This morning I listened to an interview on NPR with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton discussing the importance of women’s voices. I was particularly interested in a Pakistani woman who was a former child bride and the first in her village to get a divorce and complete high school. Despite obvious difficulties and endangering herself, with the help of the U.S. she started a non-profit for women and is building schools. She said “In Pakistan, women are like animals.”
In honor of International Women’s Day, I have two women’s stories I’d like to share this week. Today is Magdalene’s story.
A few weeks ago I visited some of the outer islands off the coast of Sierra Leone. Nyangai Island is around 400 x 75 yards large, home to about one hundred fifty inhabitants and few if any speak English. As our boat approached the shore,one of the first to greet us was twenty three year-old Magdalene carrying her baby. I was surprised that she could speak rudimentary English and asked her how she was able to pick it up.
Magdalene with her son (in red) and her brother sitting on the boat
A few years ago she had lived with relatives in the capital city of Freetown where she was able to attend school for four years and then her tuition money ran out. With all that she had left she went in search of her mother on Nyangai, for me about a five hour speed boat ride, but for her, a twenty-four hour hellacious journey in an overcrowded leaking water taxi. She told me when she arrived at Nyangai she found her mother and asked for tuition money , but within days her mother left abandoning her and her brothers on the island. With no money to return to Freetown, Magdalene did the only thing she could do and married for survival. Three years later, she has a baby and is stranded. There is no school there for her, much less for any of the children. She wants to become a nurse but will most likely live out her life on this tiny island. Imagine the frustration of being stuck out there and knowing what life could be like.
I lay in my tent that night thinking of Magdalene and all of the other women I’d met with similar stories. What if she were to ask the chief if she could charge people like me to camp on the end of the island, perhaps even offering to cook meals, do laundry, or better yet build a guesthouse that she could manage. Perhaps she could start a school. I ran some of these ideas past Magdalene the night before we left and it was obvious she was taking it all in but the thought of asking the chief was incomprehensible to her. She said it wouldn’t matter because if the chief and her husband did allow it, they’d keep whatever she earned. Grrrrrrr. The injustice of it all. Where was her voice? Where was her spark? Why was she so complacent?
Imagine a world where all women are treated as equals and not just as chattle. What a beautiful place it will be! It takes an education to embolden and empower a woman. If she’s treated like an animal, how will she ever believe she can be anything else? How will she find her voice?
So, I left frustrated, discouraged yet with a spark of my own. I’m very curious to learn more about microfinance and how to be a voice for women like Magdalene. I’ll share more tomorrow on Yenken, my friend from John Obey.