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Posts Tagged ‘women’

panel session photoIn line with my last post (10 myths about girls empowerment and mobile learning), I thought I’d also share what we covered during our panel on ‘Gender Sensitive Content and Pedagogy’ during UNESCO and UN Women’s Mobile Learning Week 2015. This year’s theme was ‘leveraging technology to empower women and girls.’ UN Women did a fantastic job of finding really smart women with varied backgrounds to join the panel, including: Sarah Jaffe, Worldreader;  Andrea Bertone, FHI360; Hongjuan Liu, Beijing Royal School; Catherine King, Global Fund for Women; and Anne Githuku-Shongwe, Afroes. I had the pleasure of moderating the conversation, and here’s some of what we talked about. I’ll put up a few more posts after this one to share the full session.

First, what is ‘gender responsive content?’ Hongjuan sent over a general introduction to include in this post. To begin with, she said, simply having access to schools does not guarantee a proper education and a better future. “Outdated teaching materials silently reinforce girls’ sense of inferiority. Materials rarely picture woman as managers, pilots, doctors or political leaders. The subconscious words neglect the contributions of girls and women to the modern economic world and show women as subordinate to men.” Even worse, she noted, “unless they are trained on gender sensitivity, most teachers and parents are not knowledgeable enough to banish gender bias. Silence in the face of discrimination is the equivalent of allowing lies and distorted facts to continue. And, such blindness is even more dangerous to the gender-bias content itself. As a result, these mistakenly delivered messages will denigrate girls and women from one generation to another.”

According to Hongjuan, teachers are a critical part of efforts to “dig out the seeds of gender-bias in our children’s heart” and they should be paying attention to both content and pedagogy. “Given that boys and girls learn differently, we need to employ diverse pedagogies in order to respond to different learning styles –from small group, individual, lecture, reading, experiences, laboratory work, etc. Diversity in pedagogy matters and increases the opportunities for all students to learn.”

Overturning gender stereotyping must be a collective and universal effort, she said. “Institutions must respond to the call to overturn gender bias discrimination. Some citizens are too weak to resist the strong stereotypes present in their countries and religions. Life is too short to wait to base our actions on a collective worldwide outcry for a harmonious world where woman and man are equally accepted, appreciated and treated. At the very least we should live by our words and deeds so that we are seen as desiring and fighting for equality. We should wish to be painted as believing in not only the potential of women and girls, but the rights they should have. That will inspire women to work to craft their own more promising future.”

Andrea noted that we should pay attention to gender responsive content and pedagogy because “if we don’t prioritize gender responsive content we see the consequences: girls and boys who stay disempowered and miss out on learning opportunities which challenge the unequal gender norms that they are socialized to believe.” In addition, she said, gender-responsive content offers rich tools that we can use to transform unequal gender norms — “those norms that dictate to girls what they can and can’t do, where they can or can’t go, or norms that encourage boys to engage in harmful behaviors against themselves and others.” We have the potential to link two extremely relevant and potentially transformative mechanisms — mobile and gender sensitive content and pedagogy — in the education space, “and that is quite exciting!” Andrea added.

Sarah agreed, noting that what we experience in media and literature shapes us, particularly as children.  “If a girl never sees an example of a woman neuroscientist, in either fiction or non-fiction, how will she know that is a possibility for her?”  We know life gives us all sorts of examples that challenge literary tropes, but “when we are inundated with one-note ideas of what it means to be a boy or a girl, these shape us in subconscious ways,” she said. “This example applies mainly to fiction, but of course, non-fiction and informational gender responsive content is also key.”

Hongjuan shared how she was influenced by gender stereotyping. “I chose to be a teacher, because this is the best thing I found in books. Women were never pictured in other roles. These subconscious words imply that a girl’s sweat is so cheap that it will never win them a higher social status,” she said. “We need to change these gender biases. These mistaken messages poison girls and woman from one generation to another.”

“We need to be a part of combating these persistent stereotypes,” continued Catherine. “A lack of representation and the misrepresentation of women and girls persist in mainstream media.” We see this as well in non-traditional sectors, including in the online environment, she noted. “As content developers, we have an opportunity – a responsibility – to disrupt pervasive stereotypical and counterproductive images.” Catherine explained that the Global Fund for Women has expanded its mission to prioritize raising the voices of women via digital storytelling and advocacy campaigns as an equal lever to grant making to create greater momentum for the change we all want to see in the long term.

Finally, Anne noted that “today, even in Africa, we live in a connected world that is more transparent, where oppression, harassment or discrimination are not cool and are in fact are exposed because of our connectedness.” She referred to stories we’ve all become aware of — rape in India, pedophiles, the Arab Spring. “On the other hand, gendered relationships at home, at work and in public spaces have changed forever as women’s choices open up more and more.” In the meantime, however, “we old school parents and teachers continue to enforce old stereotypes that are close to dead to the world – confusing our young ones.” Anne emphasized that it is critical to equip young men and women – our future leaders – for a new reality. “In our work building motivated learning products on mobile — using games and gamification rules — we are at pains in our engaged user-based design and testing processes to challenge gender stereotypes and offer a platform to shape new ones. Gender-responsive content is not a nicety, it is imperative!!”

Tune in over the next week or two for summaries of the other areas covered on the panel, including: combating unconscious gender bias; the role of mobile in creation/implementation of gender-responsive content and pedagogy; challenges in the area of gender-sensitive mobile learning; and thoughts on where we can expect mobile technology and gender-responsive content and pedagogy to head in the future.

