the religion.

In my course, I tell my students that we have to work consciously every day to treat each other better. We have to be nicer to everybody. That sounds like such a California touchy-feely thing. But it’s critical. You can control your own behavior, and if it helps to follow a model that helps you to express love and kindness, to express compassion overtly, that’s fine.

I have a final question for you. I went to a remarkable little college in Kentucky, Transylvania University, that was conservative in lots of ways, but when I was a student there in the ’90s, the question among women was, “Are you a feminist or a radical feminist?” In other words, can we create a world that is more just by changing it from within, or do we need to tear down the system and start anew? Where would you put yourself on that spectrum?

I put myself on the side of believing that we can’t really make change with the tools and the structures that we’re stuck with, but I don’t believe we have to tear down everything. I realized long ago that violence is a strategy used to maintain power. It is a strategy used by men to maintain or improve their place in the hierarchy. So I do not believe we can operate within strictly patriarchal structures and make real change. I think we have to develop ways of interacting with each other that are not only productive and effective but are different in the sense of listening and learning from each other.

I hope that we don’t have to tear everything down. We can teach little children to be good to each other. We can learn from people — teachers, doctors, business people — who express love in their work. We can join or support nonprofit organizations that also express loving kindness and compassion. We can engage in nonviolent resistance against injustice, which scholars like Erica Chenoweth in her book Why Civil Resistance Works have shown to be more effective than violent protest at actually bringing about change.

Each of us has to make decisions every day to be nonviolent in every way we can. We can consciously choose to be kind and compassionate to each other. That gives me hope.

See here for our Journey with Jesus weekly webzine for the global church. All free, all the time.

Written by

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store