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Kupa Matangira examines the current state of feminism and investigates the profound impact the collective can have.
Is the world sexist? Or, are we sinking deeper and deeper into the tide of second wave feminism? The theme for the 2020 International Women’s Day: I am Generation Equality: Realising Women’s Rights raises a lot of questions: what does true equality actually mean, what is generation equality and how far away are we from meaningfully achieving that? Once upon a time, women’s liberation protests dominated society and forced the majority of people to think deeply about the state of gender equality. In the 1960’s and 1970’s women took to the streets in droves and demanded equal pay for equal work. Both women and men marched and fought for equal status as human beings and equality of opportunity. These marches saw people from all over the world come together in a unified stance to confront injustice and lead the push for change. Those were the days where action was taken to change a harsh reality. Unlike first wave feminism, these women and men were fighting for much more than the vote, they were fighting for equal justice between men and women, which later came to be known as second-wave feminism. It was during these marches where the second-wave was at its greatest. Now, many argue, it is only a shadow of its former self.
In broad terms, gender equality means complete parity in both status and rights between the sexes. Generation equality refers to each and every one of us, men and women, alike fighting for equal rights. Fighting for women’s rights and re-kindling the spirit of the second wave. As clichéd as it sounds, women’s rights are human rights. The world as we know it, has been created by and for men. Patriarchal and misogynistic ideals have been so deeply etched within the walls of human consciousness to the point where no country on Earth has achieved substantive gender equality. The goals of the second wave are still to actualise. Whilst inequality manifests in different forms, young girls forced to marry men twice their age or gender pay gaps; the fact is, historically speaking, society has routinely discriminated, and continues to discriminate against women. We have to be the generation that ends this.
Believe it or not, you do not need to be a world leader to create change. About 4 years ago, when I began my advocacy journey and started taking an interest in global affairs, I knew that our world was riddled with injustice, but I honestly thought it was the job of world leaders and celebrities to make an impact. After all, the world seemed more likely to listen to someone like Angelina Jolie or Angela Merkel when they spoke about the plight of refugees as opposed to some teenager. Later that year, I went to a conference that fundamentally changed the way in which I viewed the role of young people in making an impact.
As we all sat in and listened to the panel of speakers talking about how they catalysed change in everything ranging from adopting measures to end global poverty and creating gender equality in Australia, armed with a pen and paper, I began to take notes.
Now all of these people were reasonably aged, and so naturally I thought you had to at least be above 25 to begin to make an impact in the world around you. Now these panelists insisted that change was not confined to age, race or culture, anyone could make change if they thought strongly about an issue and should take action in any way acceptable to themself. This argument seemed like a foreign and indeed, quite patronising slew of words and I didn’t buy it at all.
Soon it was question time, and the first question I asked was “how could I, as a 15 year old, create change if age was a barrier to challenging accepted wisdom and advocating for a better world”. I thought I lacked the nuanced understanding and the skill needed to make a meaningful contribution to any of my passions. But then I realised, anyone who refuses to remain static when our world is hurting has the power to create meaningful change. No one is ever too small or too young to make an impact. No one is ever too young to fight for what they believe in. At the end of the day, this is one of the most important things to remember. If everyone thinks that a small number of people doing things perfectly is all it takes to change the world, we, as a collective, will never truly and meaningfully examine the hegemonic structures of power that underpin our society. To make substantive cultural change requires the attention and support of the entire populus, not just a select few that happen to be in power. Real change comes from individual people single-handedly choosing to challenge accepted wisdom and fight for the world they want to live in.
Empowered by this notion, I decided to take matters into my own hands. One night I randomly started doing some research on human rights and came to the realisation that our world is increasingly governed by its problems. I was astounded by the fact that there are over 130 million girls around the world who have never set foot inside a classroom, or if they have, for only a short period of time. I turned the page only to find more human rights issues: slavery, child soldiers, disparities in health and resources. Honestly, the list seemed endless. At one stage, I felt incredibly disheartened and so I stopped researching, put my chin in my hands and sighed. How could we live in a world where some people have it all whilst others have nothing?
I thought to myself: surely there is something I can do. The obvious answer was to become a human rights lawyer, solving the world’s problems one case at a time. But that seemed very far off, I would have to wait until I had finished high school, then university. As a 15 year old, the wait seemed inexplicably long, especially for a world that needed changing now. What could I possibly do? The answer was advocacy.
