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.

Girls’ Globe Book Tour: Finland

Finnish literature echoes the country’s vast forests, icy winters and endless summer nights. But also, at times, the conservatism and racism, social gaps, and haunting memories from the two world wars. At its best, it’s dark, witty, and brave – particularly the works of these five writers.

Outside of Finland, Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is best known as the creator of the wildly popular Moomins. Jansson was a multitalented artist who wrote and illustrated fiction for children and adults. She also led an ‘unconventional’ life, choosing never to marry or have children, but instead to put her artistry first. She often approached taboo themes, for instance, she incorporated her romantic relationships with women in her stories. (In Finland, homosexuality was considered an illness until 1981.)

The Summer Book is set on an island in the Finnish archipelago. Sophia and her grandmother spend the summer on the remote island, observing and living in harmony with the animals, birds and natural forces around them. It’s a quiet and soothing story about the sea, friendship, life and death, written without beautifying filters or nostalgia.

I only want to live in peace, plant potatoes and dream! – Tove Jansson

Katja Kettu wrote her most successful novel in the back of a car, while she and her boyfriend were travelling back to Helsinki from Rovaniemi, the small city in the north of Finland close to the Arctic Circle where she grew up. Maybe that is why her writing is as wild and untamed as the northern lights. Katja also works as a director of animated films, and her bestseller The Midwife was turned into a movie.

The Midwife is a controversial love story between a Nazi officer and a Finnish midwife during WWII, set in the icy forests of Finnish Lapland. The midwife falls in love at first sight with the handsome officer who one day comes to the village as a photographer. She joins the German side as a volunteer nurse, just to be close to him. Brutal murder, abortions, pain… Is all really fair in love and war? A magical, hypnotic, fleshy, and disgusting story about love.

Rosa Liksom is a Finnish writer and artist from Lapland who has produced a large number of novels, children’s books, art books, and plays. In 2011, she was awarded the Finlandia prize for her novel Compartment no 6.

On a long train journey from a wintery Moscow to Mongolia, a young Finnish woman gets stuck in the same compartment as a talkative, foul-mouthed former soldier. He talks and drinks endlessly during the long journey, and even trying to silence him by pouring a bottle of nail polish remover into his vodka doesn’t help. The pen of Liksom is poetic, dramatic and incredibly witty.

Sofi Oksanen is one of the best known contemporary Finnish writers. Her stories are brave and fierce, and she’s not afraid to attack touchy subjects. In Sofi’s debut novel Stalin’s Cows, the eating disorder of the main character and the racism she and her Estonian mother are subjected to make the novel a very painful read at times – but also an honest and touching one.

The bestseller Purge is set in Estonia, where the worlds of Zara and Aliide collide. Zara is a trafficking victim on the run from her pimp, who ends up as by chance in Aliide’s backyard. But, it turns out that the meeting of the two women might not be a coincidence at all. Here begins a story of past horrors, sexual abuse, and how history is written by the winners – but we all have blood on our hands.

If you enjoy discovering new female authors, make sure to read Girls’ Globe’s recommendations from Sweden, Latin America and Scotland too!

What Let Girls Learn Has Taught Me

Michelle Obama smells amazing. When she wrapped her arms around me for a hug after speaking on her Let Girls Learn initiative, the first thing I thought was holy shit Michelle Obama is giving me a hug, and secondly, wow she smells so good.

It was a sweltering Washington D.C. July afternoon but the First Lady seemed unbothered by the heat. Instead, she brought inspiration, poise, and grace with her: “You all are here today because someone believed in you, because someone gave you the chance to be everything you would want to be.” That line stuck with me then and continues to remind me both that I am worthy of my opportunities, and so are the amazing people around me. But on that July afternoon, I was thinking, what did I want to be? Who believes in me? And what sort of girl do I have the potential to be?

It was a question I asked myself a lot that summer. I was a Teen Advisor for the UN Foundation’s Girl Up campaign and had spent a couple days in DC working with other Teen Advisors for the 2015 Girl Up Summit. I was overwhelmed by the other girls I served with, and couldn’t help thinking that I wasn’t meant to be there. My sixteen-year-old self was not important enough to interact one of the nation’s most inspiring women, and here she was wrapping her arms around me. It was a summer of is this really happening right now? And, why is this happening to me? I don’t deserve to be here. I thought that all summer: in DC at the Girl Up summit, at home as I was packing for a 3 week trip to Rwanda for a global “women in STEM” program, on the plane-ride, and on the bus from Kigali International to our compound at Gashora Girls Academy in Eastern Province, Rwanda.

