It’s all about choice

Hi all!

In my last entry, I mentioned that I had some exciting news for you all. I can now reveal that on the 20th of May, I was invited as part of VSO’s Women in Power campaign to attend a panel debate in London on women, girls and reproductive health. The debate itself was hosted by DFID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with Save the Children and International Planned Parenthood Foundation, and discussion ranged from child marriage to availability of contraception, with the emphasis at all stages on women having choices open to them. I’ll be discussing what was said at the debate further on, so just bear all that in mind for later!

I decided that this particular London-foray was going to be a round trip, and so after a very early start (my alarm went off at 3.30am), I found myself in Westminster for 1.30 in the afternoon, having wandered around buying books and eating croissants for most of the morning.

I met up with Team VSO, a mixture of ICS and ‘grown up’ VSO Returned Volunteers and staff, and we had a little time to discuss the event and get to know each other before heading over to Great George Street for the beginning of the debate. I had no idea how big the event was – I was under the impression that there were going to be a few people from various different organisations, a bit of talking, a bit of mingling and a bit of eating tea and biscuits. Instead, there were people in suits, people with tape recorders, the media, academics, gynaecologists, policy makers, politicians, representatives from the NGO and charity sector; in other words, it was most certainly A BIG DEAL.

When the panel walked in, I realised just why it was such a big deal. Those debating the topics above were:

No wonder there was so much press!

(I should point out that I spent the majority of the debate furiously writing down as much as possible for use here, so I only have one photograph of the panel):

 

L-R: Natasha Kaplinsky, Melinda Gates, Justine Greening, Tewodros Melesse and Catherine Ojo

L-R: Natasha Kaplinsky, Melinda Gates, Justine Greening, Tewodros Melesse and Catherine Ojo

 

Natasha Kaplinsky began by introducing herself and the panel, following a welcome from Justin Forsyth. Each panellist put forward a few thoughts about the topic, which was a good way to open up the conversation. For example, Natasha described visiting a hospital in India and watching a new mother go through an agonisingly long labour, only to be disappointed that the baby was a girl. Each panel member had a similar sort of experience, or anecdote, and the geographical spread of their experiences, from South America to Africa, the Middle East to Asia, highlighted the global challenge we face in trying to involve women as equal citizens.

This was also the point in the debate where a lot of statistics were introduced, and fittingly, many were from Ethiopia – this is partly because we have about 40 years of historical data on Ethiopian-based interventions, so we can track ups and downs in progress. In Ethiopia alone, 31% of girls will be subjected to early marriage. 57% will undergo female genital mutilation (FGM). Only 1 in 10 women will give birth with a midwife to assist them. These statistics are at the national level, and vary across the country; the rates will be far higher in rural areas, or in certain regions. The most recent statistics I’ve seen on Ethiopia’s regions suggests that 90-98% of women in the area around Dire Dawa had undergone FGM. We’ll come back to this in the next blog post.

Ethiopian readers: you will be happy to know that there was a lot of praise for efforts in reducing your rates of what are termed ‘harmful traditional practices’, and rolling out successful health campaigns to help protect your girls. I felt very gobbez for you all 🙂

The speakers all echoed the need for a greater educational, legal, medical and social response to the problems faced by women across the world: efforts must be holistic, otherwise the vulnerable will slip through the net. And it’s not good enough to just make a law: it has to be enforced. Only telling girls about child marriage won’t save them from it: you have to tell the boys as well. We need more trained midwives who will be able to support women through difficult childbirths and recognise when they need further help. This may all seem fairly obvious to those of us lucky enough to be protected from child marriage, bride abduction, FGM or lack of contraception, but to women in these situations, there is no alternative.

The panel had some really interesting facts, and actually, the best thing might be for me to bulletpoint some of the things they said that really struck me, whether good or bad. Hopefully something here will strike a chord with you too.

Justine Greening

  •  By 2020, we want to provide 120 million women with the access to reproductive health options. And it’s not just about The Pill, it’s about communicating other messages, like spacing out children, which means they have a greater chance of being healthier, and that the family size will not swell beyond a manageable number of little ones.
  • Women and girls are absolutely central to the attainment of sustainable development (thank you, Justine, for agreeing with me 🙂 )
  • The UK government is committing to support the Early Newborn Action Plan, and recognises that healthy livelihoods mean looking not only at nutrition, but developing education as part of human potential

 

Melinda Gates

  •  Disclaimer: I will never be as eloquent as Melinda was, so I apologise. You’ll just have to imagine her saying this much better than I can type it.
  • We need to re-think how we talk about the female health issue, and instead of talking about ‘infants’, ‘girls’ and ‘women’, move towards a continuum of female health
  • Child mortality has almost halved since 1995
  • On the first day of life, 2.9 million babies die globally. A further million will die within the first month. These deaths occur overwhelmingly in the developing world. Lives could be spared with very simple solutions, like ensuring the baby stays warm and dry and is exclusively breastfed.
  • There has also been very positive progress on reducing maternal and childhood deaths around the world. We are moving in the right direction.