 

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The March NYC Technology Salon offered an opportunity to discuss how mobile technology can transform workforce development and to hear how mobile is improving the reach and impact of existing initiatives working with girls and young women. Attendees also raised some of the acute, practical challenges and the deeper underlying issues that need to be overcome in order for girls and women to access and use mobile devices and to participate in workforce development programs and the labor market.

Conversation kicked off with comments from Kris Wiig (Samasource), Nancy Taggart (Education Development Center)  and Trina Das Gupta (former head of mWomen). The Salon was part of the Mobiles for Education Mobiles and Youth Workforce Development (mYWD) Working Group Learning Series, an initiative created in partnership with the MasterCard Foundation and USAID. The Salon was hosted at the offices of the Clinton Global Initiative.

The benefits of mobile vs stationary ICT for youth workforce development programs

Mobile holds a number of benefits over stationary ICT, including the feature of reaching people where they are because of the ubiquity of hand-held devices. Mobile is being used as both a primary tool in workforce development programming and as a complementary tool to enhance or reinforce content and interaction happening via other means such as web, face-to-face, and radio.

Reaching girls and women. Mobile can reach girls and young women with services and information they cannot normally get, helping them access the opportunities, skills, and information they need to better position them for work. Mobile job matching allows girls and young women to seek jobs without leaving the home. Micro-tasking (breaking up jobs into tiny tasks that can be done by a number of individuals, eg.,  via a mobile phone) offers a way for girls and young women from slum areas, those not able to work outside of the home, and those pulled out of difficult situations like sexual exploitation; to access entry-level work and gain experience that can help them quickly move to better jobs. Some 75% of women doing microtasking with Samasource move on to better jobs within 6 months, for example.

Getting geographically relevant information out to youth. Mobile can help spread information about opportunities to formerly unreached locations. In many places, jobs and scholarships exist, but they are promoted in places where youth do not see them. Mobile social networks can reach youth and connect them, based on their profiles and skill sets, to opportunities in their own geographical area, helping change the idea that youth have to move to the city in order to find work.

Strengthening soft and hard skills. Using mobile applications, gaming and quizzes, youth can work through career pathfinders in a fun way, find out what they like and what they are good at, and begin learning how to plan a career and what types of courses or preparation they need to achieve goals. They can also learn about savings and create savings plans for items they want to purchase, meanwhile making commitments to give up habits like smoking in order to put their limited resources towards other goals. Applications that reinforce basic literacy and numeracy, such as EDC’s Stepping Stone, help girls and young women strengthen the skills they need to move to a higher level of training or to access additional mobile-based information or engage in communications that help improve their livelihoods.

Lowering barriers to entry. Mobile offers a lower barrier to entry than more traditional ICTs. Mobile web has made it easier for many people to get online, especially in rural areas where people often have to be transported to centralized places in order to access desktop computers and broadband. Mobiles also require less electricity than desktop computers, a big plus in rural areas. One participant noted that an iPad costs only $400 vs a desktop that costs much more and requires more expertise and resources to set up and maintain. Tools available today make it easier for non-experts to create mobile applications. The challenge is getting over inertia and allowing kids to play and experiment.

Designing mobile workforce development programs with and for girls and young women

Even with all these benefits, however, mobile may not always be the best tool because access to information and content delivery does not resolve deeper gender-related issues. Salon attendees offered some insights on ways to make mYWD programs more inclusive of and adapted to the needs of girls and women.

Addressing underlying gender issues. Girls and young women may find a scholarship or a job via mobile but for various reasons, such as controlled mobility or cultural or resource restrictions, they may not be able to take advantage of it. When working with girls and women, underlying issues are central, for example, past trauma, self-esteem, self-doubt and the question “will I ever be good enough.” Organizations can talk this through with girls and women via a mobile phone or online chat, but in truth it’s a much a deeper issue than a cellphone can solve. Corollary and holistic programs are needed to respond to these broader issues in order to have real, in-depth and lasting impact.

Making mYWD programs accessible to girls and young womenWorkforce development programs need to be designed in ways that fit the lives of the girls and women they aim to support. For example,  training needs to happen at a time when women are more able to participate, such as after breakfast and before lunch when the children are at school and the husband is not back yet. Child care may need to be provided. It’s also critical to understand the dynamics of husbands and mothers-in-law who often want to know what young women are doing at all times. Some women may be happy to conceal the fact that they are participating in training, but programs should help women and girls gauge their potential risks. Another strategy is working with husbands and men to generate buy-in so that girls and women can participate in different labor market-related activities. In some cases negative reactions from fathers and husbands deter girls and women from participating or cause them to drop out. Eg.: “I make more money and my husband takes it and he drinks more, and then he beats me more.” The many precise cultural and social issues around gender and mobile require more research. Talking with girls and young women about these barriers and ensuring programs take them into account is an important part of the design process.

Remembering that women and girls are often the last to own phones. GSMA research found that there is indeed a mobile gender gap. Though there may be a high level of mobile penetration at the household level, often it’s the husband, then the first-born son who get a phone, and only afterward that perhaps a daughter or a wife get one — and this scenario is in wealthier households where there are multiple devices. For most families in emerging economies, there is only one or possibly two phones per household, and women and girls only have access to the phone when the man of the house gives it to them. This does vary from country to country, but overall, women are less active and with less access to mobile devices. This is a critical gap if organizations wish to involve girls and young women in mobile-based programs. Knowing the audience, population and context and designing information and communication strategies and workforce development programs that use a variety of channels (traditional and new media as well as face-to-face) to reach girls and women can help avoid marginalizing or not reaching those without mobile access.