But once I got to Rwanda, after meeting girls from eight African countries and from around the U.S. and sharing a meal together, I thought – we’re all in this together. The three weeks in Rwanda flew by, and I made lifelong friends. My final project was a prototype of a solar powered Wi-Fi hotspot that was created with love, hard-work and long-nights. Working alongside three other girls from Nigeria, South Africa and Ghana, we had moments of cultural difference, misunderstanding, and frustration, but all of that was accompanied by moments of brilliance, joy, and success.

Throughout my time in Rwanda I was in constant reflection – I was journaling, talking with friends, writing a personal blog, and a more public blog for the Huffington Post. I was constantly progress checking: Do I know the type of woman I will be? Who believes in me? Who inspires me? Have I grown? And the answers became ever clearer: maybe, apparently a lot of people, WOMEN, and YES!!

At the very end of my trip, I was able to present my tech-prototype with another First Lady, The First Lady of Rwanda Jeanette Kagame. I held my head high as I presented on the lack of Internet access afforded to a majority of the world (4 billion people do not have access to Wi-Fi), and the emerging technologies that can better connect people globally. As I sat on the plane on my way home, I knew not only that other people believed in me, but that I believed in myself.

Let Girls Learn taught me about global citizenship, teamwork, female empowerment and most importantly, self-belief. Last week, when an internal memo from the White House was released on the termination of Let Girls Learn, I was devastated. Immediately my phone blew up with Facebook messages from young, empowered women and girls who had, like me, directly benefited from Michelle Obama and the PeaceCorp’s program.

While there have been retracted statements from The White House as to their continued support of women’s empowerment, it is uncertain what the future of Let Girls Learn looks like. Let Girls Learn has been pivotal to me becoming who I am today. I am saddened to think that girls after me won’t have the opportunity to ask themselves the hard questions that I did over the summer of 2015. And even more devastatingly, many won’t have the opportunity to recognize their immense potential. Michelle Obama, in her big way, believed in me, and it taught me to believe in myself.

Girls’ Globe Book Tour – Next Stop: Scotland

There is, and has always been, a wealth of wonderful and unique writing coming out of Scotland. Here are some of my favourite female Scottish writers, both long-loved and newly-discovered:

Ali Smith

One of Scotland’s best-loved writers, Ali Smith is an author, playwright, lecturer and journalist whose novels and short stories have gathered multiple prizes and endless admirers. Born and raised in Inverness, a small city in the north of Scotland, Smith started writing poetry at just 8 years old.

There’s a long list of Smith novels to choose from, but my favourite is Hotel World, a mesmerising and inventive piece of writing in which Smith is beautifully playful with language – often going pages at a time without punctuating the stream-of-consciousness of her narrators.

“Stories can change lives if we’re not careful. They will come in and take the shirts off our backs. Tell the right stories, and we live better lives.”

– Ali Smith, during a radio interview in 2016

Jenni Fagan 

A poet and novelist, Fagan graduated from Greenwich University with the highest possible grade for a creative writing. She was was included in the most recent Granta list of the 20 Best Young British Novelists. In fact, she was the only Scottish writer on that list.

Her debut novel, The Panopticon, tells of Anais Hendricks, a teenage girl in care. Told in a first person Scottish vernacular, the novel pulls on Fagan’s own experience of life – she was looked after by the state for 16 years – without succumbing to the slightest hint of cliche.

The sky is a vast black. Each star up there is just a wee pinhole letting in pure-white light. Imagine if it was all pure-white light on the other side of that sky.

– Jenni Fagan, The Panopticon, 2012

Kirsty Logan 

Kirsty Logan is fiction writer, book reviewer and writing mentor. She lives in Glasgow where, according to her own website, she drinks coffee, listens to true crime podcasts and dreams of the sea.

Try The Gracekeepers, a magical story of a floating circus and two young women in search of a home. Filled with inspiration from Scottish folklore and fairytales, Logan’s lyrical debut made me think of Angela Carter’s writing in the best possible way.

We don’t belong anywhere, because we can belong everywhere.

– Kirsty Logan, The Gracekeepers, 2015

Janice Galloway 

Another of Scotland’s most esteemed female writers, Galloway is the author of several novels, short stories and poetry collections. She has done extensive radio work for the BBC, and is a writer in residence at four Scottish prisons.

Her first novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing, is widely regarded as a Scottish literary classic. Dealing with depression and trauma, it is bravely written and brutally honest, and manages to be exhilarating at the same time as full to the brim with despair.

“No matter how often I think I can’t stand it anymore, I always do. There is no alternative. I don’t fall, I don’t foam at the mouth, faint, collapse or die. It’s the same for all of us. You can’t get out of the inside of your own head. Something keeps you going. Something always does.”

– Janice Galloway, The Trick is to Keep Breathing, 1989

You can join Girls’ Globe on our global book tour of female authors. Try these writers from Sweden and Latin America…you might just discover your new favourite!

Cover photo credit: Kate Williams