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Having travelled extensively throughout south and south eastern Asia, I was extremely curious and unsure what to expect of my first visit to Southern Africa, especially Zimbabwe.

Arriving in Harare in spring I was confronted with wide streets lined with beautiful purple jacaranda trees I was told planted from the Brazilian tree a hundred years ago, and rows of colonial style villas. This seemed quite far off the chaotic media portrayal of the city I have become familiar with, however, it must be said that I only really saw what would be deemed the nicer part of town.

I spent most of my time in Zimbabwe in rural areas, meeting with girls of varying ages and speaking to them about school, and the barriers preventing them from attending or having to drop out. I met with many different characters, such as the exuberant Faith, who was 19 and had just returned to school as part of a scholarship grant. I spoke to her about the years she had spent out of school working as a ‘house girl’ because her family could not afford to pay her school fees, and about her determination to succeed with her schooling despite being in class with girls much her junior, and despite having to walk four hours to school. She said that she had of course felt slightly strange coming back to school, especially because she was in classes with girls several years younger than herself, but the fact that she was in school outweighed any of those concerns.

I also met with Talent, a fourteen year old girl who doesn’t go to school, and walked for hours in the blistering heat across dusty fields to speak to me. She looks much younger than her fourteen years, and it is hard to believe that she has had to head her own household and look after her younger brother and sisters since she was merely eight years old, after her parents left without word of where they were going. When there is work available she works in the fields from dawn til dusk to provide for her brothers and sisters, but when she can’t find work, she and her siblings will go hungry. She seems sad and slightly distant when talking to us, and I can only begin to imagine the difficult ‘childhood’ she has had to endure. None of her siblings have ever been to school, and sadly it’s hard to imagine how this would change unless circumstances for Talent and her siblings change drastically. When asked about her future, she looks wistful and says when she sees girls her age getting married, the thought crosses her mind that she could do the same thing and escape all her overbearing responsibilities. And with that, she enjoys a brief opportunity to laugh and joke with friends before they head back into their classes, while she herself begins the long walk back home to the children she will have to cook, clean and care for, even though she herself is still only a child.

I also met with Tambo, a sixteen year old boy, who proudly showed me the very modest hut he was building for himself and his fourteen year old sister. He too lost his parents when very young, and has looked after his younger sister since then. They are extremely poor, Tambo tries to take on building work when he can get it, and his younger sister works looking for bottles etc to recycle. He was honest and frank about his worry that his sister will turn to prostitution, as it is the route many girls her age living in such extreme poverty without parental support are forced to take. However he was adamant he would do anything he could to prevent this. As I walked away from Tambo sitting on the red earth, tending to his fire in the morning sun, I was glad to have met such an inspiring and positive boy, doing the very best he can for his younger sister.

For me, as someone who sits in an office in London, and works on a global report on the state of the worlds girls and searches for statistics and evidence from developing countries almost every day, to actually hear the stories behind the statistics in the flesh was a truly unique and at points an admittedly unnerving experience. Even though many of the stories I listened to were extremely sad, and in some ways tragic, their perseverance in the face of extreme poverty was truly inspiring. I feel that I was able to gain a one-off insight into the realities of the lives of girls in rural Zimbabwe, who spoke to me freely, and whose voices will stay with me forever.

 

Lili Harris

Research Assistant, Because I am a Girl Report

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Girls Education – Survey

hello faithful readers! We would like to invite you to take part in our new global survey on girls’ education. The 2012 State of the World’s Girls will be looking at issues of quality and marginalization in the context of adolescent girls living in poverty. We need your help to develop this topic and reflect some of the prevailing assumptions on this issue.

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/L3FYKWF

This survey only takes 7 minutes!! We appreciate your help!

Girls Report Team

Mommyrexia

A recent article in the NY Post introduced me to a new trend taking over Hollywood and Manhattan called “Mommyrexia”. In essence this trend involves famous or rich women who starve themselves and perform dangerous levels of exercise while they are pregnant in order to stay slim (see Victoria Beckham). Obviously this is an alarming phenomena, not just for these poor women caught up in a web of social pressures that don’t allow them to step out of the restrictive corset of modern perfection for even a minute. but this is also alarming considering the tens of thousands of women and girls who consider these celebrities icons worth emulating.