 

Catherine Ojo

  • Midwives have the opportunity to teach girls and women to embrace family planning and wider education
  • Only trained professionals can give a safe delivery; Catherine warned against using traditional birth attendants as a culturally appropriate substitute, because they don’t always have the medical knowledge to recognise a preventable problem early enough.
  • FGM has a devastating effect on women. Catherine told us about a woman who came from a community that didn’t practice FGM, and married a man whose community did practice it. They had a little girl, and the parents were delighted. They both agreed that they would leave their daughter alone, and refused FGM. When the little girl was 8 days old, the paternal grandmother visited the family, and put horrendous pressure on the couple to cut their daughter; she said that unless this happened, the girl would not be able to give birth safely, would never marry, and would be unhealthy. The baby underwent FGM, and the grandmother told the parents to tie the baby onto her back to heal. The baby bled to death and was dead a few days later. This was down to the ignorance of the grandmother, and the strain that her pressure put on the couple, who felt forced to give in to the wishes of an elder family member.
  • How can a girl participate in society if she is traumatised from childhood?
  • Pregnancy should happen by choice, not by chance

 

Tewodros Melesse

  • International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) is aiming to treble family planning provision by 2015
  • Works with young people and the government in India, who committed around $8 million to the IPPF’s work. They are also partners of the UNFPA.
  • Need to ensure choice of contraceptives
  • IPPF is working to eliminate gender-based violence, especially in the Pacific region
  • We have to address the needs of adolescents, who are usually left out of the baby-girl-woman model; echoed Melinda’s promotion of the ‘lifecycle’ model
  • It’s crucial to recognise reproductive rights as human rights. If they are fundamental rights, they cannot be imposed upon by anybody
  • We have to engage young leaders and religious leaders to promote gender equality, girls’ education and family planning

 

Once you see it written down like this, you realise that the messages from these different sources – the politician, the broadcaster, the humanitarian, the midwife and the director – are all calling for the same thing. I think Melinda summed up the formula for success best:

Policy and law + community groundswell + public awareness + open discussion = cultural change

It’s a big ask, and a lot of communities won’t be ready for it yet. But the good news is that many are. We are making changes; the graphs are trending in the right direction, and the people in power care about winning the battle they’re facing.

Tewodros made a vital point at the end of the debate: some male feminists exist! We don’t have to fight these problems with only half of the world’s population. Including men is absolutely crucial if we are going to save women from a life of pain and poverty, because at the moment, men are ones with the voice.

 

All in all, the panel debate was a fantastic experience – the fact that I was in the room with these people blew my wee mind. If VSO wanted a broad representation of women in power to inspire us, then they certainly got it, not just in the form of the panel, but the people in the room. As Melinda said, we need women in power throughout society, not just at the poles. This is only way you will get a push-pull effect; society pushing women up from the bottom and leaders pulling them up from the top.

Equally important was the presence of Tewodros, a man from a country (Ethiopia) without a tradition of women in power, standing up and fighting for women and girls. He told us that he watched his own mother struggle with the reality of child marriage herself, but still pushing her children to achieve their full potential.

I think Tewdoros hit on the key to this conversation – when we talk about ‘women and girls’, we de-personalise the conversation. But if we re-frame the discussion in terms of our mothers, my sister, your daughter, his wife, it suddenly becomes personal and incredibly important. Making harmful traditional practices like child marriage and FGM ‘real’ and relatable, and actually explaining what happens to the girls in these situations starts to demystify the culture that’s built up round them as a way to stop them being challenged. If child marriage was morally justifiable, would it be taboo to discuss it, even in the societies where it’s practiced? I doubt it.

Throughout the debate, I was turning a few things over in my head, and I’m not sure I have answers to either yet, or whether they are even questions:

  1. What would a girl from a poor background and a very traditional upbringing think if she knew we were talking about FGM and child marriage in her community with Westerners…and worse…men? Would she actually agree that these practices are wrong? Girls who lack educational opportunities are more likely to support the continuation of these practices – how do we reach them?
  2. As that discussion was happening, girls were being pinned down and undergoing FGM. And not just in Africa, but a lot closer to home. They have no idea that the debate was happening, that anyone knows about what’s happening to them, or that the world is trying to save them. That was food for thought.
  3. VSO and agencies like them are the people who are actually helping to disseminate these messages to people on the ground, in the middle of nowhere. NGOs have an absolutely critical role to play in this, especially where the government doesn’t see fit to intervene.

