Moving Beyond One Day for the Girl Child

More than one day is needed to affect gender equality and ensure promising futures for our girls. To realize these goals we must consistently dedicate ourselves to restructuring our societies and actively demanding justice and equal opportunity in every sector for all girls and women.

October 11, 2014 marked the 3rd International Day of the Girl Child (IDGC) and around the world the day was celebrated with marches, speeches, and the airing of documentaries. New audiences were introduced to some of the horrors that are buzz topics in the current feminist movement, including gender-based violence (GBV), female genital mutilation/female genital cutting (FGM), child marriage, and pay inequalities.

Through this exposure, some people may have gained a new understanding of the pressing issues confronting girls and women around the world. This new knowledge has the potential to motivate previously apathetic persons to temporarily get involved, most commonly by making monetary donations to one of the organizations dedicated to women’s and girls’ rights. This is not a bad thing, given that most forms of gender inequality are stubbornly rooted in poverty and unequal power distribution. But we need more than one day to right the myriad of injustices faced by girls and women around the globe. One day and a handful of fragmented stories cannot provide even a foundational understanding on the realities faced by girls and women around the world as their human rights are systematically assailed one by one. Therefore, it would be unwise to assume that dedicating one single day to these issues, in large part a gesture of tokenism, will necessarily lead to a revolution or even modest long-term gains.

As the 2014 IDGC fades behind us, we must renew our commitment and investment to recognizing the realities of gender discrimination that exist every day of the year.

Proponents of IDGC will espouse this day for how its recognition has markedly increased attention received by global issues of gender inequality. Increasing attention around these issues is important but it is not new. Some advocates claim that before the inaugural event in 2012, girls’ challenges weren’t on the minds of world leaders or the international community. This however is not true.

In 2009 there was the International Girl Child Conference at the Hague, three years before the inaugural namesake day was instituted. Before this, the world’s leaders had signed on to a number of different international treaties committed to ensuring gender equality, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979 and ratified in 1981, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989 and ratified in 1990, and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action which was presented at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995.

These are important documents, unfortunately recognizing gender injustice has not led to appropriate action. For example, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action has been considered a landmark international agreement for the advancement of women’s and girls’ rights. Yet for the past 20 years the international community has failed to come together for a promised Fifth World Conference on Women and has equally failed to reach many of the targets set forth in the Platform for Action.

Rather than writing bold new promises, we need to recommit to existing targets and make sure that our actions and investments match the strength of our words.

Gender discrimination continues to flourish in countries and cultures around the world, equally proliferating in both public and private spaces. Today we hear about girls and women being raped and assaulted in public view, from Tahrir Square and the streets of Delhi to college campuses and high profile couples. Our outrage momentarily spikes with each new story but then dims too quickly, permitting our complacency. Our inaction has allowed the violence faced by women to continue and in some areas increase, in spite of taking place under the public’s watchful eyes and amidst public condemnations. World leaders and international organizations are misled when they claim that these topics require greater awareness, we have to move beyond awareness. What they require is a stronger commitment to action, a larger investment of capital and resources, and greater accountability.

As Jody Williams, a political activist known for her outspoken role defending women’s rights, put it “I believe that worrying about the problems plaguing our planet without taking steps to confront them is absolutely irrelevant. The only thing that changes the world is taking action.” (NPR, 2006)

While females across the global north celebrated the IDGC and the media filled with images of privileged activists such as Emma Watson, we must ask ourselves how the occasion serves the girls that it is meant to recognize. I live and work in rural, eastern Uganda where IDGC was ushered in silence rather than through celebration or activism. Sadly, there was no promotion of this day and the local girls and women passed their time working in the same underappreciated roles that they always do. It is in communities like these that we must bring the message of hope and opportunity: the promise of the girl child. We must not allow cultural norms, societal practices, or insufficient legal codes to serve as an excuse for failing to address gender discrimination. Instead we must finally employ the international treaties that have been in place for decades and recognize women’s rights as human rights, inherently held by all regardless of gender, nationality, race, age, religion, or cultural beliefs.

While action is needed, it must be born in mind that there are school children that have not learned about or celebrated IDGC. The global development community must take notice of this. The silence in some classrooms on days such as this is deafening. This silence must affect our understanding of the progress being made on girls’ education, which has been lauded by many as the single greatest means of effecting gender equality. But where education remains layered in gender stereotypes and entrenched in institutionalized inequities, it will not provide an autonomous panacea.  We need to shift from measuring progress of girls’ universal educational attainment based strictly on enrollment numbers, to a qualitative understanding that considers attendance rates, gender sensitive curriculums, and the level of equality promoted by teachers within the classroom.