Before I knew it, I began writing letters to politicians, presenting speeches and speaking to other advocates on the state of the world. My advocacy journey has taken me to many interesting places, both in Australia and around the world and has led me towards unorthodox paths. I spent the start of 2018 on a Young Diplomats Tour of Europe and on that trip, I watched my dreams come true. I met with politicians, visited memorials and had consultations with diplomats, NGOs, think tanks, courts and tribunals. Whilst I was walking the halls of the International Press Institute and International Court of Justice, speaking to members of the Hungarian government and watching the International Criminal Court in session; I couldn’t help but think of the other girls, who were my age and not in school. Receiving an education has allowed me to chase after my dreams, challenge authority and formulate my own opinions. The power of education is incredible, Confucious once said, “education breeds confidence, confidence breeds hope and hope breeds peace”. Knowing that educating girls could very well accelerate the push for peace, I made it my goal to do what I can to make sure that all girls, in spite of axes of oppression like race, nationality or sexuality, can get an education. Knowing that I am only one person, with one voice, can be discouraging at times. But despite being one person, I know I have the power to create change.
Life presents us with opportunities. When I returned home from my tour, I became a youth ambassador for Save The Children which gave me a platform to lobby government and civil society to create change, but I felt as though that was not enough; I needed something that could turn my advocacy into tangible change. I began to work extra shifts at my part time job and saved up some money to use as capital for a social enterprise. I had no idea what product I should sell to raise funds for charity and so took to YouTube. I discovered the art of hand-making and decorating notebooks and tried my hand. Sure enough, the notebooks I made looked terrible; but for some strange reason, I continued making them! With $70, I founded a social enterprise that exists to end poverty through educating children, mainly girls, in developing countries. At very odd hours of the night, I was busy making notebooks that got a little prettier each time. I knew this was not much, but it was what I could do to create change. Now, just over a year later, I am pleased to say that five orphaned girls in rural Zimbabwe who would have ordinarily been out of school are now being educated and empowered to achieve their dreams. Now, my social enterprise does not engender equality or make strides in educating the 500 million illiterate women around the world, but what it does do is inspire hope. For these girls, access to an education will mean they have the power to break the cycle of poverty and in many cases, child marriage. It absolutely changes their life. This is proof that even the smallest measures can have a monumental impact on the lives of others.
An interesting phenomenon that has proliferated almost every movement in recent history, is the so-called ‘hegemony of whiteness’. This is where global issues, that affect every ethnicity, become solely focussed on the struggles of white people. One of the many reasons for this, is the fact our world orbits around male, cisgender, whiteness, making it difficult for the struggles of minorities to truly grab the the media spotlight. Perhaps the best example of this, is seen in white feminism. I am not attempting to disparage the struggles of white women around the world, but with that being said, we live in a world where we are all being affected by global issues. Intersectional movements such as white feminism often turn a blind eye to the struggles of the world’s non-white female population, ultimately invalidating their experiences. Therefore, when we speak about equality and begin to sympathise with the ideals of specific movements, we must remain true to the real vision of gender equality and fight for an equal world. Where all men and women, regardless of ethnicity, race and culture, can go forward together, united in the quest for true equality. As a society, we can never fully progress when we turn a blind eye to the struggles of our neighbours.
I fundamentally believe that we were all born to make a difference in this world. Put simply, we must speak up for those voices that have been reduced to a mere whisper. With that being said if you are not a social entrepreneur, leader of a charity or head of government, how are you meant to create change? The answer is simple, advocacy. Whilst I was speaking to Women Against Violence, an incredible Palestinian organisation based in Nazareth, Israel; I really began to understand just how disadvantaged Palestinian women are to their male counterparts whether they be Arab or Jew. A world of inequality and prejudice was revealed to me in levels I never knew possible. When I asked the leaders of the NGO what I could do to catalyse change, they said advocate for women’s rights. Those are the golden words.
Current estimates say the world will reach gender equality in 2256. That is purely unacceptable. If we are serious about being the generation that ends gender inequality, then each and every one of us needs to pioneer the path towards change by speaking up for the rights of women in whatever capacity we can. Before he died defending his cause, Martin Luther King declared, “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” Again, as a society, we can never truly progress when half of us are being left behind. Therefore, we must do everything in our capacity to change the narrative and create the society that we want to live in. No-one is ever too small or too young to make a difference in the lives of others. True equality starts with you. It is your choice whether you step up to champion the rights of others or stay silent about causes that matter. But, whatever choice you make, I implore you to think about the consequences that might have, not just on you but on half of the population that might need your assistance. You never know, your words or actions could change their life. But that’s your choice and your choice only.