Finding the incentive base for men. In many emerging markets, work needs to be done to discover what might incentivize men to allow girls and women to access mobile phones and/or to participate in workforce development activities. Sometimes it is money, but not always. Men may not want women and daughters working or earning money. In Afghanistan, for example, the CEO of the mobile network operator would sit with the men in the households and discuss the idea of women and girls having mobile phones. As part of one program that trained women for work, transportation services were set up just for women. It is important to meet people where they are in terms of cultural barriers and not try to shift things too quickly or all at once or there can be serious backlash.

Encouraging girls and young women to enter high growth sectors. Age-old gender frameworks are still at play and many girls and young women are not interested in entering certain high growth sectors, such as technology. This is a worldwide hurdle in terms of positioning girls and young women for the new jobs being created in these sectors, not just something that happens in ‘developing’ countries. Some programs are reaching out specifically to girls and young women to teach them to code and to break down the idea that only boys and men are smart enough to do it. Encouraging girls and women to see the world by accessing Internet via the mobile web and connecting with other girls and women this way can also be hugely transformative. Communication and marketing can play a role in helping girls and women see the world as it could be, if there were gender parity, and planting a seed that helps girls and young women see the possibilities of their own impact in the world. Enabling girls and young women to create, not just consume content, can change the status quo.

Mobile as a complementary tool, not a replacement.  Mobile can resolve some information and communication aspects, however, in the case of girls and young women, resource-intensive services are often the most needed and the most important, and these cannot always be done via a device. Mentoring and networking, for example, have shown to be highly valued by girls and women. These need to be more than a quick check-in however; they should be strong, active and consistent relationships of support. Some organizations are doing interesting work with mentoring but even with the added benefits of mobile technology, efficient and cost-effective ways to support quality mentoring at scale have not been fully worked out yet.

Data and research

There is a dearth of data around how girls and women use mobiles. Research has been done in some contexts with women at the base of the pyramid, but in many cases it’s difficult to apply conclusions across contexts. Evidence on what works, what is sustainable, and what can effectively scale is missing.

Understanding the meaning of mobile for girls and women. There is a need for more research on women’s ownership and use of devices, and a better understanding of what these devices mean to girls and women in their daily lives, in their family dynamics and with regard to their purchasing habits. In one country, 40% of women interviewed said they didn’t like text messaging, but this may not carry over to other countries or to girls and younger women. Women in one survey in Uganda said they didn’t like borrowing a phone because it meant they would owe a favor to the woman they borrowed it from — this breaks with assumptions that mobiles are freely shared in communities and everyone can access them. In Papua New Guinea, women surveyed in a micro-tasking project said that what they most liked about having mobile access was not the work opportunity, it was being able to call and arrange dinner time with their husband so they would not be beaten if he came home early and it was not ready.

Gaps in gender and age disaggregated data. The huge gap in gender and age disaggregated data on mobile ownership and use is a huge impediment in terms of going to scale. Donor organizations and governments often ask, “Where is the data that shows me this works?” Using mobile for different programs is a big shift for most countries and organizations. It requires behavior change and large investments, and so decision-makers logically want to know if it works. Some organizations avoid working with government as it can slow down processes. Others argue that government buy-in and support are vital to achieving scale and sustainability and that government plays an important role in reducing tariffs and establishing regulations that favor mobile for development initiatives.

One discussant recommended: “Do your baseline. Track your data. Share your data. Share your failures. Collect gender and age disaggregated data.” Large research firms are starting to set up these data but they are for the most part proprietary and are not available to those working in development. Organizations like CGI could use their influence to encourage firms and companies to share some parts of their data. Going beyond micro-level pairing of people with jobs to the use of mobile data at scale to look at development trends could be hugely beneficial.

In summary, more needs to be done to better understand the intersecting areas of gender, mobile technology, and youth workforce development programming. Further reading and resources compiled to complement the Salon are available here.

The Technology Salon methodology was used for the session, including Chatham House Rule, therefore no attribution has been made in this summary post. Sign up here to receive notifications about upcoming Salons in New York, Nairobi, San Francisco, London and Washington, DC. 

Visit the Mobiles and Youth Workforce Development Working Group page and sign up to receive information on mYWD Learning Series Events and the upcoming mYWD Landscape Review, due out in July 2013.

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Everybody loves memes and those who work in or care about international development are no exception. One meme that popped up early 2010, is the oft-quoted “there are more mobile phones than toilets.” Apparently, the origin of the phrase was the India census. Subsequently, the statistic was used to raise a point about water and sanitation in India by a UN institute. It was picked up in a New York Times article and became generalized to “more people have [access to] mobile phones than toilets” and “there are more mobile phones than toilets” and other variations.

This simple idea has captured the hearts and minds of many development and technology practitioners and theorists the world over. The phrase has become a staple illustration for those who are looking at the potential of mobiles to change the world. But there is more to it than simple ‘access.’ We need to think beyond access.

What is missed in this meme’s beautiful simplicity is that the mobile access/mobile phones referred to are not necessarily equally distributed. A recent blog post by Marc Bellemare refers to a study he worked on (with Ken Lee) called “Look Who’s Talking: The Impacts of the Intrahousehold Allocation of Mobile Phones on Agricultural Prices.”

