Stand Strong Girls

African Queens: Making Waves

Role models are much talked about at the moment, and there is debate over the need for them but also the best types of women to promote as role models. I have been reading recently about African women leaders, such as the Queen Mothers in Ghana and I think many of these women embody the idea of a role model in its purest form. These empowered women who are respected and sought after by members of their communities have progressive agendas, with the will to achieve them.

The Queen Mothers or Pognamine in Ghana are women leaders who have considerable clout in their communities. This traditional role, once very important, has had a welcome revival in recent times. Now there are around 10,000 educated and determined Queen Mothers across the country, who are connected together by the National Council of Women Traditional Leaders.

The National Council in Ghana is a member of The African Queens and Women Cultural Leaders’ Network (AQWCLN). This is an umbrella organisation for groups of women leaders in 20 countries, who are all committed to ambitious goals, such as eradicating FGM across the continent.

In Malawi as well, a woman leader has been making waves as she battles against child marriage, with astonishing success. Theresa Kachindamoto is a senior chief in the Dedza district of Malawi. Kachindamoto set out to rid her area of child marriage, firing four sub-chiefs on the way as a warning to those who neglected their duties to protect under-age brides. She has broken up 850 marriages and made sure the children return to school. In this area, her work has been vital, as she had found sponsors to help girls through school and to ensure they don’t have to drop out.

The way I see it, the great virtue of queens and women leaders in Africa is their community centred orientation. By being the ones who know the people and the place, they are able to lead in the way best suited to their locale. On the other hand, the position of a chief is hereditary. Unfortunately, this is not the fairest way of choosing a leader.

All in all though, a role of that kind in a community seems to be an effective way to bring about change. The key element here is trust; a Pogna or other leader is known in the community and who has one aim, to help and improve that community. Since the Pogna knows everyone and knows what they need, she is able to deliver even on difficult problems such as FGM.



Lions and Rhinos and Black Mambas

It’s a sad fact that many of the world’s most majestic and beautiful animals are at risk from poaching. Elephants, rhinos, tigers and many other species have suffered a decline in numbers in recent years. While in some countries there is a lack of political will to deal with this problem, other governments have put money and resources into the battle against extinction. Often, a country’s way of combating poachers consists of units of armed rangers who patrol reserves and national parks. While these have been successful in some places, there are other less violent and more positive ways to solve this problem.

The Black Mambas, which were formed in 2013, are the world’s first all-women anti-poaching units. The award-winning Mambas operate in Balule nature reserve, in South Africa. Here, they combat poaching, mainly focused at rhinos. The Mambas remove snares and destroy bushmeat kitchens and poachers’ camps. This has resulted in a steep reduction in poaching since their formation. Black Mambas work alongside armed guards, but do not carry weapons themselves.

Black Mambas

A Black Mamba with a rhino

However, the Mambas are unusual in one key way: they focus on community links, particularly with children. All of the women who work as Mambas are from local communities, which are frequently poor and disadvantaged. The women are given training and many support their families on their earnings. They are also involved in the Bushbabies educational programme, which works in conjunction with local schools. The children are taught about conservation, with an emphasis on learning new skills and appreciating their environment.

However, the idea of women being involved in conservation on a large scale goes back a bit further, to 2007, when women forest guards were recruited to India’s Gir sanctuary. These women protect the big cats such as Asiatic lions, which roam the park. They rescue and care for injured or abandoned animals. Unfortunately, poaching is also a threat, aimed at the Asiatic lions, an endangered species.

The Gir forest guards also work with children and have connections to local schools. Due to this educational angle, school children have been positively influenced by the female Gir guards, who make excellent role models. It is also claimed that the Gir forest guards are an inspiration for Indian women as a whole, because of the way that many have defied caste and the doubts of their families to become successful in their work.

Gir Forest Guards

Gir Forest Guards

Both of these initiatives have had a positive impact on local communities, endangered animals, school children, and of course, the women themselves. In my opinion,when it comes to protecting animals and conservation, no method is going to work unless nearby communities can get on board. Similarly, it makes perfect sense to empower women by getting them involved in work that is happening on their doorstep. The Black Mambas and the Gir forest guards have enjoyed considerable publicity and praise, I hope that other regions and countries will follow their example when it comes to taking a stand for conservation.

Photo Credits: and The Black Mambas Facebook


Women’s Rights and International Development

I wrote this speech for the Action Aid Speech Writing Competition in January, but unfortunately my entry was unsuccessful. There were three possible titles and I chose:

Why are women’s rights important within international development and ending poverty?

