What do you see as hopeful in the following anecdote?
In Cameroon, a teacher named Florence was worried about her female students because they seemed extremely vulnerable to boys’ schoolyard teasing. Using e-mails, she described the behavior to me, and we soon realized that something more complicated was going on that was indeed related to the girls’ physical development. Since part of my work is to use my computer and connections here in the USA and anywhere else to support girls and women wherever they are, once they find their way to a computer, I started brainstorming with her online as if we were in the same room. (Women in Africa have been using computers to find alternatives for more than a decade, and their ability to connect—even though many can’t download—is amazing).
I knew from the Women’s Movement that once there was a name to what was happening, we would feel less alone and begin to act. When I described what was going on, Equality Now gave us the name: breast ironing. 1 in 4 girls in Cameroon has heated stones or liquids such as kerosene placed on her chest to delay development. In Florence’s words:
While I thought I was just discovering breast ironing, I was informed that the women who do the 'job' are even migrating from the villages to town for ''business''. In our meeting on Sunday, many women were surprised that I worry, and even advised me to do the same to my daughters. When I asked why they were doing it they explained that if the girls develop breasts early, they will be disvirgined and it is economically expensive. When I talked to some of the girls they told me that their mothers organised it, and that the exercise is very painful but they cannot disobey their mothers.
What do I do now? Thanks for being on my side.
Okay, this is at the minimum, a depressing and disheartening phenomenon. Given all the work done and being done about FGM, here comes another misguided attempt to protect girls’ futures that involves mutilation and scarring. I think it’s also a misguided reaction to the belief that sex with a virgin is a protection against HIV/AIDS for a man, and making girls look very pre-pubescent can make them safer.
Many people wince and can’t tolerate hearing about this practice, especially in the face of wars and genocide, but it deserves attention. Florence, however, is a skilled front-line organizer, and her reactions are to organize mini-seminars and enlist Girls Speak Out’s help to create a distance-learning project about breast ironing written for girls that she can teach and distribute. In other words, she is doing something about it while organizations such as RENADA in Cameroon and Equality Now document and study what’s happening as part of their effort to halt and highlight a shadow practice.
What’s hopeful? In my experience, Florence is at least decades ahead of women who faced a “new” issue and were isolated; therefore, in the recent past, they were unable to take direct action and control of valuable resistance because there was no Internet access and no connection from the inside –out could be created across cities no less across continents. Florence reached out online through a website that appealed to her beliefs and resonated with her faith in girls’ resilience. Where did Girls Speak Out’s website come from? A woman whose father was active in the Women’s Movement, and who taught his daughter to value her skills and gender, designed it as a donation. How did Florence find us? Our website is supported by a advertising grant that helps us reach over half a million users a month, and to benefit from the company’s knowledge of keyword strategies. May’s advertising bill, if there was one, was almost $300,000.
Florence is surely standing on the shoulders of past and present activists and futuristic technology. Now she may be standing, but she can’t leap ahead because our admittedly small girl’s philanthropic community is behind the times while it is behind Florence. I know because I’ve been trying to fundraise to create the materials Florence needs in the classroom. Many donor organizations serving girls are as frustrated as I am because their policies prohibit funding a project based in the USA that is reaching another country (doesn’t this smack of stereotypes?) I remember working a decade or so ago with UNICEF USA to hold the First National Girls’ Conference, and challenging the idea that the USA is where fundraising, not projects, happens. UNICEF came through with flying colors, and we reached girls in 11 countries in similar circumstances regardless of geography.( I admit I am not a fan of borders).
Here’s one conundrum feminists need to address in a global economy: why do organizations have policies that prohibit supporting USA based organizations working with females outside the USA? Come on, folks, these boundaries are irrelevant today when we can reach woman to woman and woman to girl and girl to girl and girl to woman in person or on the Internet. We can ensure that we share rather than control; that we adapt rather than impose, and we collaborate rather than own. We have a track record that can address the problem, and we need to compile it together with a focus on changing this policy.
Here’s another conundrum: why do some donors who have what I call “Global Money,” that is, enough money to support local and international projects, support local projects without helping ensure they’re replicated elsewhere? Why don’t we make it a condition of support that best practices be pooled and shared with any community anywhere with similar challenges? This can be true of a donor in the USA or another country. Why not fund across borders no matter where you are? The Forbes list of the wealthiest isn’t just USA based, and our economy is in shockingly bad shape. Unfortunately, one fact we share on this planet is that no country treats females equally with males. Money can be a universal tool for good, too, although it’s a struggle to remember that today.
Florence says it best, “There are many churches in the world but not all of them can paddle us to salvation with their preaching. I hope you know that. I am not discrediting anyone, but I thought you should have asked yourself why I wrote directly to you. It is because I need very little help to fight against this phenomenon around me. Should we fold our arms and talk big while this dangerous activity goes on around me? I know groups are studying it, but I am here in the playground. Please, send me some articles that I can distribute to these students, to prove to them that the issue is given the international attention it deserves and we are not alone in resisting it.”
Many of us believe “sisterhood is global.” Now is the time for each of us to practice it however we can.
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Copyright © 2006 Andrea Johnston
ANDREA JOHNSTON is the author of Girls Speak Out: Finding Your True Self and the founder of the Girls Speak Out Foundation, an advocacy organization working with girls and their supporters on five continents. A 30-year veteran of public and private school teaching, Andrea convened and helped organize the First National Girls Conference at UNICEF House in New York in 1997. She has appeared in a Lifetime documentary, on CNN’s Talk Back Live!, and on local and national radio shows. She has also been a frequent keynote speaker at YWCA youth conferences, on college campuses, for parenting organizations, and in the General Assembly and Trusteeship Council of the United Nations. She has a son, Jesse, and lives in Northern California. Visit Andrea's web site at www.girlsspeakout.org.