“…mobile phones do not seem to be the household public good many development practitioners think they are. In other words, policies designed around the distribution of mobile phones to households (rather than individuals) might contain the seed of their own failure if the intrahousehold [use] of technology matters.

Moreover, after a referee asked us to look at whether major household surveys asked about mobile phone ownership at the household or individual level, I was surprised to find that many of those surveys only collect information on the former.

So if there is one thing I would like our article to change, it’s the kind of data that are collected: We should really collect information on individual rather than on household mobile phone ownership.”

The GSMA and Cheri Blair Foundation study on women and mobiles found that women lag behind in mobile phone ownership in many African, Latin American, Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Women are even further behind in terms of access and use of the Internet.

At the practitioner level, assuming women everywhere can access and use mobiles and Internet can make a project run into problems, as described in this quick video.

In some places where women’s literacy and numeracy skills are quite low, projects designed to share or collect information by mobile can run into additional challenges as related below.

Girls themselves in some places note that despite their interest, boys will physically fight them to access available computers or mock girls who want to learn.

The existence of open and available spaces and platforms (whether virtual or physical) doesn’t automatically mean they are  “accessible” to everyone, including in many cases, to women and girls.

As wonderful as the idea of ‘open’ is (and don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of ‘open’), ‘open’ can still exclude. Even in purposefully open spaces and frameworks like the Open Knowledge Festival, women lag behind in terms of papers submitted for presentation and women speaking on panels. We lag behind slightly less in terms of doing the legwork of organizing, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.

At the Beyond Access Conference put on by IREX yesterday, I had the opportunity to facilitate a discussion session on Women and ICTs where we got into some of these issues and talked about how libraries can help. The panelists included Thinley Choden from the READ Bhutan project, Danica MacAvoy from Clinton Global Initiative, and Marieme Jamme of Africa Gathering. The session space was filled with engaged and insightful folks who shared their valuable ideas and experiences as well, including:

  • Numbers that showed the big access gap between men and women.
  • Access is not the only measure, however – as the conference notes we need to go “Beyond Access” to look at use, purpose, and many other aspects.
  • Safety is the number one reason that girls and women give for not accessing ICTs.
  • Libraries are often seen as knowledge centers and conceived of as more reputable spaces than Internet cafes for girls and women to frequent.
  • Librarians and community facilitators at library spaces can serve as mediators to help ensure that access to equipment and other materials is equally open to all.
  • Women mentors and role models, eg., female librarians, are an important way to encourage girls and women to spend time at libraries or to be more confident in accessing information and communicating through technology.
  • One of the most important things a library can do is create safe space for girls and women to gather and discuss issues of importance to them.
  • Depending on context, in some places this needs to be a physical space; in others situations, a virtual space can work.
  • Men and boys play a big role in advocating and encouraging girls and women to access information, to communicate, and to come together and participate.
  • If offered space and opportunity, women and girls (and anyone else) can teach themselves to use new technologies.
  • Libraries will be most successful for women and girls if they facilitate access and sharing of information that is relevant and in demand by women and girls, not what outsiders think should be in demand.
  • Low information access is holding back girls and women from advancing in careers such as ICTs and coding, because up-to-date books are not accessible in many places.
  • Supporting people to ‘join the global network’ through uploading information about themselves and their lives can serve as a tool by which community and personal projects can be examined, discussed and shared.
  • What a library is and what one looks like will vary according to context and culture; the key is having a physical or virtual safe space where information and communication can take place.

So even if there are more mobile phones than toilets, the conversation can’t stop there. We still need to talk about access, and we need to go “beyond access” too, as this great gathering yesterday so aptly noted.

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This post is copied from an email that my colleague Kelly Hawrylyshyn sent to me. Kelly works on disaster risk reduction (DRR) with Plan UK. If you work on DRR and gender, go on, get yourself on the map!

Women and girls make a major contribution to disaster risk reduction and yet their role and involvement often go unacknowledged. In recognition of this gap, the Gender & Disaster Network, the Huairou Commission, Oxfam International and Plan International are facilitating the greater visibility of women and girls as part of the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), October 13th, 2012.

Gender inequalities around the world mean that women and girls are most severely affected by disaster. However, they also have significant experience and knowledge to contribute to disaster prevention and to the resilience of communities.

With this in mind, our efforts aim to move beyond portraying women and girls as mere victims of disasters and to provide spaces and opportunities for women and girls to connect and partner freely with local governments and organizations. We aim to showcase how women and girls around the world are carrying out disaster reduction and prevention actions; engaging and leading in climate change awareness activities; taking part in demonstrations and simulations; promoting resilient cities initiatives; and mapping risks.

Using crowdsourcing and crowdmapping tools, we aim to generate greater visibility and recognition of local initiatives by women and girls worldwide for disaster risk reduction.

Visit our map and report your own examples, in advance of the International Day for Disaster Reduction, October 13th, 2012.

We need your help to “put on the map” the numerous research initiatives, media events, publications, training materials, advocacy, workshops, networks/associations, and other activities that are happening and need to be made VISIBLE!

Contributions from both individual women and girls and organizations engaged in DRR are welcomed.

And who knows, you may get to find out about some interesting work taking place in your country, or miles away from you!

Join Us to make visible Women and Girls on the Map!

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‘Breast flattening,’ also known as ‘breast ironing’ or ‘breast massage,’ is a practice whereby a young girl’s developing breasts are massaged, pounded, pressed, or patted with an object, usually heated in a wooden fire, to make them stop developing, grow more slowly or disappear completely.

