Story by: Prince Wako
Seeing the Girl-child through International Media.
Last Week while chatting with a Turkish friend – Aykan, he told me of his forthcoming trip to Belgrade, Serbia. Instead of echoing excitement, he sounded sick at heart. He kept thinking about the life his family lived back in the day, in the Turkish town of Kilis – Where the shelling in Syria could be heard and effects were seen. Before they relocated to Izmir, rockets fired from across the border in Syria hit their hometown for several weeks. They could endure the bombardment no more – So they left in a rush. In a sequence, he shared photos of women who were gathering at Turkey’s border with Syria. The aim of these women was to try and bring to the world’s attention, the several women and girls currently being held in prisons in Syria and some being subjected to torture and rape. One of his texts read. “I am sure I used to play with some of those girls, my school had many Syrian girls…” Even when I tried to empathize with him, it just hit me so hard. Imagine this; ‘The girl with whom you shared a desk or a snack at school, has been held prisoner by an unending civil war! Every day that passes, the risk of her being raped or catching diseases grows higher! She sleeps on an empty stomach and survives death out in the cold alone by a whisker each day!’ These were just a few of the several disturbing situations scattered all over the world. We continued chatting. While I waited for him to reply, I switched my cable TV on and started viewing the content that made more rounds on CNN, BBC, AL JAZEERA etc. What I noticed weaved a pattern all over this world.
One Indian based News Station was airing a documentary on Chhaupadi – a social tradition associated with the menstrual taboo in the western part of Nepal. The tradition prohibits Hindu women from participating in day to day family activities during their menstrual periods because they are considered impure. I watched in awe as the featured 17-year-old Kalpana narrated her ordeal. Every time during her menstrual periods, her father regarded her as an impure and dirty being. She was forced out of the family home and on several occasions, spent nights in cowsheds. The family prohibited her from eating meat, vegetables or milk because they claimed she would contaminate the animals, plants and the whole village. She narrated one painful memory where she lost her friends, two girls who died of snake bites, aged 14 & 19 – They had spent their fateful nights in the cowsheds because of their menstrual periods. With this documentary, the story was surely relevant. Several questions started running through my mind. ‘If these girls were treated like that at home, how is the situation in school? Do they even get a chance to go to school anyway? The thought of an innocent girl sleeping out under the cowshed alone in the night sent cold shivers all over my body. Then suddenly, Aykan sent another text. ”Turn to Al Jazeera quick…it is a story related to your country.”
As soon as I finished reading the text, I reached for my TV remote and immediately changed the channel to Al Jazeera. The Journalist Fatma Naib was reporting on a very pertinent issue, Female Genital Mutilation. While she quoted several examples from Uganda, Somalia, and the Middle East, she focused on Eritrea. Girls had to surrender to the practice since it was a locally accepted custom. Using locally sharpened knives and dried herbs, external female genitalia was removed leaving many girls in pain. Well, I labored to assure Aykan that this practice was dying out back in my home country Uganda, but we all agreed to one thing. Girls should not be treated like this. Unfortunately, the story was a short one but they presented alarming statistics. At least 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone female genital mutilation. My immediate research did not reveal any health benefits of the practice but instead made girls more susceptible to a myriad of infections and trauma.The media was awash with stories that surely affected the foundation of societies. BBC was not any different, one of the headlines highlighted the war in Yemen. A country where half of the 2.18 million people internally displaced is women and girls. Girls who once had homes and beautiful families were now living in the Dharwan settlement, outside the capital of Sanaa. The pictures aired, were of little girls fighting for one toy – Living their infant life through war. Earlier last week the UN made it clear to the rest of the world that 2 million children in Yemen were out of school and missing out on decent education because of the conflict. At that moment, the world had been presented to me in a nutshell. But there was a common factor in all these transmissions. The people who suffered most because of conflict and practices were girls and women. It got me thinking, there were worse scenarios than these all over the world. We need to secure the future of our societies by ensuring that the rights of the mothers of our nations are fully protected.
Then I scrolled through social media, all I read were International Women’s day messages. Back in my home country, friends sent congratulatory messages to their sisters and mothers – Lovely indeed. But I still felt there was a lot to do to empower the girl child.
A month ago I read a story from one of the local Ugandan Newspapers – The New Vision. Girls in the Rhino refugee camp, Arua District, northern Uganda. They kept narrating their experiences at school. Many had earlier decided to drop out of school, even when the government was providing free education. Reason being the stigma of their menstrual periods. Those who persevered tried to use thick rugs and pieces cut from old blankets but this instead exposed them to worse health risks. It seemed as though their fate was sealed. Imagine, they were forced to skip school for 4-5 days every month of the school calendar because they had no access to sanitary pads. Five days a month meant 45 days a year. Remember they are meant to sit the same national examinations, on the same day with the boys that attended school throughout the year. Well one will say it is a better situation than that reported from Nepal but hey, do not be fooled, they all have the same underlying principle – ‘The girl child not being able to fully exercise her rights merely because of her nature.’ What I loved about this story was the fact that many young men had come up with innovative ideas, making sanitary pads from the banana pulp. Many of the girls in the camp were taught how to make these pads for themselves. Their access to these locally made sanitary pads powered their stay in school making it very consistent and enjoyable.