Empowering Women, FGM, and Holistic Approaches [Week 13]

Empowering Young Women

In our world, it is so critical to empower girls and to make sure that they have a voice in our society, even more so in places like Sub-Saharan Africa where the traditional roles of women are essentially to be subservient to someone, whether that be their families, in-laws, or future husbands. Eve Ensler specifies in her TED talk that much of world criticizes and hurts girls, so much so that we make them feel guilty for just existing. Women in SSA are instrumental in its economic and social recovery.

While many African governments have passed legislation that prevents things like FGM and child marriages, organizations like the Desert Flower Foundation and FORWARD that work directly with families to help reinforce these principles where the government cannot. A project was even developed in Burkina Faso that allowed mentors to educate girls, as well as provide funds for them to kick-start financial activities for them.

Burkina Faso is considered one of the leading forces against FGM, most likely because of the prevalence of it within the nation. They have passed legislation against it, even incorporating it into their constitution. The struggle with any law that contradicts tradition, however, is that people are going to try and find a way around it. In this case, many people now attempt to carry out FGM earlier so it can go unreported. However, Burkina Faso did adopt the Maputo Protocol, which detailed special protections for women such as prevention of abuse towards women who are elderly or have a disability, and protecting women with specific special needs. However, as is often the case, putting policy into practice is slow and difficult work.

Holistic approaches to stop the violence

In these readings, a number of problems are identified concerning sexually related issues with young women. The study He forced me to love him by Katherine Wood, Fidelia Maforah, and Rachel Jewkes comments that there is not so much a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of putting that specific knowledge into practice. Young people are often pressured by their peers and by community standards to engage in these sexual behaviors, and parent-child conversation about them is considered taboo.

Against my will, photo credit to Jessica Lea/Department for International Development, used under Creative Commons
Against my will, photo credit to Jessica Lea/Department for International Development, used under Creative Commons

One stand-out  issue in the He forced me to love him article was the concept of equating “love” with a strictly sexual relationship. While the cultural definition of love is broad and varies across regions, this association of love and sex was predominately defined by men. Ultimately, in many communities, sex is an act that is always initiated by a man. It is also expected–women expect sexual cravings and advances from men, and don’t question them.

Education here is needed, but rather that on the behalf of women, it needs to be for the men. Something about the definition of manhood and what a relationship is with a woman is resulting in these types of sexual encounters, and if not attacked at the root, will continue to manifest itself from generation to generation.

Wood and her colleagues determined that there is a gap in information and education here–what constructs male sexuality, and why do they act the way they do in sexual encounters? I believe that by asking these questions of men themselves, you can begin to find answers. In order for changes to be made, the association of manhood with these kinds of actions must be eliminated. Another essential aspect is to formally criminalize these kinds of abusive sexual actions, and to lower the restrictive barriers to allow women to take action against those who hurt them. This needs to be incorporated into the restructuring of many nations’ infrastructure as a key component.

Ending FGM/C through education, photo credit to Jessica Lea/DFID, used under Creative Commons
Ending FGM/C through education, photo credit to Jessica Lea/DFID, used under Creative Commons

Another issue was the effect that young girls have on others–particularly in talking about sexual experiences. There is a notion of exclusion, presenting sex as more of a rite of passage. For young girls, this can have a domino effect of engaging in sexual behaviors in order to maintain friendships and inclusion. To mediate this, a space of conversation and learning needs to be created. A space where all girls are included and can discuss their questions and concerns openly with a health professional, or even someone in their village who is knowledgeable and willing to share her own insight with them.

According to Jewkes, young girls are seen as becoming mature faster than boys, therefore in many minds evening out the age difference between them. Seen in “If they rape me, I can’t blame them” is a pattern of self-blaming–here, girls seem to shoulder all responsibility for any type of assault or molestation that occurs. Their bodies are seen as inherently sexual the older they get, and everything from their actions to the types of clothes they wear is seen as provocative and an invitation for sexual interaction. Immodesty is seen as a form of disrespect.

Photo credit to Michael Fleshman, used under Creative Commons
Photo credit to Michael Fleshman, used under Creative Commons

The reasons the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram have not been found yet have been numerous. The girls have been believed to have been seen recently, but there are arguments as to why they haven’t been rescued yet. I believe that despite the publicity the incident is receiving, it is less shocking on the local level than it is on the international level. Boko Haram has inflicted all kinds of terror upon the people there, and Nigeria has a  society where this type of thing happens every day.

In some eyes, it could be argued that the girls are still receiving some kind of education, religion, housing, and a secure future, which is better than what a lot of girls might receive in their lifetime. The danger of men that they don’t know isn’t much greater than the danger of men that they might know in their communities–the threat has not changed. In a system where girls are so deeply undervalued, the absence of them has been buried under issues considered more important.

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