Saturday, 11 February 2017

Everyday A Girl #EDAG

By Hadassah Louis

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a girl in another part of the world? To live like them, eat like them, and put on the cloak of womanhood as dictated by their society.

The story of Everyday a Girl, tagged #EDAG, is a glance into the lives of ordinary women through a series of poignant photo stories. These series of images will visually express the roles, challenges, activities and duties that females in diverse communities face in their daily lives.

SAFIGI Outreach Foundation Ltd, a youth-led NGO registered in Zambia, implemented EDAG in order to place a strong emphasis on positively redefining the role of females in our society. This campaign highlights that gender equality and equity, woman empowerment, and safety for the girls is key to the world’s socio-economic development.

The women in Zambia’s society have their own unique story to tell. During the three years SAFIGI has been active in Zambia, we have encountered stories of girls that reflect a national view of the state of the marginalized girls in the Southern African country. In Zambia, just 35.4% of girls attend secondary school. And in this margin, 54% had reported sexual violence or harassment from a male peer or teacher. [Cornell University.2012]

SAFIGIs Alumni Photographer, Thandiwe Mumba, went on an assignment in Chipata, Zambia.  She asked the rural girls ‘why they are in a rush to get pregnant?’ Their response is that they have nothing better to do, since most of them have dropped out of school due to lack of support. Teenage pregnancy is the leading cause of death for young women aged 15 to 19 years old worldwide. [Daily Mail Zambia. 2015]

Alumni Photographer for SAFIGI talks to young girls about the dangers of early marriage.  Photo Credit: Thandiwe Mumba 

She also met Grace, a 17 year old girl.  Grace is a single mother to a 2 year old girl. She stays with her mother in Chipata. Her father died 4 years ago and so she dropped out of school in 8th grade.

Grace dropped out of school in 8th grade. She now has a 2 year old daughter.     Photo Credit: Thandiwe Mumba

2 in 5 Zambian girls is married by 18 years old. [UNFPA. 2016.] The story of Precious Chanda, 19 years old, got married at the age of 15 in Kapiri, Zambia. She is the only surviving member of her family and thus was forced into an early marriage due to lack of support from her relatives and lack of accommodation. Her intention is to go back to school after dropping out in 11th grade.  The story was contributed by SAFIGIs Activist, Busiku Handema.

Precious got married at 15 to escape economic hardship. She has a son. Photo credit: Busiku Handema.

The problem is more serious for the girls in peri-urban and rural areas. As seen in the picture taken by Alumni SAFIGI Public Relations Manager, Ethel Chabu, young girls return home after fetching water for house consumption. In these areas, a young girl travels long distances in search of clean drinking water; a time that could be used to study.

Access to clean water is limited, so girls travel long distances to fetch water. Photo Credit: Ethel Chabu

From the latter stories, it is evident that a broken family system plagued by poverty, illiteracy, disease and death, is causing social ills to the marginalized girls who have nowhere to go. Though this is not every girl’s life experience in Zambia, as we will see later in the photo series, these stories represent the many marginalized who have the potential to better their lives and contribute to the economy – given equal opportunity and a safe environment to thrive. SAFIGI will advocate their stories, and through our different workshops, provide an opportunity for the girl child to learn more about Safety.

(Face hidden to conceal identity). A girl in Ndola who does not go to school.  Photo Credit: Ethel Chabu

At SAFIGI, Safety is classified into two; internal safety being peace of mind, heart, emotions; external safety being protection of the body, other person, and the environment. We believe Safety Education can lead to self-actualization that contributes to overall development regardless of gender or socio-economic status. You can download the Safety Education Lesson plans here or on our website;

The EDAG project will bring together volunteers from across the globe to speak with one voice in support of empowerment of females irrespective of economic, religious, cultural or ethnic background. The UN Online Volunteers platform provided an opportunity for online volunteers worldwide to contribute to this project.

To get involved, contact us and to apply to be an online volunteer click here.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Shame of Being Fair

By Maliha Mohiudun via UN Online Volunteers

“She did it again! How does she get up there?” my uncle’s wife looked perplexed yet slightly amused as I walked by, towel thrown over my shoulder, and made my way to the grand hall sofa. My father looked stern as he took in my color of my skin. What two days ago had been a warm cream, was now a dark mocha from the intense Indian sun. In an effort to keep me from the rooftop my uncle had placed layers of furniture along the last staircase landing, but I was adept at climbing and grasping the high railing I managed my way around the matrix of chairs and tables.

