The Value of Our Girls

“Girls are one of the most powerful forces for change in the world: When their rights are recognized, their needs are met, and their voices are heard, they drive positive change in their families, their communities, and the world.

– Kathy Calvin, United Nations Foundation President & CEO

I picked up one of the books I am reading (one of 4…a bit ‘a.d.d.’ and usually have at least three going at once: the light read, the inspiring/self-helpish read, and always a memoir). I thought this one, The Underground  Girls of Kabul, by Jenny Nordberg, was fitting on the heels of last weekend’s epic demonstration to empower women.

I started a social enterprise, Briya Bags (www.briyabags.com), to help educate and empower girls and women around the world, specifically in developing countries and those in conflict. I have frequently been asked been asked why I feel compelled to help abroad and not focus on girls and women in my own country. I can’t say for sure. Maybe it is because I have traveled to some of the poorest countries in the world, where women have virtually no rights. (see blog post, “Women and Goats” under ‘My Congo Adventure’ blog). Poverty, lack of education, religious influence, and patriarchal views leave women to be treated as labor and a means to produce children, specifically boys.

Information below provided by Amnesty International:  http://blog.amnestyusa.org/africa/the-worlds-worst-places-to-be-a-woman/

Afghanistan ranks as the worst place in the world to be a woman. Women face daily physical and sexual abuse from insurgents and state forces. Schoolgirls are frequently attacked, as well as women who dare to venture out in public. Rape and domestic violence are rampant. 87% of Afghan women are illiterate, while 70-80% face forced marriage, many before the age of 16.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is ranked second on the list of the worst places to be a woman. The ongoing war has resulted in a brutal and strategic campaign of sexual violence targeted at women, from toddlers to the elderly”.

Armed militias and state forces notoriously carry out brutal gang rapes and use women in human trafficking.  An estimated 1,100 women are raped every day in the Congo. Survivors or women who manage to escape suffer social stigma in their families and communities. Or worse the suffer from fistula, a painful tearing of the wall between the vaginal and rectal canals. This leaves them unable to marry, bare children, and leaves them in tremendous pain for the rest of their lives.

All of these crimes against women go unpunished. There are absolutely no consequences.

I am presently not working directly with any organizations working in Afghanistan, but my partner, Marshall Direct Fund/MDF (marshalldirectfund.com) is working to educate girls and their communities in Pakistan, a country that has almost indiscernible discrimination against and repression of women and girls.

The founder of Marshall Direct Fund supports educational efforts in remote areas of Pakistan to ensure a future generation of critical thinkers with the skills to become meaningful economically contributing citizens. The impact of the last ten years of efforts can be seen and felt in the classrooms and on the faces of the students. No one seems to mind the overflowing classrooms, they’re just grateful for the access to free education and the hope afforded to break cycles of poverty. In comparison to previous visits,  the executive director, Jodi Foster, noticed the students sitting taller in their chairs, straighter, with more confidence, bright eyes, smiles, and stories that reflect hope that was not there before.

MDF’s holistic approach is one that I know is necessary to affect change. MDF provides education in these communities, not just for girls. Instead, they educate the community as a whole. They allow boys in the schools, but only if the girls are enrolled first. They go door to door and hold workshops to educate the fathers and mothers about the importance of education for their girls and that their girls are in fact valuable and precious and can make meaningful contributions to their families and communities.

Why does MDF have to do this?

A boy is status. A boy is good fortune. He is a source of pride, celebrated, and adored.

A girl is an embarrassment, a sign of bad luck. She is a source of shame, to be hidden and used as labor. A boy is a bacha, the word for child. A girl is the ‘other’: a dokhtar.

If a daughter is born…the new mother… will return to the village, her head bowed in shame, where she may be derided by relatives and neighbors. She could be denied food for several days. She could be beaten and relegated to the outhouse to sleep with the animals… (Jenny Nordberg)

It is not uncommon for a woman to have 10 children. If her first 7, 8, 9 are not boys, she is expected to keep trying until she ‘succeeds’.

Mothers usually don’t even get attached to their daughters, because they will inevitably be married off, usually by the age of 12, usually to an older uncle or man twice her age whom she has never met. Often, the family may never see her again. But the son? He will be with them for life.

“As a woman, you must shrink both your physical body and any energy that surrounds it, in speech, movement, and gaze.” (Jenny Nordberg)

This is not the case for every woman/girl or for every family. Families that are wealthy enough to have an education are usually more liberal-minded and encourage their daughters to get an education and engage in their society. There are in fact women doctors and politicians, but this is the exception and their rights are still extremely limited.

There have been various attempts reverse this and provide rights to women in Afghanistan. King Amanollah Khan attempted to assert rights for women in the 1920s…promoting the education of girls, banning selling them off for marriage, and putting restrictions on polygyny. The men were outraged and there was severe backlash.  They would lose future income if their daughters could no longer be sold or traded as wives. The king was eventually forced to renounce his throne.

So how do some of these families remedy their bad fortune? They turn one of their girls into a boy. Problem solved. This is often done at birth so neighbors and family will not know. But on occasion, a family might make the transformation when the child is older. And often times nobody even questions it or acknowledges it. It is understood as a necessary step towards status and power.

And what do these ‘girls’ do? They embrace it. This is their chance for freedom, for privilege, for an education, for more food and preferential treatment by all. This is her chance to go outside alone, to climb a tree or throw a ball, to laugh and play and be a child, while her sisters stay inside, do the chores, and wait to be married off.

But she too awaits this fate. These privileges will not last. When the ‘boy’ reaches puberty, he must turn back into a girl, and she must assume her responsibility to serve as a means of income or status, be married off…and provide sons for her new family.

All of this is not to say that there are not issues here in the U.S. that women face, life-threatening ones at that. I guess I just was so impacted by the fact that women in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Sudan, etc., have absolutely no rights and no resources- the reality that their social structures are so embedded, and their low status and objectification so ingrained. I feel compelled to do whatever I can to help them- through education, through activism, through supporting efforts at a grass-root level that are making an impact to change the beliefs, the system, rituals and cultural stigmas that are disempowering, even killing girls and women in these countries.

Am I making a difference? Will I make a difference?  I guess I might never know. But I have witnessed the difference that some organizations and their dedicated staff are making. So, that is my hope. I hope I can make a contribution, no matter how small, to support them in the work that they are doing. That is the hope.

If you want to help me and Marshall Direct Fund in our efforts, please visit:

Briyabags.com and Marshalldirectfund.com

*Please note: Marshall Direct Fund’s website is down and will be back up in a couple of days!

 

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