“A lot of people just think girls don’t have a voice. I hate when people say: ‘we work for the voiceless.’ Who told you they’re voiceless? They always have a voice, it just needs to come out.”
Josephine, Sierra Leone
Stories of Girls’ Resistance, a multi-year, multi-country narrative project, seeks to do just that: to raise the voice of girls and their stories of activism for justice. Over 150 women and girls (including non-binary and trans persons) aged 11-70 were interviewed by local story collectors and curators in various parts of the world, and their stories assembled and analyzed. They were asked a simple question: “What was your first act of resistance?”
Girls spoke about their recent activism, while older women looked back at their youthful involvement. The project launched a first, richly illustrated book of stories in July at the Women Deliver conference in Kigali, Rwanda. Their website features dozens of the narratives.
The power of storytelling
Jody Myrum, founder of the Stories and formerly the Director of the Initiative to Advance Adolescent Girls' Rights at the NoVo Foundation, wants the project to change how powerful people—policy-makers, donors, mass media, even celebrities—think about girls. “We know that narratives and stories drive how people think and behave, and drive decisions about funding, policy and programming.” In 2019, U.S. nonprofits working to advance women’s and girls’ issues received only 1.9 percent of overall charitable giving. The figures are even worse on a global level. And of those funds, very little went to supporting girls’ own organizing and activism.
What’s wrong with the current narratives?
Myrum explained that the current frameworks used by funders and decision-makers don’t reflect girls’ real-life experiences and are often apolitical. Girls are still seen in one of two ways: either as economic assets who need skills to realize that economic potential, or as lone heroic figures who defy all odds in their social and political context—the brilliant Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai come to mind.
Girls’ collective activism for change, which has been going on for decades, remains outside these narratives. Instead, programs and funding focus on building girls’ skills so they can achieve their economic potential, or they elevate and celebrate that charismatic girl without supporting the movements she is connected to.
“Skills are of course useful, but they are not enough,” said Myrum. Girls are at the forefront of movements, whether on advancing democracy, political rights and reproductive justice, or reversing the climate crisis, ending gun violence and eradicating sexual abuse. Girls are engaged in very political work on the ground. They are also often harassed and threatened online and in person for their activism. “The project doesn’t want to glorify girls’ resistance for its own sake,” noted Myrum. “In an ideal world, girls shouldn’t have to resist. In an ideal world, they would be nurtured.”
We are, sadly, far from that world. Stories hopes to redirect resources to support girls’ activism to demand the change they want and deserve.
Girls don’t wait
The stories make it abundantly clear that girls fight injustice from an early age. They don’t always have the words to describe their struggles, but they begin pushing back against violence, oppression and discrimination even at a very young age.
Cate Nyambura is director of programs with the Athena Network and the curator of Stories from Eastern and Southern Africa. She grew up in Mukuru, a large informal settlement in Nairobi, where girls are constantly harassed. When asked about her first act of resistance, Nyambura remembered hitting local bully Masta in the face with a corncob when she was 10 or 11. Masta had tried to molest her on her way back from the communal latrines, and the cob was her only weapon. “It took him aback so much! He stared at me, shook his head and left. And from that day on, no one there bothered me. ‘That one is crazy, leave her alone!’ I don’t know where I got the energy to hit him. It could have gone either way,” said Nyambura.
Valarie Honoré, one of the storytellers, grew up in a small farming community on the Caribbean island of Dominica. She was 14 when she launched the “I Have a Right” campaign to raise awareness about violence and abuse among school children through school tours, music and dance. Honoré had experienced sexual assault at the age of eight; she decided to share with other children the knowledge and support she didn’t have when she was their age.
My own experience of supporting girls’ programs mirrors these stories of early involvement. Years ago, Bene Madunagu, the founder of Girls Power Initiative (GPI) in Nigeria, explained to me that GPI had adjusted their weekly mentoring sessions, originally targeted at 14-year-old girls, and created groups for girls as young as eight. GPI had initially focused on preventing unwanted pregnancy and school drop-out in older girls, but the little sisters of the “GPI girls” kept eavesdropping on the sessions. Madunagu realized these very young girls knew they were subject to sexist abuse and discrimination in their home, school, and community, and they didn't want to wait until they turned 14 to find their voice and power.
