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.

#6 – Breastfeeding Mothers Share Experiences

In this episode of The Mom Pod, we meet mothers Kristina and Maria from Sweden, Felogene from Kenya and Julie from the United States. All four of these mothers have chosen to breastfeed, and in different phases of their breastfeeding journey they share their experiences, and talk about the challenges they have faced and the support they have received.

Although these mothers are from different corners of the world, there are several common denominators in the equation of making breastfeeding work for them and their babies. Support from family and health care professionals is essential to make breastfeeding work from the start and to make it possible for mothers to reach their breastfeeding goals.

“At the end of the day, breastfeeding will take a lot of sacrifice and a lot of love. It is really worth it, but you have to be part of the process,” says Felogene.

Maria shares her experience with 6-week old Ella who has colic – and although breastfeeding works well at this point, it is a constant struggle to find a diet that works, since Maria is vegan and committed to breastfeeding Ella.

The mothers also spoke about how breastfeeding is a feminist issue, and how it is important for mothers to breastfeed in public, to overcome sexism and challenge the notion of women’s breasts being sexual objects.

Seeing other mothers confidently breastfeed their babies and hearing about how they overcome their challenges enables women to build their own confidence and to overcome barriers that may arise. Julie explains that her job has led her to many encounters with breastfeeding mothers around the world, which has strengthened and empowered her in her breastfeeding journey with her daughter. Kristina also shares some stories about how she managed to ignore unsupportive comments from midwives and nurses after giving birth, thanks to attending a breastfeeding course during pregnancy.

Learn more about breastfeeding challenges, the cultures and laws in these countries, and foremost these women’s perspectives by listening to the full episode below. You can also listen to The Mom Pod on iTunes and Soundcloud.

Since The Mom Pod launched in January, we have produced 6 episodes, covering global maternal health, the Zika Virus, giving birth in Sweden, the Finnish baby box, and global trends in breastfeeding. We have reached mothers, fathers and other caregivers in over 50 countries, and our episodes have been listened to over 800 times.

We believe that The Mom Pod can…

  • promote understanding and tolerance
  • help us share experiences, information and practices across cultures
  • disseminate interesting and important information to parents and people working with maternal and child health on relevant and timely topics
  • create a judgement-free space to share personal, sensitive and uplifting stories of motherhood.

Now we need your help to continue this important initiative! Next week, we are launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise $35,000 in 6 weeks! The funding will enable us to grow The Mom Pod, produce at least 8 additional episodes and to upgrade our podcasting equipment to improve sound quality and ultimately, the experience for our listeners. Here’s what you can do:

  • Share The Mom Pod with your friends and family
  • Follow us on Twitter, Like us on Facebook and invite your friends to do so too
  • Donate to our campaign on Indiegogo that is launching next week 
  • Become a part of our crowdfunding team to help us promote our campaign even more, through simple tasks. If you are interested in this, please send me an email to julia@girlsglobe.org.

 

State of the Union Address: No real progress without equality for women & girls

Last night, President Obama gave his State of the Union Address – and the women of this country should be pleased. Actually, strike that – ALL the people in this country, women and men, should be pleased. A notable portion of the President’s address was directly focused on women’s issues, and most of it focused on issues relating to equality. Obama addressed topics such as paid maternity leave, universal child care, equal pay for men and women (which apparently isn’t that high on the Republican priority list), and even touched on the issue of women’s right to abortion and access to reproductive health care. While there is always room for improvement, Obama’s State of the Union brought considerable attention to women’s issues – possibly also paving the way for democrats to win the women’s vote in next year’s elections.

In today’s economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality childcare more than ever. It’s not a nice-to-have — it’s a must-have. It’s time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.

– President Obama, State of the Union Address 2015

There’s no doubt that the issues Obama raised are important – but the fact that such issues as equal pay for women and paid maternity leave still need to be debated, and still need to be justified, is simply depressing and appalling. How can a country, any country, claim any state of development when its citizens continue to be valued differently based on their gender? How can a government claim to work for the people, when half of the people still count for less than the other half – because of our chromosomes? In year 2015, women – not to mention other groups, such as sexual minorities, people of color and people with disabilities – still have to fight for their right to be seen as full, equal citizens. In America, the only people who really get to enjoy all of the country’s progress and benefits are white men. We, as the international community, have given milestones for developing countries to reach through the Millennium Development Goals, which are coming to an end this year – but while we expect progress from developing countries, shouldn’t we also hold our own societies to the same, if not higher, standards?

