A School Project to Remember

My name is Isobel Mathews. I am thirteen years old and I advocate for global women’s rights.

Earlier this year, my English teacher assigned a project that changed me. Every student was asked to research a women’s organization. After some initial browsing, I decided to do my project on Women for Women International (WfWI).

I picked a global organization partly because I grew up traveling. I was born in Australia and my family lived in the United Kingdom for six years before we moved to Massachusetts. Living in different countries gave me the chance to see and appreciate different cultures.

When I researched WfWI I saw that they work in eight different countries and in each of those countries they work with women who are marginalized by poverty, violence, or war. They have a one-year program that gives women vocational and business skills and teaches them about their rights and their health. WfWI’s program allows women to earn an income and stand on their own feet, which is incredibly important during and after war and conflict when people lose their livelihoods.

I have always been passionate about helping people and uplifting other women so the work that WfWI does grabbed my attention right away. 

After doing my research I gave a presentation in my class and I also spoke about WfWI at our school assembly. Now, I speak about the organization and about how we need to remember and work for women’s rights around the world in my community at any chance I get! I feel proud telling my relatives, my friends, and my teachers about the organization I have learnt about and I use it as an opportunity to say that we have a responsibility to reach out to women everywhere. It is not enough to focus on women’s rights here at home. Our rights and our struggles are connected. Women everywhere have had to fight hard for their rights, and progress in one country can help push for progress in another. We also have a responsibility to help each other. We need to come together and demand equality. Together, our voices are stronger.

It is especially important for us to use our voices to support women who are less fortunate than us. During my research, I learned about the tough decisions that women survivors of war must make. Many of them have to leave their homes in search of safety. Some of them have to choose between feeding their families or seeking education for their kids. To rebuild their lives, they need support systems. Everyone needs help. No one can do it all by themselves. And every one of us can do something to make it easier for others.

Some people might say that they don’t know how to help or they are too young, but I learned that you always have power. No matter where you are or what situation you are in, you can do something, even if it is small. You have a say and you can raise awareness. You have the power to make change, whether it is through a sign that you put in your yard, or a tweet that you send out, or a letter that you write to your legislator. You can also write about these issues on social media, or talk to your teachers, classmates and community. Even the little things can help. For example, I am urging my parents to sponsor a woman through WfWI’s program. For $35 a month any one can sponsor a woman survivor of war to participate in WfWI’s program and learn skills that will transform her life. Once you sponsor a woman, you can write her letters and learn about her progress throughout the vocational, business, health and rights trainings. It is one small way to create a big change.

 

Isobel Mathews is a seventh-grade student at Charles River School in Dover, Massachusetts. She’s a proud advocate for women’s rights and Women for Women International.

It Takes a Village to Breastfeed a Child

Originally published on Huffington Post.

1-7 August marks World Breastfeeding Week, this year celebrated under the slogan of “Breastfeeding: A Winning Goal – For Life!” Those of us who are pregnant or have children have most likely heard the phrase “breast is best”, and many of us have come across information about the undeniable benefits of breast milk to a newborn’s health and development. According to the World Health Organization, if all children were breastfed within an hour of birth and given only breast milk for the first 6 months with continued breastfeeding up to the age of two, up to 800 000 child lives would be saved annually. Breast milk delivers infants with all the nutrients they need for healthy development, and it contains antibodies that protect babies from illnesses such as diarrhoea and pneumonia. In addition, breastfeeding is free – at least if you don’t count the opportunity-cost of time spent nursing.

Breast milk is without a doubt the mother of all superfoods, but despite all the evidence, according to the 2014 Breastfeeding Card, only 49% of infants born in 2011 in the United States were breastfed at 6 months and 27% at 12 months. In developing countries, less than 40% of children aged 0-6 months are exclusively breastfed and in my native country, Finland, shockingly only around 1% of mothers meet the recommendation of exclusively breastfeeding their baby for the first 6 months.

