In 2001, photographer Mark Tuschman, on assignment for the Global Fund for Women, went to China, Mongolia and Thailand. His first stop was a shelter for abused women in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. It was crowded to capacity with so many more women waiting for sanctuary, each could stay only a limited amount of time.
"It was the first time I witnessed the harsh, unrelenting reality that tens of millions of women face every day of their lives," Tuschman said. "Through my lens I saw their pain.” He also heard their stories, including one of a woman who was not there to tell it — her husband boasted of having starved her to death.
This first assignment for the Global Fund for Women set Tuschman on decade-long journey a that took him around the world, to Ghana, Guatemala, India and Nairobi, to Vietnam, Kenya, and Ethiopia, on assignments working for a collection of United Nations agencies, foundations, and other non-government organizations to document the stories of women surviving "on the edge" of poverty and abuse.
Each woman he met, each story he heard, he said, left “an indelible mark on my consciousness and on my heart.”
The soft-spoken Tuschman, who grew up in New York City and now lives in Menlo Park, has compiled the photos and the stories into a book, "Faces of Courage: Intimate Portraits of Women on the Edge," published by Val de Grace Books, Inc., based in Napa Valley.
“The intent of this book is simple,” Tuschman said. “I want to pay tribute to the women I have met and to the millions of other women who share their fate and their lack of autonomy over their own lives and their bodies. I want to bring these women to the forefront of world consciousness.”
Tuschman's book is a work of astonishing beauty and power as well as a call to action. On viewing the book former President Jimmy Carter, was so impressed with the work, he allowed Tuschman to use one of his quotes from a conference on women in the advance publicity: “The abuse of women and girls is the most pervasive and unaddressed human rights violation on earth.”
Turning the pages of "Faces of Courage", one meets woman after woman, whose faces radiate dignity, joy, hope and strength as well as sorrow, as they look into Tuschman's camera. Then one reads their stories: They are women who have endured conditions that are almost unimaginable for inhabitants of a prosperous world: Living in dire poverty, they are denied education, sold into marriage or slavery, raped, abused, and with every pregnancy risk their lives.
--Walda, a sex worker in Kenya, who had no other way to support her two children after fleeing from an abusive husband;
--Seni, trafficked from Indonesia to Saudi Arabia; Rupa, a child bride in India whose husband tried to murder her because her dowry was inadequate;
--Meera, daughter of a sex worker, brutally beaten by her mother and brother, a petty thief, when she refused to follow her mother's line of work;
--Marigarito, from Malawi married at 15, and injured early in childbirth, which created a condition called fistula, which causes women to be ostracized, and often abandoned by their husbands.
In their cases, they were able to find their way to help from organizations, including Planned Parenthood Global, Girls not Brides, the Global Fund for Women and Womens Trust.
"Being born female is dangerous to your health," Anne Firth Murray, author of "From Outrage to Courage," is quoted in the book as saying.
Nonetheless, “This is not a book about women as victims,” Jill Sheffield of Women Deliver writes in an introduction. “Mark has combined sadness with hope, problem with solution, and tears with smiles...we cannot just look at the problem -- we have to inject hope and possibility into this reality.”
Balancing the stories of outrage and violence are ones that show what these women accomplish if given a chance: If they learn a trade, get a loan to start a business, and most of all, if they are able to go to school.
"It may seem hard for us in the West to comprehend but in rural areas of countries like Ghana, educating girls and women is an almost revolutionary act," Tuschman writes. He quotes Ghanian educator Dr. J. E. Kwegyir Aggrey, "The surest way to keep a people down is to educate men and neglect the women. If you educate a man, you simply educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a family -- and a whole nation."
Here is where the sheer joy of Tuschman's photos emerge in the faces of girls in Ghana, Malayasia and Nigeria who are able to go to school. They pore over books together, listen with rapt attention, and in one photo from Nigeria, cluster around an amazing laptop computer. "Their optimism, eagerness to learn and the hope in their eyes are palpable and deeply felt," he writes.
He also shares stories of women who achieved an education and return to their villages as mentors, teachers and healthcare workers: He introduces Farida Mussa, born in a slum in Dar es Salaam, who drives four hours a day to and from a school she built with her salary; and Pendo Ngomale, who "cheerfully guided us through a labyrinth of dirt and garbage that fill the pathway to her home" to show how her scholarship to study nursing allowed her to take charge of a local clinic and support her family and help her siblings stay in school.
Tuschman downplays the effort it took to make his way into these far-flung places and gain the trust that allowed him to take his photos and hear the stories. "This work has taught me a profound lesson," he writes. "The human condition is wrought with great uncertainty and suffering, yet the human spirit and the hope for a better life can withstand terrible hardships and grow even stronger in the face of adversity. The women you meet on these pages have constantly inspired me, and I’ve come to understand that their cause is our cause, their humanity is our humanity."
The book has its official launch on Sept. 21 in San Francisco at the World Affairs Council, followed by its East Coast debut on Oct. 14.
While "Faces of Courage" is drawing praise from women's organizations -- "I hope every advocate puts this book in their briefcases" writes Jill Sheffield -- Tuschman's goal is to see the book in schools and libraries. While much has been accomplished, he notes, daily headlines like the accounts of harrowing plight of women being enslaved and raped by forces of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, confirm that monumental work remains to be done.
"It is my fervent hope that we in this country, blessed as we are with freedom and great material wealth, can join hands to support the aspirations of these forgotten women and offer them a real and enduring sense of hope and justice," he concludes.
"Faces of Courage, Intimate Portraits of Women on The Edge" by Mark Tuschman is available through his website, http://facesofcouragebook2015.com/buy2/ .
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