What sticks most with Myrum, when she looks back at the whole collection, is how girls resist on an almost mundane, everyday basis. “We tend to hear more of the achievements, the leader, the journalist, of girls at the microphone on a stage, sparking revolutions, but it’s the everyday struggles that really come out in this book. It’s how girls have to resist to survive and even to exist when their very existence is being threatened. Speaking up in your classroom, or in your family. How consistent it is, how central it is to girlhood. We can almost become immune to it. It’s often normalized as the way things are. But once you recast it as resistance, then you see it differently. These are conscious actions and decisions by girls.”
For example, girls across Eastern and Southern Africa told many stories about their daily struggle against restrictions on their self-expression and mobility. “They just want to be free, without subjugation of how to dress, wear their hair, and how to appear,” said Nyambura. “We are talking about such basic forms of existence and recognition. Their understanding of bodily autonomy is broader than reproductive rights. For them, it’s the right to exist in their bodies and their truth and authenticity without someone else having a claim to control or access their bodies.”
Other examples include Mamta, from Fiji, who told her parents to stop inviting marriage suitors to visit her. Tara, from Iraq, refused to wear a hijab in the early 2000s, despite her father’s worries that she’d be unsafe on the street. Ulemu, from Malawi, constantly asked why her brother wouldn’t help around the house, and why she had to do the chores alone. Amani, from occupied Palestine, stopped her domineering grandmother from beating her little sisters. María José, from Nicaragua, read under the bedcovers despite her grandmother ridiculing her for being bookish. Anonymous, from Sudan, would meet up in public with mixed groups of girls and boys when that was considered scandalous. Wakumi, from the United States, proudly wore an Afro and locs “before natural hair was cute.” Simple but powerful acts that set them on the road to broader activism.
It is striking how many of the stories involve violence: inter-personal violence in the family or in intimate relationships, but also structural violence in schools, at work or even in social movements, or violence and armed conflict in and against their communities—all of which affect women and girls in particular ways. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since we know from the extensive global data provided by the World Health Organization that one in three women experiences physical violence in her lifetime. Gender-based violence remains vastly underreported and is rarely prosecuted. But it is hard to read story after story, and realize through these narratives how pervasive violence, or the threat of it, actually is in girls’ lives.
The stories recount many forms of violence. Revenia from South Africa, who became an anti-apartheid activist, tells this brutal story of state violence: “They’re coming down the road. Coming towards us now. People are running. And my sister turned around and she wanted to run, and I told her, I grabbed her and I said, ‘You don’t run.’ And I decided to stand still. And this thing is coming past me and this man, this policeman in his camouflage uniform, he’s pointing his rifle towards me. And I’m standing there. My sister hides behind my back and I thought, ‘Today I’m going to die. But if I’m going to die today, you are going to look right into my face and you’re going to shoot me. You’re not going to shoot me in the back.”
Mahasin, from Sudan, tells the all-too-common story of being groped on the street by a group of men when she was 10: "They were just laughing, and they didn't even stop. I just couldn't understand why that happened. And why the other men standing in the street didn't do anything about it. And why my friend was saying that I should probably get a new outfit for school."
While violence was sometimes the spark for activism at an early age, some of the girls and women only came to understand its impact later in their lives. Recounting their stories for the project was cathartic for many, even though it was not always easy: “I was kind of hesitant, because I'd never told my story at that point,” Honoré explained. “I started a movement, but nobody knew why. I was the only one that knew why. So, when [Stories of Girls’ Resistance] reached out to me about participating, I decided to go in with an open mind and probably I felt like I too wanted to free myself, because I felt like it was just something that I had inside. And I just wanted to be true to myself, I would say.”
Through the curators, Stories provided psycho-social resources locally for those who needed support to tell their stories, explained Myrum. As for Honoré, she found the process itself “welcoming” and “therapeutic.”
How did the project steer clear of the cliché of the lone, exceptional girl? “Those girls who are popularized and lifted out of their context actually have their full stories. That’s just not what’s magnified and brought to life,” noted Myrum. To avoid this, the project worked with curators and storytellers who are deeply embedded in social movements; they in turn identified girls and women known for their collective engagement. In Eastern and Southern Africa, Nyambura carried out a landscape analysis of the salient movements over the last few decades, including the anti-colonialist, anti-apartheid, and pro-democracy movements, and those working on issues such as menstrual justice, sexual and reproductive health, LGBTQ+ rights, or gender-based violence. They invited storytellers from these different movements.
