To a crowd of about 1,500, journalist and television host Lisa Ling told stories of courageous women she’s met all over the world.
As the keynote speaker for the Women’s Fund of Omaha’s annual Lead the Change event on Thursday, Ling told of brave young women in Tehran, Iran, protesting conservative Islamic modes of dress. They wanted to know about America and asked if she listened to Metallica and watched “Baywatch.”
That “culture shock,” she said, taught her to take off her “American-style glasses” and see stories from all angles.
“It propelled me to want to tell those stories,” Ling said. The audience applauded as she said she’s aghast by a media environment that allows people to yell at each other on air rather than tell meaningful stories.
Ling said there are many women’s stories that she wants people to hear — from those of mothers in prison to shocking narratives of young women lured into sex trafficking.
Hearing those stories takes a toll, weighing heavily on her heart and mind, she said.
One such story is that of a 23-year-old woman living in Norfolk, Nebraska, with her 4-year-old daughter. Ling spent a weekend with the woman last year, interviewing her for the Oct. 30 episode of her show “This is Life” on CNN.
Every other weekend and every other Tuesday, the mother drops off her child with the man who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting the woman.
Nebraska law takes away parental rights when the perpetrator is convicted of first-degree sexual assault. The offender in the Norfolk case was originally charged with first-degree sexual assault but pleaded to a misdemeanor charge of third-degree sexual assault.
Two months after the assault, the woman found out she was pregnant. She decided to keep the child and five months after she gave birth, the father came to her parents’ home, asking to see the child.
A judge eventually granted the man supervised visits, and the woman said she has had to learn to co-parent with a man she never wanted to see again.
Ling told part of the woman’s story to the audience on Thursday, saying she was in disbelief that a system designed to protect a victim would allow this to happen.
Ling said 17.7 million American women are victims of rape or attempted rape and 32,000 will become pregnant. About one-third of those women decide to keep the baby.
“I’m truly heartsick, I could not believe what I was seeing,” she said of watching the woman give her child to the man for a weekend.
“This has got to change,” Ling said.
The woman, who attended Ling’s talk in Omaha on Thursday, said she hopes that sharing her story nationally will finally bring change for mothers like her.
She testified in 2014 in support of proposed legislation that would make it more difficult for an offender to seek parental rights to a child conceived through a sexual assault.
At the time, Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha expressed concerns that parental rights could be cut off for men who have been wrongly accused or whose convictions are later overturned.
The attorney who represented the father in the visitation matter said then that it’s better to let the courts decide what’s best for children on a case-by-case basis.
The 2014 legislation was introduced by then-State Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln. Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue introduced a similar bill at the start of 2015 but it was postponed indefinitely this spring.
Garrett’s office said he will meet with new senators in November to come up with a plan to reintroduce the bill.
The woman said that even though she hasn’t yet seen a change in state law, she has seen a change in herself. “I can stand up for myself now,” she said.
Her therapist, Liane Bode, said over the last year she’s watched her client go from a victim to an advocate. “She is independent and able to speak up. It’s incredible.”
The mother said looking at her daughter reminds her of why she is still fighting for change. The 4-year-old with the long, dark curls was eager to tell people at the event that she dreams of being an “animal doctor and a people doctor” because she wants to help everyone.
“I love my daughter and none of this is her fault,” the woman said.
Ling has a daughter about the same age as the Norfolk woman’s and commended the mother for her bravery.
Ling encouraged the women in the room to remember that once they know about an injustice, they can’t pretend they don’t know.
“I’ve always been under the belief that if women don’t help each other, no one else will.”
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Women’s Fund grant recipients
The Women’s Fund of Omaha awarded grants Thursday to local nonprofits making a positive impact on the lives of Omaha’s women and girls. This year’s recipients:
» $25,000 to Santa Monica Inc.
» $32,000 to the Sisters of Notre Dame, Hotel/Motel Training
» $20,000 to Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska, Domestic Violence Access to Justice
» $15,000 to Girls Inc., Sexpertise
» $15,000 to Nebraska Children’s Home Society, Teen Chat
» $25,000 to Women’s Center for Advancement, Emergency Funds
» $14,500 to Nebraskans for Civic Reform, CIRCLES
» $11,000 to the Latino Center of the Midlands, Joven Nobel Youth Program
» $10,500 to Urban League of Nebraska, Inc., Girls Summer STEAM Academy
» $10,000 to Legal Aid Nebraska, Elder Access Line
» $10,000 to Midlands Latino Community Development Corporation, Latina Women Go Forward
» $5,000 to Omaha Girls Rock, Afterschool Leadership Program
» $10,000 to Intercultural Senior Center, Shoulder to Shoulder
» $5,000 to Lutheran Family Services, Ambassadors English as a Second Language Mentoring Program
» $5,000 to Nebraska Children’s Home Society, Raising Your Grandchildren