If any of this has got you thinking, congratulations. You’ve just started to inform yourself about a multitude of issues that are faced by girls and women all over the world every day. I honestly believe that information dissemination is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal. Harmful traditional practices are perpetuated by a culture of silence and secrecy. End that and you’re a step closer to ending the practice.  Keep asking questions. Keep educating yourself. This problem isn’t going anywhere, and the more people are talking about, the fewer places the perpetrators have to hide. Increasing public awareness is akin to flooding a darkened room with light and then shining a torch into the shadows – we have to stop giving this a dark corner to hide in.

I realise I’ve touched on A LOT in the course of one post. I apologise – I didn’t realise I had as much to talk about! A lot of it hasn’t really been explained, and that’s because I wanted to ease you, the reader, into the discussion, not scare you off.

The next post (I know – the blog was like the Marie Celeste not that long ago) will discuss FGM, and it probably won’t be the most light-hearted piece I’ve ever put together. It’s a very difficult topic to broach, and until recently, I felt like it wasn’t my right to talk about it. To borrow a particularly toxic phrase, ‘it’s not my culture’.

But here’s the deal. It’s not culture. It’s a tradition of abuse, and is actually recognised as such all over the world. If people with a platform for discussion (like me) shy away from taking the opportunity to raise awareness of FGM, we’re condemning millions more girls to a life of pain and missed opportunity.

Not on my watch.

 

 

 

 

Happy Anniversary

Salam natchu and hello everyone!

 

This post is going to be a little different.

Today marks the ‘one year ago today, I went to Ethiopia’ anniversary!

I can’t believe it’s been a year since I stepped onto the Ethiopian Airlines flight for Addis, and the biggest adventure of my life began. In the space of a year, I’ve gone overseas, worked for a lifechanging organisation, lived with the best host family anyone ever had, and met some of the best young British and Ethiopian people I could ever hope to. I’ve attended an awards ceremony, talked until my jaw fell off, twittered here and there, and done a bit of international law along the way too. I could never EVER have predicted the journey the last year would take me on. I’ve loved every moment of the surprise. Especially the camel aspect of the surprise.

I miss those camels.

Since I’ve come home, I’ve become a bit of a quiet campaigner. I’ll save the details for my next post (I’m continuing the theme of surprises: be patient!), but what I can tell you all is that it involves women and girls in the developing (and increasingly, developed) world. The next post might get a little upsetting (I might actually split it into multiple posts to lessen it somewhat), so here, to celebrate the first anniversary of the beginning of this whole endeavour, I’m going to combine two things I absolutely adore: some of the wonderful ladies of Dire Dawa, and Amharic names.

 

Ethiopian females are a force to be reckoned with. They’re strong, compassionate and endlessly kind; just when you think someone couldn’t possibly offer you more, they go that extra mile. I was constantly touched by the care and attention that my host mum, Mesai, gave to all aspects of home life, from taking the sharp edges off sliced potatoes (so they don’t catch the bottom of the wat pot) to her selfless attitude when helping out friends and family members. On one occasion, she spent three days away from home to help cook, serve and clear up an enormous graduation party for family friends. And she smiled all the way through.

Mesai with the amazing fasting pizza she made :)

Mesai with the amazing fasting pizza she made 🙂

Here’s Mesai – my witty, bubbly, wonderful host mum. The name Mesay (which is how you’re actually supposed to spell it), means ‘look-alike’ in Amharic. It also bears a striking resemblance to the Amharic word for lunch, mesa. When I first arrived, every relative I visited made me laugh by calling Mesai ‘lunch’ when they spoke to her.

 

I had the immense joy of spending my three months living with Mesai’s two younger sisters, the littlest of whom is 9 year-old Meron, known to everyone by her nickname, Genana. She spent the last month on holiday with us, and her presence as a playmate and aunt to Temar brought a lot of happiness into the house over the summer holidays.

Genana wanted a 'formal portrait'. So we took it with a massive pink teddy bear as the backdrop.

Genana wanted a ‘formal portrait’. So we took it with a massive pink teddy bear as the backdrop.

I never found out what ‘Genana’ meant – if anybody knows, please leave me a comment – but I do know that Meron is Amharic for ‘gift of God’. It’s also a kind of holy oil used in the Orthodox Church, to which the whole family belong.