Despite some of the progress in the promotion and visibility of IDGC there are still major issues. While women’s rights activists in the West are invited to galas and fundraisers, the majority of women continue on in their everyday lives silenced, overlooked, and undervalued. This day must lay equal value to the labor and rights of nameless domestic workers as it does to new Nobel Peace Laureate Malala Yousafzai. As world leaders emphasize the importance of funneling girls into STEM curriculums to benefit their national economic growth plans, we must not forget that female empowerment cannot be directed by the needs of male heads of state. True gender equality requires providing women with the right to choose and pursue their own future, whether that be in engineering or child rearing. As societies we all have the responsibility to protect and support women throughout these pursuits, regardless of their choice.

It will not be enough to applaud ourselves for raising our voices one single day a year and then allowing IDGC to be filed away with the other 118 UN sponsored days of recognition. IDGC must become more than a daylong symbolic call to the streets. Instead it must be a clear demand to stay on the streets in solidarity until equality is realized in every nation, culture, classroom, and workplace.

In recognition of the third International Day of the Girl Child, let us call upon ourselves and the global community to increase our investment and commitment to ending all forms of gender inequality. Gender discrimination must be addressed regardless of its visibility or the cultural expectations that it is embedded in. Our awareness has been raised, now is the time to act.

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Abortion: Not Just A Statistic, But a Story.

At the Palais Des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, 2009, Photo By Alabera An Ran Zhao

It seems almost logical that I should write about abortion. This is a personal feminist blog and I have had two abortions.

I’m somewhat comfortable talking about them. When I’m not, it isn’t because it’s too difficult for me to share or that I become overwhelmed with emotions at the thought of unchosen motherhood; it’s because I know that I will inevitably be judged by the person in front of me.

My internalized judgment used to be the stigma of being only 26 and having already racked up two abortions on my membership card of the abortion club (which does not exist). My internalized judgement is pretty quiet now and I barely ever hear it speak up when I think about my experiences.

I used to feel like I had to defend my decision to have an abortion. I used to feel like I had to explain why I had an abortion. I used to feel like I had to say that it was a difficult decision. I will put it bluntly and say that it was never a difficult decision. Abortion was already my default decision before I had ever known I was pregnant. I did it because my life was more important to me. My potential was and is more important to me. I never would or will let anything preventable get in the way of my happiness, my health and my education.

I will not lie and say that I wasn’t affected by the abortions themselves. I was 21 when I had my first one. I had been having sex with an on and off boyfriend whom I loved more than he loved me. We had dated but broken up because he didn’t want to be in a committed relationship, so I said I was ok with keeping things casual. That relationship was incredibly damaging to my psyche. I just kept hoping he would eventually fall back in love with me while I spent hundreds of francs on lingerie, perfumes and short dresses.

I remember peeing on the pregnancy test stick, trying to avoid pee from splashing onto my hand while my heart pounded into my ears. Yup, I was pregnant. No, the pill does not always work. I made an appointment with my gynecologist immediately. I wasn’t too far along, only about 6 weeks. The actual moments leading up to the abortion were actually ok, I was a little scared but my father and sister were incredibly supportive. I got awesome drugs when I was in the fancy Swiss clinic and the not-boyfriend came to see me post-abortion when I was high as shit, which my sister recounted as being funny as hell.

The hard part was a few days later. I was bleeding a lot at home, the doctor told me this was normal, but I could tell it wasn’t. Despite this, I tried being a good little trooper, and I went to school just a few days later. Big mistake. I was in the cafeteria when I was feeling waves of pain in my uterus, it was so excruciating that it took my breath away. I called the gynecologist to describe what I felt, he told me to get to his office ASAP. My poor, panicked father came to collect me at the school nurse’s office where my mentor was rubbing my back while I rocked backwards and forwards trying to not pull my uterus out with my bare hands to throw it against the wall.

At the doctor’s office: quick sonogram and it turned out “they hadn’t aspirated everything out,” and I was experiencing contractions. So back to the clinic we went for round two, (I thought the swiss medical experience was supposed to be swift and precise).

I was injected with a lot of morphine upon arrival. I was shaking with the pain and the panic. They had trouble finding my vein for the general anesthesia, I was shaking too violently. The nurse tried my arm until that vein couldn’t handle it any longer, and then she started poking my bony little hand. I was freezing I think, but the needle was finally in and they wheeled me into a room, put my legs in stirrups and had me inhale the precious gases which tucked me away into darkness.