It was always a tense and irrational conversation that followed these excursions to the rooftop. “Who is going to see your skin? Why are you stubborn and set to bring shame to us? What if someone saw you?” “I do it for myself, I think I look prettier when I’m tan. Everyone in America is tan. Besides, I blend in here now.” I replied, avoiding his intense and disapproving gaze. It always boggled my mind how in a land where the majority of people were born with varying shades of caramel skin they could hate it so much.

Throughout my childhood I would overhear various family members discuss the merits of certain girls, “She’s pretty, but she’s dark.”  So many of my own cousins owned and diligently used ‘Fair & Lovely’ a bleaching cream widely used throughout India. Their marriageability ranked on their skin tone, often outweighing their education, career, and personalities. I was born to parents whose pigmentation favored that of toasted cashews and so I became a rarity in a sea of caramel, a rare jewel in the South of India. It was a curse.

From even as early as twelve years of age elder women would hound my grandaunts and parents to arrange a marriage between me and their son, nephew, whoever. All of this solely based on the color of my skin, regardless of how perverted their requests sounded to my whole family. Dressed in rich and vibrant blouses with ornate skirts, I often looked older than my age at weddings, which only added to these outrageous overtures. Back then, it hadn’t bothered my parents as much as it bothered me, but they grew concerned as I grew older. I had studied my mother’s photographs from her youth and  by 18 perfected the cat eye, pairing that against my cream skin and distinct beauty mark made me stand out from the crowd of girls whose mothers caked them in talc powder and magenta lipstick.

It wasn’t so much at weddings that my father began to resent my looks, but during the regular day trips in the city. Sitting in the back of our family car, my Disk-man on full blast I would gaze out the window, the passing traffic that weaved around those crowded Indian roads full of men on motorcycles. My dark hair whipping around my face as we drove to local sari boutiques. And then inevitably, one of those motorcyclists would notice me and just as suddenly they would take every turn that our driver did until finally parking in the market. 

I tried not to notice them, averting my gaze as I stepped out of the car, often dressed in long shirt salwars that didn’t follow the trends of India, but rather my own style of minimalism and clean cuts. Hours would pass as we purchased items in the top stories of these markets, often leaving past midnight after collaborations with the tailors, and yet I could still see at least one or two of those men perched on their motorcycles lying in wait.

Often, as I got into the car a little street child would run by the car and drop a note into my lap, the number for my stalker neatly written with some insulting comment about my beauty. It was upon such occurrences that my father would notice the men again following us, and angrily turn to me in the backseat, chastising me as he demanded I roll up my window and stay out of site. This happened often enough that on the rare occasions when I was left at home my father would have my uncle lock our front gate and post a guard.  I often resented my time in India as it tainted my relationship with my family, each one thinking of ways that I was a risk and how to keep me in or cover me from head to toe when I did step out. ‘How did no one else get harassed the way I did?’ they often wondered only to suspect that I must be initiating the stalking.

Instead of thinking that something should be done to alter the male gaze, the blame was placed on me, on the cream tone of my skin, on my naivety of a culture I did not understand. On the rare occasions that I would shout out at the men to leave me alone I was chastised, often left feeling ashamed for something far beyond my control. I never understood why those men weren’t on the receiving end of my father’s anger. As much as I resented feeling like a caged bird, I took comfort in the feeling of security at home that I didn’t have when I traversed the city. It wasn’t until I began my trips to the rooftop that I found a way to stop or at least minimize the stalking. I became less of that rare jewel and became just another Indian woman driving around with her family.

It took many years after these trips to have an open dialogue with my parents, my father in particular who was often uncomfortable when confronted with such topics, but it was necessary for me. His intention was always to protect me, but never understood that in shaming me he was only reinforcing the mentality that anything I had experience was my fault and not that of the men who violated my sense of safety. We have all changed in many ways over the years, but my family no longer allows for blame being placed on anyone other than the perpetrator. I am no longer shamed for taking pride in how I present myself in the world.

Now there are so many shows that we watch from the comfort of our couch in America about the way women are objectified and harassed, often ending in far more dire experiences than my own. Using these shows as a platform for change in a society that up until recent years has rarely held men accountable, now exposes those for who and what they are, perverted individuals in a society that is ready for change. 

