Around the globe, the transformational power of supporting women and girls is becoming more prevalent in our societies. According to research, educating girls at least up to age 14 leads to later marriages, smaller families and higher incomes that are then reinvested into the health and education of those families and their communities.
However, the world is decades away from achieving gender equality. In the “Global Mosaic” episode “Young Women Rising” independent filmmaker Liz Canning and London-based journalist Kumba Kpakima met for the first time at the historic 2019 Women Deliver conference in Vancouver. They teamed up to look for organizations working on these issues around the world, and focused their reporting on women in Texas and the Democratic Republic of the Congo who are fighting every day to have a voice in their communities.
Setting Women Up for Success
To be a woman in my country, you’re born to be married,” Neema Namadamu says. “Women are not human beings, they are property for somebody.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, women live in a long-standing patriarchal system and are particularly impacted by poverty and limited access to clean water, health services and education. With many rural areas having no roads, toilets, or safe water and sanitation systems, many Congolese women walk miles every day in the blistering heat to simply wash dishes or provide their families with clean drinking water. As a result of a strict gender hierarchy, women live far below the poverty threshold, making them even poorer than their male counterparts and often subjected to acts of gender-based violence, such as domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Women’s rights activist Neema Namadamu was born in a remote village in the South Kivu Province of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Crippled by polio when she was a girl, she experienced firsthand the negative effects of having limited opportunities.
“To be a woman in my country, you’re born to be married,” Neema Namadamu says. “Women are not human beings, they are property for somebody.”
With hopes to spark change, Namadamu created the women’s rights organization Hero Women Rising which focuses on uplifting Congolese girls and women by providing them access to basic necessities like water and sanitary products, and chances to enrich their lives through reforestation and education opportunities.
Hero Women Rising’s program, Keep Girls in School, provides resources to support Congolese girls’ education. In the DRC, many school-aged girls start to lose self-confidence when they begin menstruating. Due to lack of sanitary products, they stay home and miss days of school, which causes them to fall behind in their education and eventually drop out. To urge them to stay in school, the Keep Girls in School program provides the girls with Stay in School Kits that include period necessities such as underwear, reusable menstrual pads and school book bags. According to the Hero Women Rising website, 2,500 girls have received these kits, which is helping minimize the girls’ dropout rate.
In addition to Hero Women Rising, Namadamu established the Maman Shujaa Media Center, an internet cafe and safe place for the women of Congo to feel united in their community through storytelling and technology.
“Maman Shujaa means hero women,” Namadamu tells Kumba Kpakima. “Many Maman Shujaa are affected by war, sexual violence, abuse. They don’t know how to use technology. We begin to train them how to use Facebook, Twitter, and Skype.”
Though the DRC is rich in the minerals used to make smartphones and laptops, the majority of Congolese women have never touched or even seen a computer. Barriers such as distance, gender abuse and discrimination, and economic hardships pose huge obstacles for the women of Congo who want to access technology. But in the Maman Shujaa Media Center, they can safely receive digital literacy training and begin sharing their stories with the world.
“They write the story about their life, and they exchange with others,” Namadamu explains. “And the change begins.”
Huddled around computers and communicating via Skype, “Young Women Rising” shows Congolese women posting their stories and selling hand sewn clothing pieces online. Having access to the internet allows them to meet, interact and engage with other people around the world — offering them more possibilities than ever before.
This global connection is possible through World Pulse, a women-led social global network, that encourages women from around the world to trade resources, share stories, forge connections, and grow their businesses. The platform, which currently connects 62,000 women in 190 countries, has helped Namadamu and the Maman Shujaa women create petitions demanding help and better treatment for the women of Congo. With over 108,000 signatures, the Maman Shujaa’s petition for global sisterhood reached the U.S. White House and gained support from U.S. leaders Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Empowering Girls’ Choices Through Sex Education
Girls and women can’t be fully empowered if they don’t have control of their own bodies. They need to feel trusted to make their own choices, including when it comes to planning a family and gaining access to reproductive health services.
No one told Texas native Michaela Dunagin about contraceptives and the range of options before she unintentionally got pregnant her freshman year of high school. Dunagin knew that sex could potentially lead to pregnancy, but that was the extent of her sex education.
“I knew after sex came the possibility of pregnancy. I didn’t know there was a lot of physical and emotional pain and suffering attached to it,” Dunagin tells Canning in “Young Women Rising.” “I got pregnant my freshman year of high school and when I found out, I went through a wave of emotions. I was humiliated. I was angry.”
Dunagin is not alone. In Texas, teen pregnancy rates are the fifth highest in the nation. Yet, sex education in the state is taught as an abstinence-only program, or in most Texas public schools, not even taught at all. For teens, partaking in safe sex can be difficult without proper sex education and access to resources. To obtain prescription birth control, minors are required to show parental consent, which can discourage them from using protection at all.
To help teens take control of their reproductive rights, lawyer Terry Greenberg created NTARUPT, the North Texas Alliance to Reduce Unintended Pregnancy in Teens. NTARUPT’s mission is simple; to help teenagers make informed decisions through accurate, well-researched safe sex education programs.
“If you look at states that have good sex education, there is a stark difference in teen birth rates. The more they know, the less they do. So if you give teens incomplete information, you’re doing them a huge disservice,” Greenberg says. “The reason I’m doing this (NTARUPT) is that every kid has a future worth protecting.”
In addition to delivering sex education programs to Texas schools, NTARUPT hosts an annual student film festival, where local high school students create short films about the sexual and reproductive issues affecting them.
“People don’t really understand what kids are experiencing, and they are prone to sort of deny it,” Greenberg continues. “You can’t deny what you’re hearing directly from kids. So we wanted to give them a place to express that.”
Taking part in the film festival allows students to communicate about topics affecting their communities, from unexpected teen pregnancies to sexting and sexual assault. This is especially important in an environment where teens aren’t normally encouraged or comfortable discussing these topics with adults.
“If you give a woman power to control her reproductive life, she can make whatever decisions she wants for herself. We want young women to have the time and the resources to make a contribution that they want to make,” Greenberg says.
To encourage more young women to become leaders in their communities, the Texas Women’s Foundation partnered with NTARUPT to create a young women’s advisory council, known as YWAC, for girls of color to receive seven years of mentorship, networking opportunities, and sisterhood.
Feeling Inspired? Take Action
The journey towards gender equality can start by learning from others and taking action. Here are links to resources and organizations helping women around the world to stand up for themselves and their communities.
- Support the Maman Shujaa of Congo - Read and share their stories, learn more about Hero Women Rising programs and sign the petition to call for humanitarian aid from the UN and Congolese authorities.
- Connect with women from around the world through World Pulse.
- Help teens in Texas receive safe sex education - Learn more about NTARUPT’s mission and watch the student-made films from the NTARUPT Student Film Festival, including this film with Michaela Dunagin.
- Find more resources on gender equality and women empowerment by visiting Women Deliver, Girl Effect, the NoVo Foundation, and Girl Effect.
- Learn how educating girls and providing access to family planning are among the leading solutions to address global warming at Project Drawdown.
Top image: Kierra Byrd, fellow in the Young Women's Advisory Council, wearing her cap and gown at her college commencement ceremony. | Still from the "Global Mosaic" episode "Young Women Rising."