Our Movement Was Made For This Moment {{VDay 2018}}

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One out of three women worldwide will experience physical or sexual violence within their lifetime. One in 3. 

The statistic alone is terrifying, yet in the wake of #MeToo, The Larry Nassar trial, pussy-grabbing Presidents and Weinstein’s ‘open secret’ in Hollywood, it is no longer that hard to believe.

Twenty years ago, when Eve Ensler wrote ‘The Vagina Monologues’, the mere utterance of the word ‘vagina’ was groundbreaking. When people wouldn’t even say the word, much of the truth about what happened to vaginas was repressed, denied, kept secret, and coated in shame and self-hatred.

Now, in the 20th year of the resulting VDay movement, people might ask if what we are doing is still relevant – are ‘The Vagina Monologues’ still relevant? My answer is yes, yes and yes. In fact, they couldn’t be more important at this time.

Over 51% of the world’s population has vaginas, clitorises, vulvas, and many to this day do not feel comfortable, familiar, free, or endowed with agency over them. Let’s remind ourselves of that statistic, shall we: One out of three women will experience physical or sexual violence in her lifetime.

For the third year here in Arusha, we are producing ‘The Vagina Monologues’ in a benefit production as part of the global VDay activist movement to fight violence against women and girls. Our beneficiary this year is the Network Against Female Genital Mutilation which works here in Northern Tanzania to eliminate all forms of FGM through information, awareness, and sensitization campaigns which target the grassroots and empower them to stop the practice. The magnitude and persistence of FGM continues to shock those who come across it, as it affects vulnerable girls by violating their child rights and entitlement to bodily integrity.  FGM is a form of gender-based violence and has been recognised as a harmful practice and a violation of the human rights of girls and women. According to the World Health Organisation, it is estimated that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in the countries where the practice is concentrated. Furthermore, there are an estimated 3 million girls at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation every year. The majority of girls are cut before they turn 15 years old. Like many African countries that practise FGM, there are significant regional variations in prevalence here in Tanzania. The regions of Arusha, Dodoma, Kilimanjaro, Manyara, Mara and Singida all have rates of FGM prevalence between 20-70%. Yes, 70%.

I sometimes wonder, in the midst of such statistics, if what we are doing is even making a difference. And then I will look at what VDay has done in the past 20 years, and what we have done here in Arusha in the past 3 years. VDay globally, since 1998, has raised over $100 million dollars for grassroots anti-violence groups, rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, and safe houses in places like Kenya and Afghanistan. V-Day supports and launched the City of Joy, a revolutionary center for women survivors of gender violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has graduated over 1000 women leaders. In over 100 countries, VDay activists have impacted their own communities, educating people in women’s rights, opening people’s eyes to the realities faced by women across the globe, breaking taboos and creating space to talk about that which has been kept in secret and hidden for centuries.

What we do makes a difference. What we say is relevant.

Our movement was made for this moment.

 

 

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Why Girl’s Education Matters…

When a girl has self-belief and is supported by her family and community; when she’s empowered with skills, ideas and knowledge; when she has access to services, role models and other girls: when she is visible and vocal – she can demand to stay in school, to get healthcare, and to get married and have children when she chooses.

This week I was faced with a piece of information that made me despair. The statement of a country leader that they would not allow teenage mothers to return to school to continue their education after the birth of their child.

Pregnancy during adolescence has been associated with school drop out among girls in developing countries for many years. In Tanzania, girls are often expelled from school when they are found to be pregnant. According to a 2013 report by the Centre for Reproductive Rights, over 55,000 adolescent girls were either forced to drop out or were expelled from schools because of pregnancy between 2003 and 2011. Although their research “revealed no national-level law, regulation, or policy explicitly requiring the expulsion of pregnant students”, they found a widespread belief among teachers, school administrators and education officials that this practice is required by law. Expulsion from school has a big impact on the lives of these girls. It decreases their likelihood of earning a good income. They are also often faced with stigmatization by their peers, parents and wider communities.

5e387a99383d23ec778be3d93eaf740aWhen girls are healthy and their rights are fulfilled, they can go to school, learn and gain the skills and resources they need to be healthy, productive and empowered adults – disrupting the cycle of poverty. In the last two decades, we have seen enormous advances in girls’ educational attainment at the primary level. However, girls in most regions, particularly the poorest and most marginalized, continue to fall behind at the secondary level.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights issues, especially gender-based violence and adolescent girls’ vulnerability to child, early and forced marriage, unintended pregnancy, and HIV and other sexually transmitted infections impede girls’ educational aspirations.

Here are some of the facts…

  • A significant proportion of girls become pregnant during the time that they should be in school: About 19% of girls in the developing world become pregnant before age 18, and about 3% become pregnant before age 15.
  • This is not just a Tanzanian issue. About one-third of girls in the developing world are married. In South Asia, nearly 50% of girls are married before age 18, and in Sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 40% are.
  • Not coincidentally, these are also regions where the gender gap is greatest between boys and girls at the secondary level.
  • Girls with no education are three times more likely to marry before age 18 than those with secondary or higher education.
  • Girls with only primary education are twice as likely to marry early as those with secondary or higher education.
  • Girls and boys often lack access to information and services that would improve their sexual and reproductive health and educational status. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South Central and Southeast Asia, more than 60% of adolescents who wish to avoid pregnancy do not have access to modern contraception.
  • Violence undermines access to school as well as learning. A recent nationwide study in Tanzania reported that three of every 10 Tanzanian females age 12 to 24 had been victims of sexual violence. Of these, almost 25% reported an incident while traveling to or from school, and 15% reported an incident at school or on school grounds.

investing-girls-quoteBy not allowing teenage mother’s to return to school after the birth of their child, a country is doing more harm to their economic prospects than good. Girls completing secondary  school in Kenya would add  US$27 billion to the economy over their lifetimes. If Ethiopian girls completed secondary school, the total contribution over their lifetimes is US$6.8 billion. If young Nigerian women had the same employment rates as young men, the country would add US$13.9 billion annually.

