Meet the feminists changing the world for girls from Kenya to Egypt

Meet the feminists changing the world for girls from Kenya to Egypt

Ellie Mae O’Hagan, The Guardian

13 April 2015


Sri Lanka

Sarah Soysa: ‘Young feminists are considered to be an evil, scary threat’

Feminism is needed for teenage girls in Sri Lanka. Women, young people and transgender people are harassed and disempowered. Opportunities are taken away from them.

Sri Lanka has a particularly high teenage pregnancy rate. A Unicef study found that 6% of 14- to 19-year-olds in school and 22% of out-of-school adolescents have had sexual experiences. In response to this, and despite the fact that abortion is highly restricted in Sri Lanka, we launched the first ever safe medical abortion hotline, Ask Us. We share information on abortion-related issues through print materials, photo and postcard campaigns, research and blogging. We advocate for sexual rights at all levels, including within the school system.

I am a feminist because I believe all people have a right to make decisions and become leaders, and yet society is still controlled by patriarchal values. This problem was obvious at this year’s United Nations Commission on the Status ofWomen. States decided upon policies affecting women, young people, and the queer community without consulting them.

Young feminists are considered to be an evil, scary threat; as a result we are completely excluded from decision making. Feminists are necessary to improve conditions for everyone. We should be respected and taken seriously.

Sarah Soysa is an advocate for safe abortion and a Frida adviser.


Mihaela Dragan: ‘Some Roma girls have to marry as young as 14’

Roma women and girls have to deal with the double discrimination of racism and sexism.

Some Roma girls from traditional communities have to marry as young as 14 or even earlier. Their virginity represents the honour of the whole family, and after marriage they are forced to abandon school and get pregnant.

If Roma feminists attempt to promote the idea of choice to teenage girls, leaders argue that early marriage is traditional, authentic and specific to Roma culture. They promote early marriage as a protective reaction against an anti-Roma discourse from outside. Some girls are leaving their communities and have to face a racist society that rejects them for being Roma.

For me as a Roma woman it was difficult to have a voice both in society and in the Roma community that I am part of. We need feminism because Roma women and girls are suffering abuse, and we need a larger movement to offer them solidarity and support.

Mihaela Drăgan is an actor and activist who is based in Bucharest.


Catherine Tito: ‘Patriarchal culture is deeply-rooted’

As a survivor of female genital mutilation (FGM), my personal experience has shaped my commitment to fight for the rights of girls. I have been labelled as an outcast because I have decided to reject patriarchal culture, but I have no regrets.

Young girls from the Maasai community still face the risk of undergoing the female genital mutilation ritual. This barbaric act has denied the young Maasai girls their bodily rights; their autonomy and integrity. Patriarchal culture is deeply-rooted and it is a huge struggle to change it.

Girls Re-defined, is a girls-led, girls-driven organisation that works in Narok County of Kenya. Our mission is to empower girls aged between 12 and 18 who are at risk or have survived FGM to rediscover and celebrate their wholeness, develop their self-confidence, and become agents of change within their own communities. We have slowly recorded a change in attitudes among traditional leaders in our community with regard to the abandonment of FGM practices.

My goal is to see more and more girls going to school and achieving their dreams. If the girls in my community can translate their dreams into a fulfilling life, then that is my joy. As a feminist, I believe that both boys and girls need to be given equal opportunities in society.

Catherine Tito works with Girls Re-defined, an organisation which supports teen survivors of FGM.

Monyvann Nhean: ‘Families depend on young women for their income’

Cambodian teenage girls suffer from a lack of confidence when it comes to making life plans and choosing careers. Society does not empower them to pursue their goals. Girls need role models to encourage them, and access to information that can help them make the right decisions for their futures. This is why I started organising feminist talks and career mentoring sessions for teenage girls in high schools – I want girls to embrace their full potential and build leadership skills.

I want to ensure that girls in Cambodia are not valued just for their virginity but as independent human beings. I want them to have the strength to make their own decisions and to shape their own destinies.