For those of you unfamiliar with Naomi Wolf’s famous book called ‘The Beauty Myth’ here is a short synopsis from The Guardian: (but do make an effort to pick it up at your nearest bookstore!)

“Wolf argues that beauty is the “last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact”. Somehow we’ve been flogged the idea that to be beautiful (which we must, or else no one will love us) we have to look a certain way: thin, youthful, smooth-skinned, small-nosed, silky-haired, etc. Hey presto: your average woman feels ugly her entire life, and old, too, for most of it. What better way of keeping her in her place?

Wolf uses the phrase “cultural conspiracy”; it’s hard to imagine exactly who the conspirators might be. Then big money makes an entrance, and it all gets nice and clear: women who feel old and ugly will buy things they do not need. An “anti-ageing” cream, say, or a blouse very little different from the blouses they already have.”

and there it is, neatly summed up. Our obsession with looking a certain way, which is sold to us on billboards and in women’s magazines, is not just restricting our sense of self worth, its motivating us to be consumers. Wolf goes on to argue that this obsession also takes up a lot of our ‘free’ time, so when we’re not working and taking care of our children and our homes, we are spending energy beautifying ourselves (which is a futile task really considering our ideal beauty is unrealistically airbrushed; see here for a short film on this issue).  Wolf calls this our ‘third and fourth shift’, and claims it keeps women busy with looking pretty which means they have no time to politically organize themselves and claim their rights.

But this restrictive notion of ‘beauty’ is doing more than take up our time and money. It’s keeping us from fully owning our bodies. Make no mistake, this is not a new phenomena. As any veteran feminist will tell you, fighting to keep ‘our bodies, ourselves’ is a struggle that has been going on since the late 60’s. and yet here we are, decades later, fighting the same battle with the only ammunition we have – our common sense! Let’s hope it prevails.

Keshet Bachan

Pretty Goddamn Awful

Today TrustLaw published a survey they conducted with over 230 women’s rights activists to try to determine the most dangerous place to be a woman (disclosure: I participated in this survey). The results showed that the worst place in the world to be a woman is Afghanistan, closely followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo (you’re allowed to snort derisively at this use of the word democratic), then Pakistan, India and Somalia. The survey received positive media attention propelling the issues of violence and discrimination against women to the top of the international agenda (for a short while at least). Generating global media interest in violence against women is not an easy task and I would like to applaud TrustLaw for this great result.

Of course, critics of this survey were quick to point out their reservations. In this piece in The Salon, columnist Natasha Lennard questions the basic methodology and validity of the survey pointing out that TrustLaw gives no information about who these women’s rights activists are and how they were selected. She also claims it is not clear from the survey questions posed what was meant by the use of words like ‘rape’ and ‘domestic abuse’ saying these can take on “many forms”. Maybe this is why TrustLaw approached experts for their survey? Cause you need at least a PhD in Gender and 20 years in the field to understand what rape means. Not.

The article also questions the framing of the survey which uses the word ‘danger’ in such a way that it “was always going to point to Non-Western countries as the most dangerous for women”. Lennard then recommends Lila Abu-Lughod’s article ‘Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving’ and ends her piece by suggesting the survey was both racist and culturally insensitive.

Let’s take a moment and think about how unfair it is that a survey is saying Afghanistan is a terrible place for women. I mean, it’s not like life for women in Afghanistan is worse than it is in France or Argentina, right?!?

Oh, no, wait a minute!

Yes it is.

In fact, abuses against women in Afghanistan are pretty goddamn awful.

So women’s rights activists felt the need to name the country and shame it into taking action.

So what?!

Women’s rights are non-negotiable, they don’t end when conflict begins, they don’t bargain with culture and religion, and they sure as hell don’t pack their bags and leave cause someone calls them ‘insensitive’.

I haven’t read Abu-Lughod’s article, but I’m guessing the answer to her questions is: ALL women really need saving. Nowhere in the world are we safe from violence, abuse and discrimination. But you know what? some places are much (much) worse than others.

