Founder, NGO Women's Crisis Care International, Women Advocate, Yogi, Manama, Bahrain
“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence” - Helen Keller. MJ and I met almost a decade ago in New York City. We volunteered at an emergency room of a busy hospital in Manhattan, advocating for survivors of domestic violence and/or sexual assault. These women (and we mostly saw women) had their dignity stripped but nonetheless survived and persevered through intense emotional turmoil. Thanks to our rigorous training, MJ and I were able to assist in an immediate aftermath, provide comfort and most importantly advocate on behalf of the survivors with the medical staff and law enforcement officers. Furthermore, we were trained how to best rehearse safety planning techniques post hospital discharge, explain the legal rights, navigate medical jargon, effectively work with marginalized populations, identify signs of self harm and endangerment to the household minors, and even be able to handle a perpetrator in the emergency room. This comprehensive training was accomplished with the help of highly skilled social workers, dedicated law enforcement officers, medical professionals and existing volunteers. It also served as a prelude to MJ’s current life.
Several years passed, we left New York, life took over and we lost touch. Sometime this year I received a notification on Facebook: MJ was nominated for an award, would I cast my vote for her? After doing some digging I was astonished to discover that MJ transplanted her experience, know-how, optimism, hope, confidence and turned it into achievement. She instituted one of a kind program for survivors of violence and sexual assault in the Middle East, in Bahrain. Women’s Crisis Care International (WCCI) is a multi-lingual full-scale domestic and rape crisis response program, operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In just four years MJ inspired and trained 130 active volunteer advocates and can now boast the only domestic and sexual violence crisis response program in the entire Middle East region, one of the only Arabic language crisis programs in the world. Not bad for an Iowa girl.
MJ not only earned my vote that day on Facebook, but sparked an interest to see for myself the fruits of her labour. After a quick email catch up, an extremely rushed trip to Bahrain was planned (how does one even get to Bahrain?! Turns out via Amman). MJ kindly welcomed me in her home, in her new country and on an incredibly short notice. It turned out to be a fortuitous timing for an impromptu visit as MJ was gearing up to train a fresh batch of advocates. These volunteers will ensure that the baton of knowledge is passed on and shared with the most vulnerable populations of Bahrain.
Thanks to MJ I met incredible women, expanded WOW Woman network with the plans to feature over a dozen stories on the WOW Woman platform. Please enjoy the funny, down to earth, impressive, energetic, honest, striking, caring powerhouse of a WOW Woman - Mary Justine Todd.
Mary-Justine Todd. My friends all call me MJ.
2. Where is your hometown?
I was born and raised in Burlington, Iowa, a small town on the Mississippi River.
3. What is your profession/career/title/self-label/designation?
Founder and Executive Director of Women’s Crisis Care International (WCCI).
4. What was the journey like to get where you are (in life and career wise)? What are some accomplishments you’re most proud of?
My journey to get into humanitarian work was a slow process of discovery. And my journey into my current role was somewhat of an accident!
It began in college. I had a French teacher from Senegal. He introduced me to West African culture and eventually I traveled to that part of Africa and even took up international studies as part of my curriculum. From there, I felt like I wanted to be involved in doing something about the hardships I witnessed and learned about for the first time. However, I did not exactly know how to go about it. I enrolled in a graduate program, slowly started to learn about international NGOs, and was further exposed to the kinds of things I wanted to ultimately be involved in. However in my small town in Iowa, this was not something I could truly be familiar with. Eventually, I narrowed my focus to working with African women, and more specifically, women refugees. I lived and worked in Sub-Saharan Africa from Tanzania to Liberia to Ghana.
When I returned to New York City to get an additional degree at New York University, I volunteered at the New York Presbyterian Hospital’s program called DOVE (Domestic and Other Violence Emergencies). As a volunteer advocate I helped survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault on the premises of the emergency room, usually during overnight on-call shifts. To qualify to serve as this on-call social worker, I had to complete a training program, and was then able to effectively listen, advocate and represent this population in front of the medical staff and law enforcement officers. I continued in that role for several years, learning more and more about what goes into running such program. This served as a precursor of what was to come.
