International Women’s Day: Lessons learned and stories told

It’s International Women’s Day today – only one day of many over the last year when I’ve thought about all the opportunities and ‘easy rides’ that I’ve had compared to some of the women and girls I’ve met during my time in both Greece and Ghana.

The amazingly defiant-looking Jamila, one of the girls I met when visiting Primary Schools in northern Ghana.

Just living in Ghana was a lesson in the history of women’s emancipation from the home. I always knew that the mass availability of appliances like washing machines and vacuum cleaners played a significant part in women gaining more rights and more employment opportunities. But it was only when I found myself in an environment where these amenities weren’t available that I started to really understand.

If you’ve spoken to me since I’ve been back in London, I’m sure one of the first things I’ve talked about is the time spent on chores out there. Washing clothes outside in the heat – filling buckets with cold water and soap, and scrubbing and wringing out everything including sheets and towels – is difficult and time consuming. Thankfully Tom and I split the work (much to the neighbour’s kids’ amusement – they’d come to watch us over the wall, never seeming to get bored of the sight) but that’s not normally the case.

And then there’s the fact that for the first time in my life, I was working in a totally male dominated environment. Having spent the last 5+ years in an organisation with a workforce that’s almost 70% women, delivering training in interviewing skills and storytelling to a room full of Ghanaian men – who, much to my dismay, took to calling me ‘Madam Faye’ – was a shock to the system. I felt like I had to state my credentials, remind them of my experience and explain why I was stood there in front of them. In a society as stratified as Ghana’s, where everything from age to education, wealth to tribal allegiances are factored into people’s perceptions of your influence, my gender was just one of the many reasons why my trainees may or may not have felt it was worth listening to me.

But, whatever I’ve considered different or difficult to deal with has been temporary. When working on a project focused on gathering the views and experiences of girls in schools supported by a VSO education project, it really struck me how a lack of certain basic rights (things we’d all take for granted) can have a long-term, negative impact. For example, limited or no toilets at many schools will mean girls drop out or are frequently absent once they start their period. And the expectations that girls will take on the majority of chores at home can leave them tired before they even start the school day – reducing their chances of learning to read.

Abiba, age 17, lives in the village of Bugiya – visit the VSO blog linked below to read about her experiences in school.

There are still a lot of fights to fight in Britain for true equality this International Women’s Day. But I feel like ‘people like me’ (white, middle class, etc., etc.) don’t necessarily have the stories that need to be heard. Instead, I ask you to follow this link to read a second blog, this time by a colleague from VSO. It features excerpts from interviews with 3 girls I met during my time in Ghana – Rita, Abiba and Maciana.

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