The reasons behind low breastfeeding rates are many. Especially in developing countries, mothers often lack access to information about the importance and benefits of breastfeeding and many misconceptions exist around infant feeding, (i.e. babies need water in addition to breast milk during first months of life). Poor women, both in developing and developed countries, rarely have the option of staying home after giving birth. Mothers often return to work soon after delivery, and babies are left in the care of relatives and family members, making breastfeeding simply not possible. Breast may be best – but it isn’t always a realistic and viable option for mothers, no matter how much they would like to nurse their babies and even when they are aware of the benefits of nursing.

For some mothers, breastfeeding just doesn’t come easily – and can be a painful, scary journey, ending in the feeling of failure and guilt. I am currently expecting my first baby, and have no firsthand experience of breastfeeding – but I’m already worried. What if the baby doesn’t latch, or there’s not enough milk and he isn’t gaining enough weight? What if it hurts too much? What if I fail with breastfeeding – the most natural thing in the world – and fail my baby? I know I am not alone with my worry – millions of mothers around the world want to breastfeed, but just can’t make it work. Stigma, shame and fear are also associated with breastfeeding, and while we happily erect billboards of half-naked women to sell everything from cars to alcohol, a woman exposing her breast to feed her child is still considered controversial and in some places unacceptable. Women’s bodies, when exposed for the purpose of celebrating birth or nursing, are censored – while over-sexualized images of half-naked women are considered normal and acceptable.

If we really want to enable women to succeed with breastfeeding, it is time to recognize that this cannot be a journey the mother has to embark on alone.

We have to create a supporting, enabling and judgment-free environment to give mothers the best possible starting point to successfully breastfeed their babies. This includes access to reliable information about the importance and benefits of breastfeeding, lactation support immediately after birth and throughout the first months of an infant’s life, and workplace policies and legislation that enable women to stay home for long enough to properly establish breastfeeding, and then continue it after they return to work. In developing countries, providing access to quality and affordable health care services throughout pregnancy and during the postpartum period is essential for ensuring that women are informed about the benefits of breastfeeding and have access to support after giving birth.

We also have to stop shaming and blaming mothers –pressuring mothers to nurse through guilt is never the right approach. This shouldn’t be a war between breast feeders and formula feeders, and the important thing to keep in mind is that nearly all mothers strive towards one shared goal: a healthy, happy child. That is a goal we can all agree upon, and do our best to strive towards. We should aim to ensure that no mother has to give up breastfeeding because they didn’t get enough support or information to make it work – and that all mothers feel they can talk about their challenges, fears and experiences without being shamed or shunned. There’s also no such thing as being pro-breastfeeding, but against women’s right to breastfeed in public. If you want to support nursing mothers, then you have to also support and promote their right to feed their children in public and not expect them to nurse in bathrooms or alleyways. How would you feel about having to sit on a toilet seat while eating your lunch?

The stigma and hypocrisy around this issue must end — and the responsibility of enabling mothers to succeed with nursing is not just on the shoulders of mothers. It’s time to recognize that when it comes to breastfeeding, it takes a village to make it work — and we, whether mothers, fathers, partners, co-workers, employers, law- and policymakers, friends or bystanders, are all a part of that village.

Women's Global Interconnectedness: An International Boulevard

Two weeks ago, Connecther.org and Harvard’s Social Innovation Collaborative hosted its first ever Girls Impact the World Film Festival in which high school and college students from around the world were invited to use the power of social media and film to spotlight women’s issues they were passionate about. I spent about 3 hours watching the Top 15 film gallery one Saturday morning, moved and numbed by how deeply entrenched women’s inequalities are found not only on the streets India, Bangladesh, and Thailand amongst the many developing countries popularly spotlighted by the media but also the existence of these injustices within the neighborhoods of my own backyard.

