Dreams From My Grandmother

By Olivia Curl, #GIRLWITHABOOK co-founder

This post is part of #GIRLWITHABOOK’s Expedition Granted Series. Please vote for our expedition proposal every day through 9/29 and spread the word! When you vote you’re standing up for girls and education world-wide. 

Vote Here: http://expeditiongranted.nationalgeographic.com/project/girlwithabook/

Sometimes I wonder why I feel so strongly about advocating for girls’ education. I know the statistics backwards and forwards. I can recite horrific data on child marriage, literacy rates, primary school enrollment broken down by gender, in my sleep. But as much as I’m a numbers nerd, data doesn’t make people “tick.”

I don’t have to look far for my inspiration, for I come from a line of female education fighters.

My grandmother Rose was born in 1934 on a tiny island, the most western point of Europe. She was the 14th child born to her 42 year old mother and 70-something year old father, though the 12th and 13th children both died in infancy. Both were also named Rose. When he went to get her baptized in the neighboring town, my great-grandfather had forgotten to ask my great-grandmother what to name my grandmother. Not wanting to walk all the way home, he had her baptized Rose, just as the other two babies before her, hoping that she too would “go to be with God” instead of growing up poor on the island. That’s the nice way of putting it. But my grandmother is a fighter and she was there to stay.

We are from an island called Flores, flowers in Portuguese. A rural island, then neglected by a dictatorial government, with little to no opportunity to move up in life without leaving the island. My grandma lost her dad at 3 months, her mother just before her 13th birthday. She didn’t own a pair of shoes until she was 10, but she dreamed of going to college. She would pour over catalogues showing the prestigious Coimbra University with their students milling about campus, wearing the traditional capes. My grandma dreamed of getting to wear that cape. She dreamed of college.

She completed the 5th grade, dreaming to continue on, but was unable to.

At 16 she married my grandfather, at 17 she immigrated to the US.

She lied about her age to get a job. Taught herself English by listening to the radio.

She lied about her age again to attend high school, but after a few magical years of learning (and joining the basketball and trampoline teams), she was pregnant with my uncle at the age of 22 and left school.

My mom was born when she was 26, and at the age of 30 my grandma was widowed when a log-mill accident killed my grandfather.

My grandmother went on to single-handedly put both of her kids through college, my uncle through law school too.

I’ve heard of nothing more from my grandmother than the importance of getting an education. She wasn’t able to get the degrees she dreamed of, but she transferred those dreams into her children and grandchildren. Thanks to my grandma, my mom and uncle were the first in our extended family (36 cousins in their generation alone) to graduate from college. In May of this year, I was her first grandchild to graduate from college. She always tells me that in my dreams for learning and travel I’m “doing exactly what [she] would be doing if [she] was my age.”

Olivia and her grandmother Rose, May 2014

Olivia and her grandmother Rose, May 2014

I’m thankful to have had such a strong woman advocating for my education in my corner, and I feel compelled to continue to direct that energy towards other girls who need someone rooting for them in their corner. This blog is a method of that encouragement, but it’s also a wake up call, a gentle but persistent nudge to those who had someone in their corner, to keep learning, to keep questioning, to keep working towards a world where all girls claim education as their right.

If you share in this hope of a world where education access is taken for granted by all, please vote daily for #GIRLWITHABOOK’s expedition proposal in National Geographic’s Expedition Granted competition. When you vote, you stand up for girls and education world-wide.

 

Rape Culture is Universal*

*Trigger warning: rape, rape culture, violence against women, glamorization of rape culture

Rape Culture. It’s everywhere. It’s in the way we speak, the way we walk. The ways we expect things of one another and excuse one another. It’s in how we look at the world, how we assign order to chaos, how we explain away inexcusable things.

The prevalence of rape culture is disturbing, it’s also nothing new. Nor are glamorized representations of assault in the media and in movies. None of it is okay, and yet (sadly) I’m rarely surprised when I stumble across victim-blaming, perpetrator-excusing specimens in our “modern” everyday lives. I’m always outraged, but these days “surprised” is not at the top of my platter of emotions.