Why am I telling you all the gory details? Because despite having had a pretty tough experience with my first abortion, I do not regret my decision. I made the right one.

I will spare you the long and drawn out details of my second abortion which I had here in Philadelphia in 2012. But I wanted to describe to you the relief of not being pregnant anymore: There was no guilt, there was no shame, (despite what the clinic protestors hurled at me), there was not a drop of regret. I was proud of my decision to keep marching the fuck on. I remember walking down Market street after a check up with a counselor at the clinic, I felt light and unencumbered by a weight that had previously been forcing me into the ground.

The second pregnancy took every single dose of happiness out of my life. I was deeply depressed and I wanted to kill myself. But having that second abortion gave me the chance to become the person that I am today and the person that I will become.

It is not for me to judge whether women should or shouldn’t choose abortion over any other choice available. We are women, we are nuanced, we have different experiences, upbringings and resources available to us. I made the right decisions for myself.

The road after each abortion wasn’t easy. I’ve had other things in life occur which have interrupted my undergraduate studies over the past 6 years. Today I am in a healthy relationship, I have someone who loves me for the person that I am, experiences and all. I am back on track with my studies, I am doing what I love doing and I am happy. I haven’t been able to say that in long time. I am really, truly happy. And it took me a while to get here, but it feels fucking awesome.

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Equality And Education: Teaching Women’s History

There is more than just one story, the history of women deserves to have its place in classrooms.

We are more than a special interests topic that you can take as an elective in a four year college. We are half the world. We have helped create the world we live and die in, and yet our stories go untold in high school classrooms across the world.

What does this show teenagers? That there is only one story that deserves its place in history books? That the perspectives and accomplishments of the patriarchy are the only ones worthy of teaching millions of children every single day? Do you not see that what we learn from our tenderest and youngest of years shapes our minds and turns us into the very beings who participate in public and private spheres? If a child, and subsequently teenagers and adults, only learn about the men of our histories, then that diminishes the equality, the accomplishments of women.

If the majority of the literature that we are taught in schools is from the canon, if women cannot identify or relate to the texts that they are assigned, then how can we progress? I remember feeling isolated and distant from the characters I read in books, was there no one like me? Am I not important? Are women not interesting? I am not saying that learning the works of Shakespeare, Wilde, Poe, Hemingway or Fitzgerald isn’t worthwhile, but that is an exceptionally narrow perspective of the world. And frankly, sometimes it’s a rather boring perspective of the world. There is a certain amount of shame felt when you read texts from the canon and you don’t understand or relate to them. It took me 10 years to realize that there was no shame in that. I can read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Jhumpa Lahiri and laugh, cry, love and smile page after page. I feel comfortable, I feel at home.

Joanna Russ, an American feminist writer stated rather poignantly in her essay, “What Can A Heroine Do?” that, “Culture is male.” She further supports her arguments by detailing how the canon and our Western literature follows a strict narrative form, common myths, and that when women are included, they are depicted as empty female archetypes. Russ then details the wonderfully titled “Bitch Goddess” archetype. The Bitch Goddess may not ring a bell by that name, but she has many incarnations for she is so very recycled. Bitch Goddess is, “a figure who is beautiful, irresistible, ruthless but fascinating, fascinating because she is somehow cheap or contemptible, who (in her more passive form) destroys men by her indifference and who (when the male author is more afraid of her) destroys men actively, sometimes by shooting them,” Russ writes.

So if history is dominated by white men and if our literature is overrun by female archetypes and male perspectives then it only makes sense for people to fear the voices of the oppressed. Why do you think people fear feminism? Why do you think women’s access to rights are constantly hindered? Why do you think women are paid less for equal work? Why do you think women are still expected to aspire to marriage and maternity? Why do you think women are demonized for their sexuality? Why do you think women don’t hold 50% of the political roles? Why do you think women are raped every single day?

Because as Russ said, “Culture is male.”

Women are not regarded as being equal to men because we are not taught that we are. Our culture perpetuates the myths and narratives that the patriarchy is comfortable with you absorbing. If you believe that women are weaker, dumber than you, then you don’t have to treat them with equal respect. If you believe that our world was built by men, then you don’t have to treat women like full human beings with inner-thoughts, personalities, dreams, ambitions, fears, quirks, secrets, habits, flaws, scars and stories.