Women’s issues around the world – though unique to each context, geography, and population demographics – are not separate problems. The sex trafficking prevalent in Thailand isn’t foreign to the prevalence of prostitution of young girls in Oakland, California. The high rate of teen pregnancy amongst the Latina population in Los Angeles, California isn’t foreign to the million of women in the Philippines who, before December 29, 2012, were denied access to and knowledge of contraception. The stories of women everywhere are intertwined, related, and inextricably connected to the idea that the commodification of women is still a global struggle. The stories connect at an international boulevard where one woman’s story can be manifest of the stories of women throughout the world. It manifests a shared commitment of girls and women for their counterparts everywhere.

In this idea of an international boulevard of women’s issues is the hope that unity, in spite of voids of inequality, will prevail. The concept of interconnectedness not only links the struggles against inequality by women everywhere, but also unites the power and the utter drive to help others recognize that pressing for women’s equality is a necessity. As a small anecdote to accompany this point, I was talking to a friend about blogging for Girls’ Globe as an “advocate for woman” the other day during lunch, and he replied at how outrageous it is that I (and the rest of society) label myself as an “advocate” for women. This realization dawned appallingly on me – that I am labeled as an “advocate” or “activist” when in reality, I am simply trying to do the right thing. Since when was standing up for what’s inherently right become definitive upon the label of activism? Beyond the societal labels of being a feminist, advocate, or activist, the unity resulting from the international boulevard is the movement of girls helping girls, women helping women, and most of all – generations helping generations. It is this boomerang effect of collaboration and unity that makes the efforts of girls’ and women’s empowerment resonante so powerfully.

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Introducing Women LEAD Nepal

We at Girls’ Globe believe in the power of partnership and collaboration to efficiently and effectively work towards the empowerment of women. Raising awareness and spreading information is the first step. That’s why we’ve decided to feature organizations that are making a difference for women and girls and give them the possibility to share their stories, experiences and needs to a wider audience. By partnering up we can learn from each other and better understand the challenges that women and girls face around the world.

It’s time for action! And we hope that the organizations that will be writing through Girls’ Globe will inspire you to take part in the action.

Women LEAD is the first of our Featured Organizations.

Women LEAD is the first and only leadership development organization for young women, led by young women, in Nepal. Since 2011, they’ve provided more than 400 young women with the skills, support and opportunities to become leaders in their schools and communities. Our programs provide young women with intensive yearlong leadership, advocacy and social entrepreneurship training, mentoring, and a peer-support network.
Check out the video introducing these young women leaders in Nepal!
Follow Women LEAD on Twitter and Facebook.

Google+ Hangout with Nicholas, Somaly and Rachel to discuss Slavery and Sex Trafficking

Google+

Today some of us at Girls’ Globe joined the Google+ Hangout with New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof, GEMS founder Rachel Lloyd and Cambodian anti-trafficking advocate Somaly Mam. The topic of discussion was modern-day slavery and sex trafficking and was moderated by Luke Blocher from The Freedom Center.

The group discussed domestic sex trafficking, factors contributing to the international sex trade and ways to help combat the problem, from high-level to grassroots actors.

Regarding what governments and state actors can do, Nicholas spoke about the importance of ending impunity. In most places there are laws in place that should protect trafficked victims and victims of sex slavery, the problem is that these laws are not being enforced. He mentioned the importance of putting pressure on governments to ensure that laws are followed and enforced. One example of this is Naming and Shaming. Through international shame, governments feel pressured to make a change, and this can actually have an impact on enforcing the legal framework in the country.

How do we decrease demand? When working to end sex slavery it is not often discussed how to address the demand side of the market. The Google+ Hangout crowd asked the panelists this question.

Rachel pointed out that it is critical to change attitudes and the way we view men who buy sex. We need to eliminate the boys are just being boys attitude and raise awareness of the crime that is being committed. She said that we need to socialize boys and young men differently, in a way that does not give them the right to buy other people. It is not a victimless crime. Rachel highlighted that we need to see and hear more from the men who do not buy sex, in order to change other men’s perspectives. Men need to rise up too!