The rights of women are the same as the rights of men, and therefore the same as those laid out in the Declaration of Human Rights. Women, simply because they are as human as men are, have many rights such as the right to be employed. Women’s rights are thought of differently and sometimes given special priority because women are more likely to be deprived of their rights. In a situation regarding any breach of human rights, it is almost certain that women will be suffering at a more intense level than men, because even the most basic standards are often not being fulfilled. This occurs not just in developing countries, but in developed ones as well. However, the most obvious abuses, such as the Marriage Bar, have disappeared in developed countries, whereas they are still prevalent in the developing world. However, many developed countries are still guilty of not upholding women’s rights, but this is usually not so blatant and easy to see.

International development is one of those terms that trips off the tongue, but is actually quite hard to define. Development in this sense is the advance or growth of a country. It is international because it occurs all around the world and involves countries creating links and bonds that extend further than their own borders, through trade and shared projects. Development differs from change in that it is more select. It recognises the long-term costs and results of growth, and takes account of them. On the other hand, change is not always so positive, and often disregards long-term costs. Development, then, is progress and improvement for an economy, a country and the people who live in it.

To lack food, money and essentials is to live in poverty. Sadly, this is a situation in which millions of people find themselves. It is nigh on impossible to end poverty, because it is a vicious cycle which traps people and leaves them no way of escape. The old maxim, ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’, is probably the neatest way to sum up how to end poverty, which is our goal here. Education, of all sorts, is vital to helping people out of this cycle. If you want to be metaphorical, it’s the light at the end of the tunnel.

Now that the key concepts have been made clear, we can look at how the rights of women are a part of development and the battle to end poverty. Women who do not have their rights fulfilled may not be permitted to work outside the home, travel, vote, access family planning or control their own finances. All of these barriers thrown up in front of women also hinder international development and the worthy goal of ending poverty. For a country to develop and its people to be relieved of poverty, its economy must be strong and sustainable. This is very difficult to achieve if a large part of the workforce is blocked from employment. How can a country appoint a forward thinking and stable government, if approximately half of the electorate cannot speak their minds through their votes? It is impossible to fully develop an economy, and therefore a country, without the active participation of the citizens. Women’s rights play a huge part in international development because their exclusion means that any ‘improvement’ or ‘growth’ will benefit only a part of the people, and never the whole. In this way, there will always be poverty lingering in the background and creeping around the corner, because some people, namely women, are barred from escaping it.

Paid employment has a lot to do with ending poverty. Women who have the right and the facilities to work can earn an independent income, money that is their own. This money, when spent or saved, feeds into the economy, just as a man’s income would. A country needs money and resources to develop, so an economic climate in which most of the citizens can earn and use their money is to the country’s advantage. Certain facilities are necessary for women to be able to work in the public domain, but these are no more than they are entitled to. Included here are toilets and maternity leave as well as equality of payment and holiday entitlement.

Healthcare is important both to development and a reduction in poverty levels. Clinics, general practitioners and family planning centres are all elements of infrastructure that any developed country needs. Family planning is particularly important for realising women’s rights and all of the benefits for development that come with them. Women in developing countries can often feel trapped by the family obligations that five, six or more children present. It is a barrier for women who wish to work, and a cycle in itself because more children require more money, yet more children also need even more time spent at home, and not working. Therefore, women’s rights to healthcare is essential to development and ending poverty.

There are many examples of cases in which women exercising their rights have assisted with development, as well as lifting themselves and others out of poverty. Women who have the right to work have often been involved in setting up co-operative businesses and banks, which benefit an entire community. Projects such as these can lead to improvements in infrastructure, education, disease prevention and local government. It is not difficult to see how women’s rights can be a starting point from which a broad range of people in a community may be helped.

It may seem odd, but all of my arguments have something to do with bicycles. Let’s look at the example of Amina Kasuim, a Ghanaian women who was formerly a slave working for her uncle’s family. Later in life, she learned to ride a bike and purchased her own from the Village Bicycle Project. It has been invaluable and allows her to reach markets, her farm and family occasions with greater ease and efficiency than before. The use of a bicycle as a women’s instrument of freedom goes right back to Edwardian Britain, during which the introduction of bloomers as cycling garb began a women’s clothing revolution, leading to greater emancipation. All of this has contributed and is continuing to contribute, to development, by allowing women to travel further to work, or for leisure. It plays a clear role in ending poverty as well, Kasuim’s bike maintenance skills could lead to a well-paid job, or encourage her to become an entrepreneur.

In conclusion, I think the American campaigner Susan B. Anthony summed my sentiments up well when she said of bicycling. ‘I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance’. With ‘freedom and self-reliance’, brought about by the fulfilment of their rights, women can become a driving force behind international development and the move to end poverty.