It wasn’t until September 2014 that I started to really learn about the women who have helped create our society, the women who were brave enough defy the roles imposed upon them by their oppressors. I shouldn’t have only just found out about Noor Inayat Khan and her bravery during World War Two. I shouldn’t have only just leaned about Alice Paul and Lucy Burns and their fight for women’s right to vote. I should have been taught sooner about Audre LordeSojouner Truthbell hooksGloria AnzalduaEmma GoldmanMary WollstonecraftFlora Tristan,Adrienne Rich and more. Why wasn’t I? Because, “Culture is Male.”

I went to a reputable, private school in Geneva, Switzerland. Our education was diverse and thorough. I have considered myself a feminist for as far back as I can remember and yet I am disgusted that our curriculum focused almost entirely on the accomplishments of men. We were a nationally, ethnically diverse student body, yet approximately 90% of what we read was written by white men.

Women are not a special interests group. Students deserve to learn about women, read about women and read their perspectives. We cannot expect a progressive, feminist, post-racial society without teaching every student of the value of women and their contribution to the world.

It must become mandatory in every single school to teach students about the women who helped build our nations, helped nurture our cultures and move us forward into what we have today.

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Understanding privilege and ethnicity: A Personal Challenge.

 

(My parents on their wedding day, Nairobi, Kenya, 4 September 1987)

On paper, I am a minority. My mother is black: half Kenyan, half Indian. My father is white. My skin varies from being a light olive to 3-4 shades darker when I am tan. My hair is brown and naturally wavy-curly. My eyes are brown. I have somewhat non-caucasian features, but my heritage is pretty indecipherable.

On paper I am a minority, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that when you see me. I come from a upper middle class family, I grew up in Switzerland, I got to travel a lot and I speak fluent english and french. In person, I can perform whiteness. I portray European-ness. But I know nothing else.

For years I have struggled with my mixed ethnicity because I don’t feel either Kenyan or Indian at all. I visited Kenya multiple times, my mother regularly made us chapati and biryani and painted our hands with henna. But at school I hung out with my friends of whom 80% were white. I could eat hundreds of chapatis, but that didn’t make me feel more Indian. I could spend time with a Maasai tribe and bead colorful necklaces for tourists, but that didn’t make me feel more Kenyan.

I have struggled with my ethnicity because although on paper I am a minority, I wasn’t taught that I was. I wasn’t taught my mother’s cultures. I don’t know how to speak swahili or punjabi. This means that I cannot communicate with my grandmother and some of my relatives. I know little about being Kenyan or Indian, I have little in common with the maternal side of my family. My mother made me white, she denied me half of who I am.

This is a rupture of my identity. I only know my whiteness and I feel guilty about this. I hate that I can only perform whiteness.

I have been piecing together the ways in which my whiteness is a privilege, because understanding privilege is a good way to stop ignorance towards other minorities. Just because my mother is black does not mean that I have had the same experience as her. I cannot claim to understand the struggle of black women.

Learning about my privilege allows me to see the many incarnations of racism in the United States although it shelters me from experiencing systemic racism. The only forms of oppression that I have ever experienced are because of my gender.

I have however, experienced micro-aggressions based on my ethnic background, I have been told after I explained my heritage that,

“You’re lucky because you don’t look that black.”

Or the very common,

“You can’t be Swiss, you don’t look Swiss.”

Here in the US, people are sometimes uncomfortable when I reveal my non-whiteness or my Swiss nationality. All of a sudden I am not familiar, I am foreign, I’m not really American.

I am still absorbing the ideas of not quite identifying with my lost cultures but there are certain steps in my life that I would like to take in order piece together the bits of my life which I feel are missing.

In the following months and years I will be researching and reading about Indian and Kenyan feminism, I will read more literature from both too. I would like my ethnic background to help define my feminism. Who we are as people defines the goals we have and the changes we try to bring. Multi-ethnicity or bi-racial feminism is something that I am very excited to learn about and define for myself, and maybe some others too.

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Reflection on the murder of trans Filipina Jennifer Laude by a US Marine

 

October 17 was the Global Day of Action for Jennifer Laude, a Filipina who was murdered by visiting U.S. military forces in the Philippines.

Jennifer was a 26-year-old transgender woman killed by U.S. Marine, Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton on October 11 in Olongapo City. Mainstream media outlets immediately pulled out old slurs to create sensationalist headlines dehumanizing and blaming Jennifer for her own death. The exhibition of transmisogyny is easily captured in the vault of any internet news search on Jennifer’s death.  Read More »

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