Gone are the days where shaming women for the inappropriate male gaze is common practice, we are now in a time when men are being forced to change or else deal with the harsh consequences of the law. I’d like to think that conversations like the ones I had with my family over the years happened among other families leading to this movement, and that the volume of these voices is what is drowning out an outdated and foolhardy point of view.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Shamed for Being Thin

By Ananya De via UN Online Volunteers


There has been a variety of body shaming that I have faced, sometimes subtle and sometimes direct. There were some even over those features on which I actually have no control, for ex., my blunt nose or my height (when in school), but the one over which I have encountered the most throughout my life is over my thin body frame.

The most peculiar thing that I have seen is that most of the people here are not even aware that they are thin shaming. We see that people try to control themselves or others from uttering some remarks on someone’s obesity or darker skin colour etc., but we see automatic comments on seeing someone thin or skinny on how they need to eat something.

I know that due to the image portrayed by the media, people who are overweight face much stigma. But it’s actually a matter of perception. Even if the visual media is seen to promote to become thinner, it seems that in Indian common households girls with few layers of fat are more preferred or else why should I be given such kind advice from more than one person on how should I try to obtain a proper figure so that later I would be considered a good prospect in the marriage market. 

Again, I would like to make it clear I am not pulling any view on being under or over weight upwards or downwards, I am just telling about the way the people are affected by what they usually see in their society and how they judge others on the basis of what they think is ‘normal’. 

I am just putting forward the thought that if someone is happy with how they look, then, we should let them be so.

There was this incident which occurred when I was in school, maybe in class 9 or 10. Some of my friends from school and others, we all used to attend a biology coaching class together. I don’t remember the details clearly, but I remember that one day the teacher put forward some questions on whether I was not eating properly or if I was having any problems in nutrient absorption and metabolism. 

Maybe it was meant to be some remark in light manner, but it doesn’t diminish the effects that it had on me and the other friends who attended the class.

I still remember the way the questions plagued my mind. I still remember how it became a long standing joke amongst that teacher and my school friends. And I still remember how I thought that since he is a biology teacher, what he said must be correct and that if I was thinking in that way, my friends must be thinking in that same way. I remember that when added to the usual remarks of my classmates on how thin I was, it made me question myself time to time if I really had a problem or if I was really so thin that it should invite comments. 

These kinds of comments on any body type and shape are much damaging as they put a dent into one’s self-esteem and confidence.

But again, I remember the other aspects too. I realised that I was always eating more or less a balanced diet. I also remember how I searched a lot in books, internet and also discussed with our family doctor over these questions. 

And I remember how sometime later I had told that bio teacher about how genetic factors might be a reason along with other factors (three of my aunts, i.e., sisters of my father have similar body frame) and being thin doesn’t mean I don’t eat well or I have a metabolism problem. One cannot just assume that being thin means being unhealthy.

I don’t know if I could make him or others understand it no matter how much I have repeated it till even now. Even if it’s ironic that the ones at college (irrespective of boys and girls) commenting on how I would float away in the air or something else were the ones trying hard to lose weight and asking frequently about what diet I maintain. 

But that search backed by scientific facts was one of the firsts which put my mind into rest. I could tell myself clearly that being thin doesn’t mean I am weak or I have any kind of problem and there can be other reasons. And it is not my shortfall if I look differently than what is fixed to be the societal standard for ‘normal’. 

Yes, I still have self-doubts on whether I look too thin or not while trying over new clothes or so. 

There have been years of occasional remarks and various name callings ranging from stick to size zero which would have surely left some mark or so, more than I would like to admit. But I now know that if I think with a clear mind, I can try to put them past me. I know that if I am well and active, then, no matter how much people try to demean me, I should not let them pull myself down (my BMI stays around 20-20.5, well within the ideal range).

As we grow older, the way we perceive things changes and the way we handle things changes. Books and interaction with other people helped me a lot. It helped me to understand the differences between the spiteful comments, the teasing ones, the concerned ones and the remarks without any intent but due to habit etc. We have to realise when we need to protest and when we have to ignore it, i.e., when that person is not worth it. We are what we are irrespective of it being our choice or us being naturally so. 

And any kind of shaming hampers the process of embracing ourselves the way we are. Our nature, our personal character defines us, not a part of our body or a certain body type. Thus, we don’t have to listen to anyone if they are trying to portray us as anything less than a person as a whole.