Adventurous Women: Madonnas of Pervyse

Elsie Knocker (1884-1978) and Mairi Chisholm (1896-1981) are well known names from World War I. Nicknamed the Madonnas of Pervyse, these two women worked on the front lines in France, nursing soldiers. They believed that the hospitals where women were allowed to work, which were set back from the front lines, were far less effective than a nursing post closer to the action would be. They decided to establish their own first-aid post in a cellar in Pervyse, which was very close to the trenches. The women worked from this position as ambulance drivers and nurses. A gas attack in 1918 forced them to return Britain for the remainder of the war.

The friendship between Mairi and Elsie had begun years before the war when a mutual love of motorbikes brought the 18-year-old Mairi and thirty-year-old Elsie together. The two became close friends and remained so until after the war. At this point their friendship dissolved because Mairi learnt that Elsie had been divorced from her first husband. Elsie had been married to Leslie Duke Knocker before she met Mairi, after the marriage ended in a divorce, she went to train as a midwife. To avoid being frowned upon, she said that her husband, with whom she had had one son, had died in Java.

The secret only came out after Elsie had married for the second time, to a pilot in the Belgian Air Corps. However, in 1919 he discovered her previous marriage and they separated. As a result of the way that Mairi felt about being deceived, their friendship broke up.

The two women barely spoke again. Elsie’s son had died during the war and afterwards she developed an interest in animal welfare, although she briefly served in the WAAF during WWII. Mairi competed in car races and later became a poultry breeder.

My main interest in these two women in the break-up of their friendship because of Elsie’s divorce. I assume that Mairi was not upset by the divorce itself so much as by Elsie’s cover-up story. However, all women at the time would have known how socially unacceptable divorce was. I think it very strange that Mairi didn’t remain Elsie’s friend out of sympathy for what she had been through, if for no other reason. Perhaps Mairi found the need for deception difficult to understand because she had seen the emancipation of women in WWI at a younger age than her companion and didn’t see the need for secrecy. On the other hand, maybe Elsie should have trusted her long-time friend more and told her about the divorce.

It seems very sad to me that this famously gritty partnership broke up this way. But it’s easy to be wise in hindsight and now that divorce is more common and widely accepted, it’s almost impossible to comprehend Elsie’s predicament or Mairi’s response almost a century ago.


International Women’s Day 2016

As it’s International Women’s Day today, I’d like to mention an event that I’ll be taking part in to celebrate it. On Friday 11th March at 4:30, I will chair a panel called Women in Education and our contribution towards Gender Parity in the Long Room Hub, Trinity College. There will be a second discussion afterwards and a screening later in the evening. The events will mark International Women’s Week 2016. The theme of International Women’s Day 2016 is Pledge for Parity, and this event is called Leading Parity. Follow this link for full details or to book for any of the events!

Expeditions for Erudition

The Warden’s Niece by Gillian Avery (published by Lions) is about a girl named Maria who runs away from school to her uncle who is the Warden of Canterbury College at Oxford. There she is introduced to the ticklish business of original research as she pursues the life story of a young Cavalier boy. She also begins to learn Greek and Latin and displays an aptitude for it which makes it likely that she will one day study at the university.

When The Warden’s Niece is set, in about 1875, Oxford University had just started to admit women the previous year. Five all-male colleges at Oxford: Brasenose, Jesus College, Wadham, Hertford and St Catherine’s became open to female students in 1874 and women’s colleges were later established. In neighbouring and rival Cambridge University, two women’s colleges had been established in 1869 and 1872. These were Girton College and Newnham College respectively.

However, women were not examined or made full members of the university in either Oxford or Cambridge until some years later. Although both universities began to allow female students to sit examinations, they were not given degrees if they passed. In Cambridge, women were examined in 1882 but were not full members of the university until 1948. At Oxford, women could become members of the university from 1920 although women had been passing examinations since the late 1870s.

However, Maria’s ambition goes beyond merely studying at Oxford, she wants to become a professor there too. When Maria first admits to her uncle her ambition of becoming a Professor of Greek he tells her: ‘Now that they are admitting female students into Oxford there is every chance there may be female professors in your lifetime’. Unfortunately, Maria would have had to wait a long time to fulfil her ambition. The first woman to be appointed to a full professorship was Agnes Headlam-Morley. She became Montague Burton Professor of International Relations in October 1948. In Cambridge things moved slightly faster as Dorothy Garrod was made Disney Professor of Archaeology in 1937. As Maria is supposed to be about eleven, she would have been 84 at the earliest possible time of her appointment to professorship at Oxford.

Despite Maria’s enthusiasm for her research, she finds numerous obstacles in her way. As her eccentric tutor, Mr Copplestone, remarks: ‘The pursuit of truth was never an easy task.’ It is even more difficult than usual for Maria, who faces opposition from every quarter because she is a child and a girl. Women have often been hindered in and blamed for their quest for knowledge although it is a worthy pursuit for anyone. It was once believed by educated doctors that too much knowledge could damage a woman’s reproductive system and make her infertile. For this reason, among others, many people looked askance at women’s education.