Rebecca Tapscott* spent last August in the area of Bafut, in the Northwest, Anglophone region of Cameroon, where a 2006 study by the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) found an 18% prevalence rate of breast flattening. The practice has been known as breast ‘ironing,’ however, Rebecca opts to use the term ‘flattening’ to decrease stigma and encourage open conversation about a practice that remains largely hidden.** Rebecca wanted to understand the role of breast flattening in the broader context of adolescence in Cameroon, including past and present motivations for breast flattening; cultural foundations; relation to other forms of gender-based violence such as female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C); how and where it is practiced; the psychological and the physical implications of the practice on individual girls.

Rebecca published her findings via the Feinstein International Center in May 2012, in a paper titled: Understanding Breast “Ironing”: A Study of the Methods, Motivations, and Outcomes of Breast Flattening Practices in Cameroon.

She visited our office late last year to share the results of her work with staff at the Plan USA office, explaining that there is currently very little research or documentation of breast flattening. The GIZ study is the only quantitative study on the practice, and there do not seem to be any medical studies on breast flattening. It’s a practice that is believed to affect 1 out of 4 girls in Cameroon, more commonly in some regions than in others. Of note is that research on breast flattening has thus far only been conducted in Cameroon, thus creating the impression that the practice is uniquely Cameroonian, when in reality, it may be a regional phenomenon.

Organizations working to end breast flattening do so with the aim of protecting girls. However, the question of protection is an interesting one depending on who you talk with. Rebecca found that those who practice breast flattening also believe they are protecting girls. “Many mothers believe that unattended, a girl’s breasts will attract advances of men who believe physically developed girls are ‘ripe’ for sex. Breast flattening is seen as a way to keep girls safe from men so that they are able to stay in school and avoid pregnancy.”

According to Rebecca, breast flattening is practiced out of a desire to delay a girl’s physical development and reduce the risk of promiscuous behavior. Proponents of the practice consider that “men will pursue ‘developed’ girls and that girl children are not able to cope with or deter men’s attention. They see that promiscuity can result in early pregnancy, which limits educational, career, and marriage opportunities, shames the family, increases costs to family (newborn, loss of bride price, health complications from early childbirth or unsafe abortion).” In addition, there is the belief that girls are not sufficiently intellectually developed to learn about puberty, and therefore should not yet develop breasts. Another reason given for the practice is the belief that girls who develop before their classmates will be the target of teasing and become social outcasts. There is also, for some, the belief that large breasts are unattractive or not fashionable.

Rebecca cites a poor understanding of human biology as one reason that the practice persists. Some of the beliefs around it include: “Belief that sensitivity and pain during breast development indicates that the growth is too early and must be artificially delayed until the girl is older. Belief that when a girl develops breasts she will stop growing taller. Belief that puberty can be delayed by delaying breast development. Belief that for breasts to grow properly, the first growth should always be repressed (like baby teeth). Belief that if breasts begin growing at a young age, they will grow too large or be misshapen, resulting in a displeasing or disproportionate female form. Belief that breasts and other outward signs of sexuality develop in accordance with a girl’s interest in sex, and therefore a developed girl is soliciting sexual advances or is a ‘bad’ girl. Belief that when a girl develops breasts, she believes she has matured and subsequently, she becomes less obedient. Belief that it will improve breast feeding at a later age.”

“…For mothers there is the perception that we should delay the development of girls as much as possible, believing that physical development shows maturity. Men look at girls and talk amongst themselves and say, “she’s ripe for sex.” They are not looking for marriage prospects…Men are aggressive. In pidgin, they say “she got get done big,” meaning, she’s matured and ready for sex. I can go after her now. Women, on the other hand, know that their daughters are just kids.” ~ journalist that Rebecca interviewed.

Rebecca also heard explanations such as “A girl will stop growing taller because the weight of her breasts will hold her down. One can delay puberty by delaying breast growth. If the breasts hurt during puberty, they are developing too early.” There are also many beliefs related to a girl’s development and her sexual reputation. Some of these beliefs include that a girl with large breasts is a ‘bad girl’. This stems from the belief that breasts start to develop when a man touches them or if a girl is thinking about sex, going to night clubs or watching pornography. Rebecca found that many of these beliefs were held across all segments of society, from the very well educated to those with no formal education.

“The body responds to psychological ideas. If a girl looks for a “friend,” her breasts will grow faster. If she is interested in boys or watches pornography, her body will develop faster.” ~ Interviewee at the Ministry of Social Affairs

“If a girl is interested in sex and thinks about it a lot, she will develop faster. I saw two girls of 12 years, one of whom was very developed physically and the other was not. The one who was developed could speak very frankly about sex, showing that she was knowledgeable from some experience, while the other girl was very naive and shy.” ~ Teacher

Because of potential stigma or harm to girls who talked about undergoing breast flattening, Rebecca only interviewed a few teenaged girls directly during this phase of her research. Instead, she mainly interviewed older women, as well as a few boys and men. She found that most women who had experienced breast flattening didn’t seem to remember the experience as extremely traumatic; however, she commented, “most are remembering from back in the day. Most at first said didn’t really hurt but then after a while into the interview, they’d remember, well, yes it hurt.” Rebecca was surprised at the number of people who said that heated leaves were used, because the media normally reports that a grinding stone or pestle is used for breast flattening.

