I have never met greater athletes then the women in Maasailand. They possess superpowers, I swear. Every single day I wake up and know they are travelling to school from miles away in plastic flip-flops. Yet they never even break a sweat, wrapped in a rainbow of cloths of energy as they come down our dusty driveway. I watch them carry heavy buckets of water and awkward bundles of firewood with perfect posture on their head, all the while giggling and gossiping and acting as if it were nothing more than an early morning stroll. And I watch young girls, hardly six years old carrying their brother and sisters on their backs like a backpack and care for them like a well seasoned adult, changing their clothes, wiping their tears, feeding them sweet mangos or biscuits if they cry. I watch these women have babies, carry babies, cook the food, keep the house and make money they can to support the family: all without Starbucks, Asics, or basic human rights. They run this town. A smart African lady told me recently, “I consider a child an orphan if their mother dies, even if their dad is still around. The mamas are the one’s who get things done.” My god, what women could accomplish if we gave them some level playing ground.
This isn’t a very fashionable topic; I know that, it’s like high waisted jeans: kind of awkward to explain and often comfortable. We talk about it way too much and often blow it out proportion or take it to the extreme. It’s the second worst F word the first worst headache and the sole reason counting sheep doesn’t allow me to fall asleep at night. In America, it looked like beautiful friends who were lawyers and real estate agents with advanced degrees comparing their pay to male counterparts and being silently dismayed at the discrepancy. In Africa today, it looks like a pregnant child sitting outside the gate of the school with tears on her cheeks because she is no longer permitted to step foot on the property. A lot of people like to say “Feminism” when describing a solution to this plague we created ourselves. I just prefer calling the solution it “equality.”
I stray away from that “other F word,” because like all big ideas, the extremists have made it seem… well…. extreme, and that is not the image I am going for. I am a fairly feminine woman. I like to shave my legs and get pedicures and prefer my men to resemble NFL players. Yet there has yet to be anything on this whole planet that has me more frustrated than the fact that restrictions are put on women because, well, they are women. Restrictions have been placed on girls all over the world that are so strange and confusing it will make your head spin. Solutions to gender problems that are so outlandish that you will stand under the African sun and throw rocks at the cloudless sky; because that solution is just as fruitless and ridiculous as the solutions posed. Bear with me. It gets more interesting and less predictive.
Perhaps it was just my situation in America, but the inequalities were a little less blatant. I went to college and got a job with benefits on the first interview. Fast forward two years from my first big-girl job, and I sit in an office in East Africa with a crying child, slowly nodding her head that yes, she was, indeed, pregnant. Furiously shaking her head no, she did not want to be with that man, and yes, she did try to stop it. Words couldn’t come but she continued to answer in head nods: Yes, she knew there were other girls in the village who had babies, and yes she knew that they turned out okay. No she didn’t know where the father had gone, and no, no, no, she hadn’t even met him before.
Words finally came when I asked how she was feeling; “I’m sad and mad because I want to go to school!” And that’s a fair answer. It’s definitely worth using words to express. I know this isn’t just an East African thing. I know that all over the world the choices of men prevent girls from finishing high school, college, or in this particular case: fifth grade.
Tanzanian law requires that pregnant elementary age children be not allowed on school grounds or property. This not only prohibits them from coming to school and furthering their education before they start “showing,” but also encourages girls to keep it under wraps (i.e. tell as few people as possible about the rape and/or pregnancy) so they can continue to go to school. That not only prevents adequate care to be given to the new mama, but lets young men get away with things like getting a fifth grader pregnant and peacing out.
And it is a sad and frustrating world to live in, and my generally glass-half full overall optimistic personality knows enough to say that we will probably not see the end of girls too young for sex or bras having babies, at least not in my lifetime. But my optimism will stand up enough to say that perhaps we do see a way to continue these girls to continue their lives and their dreams (conversely, their education) regardless of this new heartbeat. But maybe that’s too positive. Maybe that’s living in a Lisa Frank world.
The law is weird and confusing so I asked a teacher about it here at school one day. She upheld the law as fact, although I’m sure she had some hidden opinions about it. “It’s so other children do not see a student and think its ok to get pregnant at that age,” she explained gently. As if being a fifth grader and being a female was equivalent to playing with fire. As if growing up was a risky choice she had made without consideration of the consequences. As if another student would see the sad eyes of this precious girl who now has two lives to care for and wish the same thing for herself.
This wasn’t the first time I had heard about an institutions encouraging “moral behavior,” through eliminating women. It happens in America, too. I had several friends at different private colleges explain that unwed pregnant girls were asked to leave the university. It’s the same thought process: if we had them around, we would be condoning immoral behavior. I understand the basis of the argument, I do. I am not here to argue what is moral or immoral in the eyes of God, your grandmother, Africa or America. What I am here to argue is that we are punishing 50% of the population for an issue that that is affecting 100% of the world. I’m not sure about you, but I have never passed any test while pursuing 50%.
I am challenged here today to find a balance between my first hand experience in East Africa, and the overall truth of how one woman carries the weight of a two-person action. Village elders gathered around our sweaty and windless office to discuss the situation of our beautiful pregnant fifth grader, and, I was hoping, to be on the lookout for a man who had cost a girl her education and her childhood. The meeting didn’t go as I expected. “We’ve noticed she has been hanging around the school a lot, after hours,” an elder announced, “This is obviously against the rules and needs to stop immediately.” Our girl wrung her hands nervously.
He added in his solution for the problem we came to discuss, “We aren’t going to talk the men. This is a woman’s problem.” He threw in what he considered a fair compromise for all of the ladies out there: “But we will talk with the mothers’ of the village on how to better prevent ‘unwanted attention’ from men.”
And this right here is the most mind bending, irrational, bold faced universal lie that I have seen circulated from Colorado foothills to East Africa’s desert: that women’s problems are solely the result of women’s action and can therefore be eliminated solely by women. This is fairly equivalent of calling deforestation the problem the trees need to solve. Risk of extinction an issue for the rhino to figure out. If we want these problems resolved we don’t tell the tree to grow a thicker trunk or the rhino’s mothers to teach their kids how to fight off “unwanted attention.” The victim cannot be the sole resolver. What we are looking at right here is a good old-fashioned joint effort. That joint effort is the terrifying second worst f-word equality I am talking about.
I think people hear concepts of women’s rights and think “anti-man,” but that couldn’t me more incorrect. We need those guys around to get things done in the human rights game. And putting some of the ownership on men to help women reach their fullest potential by no means women are off the hook. It is now more than ever women must figure out how to be the street smartest, hardest working, creative thinking, opinion forming, confidence wielding bad asses that the world has ever seen.
Perhaps this isn’t so much a call to action as it is a call to awareness and imagination. Awareness of how heavy inequity still is today, no matter what country you live in. And enough imagination to see the global warming fixers, cancer curerers, conflict mediators, and disease eliminators we would create if we let girls stay in school when the unexpected arises. My only request is to think about it, talk about, cry about it, be mad about it. Tell your sons, daughters, yoga teachers and dentists. Because first you think then you talk then you do. And that’s when the magic happens.
NOTE: If you are interested in finding out about how YOU can directly impact women’s rights and education in East Africa, email me and lets chat! firstname.lastname@example.org