Women to Watch: 4 Girls’ Empowerment Champions

Meet four women who are changing the world, one girl at a time.

The Girls Transform the World campaign united the World Pulse community in raising our voices together to remove the barriers girls face to accessing education. Beyond the powerful messages delivered in this campaign, many members dedicate their whole lives to expanding opportunities for girls and young women. There are many ways to be a hero for girls, and our community is filled with shining examples. We interviewed four of these women to understand what they are up against and how they are making a difference for girls in their homelands and beyond.

Q&A With Sister Zeph

Sister Zeph: In Pakistan we have two different societies. In one society we see our women can do anything. They can be administrators, fighter pilots, and even prime minister of the country. Some people look at these women and feel we are changing, and our women are getting their rights. On the other side, women are still being killed for so-called honor; they are mentally tortured; they cannot even decide when to sleep and when to wake up; they do not have a right to education, to choose their career, to choose their life partner. They have to suffer their whole lives for love, care, and respect.

I believe that the solution to all of our problems is in education, and empowering the women of our world. I have taught free classes since I was 13 years old, and today I still offer free education to women and children. Since I first started teaching at age 13, I have given five hundred girls formal education. I have provided skills training to 50 women and taught 100 girls English, Internet, and computer. This month I am starting a beauty salon so that my students can earn some money in the future.

How did you know that this is what you wanted to do with your life?

One incident changed my life forever. In 7th grade, I was delivering a speech to my class, acting like a teacher. I was standing on the teacher’s chair. When she came, she started beating me for this in front of my classmates. She abused me and all the girls made fun of me. My heart felt so humiliated, I cried for many days. I felt like my heart was dying inside me.

At that moment I decided to leave school, although I never stopped studying. I started reading in my home privately. I decided to start teaching girls with respect and the love and care that I was not given in my school. In the beginning there was only one student. I started it in open air and there was no pen, no copy machine, and I only had a few books. But I kept going; I did not want any child to experience what had happened to me. I decided that I will never use a stick in my school, and that I would make education interesting for the children.

Sister Zeph teaching women and girls

I started teaching all children, but as I met women and girls during my project, I came to know a lot of problems that were being faced by the women; I felt their misery, helplessness, their pain. In a previous office where I worked, a colleague of mine tried to harass me. When I took an action against him, I was strangely told that this would cause people to disrespect me. I took action anyway. At that time I decided that I will work for women to make them strong, educated, empowered, and aware of their rights.

What are successes you have witnessed?

My student Noor is the first girl in the history of her family to be employed. Sara is the first to become a nurse. Shazia has completed a Master’s in political science with my guidance. These women are the reason I do what I do.

What advice do you have for young future women leaders?

Young women leaders need to understand that we women have to educate and empower each other to get equal rights in society. Alone we cannot achieve our goal of equality.

Q&A with Fardosa Muse

Fardosa Muse: I came from a very polygamous family of 40 children and grew up with hardship. Every society has different challenges, but in Somalia, where I was raised, inequality is compounded by a lack of social amenities, poor education, and a preference for boys.

I recall my mother saying, “I want my daughters and other girls to be better than who I am.” While my mother didn’t know how to read and write, she was devoted to enrolling girls in school. She mobilized girls from nearby villages, approaching all the village parents, and looking for sponsorship from the local government. She initiated the "Neighbors in Need" program for community ownership to support girl child education.

Today, I become her successor, supporting girl child education, mentoring girls who are refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), and advocating for policies that change gender inequalities. I am currently working in a IDP camp in Mogadishu, Somalia in a program that takes a holistic approach to preventing and responding to gender-based violence.

What underlying issues do you seek to address in your work?

 Refugees and internally displaced persons

After many years of war and terror, most community members think violations against women are a norm. Loss of livelihoods and lack of economic opportunities make refugee and internally displaced men feel emasculated and frustrated. Their anger is often projected on the most defenseless: women and children. Wife beating, rape, emotional abuse, and neglect are tragically widespread in IDP settings. The situation is made worse by poverty, which leaves women especially vulnerable.

Our program seeks to discard harmful traditional practices and socially sanctioned behaviors that promote violence against women as a way of life.

How did you know that this is what you wanted to do with your life?

In my community, education was a preserve of the male. Women were to remain in the home, to be beautiful and ready for marriage to the highest bidder, who most of the time happened to be a couple of decades older than the young girl. The husband was never a girl’s choice. This gave me the urge to fight for women empowerment through education, and the right of girls to develop and mature fully enough to make their own choices about marriage.

What successes have you witnessed?

I will never forget the day I was proctoring the national exams in Ifo camp, one of the settlements in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. On the second day of the exam I noticed the absence of one of the female students. I knew that it was important for her to complete the final exams. I asked the students about her, and I was shocked when I heard that her father married her off the evening before, and her husband and family didn’t let her attend the second day of final exams.