“When I was 11 years old, my grandmother did a form of breast flattening to me. This was in 1984. I was walking around with her shoulders hunched forward to hide my developing chest, so my grandmother called me to the kitchen. She warmed some fresh leaves on the fire and said something in the dialect, like a pleading to the ancestors or spirits. Then she applied the leaves to my chest, and used them to rub and pat my breasts flat. She would also rub and pat my back, so as to make the chest flat and even on the front and the back. It hurts because the chest is so sensitive then—but they are not pressing too hard.” ~ 38 year old woman from the community

“To do the practice, I warmed the pestle in the fire, and used it in a circular motion to press the breasts flat. I did it once per day for over a week—maybe 8 or 9 days. I massaged them well, and they went back for seven years.” ~ 53-year-old woman attending a maternal health clinic in Bafut, attending with a different daughter whose breasts she did not flatten

“Until about a year ago, I believed that when a girl is interested in sex, watches porn, or lets boys touch their breasts, her breasts will grow larger. I think my mother must believe this. My ideas changed when I saw my own friends—I knew they were virgins, but they had large breasts. Also when my own breasts got bigger, and it was not because a man was touching them.” ~ Journalist in Bamenda

There is currently no consensus on whether the practice is effective at reducing the size of a girl’s breasts or if it has long-term effects on breast size. “People told me completely different things gave the same result, or people cited the very same practices as yielding different results,” said Rebecca.

Rebecca’s findings indicate that the practice of breast flattening is not a longstanding ‘traditional’ practice. Many people reported that it became more popular with urbanization. “People [who immigrated to cities] didn’t know their neighbors and they were worried about the safety of their daughters. It seems that an old practice that was used for ‘shaping’ was repurposed and adapted. Breast flattening is a very intimate and personal thing between mother and daughter. It doesn’t happen to all daughters. It’s very difficult to track, and there is no association with ethnic groups, education, socioeconomic levels, religion, etc.,” she explained.

“Most men don’t know about it. One boy said he thought it was good to protect girls.” When she talked holistically with men about what they look for in a woman, Rebecca said, “an interest in chastity and virginity came out very clearly. In Cameroon the average age for girls to lose virginity is 13-17, and it’s the same for boys. According to studies, for most, the first sexual experience is unwilling.”

Most doctors that Rebecca talked to had never heard of the practice. One doctor in Yaoundé said he had seen first and second degree burns as a result. Some cite that edemia may be a result. Development organizations like GIZ say it can cause cysts, cancer, and other difficulties but also cited that only 8% of women report suffering negative side effects, while 18% report that their breasts “fell” or sagged at an early age.

Many women who Rebecca interviewed considered the practice a very low concern compared to other problems that impact on their development, such as illiteracy, sexual exploitation, poverty and unemployment. “The women that I talked to,” said Rebecca, “often asked me, ‘Why are you asking me about this? It’s such a small thing compared to other things we have to face.’”

Given that there is not much research or consensus around breast flattening in Cameroon and the broader region, Rebecca’s work may be of use to local and international organizations that are working to promote women’s and children’s rights. Rebecca emphasizes that most people who engage in what are commonly referred to as ‘harmful traditional practices’ including female genital cutting (FGC) and breast flattening, actually do so with their child’s best interest in mind, as a means of protecting and promoting the child within the community and following social norms. Therefore, frightening or berating people may not be the best approach to discourage the practice of breast flattening. Community input will be needed to identify the root causes of the practice for it to become obsolete. Better sex education and a reduction in stigma around talking about sexual reproductive health may also help. Men will need to be part of the solution, and so will mothers who currently feel the need to take protection of their daughters into their own hands. Like many similar practices, it’s not likely that breast flattening will end until other systems and environments that set the stage for it also change.

*Rebecca worked with Plan Cameroon for several weeks on the Youth Empowerment through Technology, Arts and Media (YETAM) Project last June and July. She traveled to Bafut following her internship to conduct independent research.

**This distinction is similar to the difference between the terms female genital ‘mutilation’ and female genital ‘cutting.’

Read the full report.

Contact Rebecca for more information: rebecca.tapscott [at] gmail.com

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In this guest post, Keshet Bachan, gender equality activist and blogger at The XX Factor, questions whether mobile phone applications addressing street violence are an effective way to prevent violence against women. What do you think? 

Can mobile ‘apps’ really prevent or discourage instances of violence against women? This question has been on my mind since a colleague shared this video from Voice of America about a mobile app called ‘Fight Back’, marketed as ‘India’s first mobile app for women’s safety’.

The video sparked an email discussion that raised some interesting questions that deserve a closer examination.

The VOA story provides a holistic view of violence against women and the developers of the mobile phone application admit that they are but one element in a broader system that needs to respond to instances of violence. They discuss the involvement of police and other duty bearers, such as municipal bodies, which need to address reports women make and do more to reduce their risks. I applaud this approach and the way in which the developers acknowledge the limitations of their application, which I find refreshing.

At the same time I feel this application distracts attention away from more prevalent (and deadly) issues. According to the World Health Organization 10-69% of women stated that they had been physically assaulted by an intimate partner at some point in their lives. The WHO also reports that 40-70% of female murder victims were killed by an intimate partner. A recent survey in the UK showed that one in three girls aged 13 – 17 reported sexual abuse from a partner and one in four had experienced some form of physical partner violence. The UK police receive a call for help regarding relationship abuse every minute.