 

Genana’s constant companion was the indomitable Temar. Independent, curious and rambunctious, Temar and I started out shakily and finished as real sisters. Learning to see Dire Dawa through the eyes of an extremely intelligent four-year old was an education in itself, and winning her trust was one of the highlights of my entire stay.

Little Temar, the best little host sister I could have asked for

Little Temar, the best little host sister I could have asked for

Temar is Amharic for ‘studious/learned one’, which is fitting given the importance that education plays in her life. Dimbet is going to grow up in a world where she’s valued as an individual, not a commodity. She’s a well-educated child, not a potential dowry. Temar is part of a growing number of Ethiopian girls being raised by parents who value education, and know that it’s the best possible start they can give their daughter. And knowing her aged four, I can only imagine what she’ll be doing when she’s the same age as me. Litigation might suit her…

 

Women in the developing world are often portrayed as downtrodden, unempowered and in need of rescuing. One lady who was none of the above was my boss at JeCCDO, Sister Tigist. She ran that office (and the dozens of volunteer community facilitators reporting to her) like a captain on a ship, but never lost her empathy, or ability to move from crunching numbers to listening to a mother asking for help.

Sister Tigist being an inspiration to all the girls in the audience (and me)

Sister Tigist being an inspiration to all the girls in the audience (and me)

This photograph, which I absolutely love, was taken at a school quiz funded by JeCCDO and participated in by some of the disabled students from one of Dire Dawa’s secondary schools. Tigist (or ‘Sister’, as we all called her – a sign of respect, as she has a nursing degree), is giving a talk to the students about following your dreams, and never letting anything get in your way. What really makes the photograph for me is the three men sitting down listening to her, and respecting every word she says. It sent out a really powerful message to the children in attendance: here was a woman who was a bigger guest of honour than all the men put together, because she ran the thing that paid for the school to put on the event. Tigist means ‘patience’ in Amharic, and I always thought that was such a fitting name for a lady who had the quality in such abundance.

 

Another person whose very being reflected her name was my amazing counterpart, Mehret. Intelligent, thoughtful and downright fabulous, Mehret supported me more than I can ever thank her for during my 12 weeks. She was patient when I didn’t understand, understanding when I was upset, and upset when we had to part.

Beautiful, fabulous, kind: ladies and gentlemen, my counterpart, Mehret

Beautiful, fabulous, kind: ladies and gentlemen, my counterpart, Mehret

And she should be a model.

Mehret means ‘Mercy’ in Amharic, and I will always carry with me Mehret’s voice in my head when I get frustrated about something going wrong: “You don’t have to feel anything – it’s not your fault.” That and her rendition of Jojo’s ‘My Life’, which she’d whack out at random intervals to fill silent conversations. Triple threat: kind, gorgeous and hilarious.

 

The final photograph is actually of two people (three if you include the devil kitten, Flora/Rocky). The reason I chose this photograph for Sara and Gelila is that I think it shows the girls that I got to know at their best; happy, laughing and at ease with everything. Gelila, Mesai’s 16 year-old sister, was studying for her upper school exams while I was there. She told me early on that she and Sara were sisters, and in my new-to-Ethiopia naivety, I assumed she meant blood sisters. What she actually meant was something much stronger, and akin to the bond the three of us had developed by the end of my placement. We were three disparate people from three very different backgrounds, but a higher being, or fate, or the universe, or something, had let us find one another. Being able to come home and know that Gelila and Sara would be there made a long day at the office worth it. Whether I was watching Bollywood movies with Gelila, or talking about how much Sara loved an Ethiopian pop singer, I was always smiling with these two: it was hard not to. Imagine what an odd sight the three of us must have been wandering to church on a Sunday morning. Gelila: another model in the making, yelling sarcastic comments at bajaj drivers who looked at us for too long. Sara: laughing, smiling and linking arms with us both on the way there and singing mezmurs (Orthodox hymns) and dancing all the way back. And Ferenjii looking Dazzy-white in a borrowed netala.

My adopted sisters: Sara (left) and Gelila (right)

My adopted sisters: Sara (left) and Gelila (right)

Gelila is the Amharic version of the Biblical name ‘Delilah’, and means ‘beautiful temptress’. I’m not sure that Gelila would describe herself as such – she’s secretly a bit of a tomboy – but I like that there’s some onomastic potential for her to blossom into one, should she so choose.

Sara is also an Amharic name, from the Bible, and it means ‘princess’. I cannot express how much I love the meaning of Sara’s name; she is a princess who spends her day cooking and cleaning, but is so happy to be doing so. She’s already escaped from a future with child marriage on the cards and has found her way in the world without any education – she made her own fortune. I suppose in Sara’s fairytale, Mesai is her fairy godmother, bringing her in, giving her a purpose and a life that she would never otherwise have had. Her dream come true is happening every day, and getting better all the time. I write this safe in the knowledge that Sara is going to have a happy ending because she’s the princess that got saved from the dragon that claims so many little girls in Ethiopia.