No country can move forward without women. No country has the right to call itself “developed”, when half of its people are continuously left behind. American women have a lot to demand – not only does the US remain as the only developed country with no legally mandated paid maternity leave, but its maternal mortality and infant mortality rates are some of the highest in the western world, and in 2013 women were still paid only 78% of what men are paid (and women of color even less than that). In some states, women have to drive hundreds of miles to access a reproductive health clinic, and women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services has taken a huge setback in the past couple of years, pushing American women back to the dark ages when it comes to their sexual and reproductive rights.

No president or party can run on a gender-agenda alone – but it’s time to understand, really understand, that these aren’t “women’s issues” or “gender issues” – protecting and realizing women’s basic fundamental human rights isn’t only morally and ethically right, but also common sense. Women aren’t charity cases – we are contributing, productive, intelligent, creative, resilient, smart, and necessary members or any society, and true sustainable progress will not happen without us.

I have always been passionate about these issues, but now I am looking at them from a whole new angle. First, I recently became a mother in America, which made the lack of paid maternity leave and other family benefits much bigger issues for me, in my personal life. Second, I am about to become an American citizen, making me a full, voting member of this society. I don’t vote with my vagina any more than I think with it – I vote with my brain, and I will give my vote to those who recognize me as a full, valuable member of this society. I truly hope that this State of the Union paves way for actual change, not just empty words. Things like maternity benefits, child care, equal pay and sexual and reproductive health should not be radical issues anymore, they should simply be basic building blocks of any decent society. Time to start using them to build a stronger, better America – for all of us.

Watch the full State of the Union Address:

Speaking with Girls’ Globe Bloggers!

Girls’ Globe is an amazing global network of young women who in various ways are dedicating their time and energy to strengthening the rights and health of women and girls. It is through individuals like these that change is made and we are thrilled to be growing into such a strong force for change by joining hands in the struggle to make the world a better place for women and girls.

We want to continue to let their voices inspire you, not only through the great blog posts they write here, but through a new video interview series of short one-on-one Google+ Hangouts that you can watch and share. Here are the first three:

Megan Foo, Hong Kong

Diane Fender, USA

Nelly Lukale, Kenya

Stay tuned to upcoming interviews each week with Girls’ Globe bloggers from around the world. You can see all of them here.

The Ugly Side of Beauty Contests

Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons

Recently, in two national beauty contests held on both sides of the Atlantic, the ugly side of beauty reared its racist head as online racist backlash took over the web.  Nina Davuluri, winner of the Miss America Contest, a 24-year-old North American of Indian descent and Flora Coquerel,winner of the Miss France Contest, a 19-year-old whose mother is from the West African state of Benin, both shocked a fraction of humanity as the question was posed:

How did they win when they are not white natives to their countries?

As a mixed race young woman who has grown up in the UK and exhibits the beauty of Jamaican, Ghanaian and Irish ancestry, I found the racist reactions disturbing to say the least. Here are some of the comments that circulated on Twitter:

The United States of America

I am literarily soo mad right now a ARAB won.

More like Miss Terrorist

This is America. Not India

Congratulations Al-Qaeda. Our Miss America is one of you.

Asian or indian are you kiddin this is America omg

France

I am sure all the monkeys in the zoo applauded the new Miss France 2014.

The mixed race is the cancer of the white race. 

If Beninese people were represented by a Scottish or a Chinese, they would feel similar discomfort.

Photo Credit @FredericLavisa
Photo Credit @FredericLavisa

First of all, these contests are open to any female citizen of any race, background or religion of the countries hence Nina and Flora had every right to win. Secondly, I just have to say this – being Indian DOES NOT make you an Arab! Finally, jury just in – the monkeys in the zoo applauded, along with the elephants, giraffes, kangaroos, most of the French population and myself of course (NOT). The hateful ridiculousness of these comments is toxic and the ignorance embedded within each racist comment is overwhelming.

What I think is most worrying is the fact that these comments were posted in a public domain for the entire world to see. The stupidity of the racists who posted the comments is highlighted in their naivety to not expect attention or to be called out for being prejudice and discriminatory. However, I think this draws our attention to an even bigger problem:

How do we combat racism in the ever growing multicultural societies that exist today?

I have thought about this in great depth and I believe that the solution lies within the question. We must continue to grow multicultural societies and tolerance. As societies diversify, people interact with one another and learn that maybe, just maybe, we’re not that different after all. United States Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. put it perfectly when he said,

We often hate each other because we fear each other; we fear each other because we don’t know each other; we don’t know each other because we cannot communicate; we cannot communicate because we are separated.”