It doesn’t even matter if the survey is scientifically accurate or not.

It’s a wake up call!

The survey is telling us that not enough is being done, not enough is being said, and not enough people are taking action to prevent abuses against women. The survey is pointing out to a terrible tragedy that we don’t care about at all. And instead of being horrified by the reality of everyday life for girls in Somalia, who have a higher chance of dying in childbirth than they do of completing secondary school, Lennard cries ‘racism’.

Well, I for one am glad that someone had the nerve to carve a small space for women out of a busy male controlled media agenda. Even if maternal mortality in Sierra Leon is worse than it is in Afghanistan and more girls are trafficked in China than they are in India. At least the conversation has begun, and it’s being conducted within a strong legal rights framework which is a rare treat in this day and age of instrumentalist (‘gender equality is smart economics’) arguments.

Keshet Bachan

Lived Experience

That’s a term we used a lot during my gender masters studies. It basically means that as a researcher you acknowledge that the first hand account of someone living in a minority or oppressed group is a valid form of knowledge. As a gender equality researcher I find myself using this term when discussing case-studies, ethnographic interviews or any other small scale evidence gathering exercises.

Although donors love the big numbers, anyone with an ounce of sense knows that people living in poverty don’t think of themselves as belonging to the ‘lowest quintile of wealth’. The same is true for girls growing up in a culture that forces them to marry early or denies them the opportunity to go to school. These girls experience discrimination, but don’t necessarily think of themselves as disadvantaged or even abused. In many ways grouping them under one indicator, such as early marriage, is simply a categorization that doesn’t do justice to the many intersecting identities and pressures and cultures and issues that they experiences growing up as girls. Therefore, as a feminist researcher, it is important to delve into the ‘world’ of your research subject and to accurately portray the many layers that make up their lives and their choices.

At the same time I find myself falling into the trap of ‘killer facts’ all the time. The big numbers, the millions and tens of millions; the out of schools, the FGM victims, the living on the street, the maternal mortalities; you name it. And more often than not as a researcher in a large NGO I’m asked to generate these facts. I’m told that a quote is not evidence. That a story can add color, and ‘hey even policy makers at the World Bank are people, right?’ But it’s not proof. So I spend my time running after household surveys and school based questionnaires. And people, children, boys and girls, become ‘target groups’, and they stop being real. They are a number, a fact, a case.

And then I get an email, on Saturday morning, telling me one of our research subjects has had a terrible accident. She drowned in a river and her father couldn’t get there fast enough to save her. She was only five.

This girl had a voice. And she used it to tell us her story. It was a story of a loving family, struggling with poverty. It was a story of a small girl who couldn’t wait to start school and who loved playing with her friends by the river. And I dare anyone to tell me her story is not evidence. And her words are not proof.

Keshet Bachan

This guest blog post was written by Fabiola, a 17 year old girl from Cameroon who flew (for the first time in her life!) to NY to participate in the 55th UN Commission on the Status of Women. Fabiola was part of a Plan led Girl Delegation which took part in high level panels, side events and caucuses. This post appears complete in its original format. you can read another girl-delegate blog here.

 

I am called Fabiola; I am 17 years old and first child out of three and the only girl. I come from Cameroon and from a rural area where girls faced a lot of problems when it comes to children’s participation. I was very happy and excited when I was chosen in our YETAM (Youth Empowerment through Technology, Arts and Media) project to represent my school, community, Plan and Cameroon as a whole in New York City to speak out during the 55th session of the UN conference on the Commission of the Status of women.  One thing I was scared when I was still in Cameroon was the plane because I always hear of plane crash and I was not courageous but when we had to enter the plane, I prayed very hard. When the plane was to take off my heart bit very fast like I met a masquerade and as the plane fly higher I felt better since I adapted to it. I had so many experiences in the plane because I always heard that there is a toilet in the plane but saw it physically. In all, it was a great experience travelling by plane.

