It Takes A Village To Change A Girl’s Life

I am a Black African woman living in the United States. But I remain deeply rooted and connected to my family and society in Zimbabwe. Thus, I navigate between two worlds where issues of gender, race, and class intersect in different ways. Today, on International Women’s Day, middle- and upper-class women in the western world have much to celebrate: higher levels of education, increased participation in the workforce, greater representation in political spheres, and increased earning power.

But this is certainly not true for all women in the United States. Native American, African-American, Asian, and Latino women—especially those who are poor—face many barriers that prevent them from enjoying the rights, choices, and privileges that have become the social norm for White women in America.

Globally, the struggle to realize women’s rights remains difficult and complex. Oppression and discrimination against women and girls is pervasive in many societies. Women are more likely to be poor and illiterate. They are subjected to violence, economic discrimination, lack of access to reproductive health services, and harmful traditional practices. Many do not decide when they marry nor when they will have their first child. They often don’t have a choice about how many children they will bear. They remain on the margins of political and civic life, often confined to the domestic domain.

What's It Like To Be A Vulnerable Woman in Africa?

In Africa, women bear their own particular set of burdens. According to recent studies, they provide approximately 70 percent of total agricultural labor, growing about 90 percent of all food. They work grueling hours under difficult and physically demanding conditions. They walk long distances to fetch water. They toil to collect firewood. And on top of all of this, because most women work in the informal sector, they are deprived of any social safety net protections that formal employment would provide.

Adolescent girls in African societies are also marginalized and disenfranchised because of their gender, their youth, and their social status. They bear the burden of caregiving and household chores. They are more likely to never have received formal schooling and to be pulled out of school because of economic hardship.

In fact, only 67 percent of girls have access to primary education, and only 51 percent are literate. Often married off at an early age, young girls bear children before they are physically, emotionally, and socially mature to become mothers. Many die due to pregnancy- or childbirth-related complications. Traditional and customary law still discriminates against girls and women, who are less likely to inherit equal shares of their parents’ or husband’s property.

Women and girls also bear the burden of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 76 percent of the young people living with HIV are female. Their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS is fueled by risk factors that are embedded in unequal gender relations, and unequal access to resources, as well as a lack of assets, and income-earning opportunities. Their lives are all too often shattered by physical and sexual abuse. Orphanhood only magnifies their vulnerability.

Changing the Patterns of Abuse and Marginalization

The successful transition from adolescence to adulthood for girls is imperative for the future of African societies. Education and economic empowerment are critical to that process.

Research has shown that more schooling is correlated with positive outcomes, including marrying at a later age, lower reproductive rates, and healthier and better-educated children. Education also gives girls the confidence to negotiate sexual relations, determine the terms of marriage, and have greater control of childbearing-related decisions. Access to economic livelihood skills during her teenage years reduces a young girl’s dependency and empowers her to make choices about her life.

Through our decade of experience providing support to community-based organizations (CBOs), Firelight is learning about the strategies and programs that CBOs use to transform the lives of adolescent girls within their families and communities.

Many CBOs do not set out with the explicit objective to empower girls. But in the process of responding to the needs of vulnerable children, they come face-to-face with the marginalization and vulnerability of young girls. First, community organizations embark on more fully understanding those challenges, and then they start developing specific strategies and programs to reach girls, engage them, and support their development.

In fact, our September 2009 grant docket shows that Firelight grantee-partners are supporting more girls (60 percent) than boys. We were also surprised to learn that our grantees are using most of our education-related funding to support girls’ enrollment in secondary school. It became clear to us that these CBOs are proactively tackling the social and cultural forces that impede girls’ progress and are leading the charge in efforts to change girls’ lives.

Mary & Tumaini

I am reminded of this each time I visit our grantee-partners and sit with women and young girls who share their stories of pain and triumph. On a recent trip to Tanzania, I met Mary and her young daughter, Tumaini (not their real names; “Tumaini” means hope). Mary’s husband died of an AIDS-related illness and left her with a daughter and son. In their particular ethnic group, traditional law dictates that Mary automatically becomes the wife of her brother-in-law. He not only “inherits” Mary and her children, but all of the material wealth that Mary and her husband accumulated during their marriage.

Mary refused to follow the tradition, knowing that if she married her brother-in-law, she would be forced to have more children (who would be privileged above the children from her first marriage). She wanted a better life for herself and for her children.

But there were consequences for her choice. Her in-laws took her cattle and goats. They also tried to force her off the land where she had a house and fields to grow food. Worst of all, they beat her up in front of her children.

So Mary turned to Firelight grantee-partner, Yatima Kwa  Wazazi (YAWA), a small community-based organization in a village on the outskirts of Arusha. The staff helped Mary to get legal aid so that she could keep her house and land. While they were not able to recover the livestock, they gave her two goats to give her a new start. Community members helped Mary and her children till their fields and plant maize and cassava so they would have food.

YAWA is supporting her teenage daughter and her young son to attend school. They are also providing them with counseling and mentoring. YAWA has built a strong network of support around this family, and as a result, Mary and Tumaini are finding the strength to heal and overcome the mistreatment and trauma they‘ve suffered.

Mary’s choice was not an easy one. She knew it would be difficult for her to challenge long-held cultural practices without support. With only a primary school education, she has limited options for earning an income and providing for her children. Through her tears, she told me, “I don’t know where I would have gone if it was not for YAWA. I don’t know what would have happened to my children.”

I cried with Mary and Tumaini that day. I know that many other vulnerable women and girls have not been so fortunate to have the support that they received from YAWA.  Some have lost their lives; others lost their children.

I told Mary that the courage she had shown was important not just for herself, but for Tumaini, as well as other women in the village. Her mother’s decision opened up new possibilities for Tumaini: an education; the prospect of employment rather than marriage at a young age; and the courage to say no to cultural practices that oppress rather than empower.

Grassroots Support of Women & Girls

There are countless other stories that I can tell about how Firelight’s grantee-partners are changing the lives of women and young girls every day. They are not only empowering individual girls—they are building the confidence of a generation of young women across Africa.

One example is that of Elimu, Michezo Na Mazoezi (EMIMA), which uses sports to help young people stay in school and to educate them about HIV/AIDS. Their program is building leadership skills and self-confidence of young people. When EMIMA noticed that girls were under-represented among these youth leaders, they reached out to other organizations to help them strengthen their girl-focused youth and sports activities.

EMIMA planned and conducted a series of leadership seminars for adolescent girls and developed a special program to train girls as peer educators. By working closely with girls, EMIMA came to understand the need to support their economic empowerment. Firelight funding from the Nike Foundation’s Grassroots Girls Initiative enabled them to start an economic empowerment program for girls.

As we pay tribute to the struggle of women and girls around the world to have their rights acknowledged and realized, we must also pay tribute to their many strengths. I am humbled by the millions of women and girls who overcome so many obstacles and challenges each day. And as a daughter of Africa, I am also powered by their resilience, hope, and creativity.