He was speaking during the time of apartheid in the American South and during a time of great injustice for all African Americans. There is a lot to be learnt from the history of humanity and it is clear that, in order to prevent racism,we must communicate – to do so, we have to come together.

Let’s teach tolerance and understanding. Let’s educate our children to accept one another and embrace our differences. It is alarming to think that young girls watch these beauty pageants and then hear and see such racism. What message are we sending out to girls like my 11 year old mixed race niece Kya?

This brings to my mind the words one of the world’s greatest leaders, the late Nelson Madiba Mandela:

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Finally, I would just like to congratulate both Nina and Flora for their victories, the message they send out is loud and clear.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

The Harsh Reality for Women and Girls in Syria

If there is one thing we know about Syria it is women, girls, youth and their families have suffered far too much for too long,” -UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin.

As the civil war in Syria continues, the world holds its breath waiting to hear the final decision from the Obama Administration and U.S. Congress on whether or not to launch a missile strike in Syria. Many questions remain unanswered; the use of chemical weapons in Syria has been internationally deliberated with tragic testimonies, graphic images and video footage screened across the internet and mainstream media. In the debate over the use of chemical weapons, one of my favourite political pundits Tony Benn stated,

I am totally opposed to intervening in Syria, it would lead to a Middle East war. Chemicals are just another weapon that kill people. Don’t bombs kill people? Don’t ‘Cruise Missiles’ kill people? If America and Britain defy the UN then it will lead to a greater conflict.”

The U.S. Senate drafted a resolution that permits U.S. President Obama to order a “limited and tailored” military mission against Syria, as long as it does not exceed 90 days and involves no U.S. troops on the ground for combat operations. The President will now have to pass the resolution by way of chamber votes in Congress.

??????)?While politicians give their solutions and verdicts over an intervention in Syria, millions of Syrian refugees live in refugee camps across the Middle East and remain vulnerable and uncertain of their future. It is now estimated that, since the civil war began back in March 2011, 2 million Syrian people are currently displaced and have fled the country – the majority of whom are women and children. Furthermore, within Syria itself, over 4 million people remain displaced, forced from their homes due to violent conflict. In a joint statement earlier this week, the foreign ministers from Iraq, Jordan and Turkey in addition to Lebanon’s Social Affairs Minister and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres urgently appealed for greater international support for the refugee crisis.

To paraphrase former British Parliamentarian Tony Benn, bombs and missiles kill people therefore increasing the killing will only lead to greater conflict across the whole region. What is really needed now is humanitarian support as the neighbouring countries struggle to manage the increasing number of refugees entering their borders.

An average of almost 5,000 Syrians flee into neighbouring countries every day, in total some 716,000 refugees alone have entered Lebanon. Of the 2 million Syrian refugees currently seeking safety, shelter, food and medical care, over half are children, three-quarters of whom are under the age of 11. Hence, instead of launching a missile strike on Syria, shouldn’t the international community be providing humanitarian aid and assistance to aid agencies in Syria and its neighbouring countries experiencing the influx of refugees? The UN says the conflict in Syria has resulted in the worst refugee crisis for 20 years, with numbers not seen since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????Women and girls continue to suffer indiscriminately through war and conflict as brutal killings, rape and sexual assault and harassment destroy the fabric of families and whole communities. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has reported that rape and sexual assault are now being used as a weapon of war in Syria. Furthermore, young Syrian refugee women and girls also face a tragic future, as multiple reports have concluded that child marriage, a human rights violation, is particularly prevalent among refugee camp families. The negative impact of child marriage in any situation means that girls become more vulnerable to violence, sexual assault, slavery, HIV and AIDs, maternal mortality and poverty. Erica Hall, World Vision Senior Child Rights Adviser stated:

Parents will feel incredibly vulnerable and may believe that a husband will be able to protect their daughter from these threats, and allow them to better provide for their remaining children, too.”

Shockingly, aid workers in refugee camps are not exempt from this behavior as they have been identified as perpetrators seeking sexual favours in return for help. There is little or no protection at all from such sexual assaults. With nowhere to turn, no support or money to feed their children, many women are forced into prostitution as a mode of survival, putting themselves into great danger of violence and HIV.

The reports and testimonies of sexual violence from pregnant women, women with disabilities, women living with fatal diseases, women seeking emergency medical care and so on are seemingly endless. As politicians discuss their ‘interventions,’ women, girls, men and boys are dying and struggling to keep hope alive.

All images courtesy of Flickr’s Syria Freedom Creative Commons.