In 2013 I met my now husband who was living and working in Bahrain. When I decided to join him, I had the idea of starting a program similar to DOVE, here in the Kingdom. And so it began. However, to be honest, I never expected it to become quite so big and successful so quickly. I also didn’t expect it to be so all-consuming.
What began as an idea for a project, in just under four years, has turned into a full time job, a multi-lingual full-scale domestic and rape crisis response program, operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Women’s Crisis Care International (WCCI) has four employees, four interns, and 130 active volunteer advocates. It is the first and only domestic and sexual violence crisis response program in the entire middle East and one of the only Arabic language crisis programs in the world.
Coming to Bahrain was very unexpected. I was on a holiday in Tanzania, was transitioning out of my job in NYC and moving to China. While in Zanzibar, I met the man, who is now my husband, Ozzy. It was a highly unlikely meeting that began in Stone Town, Zanzibar at one of my favorite hotels in the world - Tembo House Hotel. I noticed a couple of people in the lobby but did not pay attention. Then several hours later, as I arrived up the Island at a different resort I saw the same people from that morning, and decided to say hello. It was my future husband and his friend.
Ozzy is from Sudan, obtained his PhD in Missouri, and was living in Bahrain at the time. It was quite serendipitous as I am from Iowa, finished my graduate studies in East Africa, was living in NYC and about to move to China. Yet there we found ourselves, together in Zanzibar. He and I connected quickly and kept in close touch over the six months. The month after we met, I moved to a small village in China, and had a hard time living there. So as our relationship progressed I decided to give Bahrain a try and in 2013 I made a decision to move here. Within the next year, I had not only fallen in love with my husband, but with this country as well. I moved permanently here, married Ozzy and began working on WCCI.
5. What did you study in school?
University of Iowa, BA – International studies, Theater, French. University of Iowa, MA – International studies, with a focus on protecting women refugees. New York University, MPH – International public health, with a focus on gender based violence as a public health crisis.
6. How is your life different from what you pictured at 20?
HAHAHAHAHA! Very different! I had never even heard of Bahrain.
The only interaction I ever had with a women’s crisis advocacy program is when, at 19, I was actually in the hospital and an advocate showed up to help me.
At 20, I literally could not have dreamt up my current life, as it exists now in a way I had never known to be possible. The life of a permanent expatriate is full of ups and downs. I love it! It comes with many luxuries, adventures, and romance. But there are hard times too, such as Christmas without family and a never ending confusion while trying to navigate a system that you will never truly understand. You find yourself stuck in a permanent dilemma of no longer feeling at home in your country of birth, while at the same time feeling like an outsider in your current place of residence.
7. What was your biggest disappointment and plan to overcome it?
It would probably be the realization of how hard it really is to secure consistent funding for humanitarian work. I knew it would be challenging, but for the first time I had to entirely bear the burden of it alone. As the founder of an organization, I feel so personally connected to its success. Failing to secure adequate funding for continued operations is an ongoing worry and a constant fear. I feel that I made a promise to the community, volunteers, and existing funders, therefore I feel a constant weight of keeping everything afloat and moving forward.
I don't think I have overcome it yet, but I continue to work towards that. I try to surround myself with kind, supportive and energetic people. I always try to remain positive and aim to look on the bright side of things. I continuously remind myself that today’s failure may be tomorrows hidden blessing. It is very hard but it is a process. And like everything, with practice not only do I get better at my job, but I also get better at maintaining faith and a positive spirit.
8. Advice for other women?
Be clear and precise when setting your goals. And with ambition, one should also be realistic. If you want to do something, either take the steps to be able to do it well, or recognize where you need help and get it.
Be decisive and take action. You may not get it perfect every time but as long as you continue to try, you will learn from your mistakes and you will inevitably keep going forward. Sometimes we get stuck overthinking things and worrying too much.
9. Knowing what we know now in current political climate, can women be "all that we can be" in today's world? What is the way forward, as you see it for "feminist values"?
Yes we can. We can’t forget or take for granted the fight that our mothers fought for us during the mid 20th century. We must take the baton from the older generations and remember that even if we personally may not experience sexism or discrimination on a daily basis (or maybe we do), there are many women out there that do.