 

A year ago, I hadn’t met any of these wonderful women. I didn’t even know they existed. But every day, I open my laptop and see their faces smiling back at me, and count myself lucky to have been part of their lives even briefly. They continue to inspire me in their own ways every single day, whether I need Temar’s bravery, Tigist’s strength, or Sara’s courage: they’re always there, whatever I do.

They’re the reason I wouldn’t change the last year for anything in the world. Here’s to more girls like these girls, and here’s to ICS for putting them centre stage.

Happy Anniversary, konjos.

 

Canapes, Champagne and a Noticable Lack of Camels

Hello again!

 

Here – finally, and I do apologise for the wait – is my post on THE FIRST EVER UK NATIONAL BLOG AWARDS.

As I mentioned in my previous post, this wee blog of ramblings was shortlisted for the Education-Individual category along with 9 other blogs (all of them awesome, and I recommend looking at some of them here).

I made the journey from North Of The Border to London with my camera, my laptop (and coursework blegh) and my mum (I wasn’t for walking into a room of networking types all by myself!) two days before the awards night, and had a nice couple of days exploring Hampton Court Palace and revisiting Putney, where I had my Assessment Day over a year ago. It was nice to see it again with all those experiences underpinning the visit.

On the Friday, we packed up our suitcases and headed over to The Grange Hotel St Pauls for the big night. After dragging a brush through my hair and attempting to use eyeliner, I headed out to the foyer and met up with the lovely Samia, another ICS returned volunteer who had been nominated for an award. Samia spent her 3 months in South Africa with Skillshare, and I really recommend having a nosey at her blog, which has successfully made the transition from ‘I’m an ICS blogger’ to ‘I’m A Blogger’….much to learn I have.

 

Samia and I.

Samia and I.

 

We had a really good chat about all things volunteering, ICS and ‘what are you doing next?’, before my mum met us and we were joined by Matthew (a returned Team Leader who spent 10 months in Ghana with International Service and whose blog you can find here), Lucy from the ICS Hub and Caitlin from International Service, who had very nicely come along to support the three of us.

 

Because ICS makes you happy bloggers.

Happy, if somewhat confused, ICS bloggers.

 

I’ve never ever been to anything as glitzy as this was, and people had really gone to town on looking their best. The pre-Awards Twitter updates started mentioning hair and nail appointments at about 8.30 in the morning, and the effort certainly paid off! There were lots of things to entertain the guests before the ceremony began, like a candy floss and popcorn stand, a pop-up business card printing stand and….a digital graffiti wall. It was AWESOME. Samia did an excellent hardened juvenile delinquent impression and spray-painted some ICS banter TO REPRESENT. YOU GET ME?

 

YEAH.

YEAH.

 

The event itself was really slick, and despite my initial concerns about how long the votes of thanks and the ‘networking’ would last, it didn’t drag at all. By the time we got on to the awards themselves, I had eaten so many tiny cakes that I was glad of the seat. (Note to self: if attending similar functions in the future, make sure you either eat a massive dinner beforehand, or get there early enough to stalk the waiters with the savoury canapés.)

I won’t go through each and every category and tell you who won what, because you can find all that out here: instead, I’ll show you this here picture of my wee blog up on the screen with all the other blogs who made the shortlist:

 

THAT'S ME!!!!

THAT’S ME!!!!

 

To cut to the chase, I didn’t win anything, but I really don’t mind. It was so unexpected and exciting to just be nominated, that I was chuffed to bits regardless of the outcome. I didn’t leave completely empty-handed however; all bloggers (and guests) left with a certificate, a goody bag and, thanks to the artistic leanings of Samia, a jazzy ICS magazine bag.

It does indeed.

It does indeed.

DSCF1917

 

I’m not sure when I’ll next be scribbling again: dissertation season is almost upon us, and although I’m really hopeful it might generate a couple of Ethiopia-related posts, I’m still waiting on the topic to be confirmed. In the meantime, I recommend having a wee look at what other work VSO does in Ethiopia…and check out the link at the bottom of the page. I’m quite excited.

In some ways, winning the category would have devalued the message that I think runs through a lot of what I’ve written. This blog isn’t about the people who always win, or come out top. It’s about second (or first) chances, risks and an awful lot of hard work, not just on my part, but on the part of all the people I’ve met through the ICS family. They’re the people I want to really dedicate the shortlisting to, because without them, I wouldn’t be doing any of this. So thank you.