The degree to which this mobile phone application promotes the notion of ‘stranger danger’ distracts attention from the urgent and more prevalent issue of family and intimate partner violence. Moreover, the fact that the application has a GPS tracker to trace a woman’s route home could inadvertently contribute to both increasing women’s fear of violence in public spaces as well as playing into the hands of those who seek to control women’s mobility by pleading the need to ‘protect’ them by knowing their whereabouts at all times.

In this context a colleague commented that a GPS enabled function could allow ‘even a moderately tech-savvy user to trace the woman in question’ – which could serve to increase traditional control over women who dare to step outside the confines of convention (and the home) even further.

There’s a disparity between the actual risk of being molested or assaulted in the street, and the level to which women fear it. One thing this mobile app could help with is mapping the actual instances of violence. This could in fact serve to reduce women’s fear, proving that violence outside the home is not as common or as severe as people might believe. At the same time the app could also shed light on the places where women are more prone to abuse (dark alleys or well lit train stations?) and call for concrete actions like streetlights to improve safety.

The application (as always) leaves it up to women to try protect themselves and does little to tackle the root causes of violence. For instance, research from India (where this application was developed) found that almost all police officers interviewed agreed that ‘a husband is allowed to rape his wife’, while 68% of judges felt that ‘provocative attire was an invitation to rape’ (Khan and Battacharya, 2010). The application would do well to connect its users to a platform for social mobilization and consciousness raising work that could create a critical mass of people who will work together to challenge traditional attitudes around gender.

Some of the other questions raised by this application, and others of its ilk, concern the development of such applications and the development of technology itself.

Does the sex of the person developing the application have an impact on the relevance of the application for persons of the opposite sex (i.e. can men develop useful applications for women)? Is technology itself biased in favor of one gender over the other (i.e. is technology inherently male)? As these questions assume rigid gender binaries the answer must inevitably be ‘no’. At the same time, research has shown that women use technology differently and that they are not well represented amongst technology developers.

Technology can be useful to both sexes and really it is a question of how one applies it that counts. In the same vein, it shouldn’t matter who’s behind developing the application but whether or not the application is answering a real need. (Let us recall that simply being a woman, doesn’t mean you’re more in touch with other women — the CEO of playboy is Hugh Hefner’s daughter).

I’m not convinced that women need a mobile phone application to protect them from strangers on a dark street. If I were asked ‘what do you think would make the streets of Delhi safer for women’, an app is not the first thing that would spring to my mind.

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FMLN guerrilla with rifle poised in town of Chalatenango, El Salvador, 1988. This photo is from the article referred to below. Original at http://www.ontheissuesmagazine.com, Winter 1994.

A version of this post was originally published on the Peace Dividend Trust blog.

I lived in El Salvador for about 6 months during the civil war and over 9 years post-conflict.  So I was quite interested in the Society for International Development (SID) Congress July 30th panel on the “Nexus of Conflict and Development.”

The panel was composed of a high-powered, high level group of men*, presided over with humor and grace by a woman of the same caliber, Tessie San Martin, President and CEO of Plan International USA, SID Board Member (and my boss!).

Arthur Keys, President and CEO of International Relief and Development introduced the panel, asking questions like:  Can development be done in a conflictive environment. Is settlement of conflict needed before development can take place? Can development assistance be used as a tool for peacemaking?

Keys noted the changing, fluid environments in conflict zones and their inherent complexities – the interconnectedness of many variables that cannot be addressed in isolation.

Within that context the panelists discussed a variety of issues, from the changing nature of conflict and violence, to the pillars of post-conflict reconstruction, to local ownership and local government credibility and legitimacy to the role of the military in ‘delivering’ development to front loading funds in conflict areas to USAID branding in conflict zones. Listening to the discussion, I realized many of the questions that we were asking ourselves 20 years ago in post-conflict El Salvador are still unresolved today.

One of the most interesting conversations of the panel was catalyzed by San Martin’s question on local ownership and legitimacy. “We’re talking about ownership and local voices, but one question is whose local voice? There are a number of vulnerable groups,” she said. “How do you deal with the question of ‘whose voice’?”

Donald Steinberg, Deputy Administrator of USAID, answered by telling the story of his experiences negotiating a peace agreement in Angola under Bill Clinton.

“When I was asked how this agreement benefits women, I answered that not a single part of this agreement discriminates against women,” he said. “But what I learned is that a peace agreement that calls itself gender neutral is actually working against women.”

The Angola agreement was based on 13 separate amnesties, he said.

I learned that ‘amnesty’ means ‘men with guns forgive other men with guns for crimes committed against women.’”

Steinberg went on to comment that the closest woman to the peace process in Angola was a female interpreter, who would “raise her eyebrows when we men did something stupid.”

He described the peace agreement as being “come and hand in your weapons and you get benefits.” But most women involved in the conflict were not bearing arms, they were playing other roles. So when demobilization came, they got no benefits. On top of that, “we sent men back to communities where women had become very empowered in their absence,” he said. “The men returned and there was no role for them. Many drank off all their benefits. They started beating their wives. The incidence of sexual aggression rose. So you saw that the end of the one conflict brought about a new insidious form of violence against women.”

Another area where the peace agreements forgot about women was in de-mining activities. “We cleared the roads of mines,” said Steinberg. “But we didn’t clear the fields. The water points. Places where women gathered wood. As communities returned home, and women went back to collecting water and firewood, they were blowing their legs off with remarkable regularity.”