The project also sought to avoid the tendency, common in global discourses about women’s rights, to universalize women’s struggles and suggest that all girls and women experience the same forms of oppression. “Patriarchal societies tend to mirror each other,” said Nyambura, but she emphasized that women and girls face many other forms of discrimination and injustice, whether on the basis of class, race, ethnic origin, religion, caste, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, refugee or migrant status, and more. As a project, Stories of Girls’ Resistance is of course focused on sexism, but Nyambura felt the stories in her region also highlighted white supremacy and racism, particularly in connection with anti-apartheid struggles. She thought that US storytellers were especially powerful in understanding sexism in the context of racism and state violence, while the storytellers from Jordan, Syria, Iraq and occupied Palestine highlighted how armed conflict and occupation affected their lives.
Girls and women are often invisible actors in larger movements
“What we realized”, said Nyambura, “was how girls’ and women’s resistance was at the very core of many important milestone moments and movements across the region, such as the fight against apartheid. But because of patriarchal documentation approaches, of the way history is told and by whom it is told, their contributions are often erased. Women are central pillars to struggles for democracy, but you wouldn’t know it!”
Despite this lack of recognition and the hostility and indifference they encounter, even within movements, girls and women continue to fight not just for themselves, but for others. “Girls fight for a better world for all,” said Nyambura. Well-known Kenyan human rights defender Rachael says in the book, “Male comrades fighting for human rights will get a lot of support, but when you’re a young woman fighting for the struggles, the community doesn’t support you. You can get arrested—I’ve been arrested.”
Mozn, a respected Egyptian activist, experienced this discounting of women and girls’ activism: “From the start we are questioned about the legitimacy of our struggles versus the struggles of men. In our society, male struggles are always viewed as great or marvelous in comparison to how women’s struggles are viewed, which we are always told are merely ordinary. It takes a toll especially if you work in the field of advocacy and women’s rights. People ask: ‘how is Egypt going to change when all you’re concerned with is feminism? There are more important things.’” How Egypt can ever change without feminist transformation should really be the question; yet Mozn carries on fighting for the rights of all Egyptians.
Help others, help yourself
Working in solidarity with other women and girls is a core approach and value the girls espouse, as well as a source of strength. “I started out as a teenager, but I wasn’t alone. Even in that process and in that moment, being able to help others was helping myself. Being strong enough to stand up for others is what helped me stand up for myself,” says Honoré in the book.
N’Delamiko, from Barbados, recounts how, after she broke a major taboo by writing about her rape, girls kept approaching her to thank her: “Listen I read this story that you wrote last year about being raped and I want to tell you, you completely changed my life.” It was the second time in two months a girl had confided in her.
Transnational solidarity is also a source of comfort and energy. “When I stand in solidarity with women in Venezuela or Yemen, I feel human, and they know they are not alone. It gives them the strength they need,” says Amal, from occupied Palestine, in the book.
Stories also touch on the need to pay attention to mental health and burnout— something all too often neglected in activist circles—and to address "adultism," the tendency of older activists to discount and upstage girls and young women. As Veronica from Ecuador says in the book: "As long as you are the young woman who adds colour to the fight, cool, but when you want to be the protagonist and have a voice, or if your organisation is the one that stands out, then disputes for prestige for prestige or recognition arise. Then they don't like it anymore."
Inspiration for action
At the end of the book, brief vignettes describe the actions taken by the storytellers and their continued commitment to change the world. From Gwendolyn, a teenage journalist advocating for peace in Liberia, to Dipa from Nepal, who led the movement to abolish domestic servitude in her country, to Anna, a queer activist who co-founded Armenia's first feminist library, to radio personality Josephine from Sierra Leone, who helped overturn a ban on pregnant girls attending school, and to Denicia from the US, who pushed for the law that allows pharmacists to prescribe birth control pills in New Mexico, these brave girls fighting for liberation are an incredible inspiration.
Myrum hopes that the richness and power of the stories can be used for political education, so the girls themselves understand that what is happening to them is systemic, and not individual. Perhaps these testimonials could be shared in a “Vagina Monologues” format?
This October, a second book is expected with more detailed stories, and there is hope that podcast series launched in Latin America and East Africa can continue and inspire others. There is also a need to translate the stories into tools for decision-makers and funders. “We were well-resourced for a while, but are now in search of funds,” concluded Myrum.
In solidarity and resistance,