Two things shook that up for me this week.

nhs rape posterThe first is a poster from the UK’s National Health Service. This victim-blaming poster was initially published in 2006. It reads “One in three reported rapes happens when the victim has been drinking.” Hmm. Not very consistent with the NHS’s (actually helpful and appropriate) guidelines regarding support for survivors of sexual assault: “If you have been sexually assaulted, remember that it wasn’t your fault. It doesn’t matter what you were wearing, where you were or whether you had been drinking. A sexual assault is always the fault of the perpetrator.” This last bit is spot on, but the poster, which ran as a part of the NHS’s 2005-2007 “Know Your Limits” campaign, plops blame squarely on the survivor’s shoulders. Not cool, NHS. A change.org petition has garnered over 100,000 signatures, but the government insists that it will not apologize. Thankfully, a blogger fixed the poster to a much more useful message:

rape poster fixed

Well done blogger friend, well done.

The second appalling slice of rape culture that came to my attention this week was a photo shoot done by Indian fashion photographer Raj Shetye. The shoot glamorizes a woman being leered at and assaulted by several men on a bus. That’s right, on a bus. 

rape_photoshoot_in_2998114bIn 2012 a female student was brutally gang raped after being lured onto a bus by several men. She died 13 days later in the hospital from her injuries. The incident caused a deserving uproar throughout India and the world and more and more attention has been focused on the status of women in India. Apparently Mr. Shetye thought that a bus assault would make for some cool symbolism, saying that “The aim is purely to create art that will garner public opinion about issues that concern women” and that the fashion designers were not credited because the shoot was not for commercial gain.

Personally, I’m with Nirmala Samant, chairwoman of the National Commission for Women, who told Agence France-Presse: “Any person with common sense will understand this is nothing but glorifying of violence.” If Mr. Shetye’s aim truly was to lend a voice to women through the medium he “knows best,” then perhaps a photo essay with consenting survivors would be more meaningful. Or perhaps lending his talents to domestic violence shelters. Or even offering to partner with local and regional governments to create rape prevention posters. I’ve seen the power of photography through my work with #GIRLWITHABOOK, and I wish that Mr. Shetye had chosen to use his talents in a way that moved the conversation forward towards preventing assault and supporting survivors.

That’s rape culture for you. It’s everywhere, regardless of your nationality, religion, or age, rape culture is pervasive. It’s so pervasive, that there are nearly always opportunities to fight it. Pay attention to your speech. Pay attention to what your family and coworkers say about violence. Pay attention to what children hear and teach them consent from an early age. Consent knows no gender, and respect is fundamental. These are powerful ways to change the conversation, which changes attitudes, which changes behavior.

After all, the only way to prevent rape is for people to choose not to rape other people.

 

Stand Up for Vulnerable Girls

Girl Summit.

1 in 7 girls in the global south will marry before the age of 18. That’s 14 million girls a year whose education will be cut short. Whose health will be put at a much higher risk. Who will not realize their full potential because they did not experience a full childhood.

I think about these data points a lot. Girls who are pregnant below the age of 15 are 5 times more likely to die in childbirth or from pregnancy related complications than women in their 20s. Five times. Under 15 years old. Babies having babies and dying because of it. I think about this often. But it’s not enough to linger on globally extrapolated abstractions. The numbers are important, but so are the stories.

Today, while officials meet in the UK to discuss (and theoretically commit to) ending child and forced marriages and female genital mutilation within this generation, let us turn our attention to Syrian refugees scattered throughout Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq. Child marriage is becoming commonplace in refugee camps and it’s reeking havoc on the region’s already vulnerable girls.

[Trigger warning: rape]

Students carry their chairs into a UNICEF run school in Zaatari Camp near Irbid, Jordan. Photo credit: http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2013/02/03/264213.html

Students carry their chairs into a UNICEF run school in Zaatari Camp near Irbid, Jordan. Photo credit: http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2013/02/03/264213.html

In Jordan, 1 out of 3 registered marriages among Syrian refugees between January and March 2014 involved children, and 48 percent of child marriages were between a girl and a man at least 10 years older than her.