The peace process started to fall apart a couple of years later, he said, but by then it was too late to bring women’s organizations into the process. “We tried to work with women’s groups but they would say, ‘This isn’t about us, it was about the men with guns. It hasn’t involved us at all.’” The country erupted into war again.

Steinberg said he was happy that USAID is addressing these issues now. “The first thing I put into place was support to women’s participation in peace processes and to provide them with protection to do so, as it’s dangerous for women to be involved in this work. Nothing about them without them – this is our phrase,” he said, and cited UN Security Council Resolution 1325 as a strong influence on him:

“The Security Council adopted resolution (S/RES/1325) on women and peace and security on 31 October 2000. The resolution reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction and stresses the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security. Resolution 1325 urges all actors to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all United Nations peace and security efforts. It also calls on all parties to conflict to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, in situations of armed conflict. The resolution provides a number of important operational mandates, with implications for Member States and the entities of the United Nations system.”

Ambassador Rick Barton, US Representative to the Economic and Social Council of the UN, agreed that the role of women is critical, and “it starts with who’s negotiating the peace process.” Barton noted that the percentage of women in peace negotiations is 5-7%, and that it’s a recurring concern. “If you are not there at the start of the race, it will be designed in a certain way and you will be disadvantaged. I’m hopeful that the UN Women’s Commission, led by Michelle Bachelet will bring attention and focus to this issue.”

“What about men and boys?” a woman in the audience asked. “It’s great to empower women, but what are you doing to change the attitudes and beliefs that men have? How can we get them to realize we are equal?”

Barton agreed that getting men’s attention is critical. “These are not women’s issues, they are society’s issues. Men and boys need to come a long way.”

“It’s easy to work on gender with this administration,” commented Steinberg, noting that USAID is trying to institutionalize it through the position of Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. “It’s not only about protecting women or about victimization,” he said. “It’s about changing attitudes and instilling into our DNA the notion that women are key to building stable societies, ensuring sustainable growth and recovering from conflict situations. We need to focus on gender in addition to women.”

Sitting, there, listening to the panel discussions, I kept thinking about a Salvadoran friend from some 20 years ago. She was from a ‘conflict zone’ but would have never called herself an ex-combatant. For several years, she had moved around with the guerrilla, cooking and supporting the cause, but didn’t carry a weapon. Post conflict, she had lingering health problems stemming from that period, when she had been chronically malnourished. During her time with the guerrilla, she had contracted glandular TB, a condition that embarrassed her. At 34 years of age then, she had the ruddy, freckled and fresh face of a young girl, but she wore dentures as she had lost all of her teeth. She worked cleaning an office and always struggled financially. I’m not sure she ever got any benefits from demobilization.

I’m also reminded of a rather large post-conflict program that I was responsible for monitoring at the time, together with a few other privately funded donor agencies. Aimed at providing community-based psycho-social support to returning ex-combatants in several zones formerly held by the guerrilla, the program ended up mostly supporting women and children who were suffering domestic violence at the hands of the demobilizing men. The male ex-combatants either didn’t feel they needed psycho-social support or didn’t want to face the stigma of seeking it out, but the women took advantage of it. Community psycho-social support agents fully recognized that they were treating a secondary effect and not addressing the real causes of the violence.

According to a 1994 article by Betsy Morgan in On the Issues Magazine, ”Nearly one third of the FMLN guerrilla forces, who fought for 12 harrowing years in the mountains, were women. But neither of the restructuring plans [that of the government or that of the rebels] directly addressed women’s issues: equality in education, health care, job opportunities, and legal justice in instances of rape and domestic abuse…. Two female commandantes from the FMLN were on the negotiating team. However, when the peace accords were signed on January 16, 1992, all the signatories were male. The subsequent reconstruction plans called for demilitarization, but neither the government nor the FMLN addressed the hidden violence – domestic abuse, rape and incest – that invariably accompanies a military climate of violence, and neither side made provisions for the fair treatment of female ex-combatants, particularly in terms of land tenure. It can only be concluded that for all of the women’s influence during the war, at the point of peace, the women’s movement was still seen as a thing apart from the arena where real decisions were made.”

There were women involved in all aspects of the war, including negotiating the Peace Accords in El Salvador, but it didn’t guarantee that women’s needs were addressed during the negotiations.  It didn’t ensure that the post-conflict programs agreed to in the Accords were fully funded or that programs were designed and planned with participation of those they were meant to benefit or that women got fair treatment. It did not guarantee that the different efforts were non-politicized or that they were well-implemented. As Keys pointed out when introducing the panel: the nexus of conflict and development is a complex place, with every element impacting on every other, and as Steinberg and Barton pointed out, it’s not only about women, it’s about gender.

I’m glad to see the discussions taking place, and I hope that experiences, failures and successes from places like Angola, El Salvador, Colombia, Iraq, Afghanistan and so many others are fully examined and shared to see what more can be done to create environments where women are in decision-making roles before, during and after conflict; where the broader implications of gender and gender roles are considered; and where both women and men who achieve positions of power are really reaching out to, listening to and representing those who don’t have a seat at the table.

*Members of the panel:

Tessie San Martin, President and CEO, Plan International USA and SID Board Member (moderator)

Ambassador Rick Barton, US Representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations

Alonzo L Fulgham, Vice President, IRD

Donald Steinberg, Deputy Administrator, USAID

Tom Wheelock, Vice President and Sr Director, Communities in Transition, Creative Associates

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