GIRL EFFECT: UNLEASH HER POTENTIAL
To start, give girls voice and listen. They’ll tell you what they need: all the skills, assets, and opportunities listed below.
1. Get girls through secondary school so they can participate fully in their communities and economies.
2. Provide designated girl spaces so every girl gets a running start to build networks, master skills, and share her voice.
3. Invest in the best solution to prevent HIV/AIDS and reduce maternal mortality: girls.
4. Incentivise communities to eradicate child marriage.
5. Give girls land rights to accelerate agricultural productivity and achieve food security.
6. Invest early so girls save money, build economic assets, and move from burdens to breadwinners.

 

“Women’s empowerment helps raise economic productivity and reduce infant mortality. It contributes to improved health and nutrition. It increases the chances of education for the next generation.”
― Nicholas D. Kristof, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

On ‘White Saviour Barbie’ and why the conversation matters…

You may have seen the Instagram parody account ‘White Saviour Barbie’ – a  satirical account of a 20-year old service volunteer in Africa, documenting her journey to save children through self-sacrificing selfies. 

The creators of @barbiesaviour have purposefully remained anonymous while maintaining the account, not only to make fun of their own experiences as volunteers in East Africa, but also to be used as a “jumping off point” for real discussion and conversation about the actions and impact of voluntourism. 

Barbie Savior lampoons the “white savior complex,” a term used to describe white Westerners who travel abroad to swoop in and “save” impoverished people of color in developing countries. The account tackles “the attitude that Africa needs to be saved from itself, by Westerners,” which Barbie Saviour’s creators call “such a simplified way to view an entire continent” that “can be traced back to colonialism and slavery”.

While there’s nothing wrong with volunteering where aid is needed, it’s important to critique the context of every situation and acknowledge the history of other regions (colonialism, slavery, White Man’s Burden). Volunteers need to make sure their actions help communities in tangible, responsible ways — and aren’t just driven by a desire to feel good about themselves.

That’s at the heart of what the Barbie Savior account mocks. These volunteers go out of their way to post selfies with kids they don’t know:

They volunteer to do work they aren’t qualified for: 

Although the creators don’t think they were ever quite as bad as @barbiesavior, they have said in interviews that the account came out of their own realisations from their experiences and actions in their years of being ‘White Saviour’ volunteers. 

Having seen and been a part of that very same thing during my experience of ‘voluntourism’ I can definitely not claim innocence! It is easy to see why young volunteers fall into this trap. You start to buy into the illusion that what you do in your 6 to 8 weeks on a project is actully making a difference or a long-term impact. Barbie Savior pushes against that. She’s an amusing way to add to the larger conversation about volunteer culture, and how to more effectively and appropriately deal with those feelings. 

Very rarely do volunteers look at what they are doing and realise that much of their behaviour is self-serving and, in some cases, harmful to the communities in which they are working. I live and work in East Africa as a (fully qualified, experienced) teacher  within a region-wide group of British International Schools. Within the town I live, on a monthly basis, I see groups of volunteers arriving then leaving, working on various short-term projects and behaving in much the same way as the @barbiesavior satirises. 

However, on the flip-side of this is the impact on the communities – and this is where the conversation that @barbiesavior generates is crucial. Are the volunteers actually providing any benefits to the destination countries? More often than not, the answer is unquestionably no.  Rather than benefiting local communities, voluntourism can have negative impacts, as revealed in a number of studies. These range from volunteers taking local jobs to child trafficking, where young children are stolen from their families and placed into ‘orphanages’ to fuel the demand for volunteer placements. These kidnapped children are then subjected to deliberately poor living conditions to elicit higher donations from visiting westerners.  Even within more carefully selected projects, there can be negative impacts – take school and orphanage projects for example. The long-term impact on the children that short-term unqualified volunteers work with can lead to attachment issues, inconsistency in care, and lack of good education due to being taught by unqualified teachers. Children themselves start to believe in the ‘white saviours’ – leading them to believe they are only worth handouts and starting the cycle all over again for another generation. Then there are the building projects, where volunteers come out to build a school, in spite of the fact that they have never set foot on a building site before that trip. Meanwhile, construction workers and local tradesmen within the towns and villages they are working are left without work and pay when they could be doing the work. Often projects build structures that are difficult to maintain in the long-run due to no consideration for availability of resources  or consultation with the local community on the long-term plans for the structure. 

“I spoke to one girl who went to Tanzania to build a school,” says Mark Watson, the Executive Director of Tourism Concern, a charity campaigning on ethical tourism issues. “She told me the volunteers always gossiped about how lazy the locals were because they slept for most of the morning. It was only at the end of the placement that they discovered that every day, after they finished building a wall, the locals had to come and rebuild it again properly. So the whole thing was a completely pointless exercise.”

While volunteering is absolutely not always a bad thing, it is important for people to think about how they could do it in a sustainable way and for people to be held accountable for their actions. Volunteers going overseas should ask themselves the question, ‘would I be allowed to do this work in my own country?’ If the answer is ‘no’, then don’t expect it to be any different elsewhere.  Volunteering abroad can be beneficial to all concerned if it is done right.  A carefully placed, thoroughly screened, well-prepared, skilled volunteer can – and does – have a positive impact. While @barbiesavior is a wonderfully amusing parody –  the discussion and conversation it provides is so very important.  

You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful. 

— Marie Curie