Maria’s original research sounds much like a (very short) PhD. She wants to discover something entirely new and different. In her quest for knowledge, Maria visits the Bodley Library in Oxford. The head librarian allows her in, against the rules because she was not in the university, because of her uncle’s position. He is firmly against female students and is disgusted that they are permitted in his library, which is very unfair because everyone ought to be helped to learn. Unfortunately, the librarian doesn’t see it this way.

In a similar way to Maria, Eve from the Book of Genesis took a risk in her quest for knowledge, for which endeavour she has been regarded as a villain for centuries. Eve was just the same as Maria in that she wanted to know something but faced heavy opposition.  Maria is in fact compared to Eve by Professor Smith after they make an unaccompanied trip out of Oxford. He says: ‘I don’t know whether you acted as Eve the temptress or whether they [his sons] led you astray.’

The similarity between the stories of Eve and Maria can easily be seen in The Garden by Elsie V. Aidinoff (published by Doubleday). This book is an interesting take on the story of Adam and Eve, in which Eve is depicted as curious, questioning and bright. She explores the world outside the Garden of Eden without God’s knowledge in the company of the Serpent, who is her teacher. When Eve eats of the apple, she does so because she wants to be free and to know more about the world outside. The Garden is a very beautiful and unique re-telling of an old, worn and misunderstood story.

Both books are well worth reading and I hope you’ll leave a comment if you have any other recommendations!

Also, I’m participating in an event for International Women’s Day on much the same theme as these books. See the event’s web page for more information.



Blogging Break

The purpose of this post is two-fold. Firstly, to say that I’ve decided to take a break from Stand Strong Girls because I’m working on other projects at the moment. My posting has been quite infrequent of late, so I think it’s best to sign off until I’ve gathered a few fresh ideas.

Secondly, I am still posting on Curiously Creatively, a craft blog which I contribute to, if you’re interested in having a look at that. The next Stand Strong post will be up on 1st March, but I will be checking for comments or ideas from readers before then, so feel free to get in touch.

Thank you for reading, commenting and following!

India’s Female Forest Guards

I recently read this article about the female forest guards working in the Gir sanctuary in India. The women protect and rescue the big cats living in the reserve. I’d like to look into this more and write a proper post about the forest guards at some point. I hope the article interest you!

Forest Guards

Forest Guards

Women Heroes of World War I

In January I reviewed Code Name Pauline by Kathryn J. Atwood (Chicago Review Press), the memoir of Pearl Witherington Cornioley, who was an SOE operative during WWII. The author recently sent me some more of her work from the Women of Action series and I’ve just finished reading Women Heroes of World War I. This book covers sixteen women in detail, from resisters and spies to medics, soldiers and journalists. Each role has a section, with an introduction and information about each of the women.

I found descriptions of women such as Flora Sandes, who worked in Serbia during the war, very fresh because the Western Front is often concentrated on in books aimed at teenagers or young adults. Sandes was a British woman who went to Serbia to help nurse the soldiers there. She was involved in fundraising for, buying and distributing supplies.

Later, she was accepted as a private in the Serbian army. I enjoyed reading about women who worked in the other theatres of war further afield, such as Helena Gleichen, a radiographer in Italy. I was interested in the story of Marina Yurlova, a girl who boarded a troop train and ended up as a Cossack. I think the woman I was most inspired by was Louise de Bettignies, a French woman who worked for the British intelligence service and organised the Alice Network, a resistance group in Lille. This fascinating woman thought of many creative ways of evading arrest while carrying secret messages.

All of the accounts were very interesting and full of information. I certainly learned a lot, and the use of anecdotes made the women leap off the page! As the women worked in different countries, and some moved between several places, I found the map at the beginning of the book very helpful for tracking the progress of each story. There are many quotes and short historical background notes included which were relevant and useful as well.

On the other hand, there were places where more stringent editing would have improved the read. Also, I was disappointed that while this book includes information about British, French and Russian women, as well as a Romanian and women who worked in Serbia and Italy, there was very little mention of any German women. As the title of the book, (Women Heroes of World War I), does not say anything about ‘Allied Women Heroes’, I think that the imbalance was odd, although it could be due to a lack of available sources. However, the depth of research and detail in this book is evident and the author has provided a feast of fascinating stories which inspire and educate.





Women and STEM

I recently wrote about girls and STEM at school, and this article on the same theme caught my attention. It features a letter written by a male engineering student to the women students studying with him. He very neatly twists a common idea around in this short, but powerful article. Let me know what you think… 

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