Students in an IDP school in Mogadishu

I immediately notified the local police station, and together with two police officers I went to her house and asked the husband to allow me to meet her. The man refused and started threatening me. The police arrested him, and the young girl could finally return to school and sit for her second day of exams. The case was then referred to UNHCR and three months later the girl was transferred to a safer location and offered the opportunity to continue her education.

Unlike before, many girls can now stand up to the community and reject early and forced marriage. When I managed my first gender-based violence program, I was shy and couldn’t speak out freely about sexual matters, which are taboo in our community. Now I can face a mixed crowd and talk to them about it openly. Some years ago, female genital mutilation could not be talked about in the community, and anyone who campaigned against it could risk being stoned, stigmatized and discriminated against. Today with raised awareness, many young men are now campaigning to marry uncut girls. More women and men are reporting gender-based violence incidents, and women, even married ones, are now going to school because they value education. Now it’s time for all women to be united in lobbying for girls’ education and women’s empowerment.

Q&A With Nadeen Spence

Nadeen Spence: I grew up in a small rural community called Kilmarnock in the south of Jamaica. When I became pregnant at age 17, I thought my world had come to an end. But it did not, and I am now a woman triumphant. I pride myself on being a social justice advocate who speaks for the most vulnerable girls and young women, someone who helps them to find their voice so that they can speak for themselves.

In 2010, I started the I’m Glad I’m a Girl Summer Camp. In Jamaica girls are vulnerable to rape, human trafficking, and physical abuse. They are initiated into sex at an early age, and are more vulnerable to contracting HIV/AIDS. Girls are invisible in our country, and our music and popular culture undermine their self-worth.

We expose the girls in our camp to empowerment and self-esteem building workshops. We educate them on their rights, and invite experts to make presentations about the reality of rape and gender-based violence in Jamaica. Because most of these girls reside in communities of conflict, we also take them through conflict resolution training. We want them to be committed to success and to have a plan for the future, so we have a career seminar where we invite organizations to come in and help them to begin to think through their options after graduating from high school.

I find that I am strengthened each time a young woman walks away from her situation in triumph.

How did you know this is what you wanted to do with your life?

I’m Glad I’m a Girl Summer Camp

Even before my emotionally difficult pregnancy, I felt embattled and unsafe as a teenager and a young girl.

Jamaica's secondary school system is stratified and reinforces class, color, and other barriers. Students who pass the Common Entrance Exams are given a space in one of Jamaica's prestigious colonial schools. I did not pass. At 12, making my way to the Black River Secondary School every day was like taking a walk of shame; the experience undermined my confidence and self-esteem severely. Every time I donned the uniform I knew I was second class, I knew I was not bright enough, I knew I did not make the cut.

Going to school also presented me with another challenge; girls were repeatedly preyed on by bus drivers and conductors. Sexual overtures and innuendos were common; a girl had to be strong and aggressive as we attempted to navigate travel to and from secondary school.

In 7th grade, when I started having my period, I discovered that menstruation was utterly painful for me, and I routinely had to be hospitalized. After a while my mother just kept me from school when I was having my period. I lived a half and half life; I stopped playing sports, even though I was a very good netball player. Doctors treated my condition with very little urgency, and I suffered in silence, with no one to talk to about how my life was shrinking around me.

We lived in a culture which did not trust a girl upon her entry to puberty. Somehow my body did not only betray me, it had betrayed all the people who liked me and thought I was cute and well-mannered up until my breasts started to grow.

When I reflect on my own life’s experiences I realize how much I needed an advocate, someone who could help me to understand the difficult times. I want girls to know that they have rights, that they are beautiful and good at every stage of life, that their body is beautiful and that puberty will bring with it exciting new feelings. That it will bring all kinds of attention, some unwanted, but that they will be empowered enough to make informed decisions. I want them to know that they are worthy of trust. I want mothers to know that they have it within them to help their daughter become happy women.

What successes have you witnessed?

At the start of the 2012 Camp I was very shocked to hear the girls say they were not ‘glad to be girls.’ When Rochelle came to the camp the first time at age 15, she was shy and lacked the confidence to engage in conversations. She barely spoke and seemed hesitant to be noticed.

By the end of the camp she was slowly emerging from the cocoon she had built around herself. Today, despite her challenging childhood, she is planning to go to university. A number of the girls report that they have taken up leadership positions at their schools. Even the camp counselors have been empowered by their experiences.

What advice do you have for young future women leaders?

I want them to be brave and bold, and to always speak for themselves. I want young women to be unafraid, to speak their truth and to be unrelenting in their commitment to their own empowerment. I want them to trust their inner voice and to lean in, and to be their own advocate if necessary.

Q&A with Phionah Musumba

Phionah Musumba: In rural Western Kenya, educating a girl in the family is a luxury. For every ten girls who join primary school, only four graduate at the end of the eight year course, while only two out of ten girls finish the four year high school course. Out of every three girls in a well off family, only one gets a decent post secondary education. This lucky one is often the eldest and gets the privilege because her parents have to keep up appearances. Her sisters are usually married off to older men, or wealthy younger men, in arranged and forced marriages.