We arrived in New York City on the 18th February 2011 at exactly 12noon. I could not imagine myself being in New York for 01 week with the snow and cold. When we took a car I felt a little better and safely we were in UN Millennium Plaza Hotel where we were lodged. We met with Kate Ezzes the Youth Engagement Manager from Plan USA at the Hotel and she facilitated our booking.  There were about seven different countries who were to come to US but we the delegation from Cameroon were the first to arrive New York. It was fun eating American food for the first time.

My experience in New York City was quite different from my real life because I got to learn and know so many things. I was the first girl who had to speak in the event out of 14 girls because their presentation was to start on Monday. My first presentation was not that easy because I was nervous but had courage and self esteem since I had experience presenting in other events at local and national levels in my country. However, this was my first time to participate in an event out of my country. I became excited at the end of my first presentation which took place on Sunday 20th. I gained self confidence because everyone was impressed with the way I presented and I also let the voice of young people especially girls to be heard. This gave me courage to take part in so many side events where I had to talk from my own experience on the participation of girls in ICTs (Information Communication and Technology), Science and Mathematics.  I met with girls from different parts of the world during the side events where I learnt many things on their perception of girls in ICTs, which was very different from mine. I got to know from the girls that there are different problems faced by girls in their society. I got to know their manner of approach. It was a great pleasure meeting with girls from around the world. 

I was happy taking part in different side events because it was through this opportunity that I had to meet with important personalities from different NGOs like Plan International, Unicef and Girls scouts at Unicef building. I never knew that, attending the United Nations conference was a great opportunity for me which has made a great difference in my life. I can better express myself in public with no fear. I will continue through our YETAM project to advocate on the right of girls and also encourage the participation of girls in ICTs, science and Mathematics in my school and my community. Through this conference, I got to know so many great people like the Canadian Minister, the development officer of the United Republic of Tanzania, Grace Mwangwa just to name a few. I think this conference has made a great difference in my life which I will live to remember.        

Fabiola

You can also see Fabiola speak on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/user/UNGEI#p/a/u/1/_zEfWX7RIOw

United We Stand

This rather angry blog post lambasting Plan’s use of pink and other hyper-feminine symbols was published recently in ‘This Magazine’ (Canada). I’ll say right off the bat in case someone is eagerly expecting a passionate defence: I won’t use this space to justify Plan’s marketing decisions. Actually I’m quite happy for people to engage in a healthy debate on marketing messages; especially those who intend to change social injustices through fundraising (see here for my blog on the ‘the girl store’). I would, however, like to use Wendy Glauser’s analysis to talk about an issue that goes to the very heart of the feminist movement:

Radical Feminism vs. Liberal Feminism.

Radical feminists believe that change will only come from completely dismantling the hegemonic patriarchal social system. This is epitomized by Audrey Lorde’s famous essay (1979): “Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that…the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

Liberal feminists on the other hand are very happy to use the master’s tools against the master. They believe that you can subvert the system from within through political and legal reform. Catharine MacKinnon is a good example (2007): “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines what a human being is. In 1948, it told the world what a person, as a person, is entitled to. It has been fifty years. Are women human yet?…If women were human, would we have so little voice in public deliberations and in governments in the countries where we live? Would we be hidden behind veils and imprisoned in houses and stoned and shot for refusing? Would be beaten nearly to death, and to death, by men with whom we are close? Would we be sexually molested in our families? Would we be raped in genocide to terrorize and eject and destroy our ethnic communities, and raped again in that undeclared war that goes on every day in every country in the world in what is called peacetime? If women were human, would our violation be enjoyed by our violators? And if we were human, when these things happened, would virtually nothing be done about it?”

And so we hear this debate echoed everyday. For some of us the only way to affect real change is through a radical political movement (through, according to Glauser, ‘sabotage…mobilization…disruption’). For others the best way to really change lives is by using the only tools we have, the language of human rights or the color pink, to try and change hearts and minds. Both methods are needed and both can co-exist side by side.

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day. I would like, for at least 24 hours, to see all feminists stand together in solidarity and respect, compassion and friendship.

For if we won’t support each other then surely the master has already won.

Keshet Bachan

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