Also to address the issue of demand, Nicholas said that there is a delusion that prostitutes are there on their own free will. He asserted that men need to understand what trafficking is really like and that people need to learn what is actually going on. Through education buying sex will become less sexy and more shameful, and thus decrease demand.

Should we distinguish between voluntary prostitution and trafficking? One thing that often arises when discussing sex trafficking is the statement that there are women who sell sex voluntarily. When talking about the modern-day sex trade I think this statement usually steers the conversation in the wrong direction. Instead of talking about how to help trafficked victims, people start arguing for the rights of women to sell their bodies. When this question was brought up by the audience, I think the panelists had some good arguments.

Rachel agreed that there are some women who voluntarily sell sex, but she argued that this is not where the global billion dollar industry is actually earning its money. She said that these women are really a minority.

To have a choice you must have options. Most of the women, children and men in the sex industry do not choose to be a part of it. They have no option. What we need to do is bring options to these people – the majority of “sellers” in the global sex industry are victims.

Nicholas pointed to the evidence that has shown that legalizing the sex trade does not necessarily minimize the black market trade that is still going on. That regulating the market does not ensure that underaged girls are not being forced into the trade. Also, when discussing the nature of prostitution, he said that the amount of people who do it voluntarily are minimal. He stated that those who enter into commercial sex in the US are usually underaged girls and those who enter into this market in India are usually coerced.

Somaly really underscored the importance of giving victims an option. By educating the girls in the brothels, protecting them from violence and supporting them with health care, we can make a difference. She emphasized the importance of education and raising awareness. We cannot change the practice if people have wrong perceptions of what is going on. There are victims in this world that need our help and Somaly stressed that if we want to do something we need to have patience and compassion.

Do you want to learn more and get involved?

Visit somaly.org, GEMS, and Half the Sky Movement, and read our related posts.

Or read the memoirs…

Girls’ Globe is all about education and raising awareness for change.

We want to encourage you to make a difference and we want to highlight the organizations that are dedicated to changing the lives of women and girls around the world.
Do you want to join us?
Send us an email: girlsglobe@gmail.com.

See the whole Hangout here:

Maternal Deaths – New Status Report

Maternal Mortality is declining.

This is what evidence shows in a new report released by WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA and The World Bank. “Trends in maternal mortality: 1990 to 2010” states that the estimated amount of maternal deaths have decreased 47 % over two decades. The global maternal mortality ratio (MMR) has declined from 400 maternal deaths per 100 000 live births to 210 maternal deaths per 100 000 live births during the same time period.

The study also looks into the reproductive health indicators, such as unmet need for contraception, use of contraception, antenatal care, and deliveries by skilled birth attendants. Globally, all of these indicators show a positive trend. However, as we have seen in other recent reports, these figures vary within regions and within countries.

Although there has been a huge decrease, with impressive figures, the development is not equal. Still over 56 % of the deaths occur in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 29 % in Southern Asia. 11 countries show no progress in improving maternal health in the countries. Out of these 11 countries, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, South Africa, Somalia, Lesotho, Guyana, Congo, Chad, Cameron and Botswana actually have increased levels of maternal mortality compared with the rates of twenty years earlier. Out of these countries Chad and Somalia have rates of 1000 or more maternal deaths per 100 000 live births.

A woman in Sub-Saharan Africa faces a 1 in 39 lifetime risk of dying during pregnancy or childbirth. Yet, so many of these deaths can be prevented by simple measures.

So this brings me back the the question:

Should surviving childbirth be a lottery?

I certainly believe that it should not. We need to continue to strive towards an increased level of awareness, capacity-building and training of midwives, access to affordable essential and life-saving medicines, access to contraceptives and family-planning services, and ultimately the empowerment of women in their societies, to become equal in decision-making in the community, in the household and over their own bodies.

800 women are still dying every day during pregnancy or child-birth.

Let’s do more to save lives.

The featured image of this post is from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Blog, Impatient Optimists.