Poverty−stricken parents send their underage daughters to work as house helps in order to help meet the family’s basic needs, which include paying for the school fees of their brothers, who are believed to need the education more.

It goes without saying that this culture of forcing young girls to fend for themselves at tender ages plays a vital role in the spread and their contraction of HIV and AIDS, which is almost the norm in my community.

I founded the Centre for Disadvantaged Girls as a haven for girls and young women to address education, poverty eradication, social and community development, women’s empowerment, and women’s health. The center offers lessons on adolescence and sexuality in surrounding primary and secondary schools to empower girls with knowledge to help them not to succumb to peer pressure or to give up on their dreams. I do odd jobs and pay school fees for the girls, besides meeting their other basic needs.

How did you know that this is what you wanted to do with your life?

I dropped out of school due to poverty, got married young at 17, and after experiencing unending misery, went back to sit for the final exams five years into my marriage. I had two daughters at that time who I didn’t want to share in my fate.

Centre for Disadvantaged Girls beneficiaries reciting a poem

One day I took a small loan from my brother-in-law, though at the time it seemed like a very huge amount. I accompanied a friend to a local market where I bought a small sack of onions and started selling them to meet my family’s needs. Every evening I used to collect discarded vegetables and fruits that couldn’t be sold, and I would take them home to my family to eat.

The profits were not enough to sustain us and soon enough, I had to give it all up. It was as I was making the long trek home after closing my first ever business that it suddenly hit me that I had been unlucky thus far because of lack of an education.

That night I asked my husband to help me register for my final high school exams, and to borrow the registration fee from his cousin. When the results came, despite being a stay at home mother, I passed well. I got a sponsor who agreed to pay for my college education, and I met a World Pulse member named Lindy Wafula who became my mentor.

I have lived the discrimination and belittlement that comes with the lack of a basic education. When I was out searching for work, I was discriminated against because of my gender at almost every office I went to. I was faced with three choices: buy the job, know someone at the top, or sleep with the boss to get the job! I had no money, knew no one, and couldn’t compromise my morality just for a job. I have no doubt that fighting for the girl child’s right to education is the best thing I have ever done or will ever do with my life!

How do you know you’ve been successful?

I know I have been successful because I have helped 46 girls and young women acquire an education. I am proud to say one of my charges, from a home with domestic violence, is now in her first year of Law at the University of Nairobi. These young women were all from very poor backgrounds. Thirteen of them had dropped out of various classes in high school and already had families, some as single mothers. They are now employed or self-employed, and are self-reliant. Sixteen of the girls currently work with me at the centre.

What advice do you have for young future women leaders?

Never be afraid to confront the unknown, because it is better to try and fail rather than live with the agony of what might have been.


ABOUT THIS STORY

This story was written for World Pulse’s Girls Transform the World Digital Action Campaign. This campaign showcases solutions and unites grassroots voices speaking out for the rights of girls worldwide.

Comment on this Editorial

Comments

these stories speak of the heart. how compassion can change the world. i am glad to be part of this community making strides in girls education. lets support each other and we can all have many girls becoming educated. well done ladies and i salute you

we may be powerless to stop an injustice but let there never be a time we fail to protest. regards pela

Thank you so much sisters, I am feel myself lucky that I am able to do some thing for the girls around me . I wish one day all girls in our world will be educated and successful they will not have to suffer for any thing

Sister Zeph Founder of Zephaniah Women Education and Empowerment Foundation( ZWEEF) 

Thank you sister zeph for that great work, sky is the limit for all women in this world big things are still coming for you people.

Your determination, commitment, and passion as well as your stories of women's successes are truly inspirational! What a reminder that we all can make a difference and that we can rise above hurt and pain and succeed! Thank-you for sharing and for your continued commitment to educating girls!

Peace--

Phinnie

I take this opportunity to extend my heart felt gratitude to the World Pulse family for making me what I am now. Without highlighting our work to the world, we wouldn't be visible at all. I can just picture us sending proposal after proposal that never got a favourable reply if any. World Pulse has taught me a very important lesson, that what we need is simply networking and vocalizing our work, and everything else will fall into place. Thanks for putting us on the map; Long live World Pulse.

Phionah Musumba Founder/Executive Director Malkia Foundation & Centre for Disadvantaged Girls, Kenya P.O Box 9461 - 00300, Nairobi, Kenya Facebook: Phionah Musumba Twitter: @KenyaGals LinkedIn: Phionah Musumba Skype: phionah.anguzuzu.musumba

You are amazing.

You are strong and beautiful and are each making a huge contribution to the beauty and strength of the girls who will become young women after you. Because of you, these girls who come next will make invaluable contributions to their societies and communities and this, of course, is the way the world becomes a better place.

With Deep Appreciation,

- Sarah

Sarah Whitten-Grigsby