Thus, maintaining a fierce feminist spirit at all times is crucial. That means, never criticizing other women. That means, remember that until all women (non majority, poor, trans, etc) are treated with respect our work is not finished. That means, never tolerating subtle sexism, forgetting our own privilege, and/or aligning ourselves with powerful men who harm or oppress other women.
This is a big question and I’m not sure I have all the answers or the time to put it all on paper. I think its important that we acknowledge the plight of women who are actively advocating for women’s rights. It is hard! And we may be tempted to give up. But if we keep our friends close, always help each other, it may get a bit easier each day.
10. Where in the world do you feel “tallest” (i.e. where is your happy place)?
I am very much of a morning person, so between six am when I have coffee through to the afternoon I am typically very happy and energetic. I also teach yoga and recently started teaching paddle board yoga on the sea. I love being on the water, in the sun, relaxing, or doing yoga on the stand up paddle board. In the evening, after the sunset, I really like to be at home, hanging out with my husband and our puppy. Finally, I love living in Bahrain. And I feel tallest being here most of the time.
11. What extra-curricular activities/hobbies are you most proud of? Why?
I love teaching yoga, which I do six days a week. I also love taking care of my puppy and other animals. I rescue and take care of many stray animals as well.
12. What do you want to be when you grow up? Future goals/challenges?
Because I have now spent 15 years working in the field of women’s rights as well as other humanitarian causes, I am considering a career change in the next five years. This line of work can take a toll on one’s emotional health. I am thinking of going back to music and theater. Or, perhaps pursuing a career working outdoors with animals.
I am not sure that I could ever totally give up on the work of promoting women’s rights. If I were in the USA, I would probably run for political office.
13. What fears are you still hoping to overcome?
To be honest….. I have always struggled with my weight. And it is something that is always on my mind. I hope that someday I can get to a point in my life, while still being healthy, where I will not feel so fearful of gaining. As a staunch feminist, I actively advocate against these kinds of feelings for other women but as a simple human being, I still struggle with fears of being judged. I worry I won’t be good enough, or sadly, not pretty enough. This is what I have learned in our society, reiterated over my entire life. And I hope to unlearn it one day soon.
14. Anything you'd do differently if you had another go at life?
Again… being very honest…. I was of the generation of students who fell deeply into the student loan trap. I did not have financial support from my family and I took out substantial student loans to attend university in New York City. I received great education at NYU and was exposed to unique opportunities, but exuberant student loans that were required, I now understand, were not worth it. I should have chosen a school that I could afford.
15. What inspires you?
I get truly inspired when I see people who selflessly help others. I am especially motivated to work hard and keep things going when I can see that women who really have suffered feel a little bit better because of the services we offer at the WCCI.
16. What are you hopeful about?
I am a vegetarian because I don't believe in harming animals for our own enjoyment. I am hopeful that more and more people will feel this way and more and more animals will be protected and respected.
17. What are some ingredients to a good life?
Love. Gratitude (the opposite of always comparing and wanting more). Enough sleep. (I try to go to bed by 9 PM every night!) Downtime. And dogs!
18. What advice would you give your 14-year-old self?
Stay away from all the boys! They are not worth it!
19. What are you reading now? (what books do you gift most and what are your favourite reads?)
I am currently most focused on my Arabic study books. I often like to read historically accurate fiction novels.
20. Who is a WOW Woman in your world who inspires you and why? Can you nominate three women you know who perfectly fit WOW WOMAN description?
Kristen Lenau – working for women’s protection in Austin Texas. She’s dedicated, kind, hard working, down to earth, honest and genuine.
Carina Curto – a neuroscientist at Penn State. She’s a genius. She’s a fierce feminist. She’s deeply dedicated to her friends and other women. And she has excelled in her male-dominated field.
Tessa O’Neil – She is here in Bahrain and works with me at WCCI. She is one of the most bright, spirited, feminist, energetic, and all around beautiful human beings I know.
21. Where can others find you/your work (links to websites, blogs, etc.)?