My experience in The Gambia has cultivated and adjusted many of my ideas, worldviews, and ideals. Some of these adjustments have been positive, while others I recognize have been, I don’t want to say negative, but in a way sobering. I have always considered myself a “feminist”. The promotion of women’s rights, equality, and just the general respectful attitude toward women has been something almost second nature growing up. My privilege is that of growing up in a household with two working parents, and more specifically a father who treated my mother and his daughters with upmost respect, gave us a choice, reminded us of our beauty (more importantly our beautiful minds), and always told us that we could do anything. Never have I ever appreciated that so much. Never have I ever appreciated having a choice so much, because, as beautiful as this country and this culture is, suddenly, most days, I don’t really have one. We don’t really have one. Women don’t really have one.
This isn’t just a Gambia thing, either. This is a world-wide problem.
Not to say that this inequality is practiced by every single Gambian. Exceptions exist, of course, in progressive homes. Not just that, there are some strong and groundbreaking women that I have both heard of and met. Women that are putting their foot down to things such as early marriage, not being able to attend higher education, and the issue still of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation).
Quite honestly, though, I am fed up.
Feminazi. What a term. I have heard a lot of different definitions of the word. The Webster definition is:
- a radical feminist
A radical feminist. An aggressive feminist. Some people would even define feminazis as “man haters”. A friend of mine recently used this term in how she was feeling after experiencing a terrible incident of assault. “People think I am a Feminazi.” It really got me thinking. I have absolutely been there. More than once. Although this term is coined to be derogatory, I absolutely think that there is a time and a place to be a feminazi. We are allowed to be upset about the things that unfairly happen to us and the women we love. We are allowed to be furious in fact. I think when I get back to the states, that little bit of “feminazi” will live on.
It is safe to say, sorry mom and everyone who loves me, I get sexually harassed every single day here. But don’t be too worried, because, in all honesty, I also got sexually harassed in the US on a pretty daily basis. Here, I experience it by complete strangers, neighbors, and even men that I have grown to call friends and that I love. That last bit is strange, isn’t it? Even by the people I love. What starts out as a bothersome, “Hey nice girl, what is your name? I love you, I want to marry you.” Becomes an every day occurrence, and soon I find myself becoming def to the comments that escalate to, “I bet you wish your office was in my bed room.” (true quote from a volunteer meeting with a PROFESSIONAL health team), “I want to sex you.” (true quote from a volunteer BIKING DOWN THE STREET), “You should be my second wife. You have a boyfriend? That’s ok, he is far away.” (true quote from my own life LAST WEEK). The saddest part? As I sit and talk about these things with my fellow female PCVs, we realize that it has become so common and so normal, that we hardly notice it anymore. But not noticing it does not mean that it does not affect us. It does. Remember. Your derogatory comments toward that girl at the gym, the one that runs down your street, your sister’s friends, your girlfriend…those comments affect us.
So, OPEN YOUR EYES, PEOPLE.
WHO (World Health Organization) has collected data in national studies saying that up to 70% of women have experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner. Do I need to say that again? SEVENTY PERCENT. If you are not mortified by this, I am sorry, but you are part of the problem! Just in Washington, DC, more than 1 in 4 women has experienced some form of sexual harassment on public transportation alone. Look around you. One of you, two of you, all of you, it’s probably been you. Around 120 million girls, worldwide, have experienced forced intercourse or other forced sexual acts. That is more than 1 in every 10 women. Look around. An estimated 246 million girls and boys experience school-related violence every year and one in four girls say that they never feel comfortable using school latrines, according to a survey on youth conducted across four regions. Then there is the newer, growing and painfully sickening cyber harassment. One in 10 women in the European Union report having experienced cyber-harassment since the age of 15 (including having received unwanted, offensive sexually explicit emails or SMS messages, or offensive, inappropriate advances on social networking sites). I could go on and on…so I probably will.
Have you ever heard of Female Genital Mutilation? No? Ok, well let me break it down for you. FGM involves removing and damaging the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. There is Type One, the clitoridectomy. This is a total or partial removal of the clitoris. Type Two, Excision, the removal of the entire clitoris and the cutting of the labia minora. Lastly, Type Three, Infibulation, the most extreme form, the removal of all external genitalia and the stitching together of the two sides of the vulva. I am not sorry if this disturbs you and I am not sorry if you think it is too graphic. We just had a two day seminar with my 15 and 16 year old boys and girls on this, because it is an issue. They have to deal with the reality of it and we should, as well. This practice is carried out by traditional circumcisers, often with razors purchased at the local market, no numbing agent, no sanitation, and sealed with things such as chewed up kola nut before being sewn shut. Later on when you are married and your husband decides that it is time for him to receive pleasure or impregnate you, well, you can imagine the reverse procedure, complications, and pain involved.
There was a law passed in 2015 making this procedure illegal in The Gambia. That was not long ago. Not at all. So with any law or change in its infancy, the problem hasn’t just gone away. Organizations such as Tostan, GAMCOTRAP, and Nova Scotia Gambia Association go all across the Gambia promoting the end of these practices. This is real life violence against women. It is happening now. In my own village, even. It has happened to my friends, to people of my family. It is estimated that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in the countries where the practice is concentrated. Furthermore, there are an estimated 3 million girls at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation every year. The majority of girls are cut before they turn 15 years old. In the Gambia, before the law was passed, 76% of women were being cut. In recent 2017 data, it is shown that 25% or less of women are undergoing the procedure, now. This is difficult data to collect, but these are the numbers that we have as of now.
As female PCVs, we experience daily belittling of our education and abilities. So often are we told that our place is with a man and our job is to have children. Some PCVs have experienced worse. Meanwhile, there are women whose sexuality is, literally, being taken away from them before they can even speak up for themselves. Regardless of whatever “level” of violence against women you and I are experiencing or have experienced, it is happening. It has always been happening. For me, it is just a little more obvious and in my face, here. In the United States, women are constantly being belittled, their education being disregarded, the size of their a** being more important than the power of their mind.
Stop brushing it off!
And, men, I don’t hate you. Being here, especially with the male PCVs that I have met, my heart is full because of most of you. You are our best allies. Stand up for us. Complement our beautiful souls rather than our physical appearance all the time. Think before you cat call out the window. Validate us. Tell your friends that what they are doing isn’t cool. Stop trying to figure out why the assault happened and acknowledge that it happened. Listen. You may have a daughter someday. How do you want other men to treat her?
Women. You are amazing. You are strong. You are so precious. Remember how lucky you are to have an education if you freely are attending middle school, high school, college. Use your mind. Remember that no man can tell you your worth. No other woman can tell you your worth. Remember that it is ok to be furious at what happened to you, but that experience does not define you.
Today, I am thankful for my father and the men that have always validated me in my family and my friend group.
I am thankful that it was never a question if I could go to school or not.
I am thankful for having the choice of a career.
I am thankful that I am able to love who I want to love.
I am thankful for who loves me.
I am thankful for the women that make me feel as if I can do anything.
I am thankful for your support.
I am thankful for the crappy things that have happened to me, because I can better resonate with you.
I am thankful that I have a voice.
I pray that you use yours.