I invest a lot of my energy on teenage girls, especially with regards to their careers and safe migration. These are important issues for young women in Cambodia: families depend on them for the lion’s share of their income. When we can’t find jobs in our own country, we migrate in our hundreds of thousands to neighbouring countries. This has put many young women in unsafe working and travel conditions. Traffickers target us specifically.

I want to see the better implementation of policies protecting women’s rights to ensure we have the right to say yes or no to sex; have reproductive rights; freedom of choice; the right to political participation; and equal pay.

Monyvann Nhean is a member of Cambodia’s Young Women’s Leadership Network.


Elvira Meliksetyan: ‘We are smeared as immoral women’

It is not easy to be a feminist in Armenia. We are smeared as immoral women who are determined to destroy the nuclear family. The stigmas we have to deal with are not just annoying but dangerous: we constantly fear attack from extremists.

In Armenia, teenage girls are not given the opportunity to explore their desires and interests because our patriarchal society has already decided who they should love and what they should care about. They are expected to be modest and obedient daughters, who will go on to become caring mothers and obedient wives. This means teen girls are only exposed to a small set of ideas regarding what their futures should look like. They suffer from low self-esteem, a lack of self-awareness and are frequently stressed.

After surviving psychological abuse within a relationship, I decided to be part of the effort to stop gender-based violence going unpunished. But when girls try to break free from narrow stereotypes and do something different, we face opposition from both our families and communities. As with all women in Armenian society, exerting your rights comes at a cost.

We will continue our struggle for equal rights and opportunities for women and girls in Armenia, even though it can mean jeopardising our personal lives and well-being.

Elvira Meliksetyan is the communications and PR manager at Women’s Resource Centre Armenia.


Firliana Purwanti: ‘The pressure for girls to remain virgins does not allow open discussions about sex’

Sexual repression in Indonesia causes many problems for teenage girls around unplanned pregnancy, sexual violence, unsafe abortion and high maternal mortality rates. The pressure for girls to remain virgins until marriage does not allow open and honest discussions between parents and children about sex; let alone discussions about consent and how to negotiate with partners around using contraception.

According to the Indonesia Health and Demography Survey of 2012, the teen pregnancy rate is 48 per 1,000 pregnancies. Approximately 2 million Indonesian women undergo abortions and 30% of them are teenagers. In 2010, unsafe abortion made up between 5% and 11% of Indonesia’s maternal mortality rate. In Indonesia, safe abortions are highly restricted – permitted only for women in great danger or those who have survived rape, and even then abortion is only allowed when the pregnancy is less than 40 days old.

I question why Indonesian girls have to be virgins before they are married, when nobody cares about male virginity. I am a feminist because I question inequalities.

Firliana Purwanti is the author of The Orgasm Project.


Ghadeer Ahmed: ‘Young girls have no right to make their own decisions’

In January 2012, the first anniversary of the 25 January revolution, I founded a feminist page on Facebook called Girls’ Revolution. It started as a Twitter hashtag, which I used to encourage girls to share their experiences of discrimination based on gender. I realised I was not the only girl who has discriminatory experiences.

In Egypt, once a girl reaches puberty she is forced to undergo FGM, forced to be veiled, and she starts to experience social stereotyping. Young girls are treated like dependants who have no right to make their own decisions. This prevents girls from being themselves and forces them to satisfy social expectations instead of pursuing their own dreams.

Until I made that Facebook group I had no idea about feminism. I decided to call myself a feminist because women have no freedom of choice, no authority over their own bodies, and are dominated by patriarchy. Sexual violence – in both public and private spaces, economic inequality between the sexes, social stereotyping and the political oppression of women are still huge problems in Egypt.

Ghadeer Ahmed is the founder of Girls Revolution.

Ruby Johnson and Devi Leiper O’Malley are co-directors at Frida/The Young Feminist Fund.

Featured Image: Feminists from around the world Photograph: fdhsauifhadu. Copyright: The Guardian

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