Girls, forget glass slippers, just shatter glass ceilings
HEALTH & SCIENCE | By Racey Muchilwa | October 25th 2021
Recently, I took some time to reflect on stories I heard growing up, and how they shaped some of my assumptions, whether consciously or unconsciously. Going down that memory lane, I realised that my early childhood experiences subliminally determined how I showed up for myself and others.
This got me critically thinking about the significance of the formative years of a child, precisely, the first seven years of their lives. There are different societal expectations assigned to boys and girls from a young age, such as how to behave, think or speak. There are also cultural norms that determine how different genders are treated. They are topped up with conscious and unconscious biases or stereotypes.
In most cases, girls are disproportionately disadvantaged. Often, the manifestation is deep-rooted issues such as low self-esteem or lack of sense of belonging, which works against women, necessitating intense empowering programmes to reverse the erroneous assumptions adapted to by young girls.
For instance, for eons, girls were made to believe that sciences were reserved for boys. Others were led to think they were inferior to boys, while most grew up hearing about male-dominated industries.
Throughout history, each generation has had its own ideas on the place of girls and women. These ideas have been informed by various cultural practices, myths, and religious practices and what was deemed fashionable at the time.
As we celebrate International Day of the Girl, I couldn’t agree more with Melissa Marchionna’s sentiments, “teach your daughters to worry less about fitting into glass slippers and more about shattering glass ceilings.” There are no two ways about it; we must change the narrative that most girls grow up hearing what deters them.
Granted, there has been concerted effort over the years by various government organs and non-governmental institutions to improve the lives of girls, women and youth, in general. In the past half a century, governments have legislated on gender issues. Various stakeholders have developed policy documents to ensure women get fair, if not equal, access to opportunities that can unlock their potential. Though painfully minimal in a majority of the rural and low-income communities, the results have been encouraging.
In Kenya, the Constitution outlines broad civil rights and their enforcement in Chapter Four. From these, various legislations that specify certain rights due directly to women and the youth have been enacted. In the past 10 years, we have begun to see more spaces open for women and youth in almost all aspects of life, including access to and provision of funding for small-scale enterprises.
However, these developments can only be of use when the girl child is protected against the adverse challenges of adolescence and empowered to a level where she can access these opportunities provided for by the Constitution.
One aspect that is often overlooked is the number of missed school days due to menstrual cycle, owing to lack of sanitary towels. We cannot talk about having a level playing field until we address such challenges. This informed Novartis sub-Saharan Africa to join forces with the United Nations Foundation and committed to ringfence the future of girls by providing sanitary towels to 10,000 girls for three years.
The saying, ‘To educate a woman is to empower a whole community’ brings to the core the whole concept of investing in girls. Every effort to make adolescents and young women comfortable within their spaces and within communities goes towards improving the welfare of those communities. Intentionally ending all aspects of discrimination, stereotypes and biases against girls at a young age will have a multiplier effect in our societies.
-The writer is Country President & Head, Novartis Sub-Saharan Africa
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