Families say that the security situation in refugee camps makes their daughters vulnerable: men and teenage boys openly leer at girls in tents and shacks, there is no privacy, and waves of rape attacks scare families into marrying their daughters off. Single girls are perceived as targets for rape more so than married girls. We, also, cannot ignore the economic situation for refugees that makes child marriage seem like a more reasonable (?) option for desperate families.

Many girls are married to local men, and also men from the Gulf. These men essentially go “shopping” for brides in the refugee camps and offer families a “bride price.” Now, a little religion lesson for those of you less familiar with Islamic law and marriage. Money and gifts exchanged at the time of marriage are traditionally negotiated between the two families and are supposed to serve as financial assurance (and indeed, insurance) for the bride. To give her some financial autonomy and stability in the event of divorce or the husband’s death. However, in these dire situations of child marriage in refugee camps, the money goes to the bride’s family.

Families are financially desperate. They have already been through hell, and their futures are uncertain, unstable, and largely dependent upon social services from the UN and other relief agencies. Add the fear and severe cultural stigma of rape and assault and you have a storm ripe for desperate “solutions.”

In an effort to protect their daughters from rape, refugee families, who love their daughters and are scared, are arranging marriages between their young teenaged daughters and much older men. My thought: Is this not rape in and of itself? Forced marriages between girls who cannot legally or emotionally consent to sexual relationships, and who lack the emotional maturity and skill set to assert themselves within the relationship, to men who are typically much older, are acts of assault. Forced marriage is abuse. Removing girls from school is abuse. Placing them into relationships with an unequal power dynamic is abuse.

As with most things, there are no easy or one-stop-shop solutions. Rape and assault in the camps must be addressed. Security must be a priority for the agencies administering the camps. Girls who are married need to be reached with social services (even more difficult for those who marry local or foreign men and move out of the camps). And finally, the UN should incentivize school attendance for all children, making school attendance just as valuable as a marriage.

For we all know: education (especially for girls) pays dividends and dividends beyond the initial investment. It’s worth it. We need to let our girls learn, and we need to let them be girls.

 

Further Reading:

http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/jul/16/child-marriage-syria-refugees-jordan

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/17/syrian-mothers-child-brides

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/06/syrian-women-vie-few-jobs-lebanon-2014628103045288646.html

 

By Olivia Curl, contributor and #GIRLWITHABOOK cofounder

 

Just Admit It. You’re a Feminist.

I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard women talk about the importance of gender equality, fair pay, equal access to health, education, etc. and in the same breath say, “…but I’m not a feminist.” It sort of goes along the lines of those who start off their sentences saying, “I’m not a racist, but….” Come on. We all know those people are usually racist. However, in this case women shouldn’t deny being feminists. Being a feminist is a great thing!

I know you don’t believe me. So let’s analyze the various definitions of feminism.

Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending EQUAL political, economic, and social rights for women. This includes seeking to establish EQUAL opportunities for women in education and employment. (via Wikipedia)

1. the theory of the political, economic, and social EQUALITY of the sexes
2. organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests
Social movement that seeks EQUAL rights for women.
(via Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

If you didn’t catch the subtle hints I put in (with the use of the caps lock and bold), the key words in all this are equal and equality. Any decent human being out there believes that men and women are equal. And if they are not equal, then they most certainly should be. So why do we shy away from calling ourselves feminists?

It’s because that word has been dragged through the dirt and slime and mud. It’s been poisoned to the point that people think feminism means being anti-men. I have a father and a brother. I have male cousins and male friends. I have had male teachers and male colleagues.

How does it make any sense for me or any woman to hate ALL men?!

And feminism is not just for women. Any man can be a feminist. In fact, the average man most likely is. Check out this guy. He knows what’s up.

If there’s one thing you take away from this post, it should be this:

It’s time for us to take back the word feminism.

So don’t shy away from calling yourself a feminist. Be proud of it. Don’t deny what you already are.