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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 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… 

Branching out into STEM

I have read a lot about the low numbers of women studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. After having a quick think about my own class (in an all girls school), I realised what all the fuss was about. Medicine is a popular future career at the moment; cardiology, physiotherapy, pharmaceuticals, paediatrics, and being a GP have all been discussed. Teaching, law and sporting careers are popular choices. We have an aspiring architect and politician in our midst, and an archaeologist. Many people haven’t made up their minds yet, but I can only think of one girl who has expressed a serious interest in the STEM subjects, specifically engineering. App design has been mentioned occasionally, but not with any serious intent.

As for the STEM subjects in school, science is popular, but there is the option to drop it during the senior cycle. For those who don’t drop it in favour of accounting, business or economics, biology is the most popular choice. Class sizes for chemistry and physics are small, despite government initiatives to alter this trend. Physics and chemistry are widely seen as being difficult, and because of the Irish obsession with points, these subjects tend to be shunned. Furthermore, despite a recent upgrade to the computer room, IT classes are non-existent for students in the junior cycle.

So, getting girls into STEM isn’t going to be easy. Leaving aside some girls’ reservations about studying what are perceived to be boys’ subjects, there is the issue of information. Many girls are unaware of the wide variety of professions that becomes available after studying a STEM subject. The school’s attempt to inform students in this area has amounted to a few posters in the labs, which are too high up to be read properly. Furthermore, we aren’t allowed into the labs except during classes so there is no opportunity to examine them properly.

This year, there have been many events to give girls information about STEM careers, such as Inspire2015, I Wish and Girls Hack Ireland. Looking further afield, Coderdojo and Girls Who Code have both proved popular. Girls Who Code provided a seven-week long Summer Immersion Programme this year at Georgetown University. The participants aimed to find a solution to an everyday problem using coding.

I think it is these kind of initiatives that will succeed where other methods have failed. By giving girls a start in subjects such as IT, and by showing them the wide range of career choices on offer from STEM subjects, the tide may finally turn and more girls will choose to study STEM subjects at university level.




Part II: Downright moral!

Images of women have been, and still are, used to represent many principles and and virtues such as peace, justice and liberty. I have often wondered why women are associated with these high ideals and how the custom began. In Part I: Heavenly Contradictions, I looked at Greek and Roman goddesses. While in that post I was focusing on the contradictions of associating a goddess with things real women were not allowed to do, it is also interesting to look at the goddesses’ morals. Although Venus (Aphrodite), is an exception, Minerva (Athena), Diana (Artemis) and Vesta ( Hestia) among others were all praised for their virtuous natures.

Stained Glass Window

Stained glass window depicting charity as a woman

So, we see that the practice of connecting hope, peace, charity etc with women stemmed from Greek and Roman goddesses and probably even further back, from tribal deities.  The association can be traced through  European history. Victory is shown by a winged woman and countries such as France and Britain are represented by women (Marianne and Britannia, respectively).

However, it was the Victorians who really invested in this idea. I recently saw some beautiful stained glass windows from the Victorian era on the subjects of patience, hope, charity and faith. All of these virtues were depicted by women. The Victorians regarded women as models of virtue, who should teach others to be equally good. I think this opinion came from women’s role in childcare, it was assumed all women were nurturing and caring. This leads to the question, where did they think the women got it from? Either they were born good or their mothers taught them. As with the chicken and the egg, perhaps people were a little hazy about the beginning. Since virtue was predominately associated with women, does that mean that men were thought to lack moral fibre? Maybe the Victorians assumed that with all that working and leading the family, they wouldn’t have much time to cultivate it and would need a crash course from their womenfolk.

Perhaps that is why ‘fallen’ women and prostitutes were so disliked because not only were their own moral characters at fault but they had also failed in their ‘duty’ to teach men the same virtues and then pass them on to their children.

To return to the central question, why were so many positive traits depicted by women? As in the case of the Greek and Roman contradictions, I think it is unlikely that most people thought very much about these representations. There was a status quo, which simply stayed in place. We rarely wonder why green is go and red is stop on a traffic light because we are so used to seeing it, the same may well have applied in this case. Women would not have been involved in military activities, due to a perceived lack of physical abilities. I think that it was mistakenly assumed that less in the way of physical ability, determined, of course, by biology, would be accompanied by moral views that were against warlike activities, hence the assumption that most women were virtuous and good.

To put this into a contemporary context, do people still associate women with ideas such as these? Is the image of a perfect woman, the model of these morals, still prevalent in society? Certainly we can still see images of a women as peace, justice, charity etc in statues, paintings and other art forms, but few of these are recent. Now we have a much more balanced view of the morals of both men and women, I wonder how a modern art work would show hope, faith, charity and patience?

Part I: Heavenly Contradictions

This post is the first in a short series that I will put up about goddesses and female icons. I find it very bizarre that although goddesses with all kinds of skills and powers were worshipped in the ancient cultures, the real women alive at the time were not permitted to emulate them. In this post I will look at the goddesses and women of Ancient Greece and Rome.

A short history lesson first, though. Both the Greeks and the Romans were polytheistic, meaning they worshipped many gods and goddesses. They believed that each of these deities controlled one aspect of nature or was responsible for a certain time of year, type of person or action. For example, Neptune or Poseidon ruled the sea and was the god to whom a sailor would pray when at sea. Also, the Greek and Roman gods are very similar, but the two cultures gave them different names. For example, Athena, who was the Greek goddess of wisdom, was known as Minerva to the Romans.


Athena or Minerva

As I said earlier, I am perplexed by the way that these people could openly be so hypocritical by venerating goddesses for having abilities that they did not encourage or allow in real women. Athena, or Minerva, is a good example of this contradiction. She was the goddess of knowledge, war, literature, courage, justice, arts and crafts and reason, among other things. How much of this has a grounding in fact?

Looking at Rome first, girls would have had basic education, although this depended on how much money the girl’s family had. Only very wealthy families would have given their daughters education in literature, philosophy and the other areas prized by the Romans. Roman women would not have had much to do with war either. They could appear in court and some women did fight their own cases, however this was rare and not widely approved of.

Moving on to Greece, the situation is a bit more complicated. Athens, the city most associated with Athena, was full of hypocrisy. Women were given little freedom and were certainly not permitted to fight.  A woman was under the guardianship of a kyrios, a man who protected her and also owned all her property and dealt with legal matters on her behalf.  Some Athenian women would have been educated, but as with Rome the extent of their teaching depended on their families’ income.

However, Athens was quite unusual in Greece and most cities did not place the same restrictions on women. In Sparta, women were not permitted to join the famous army but they could own land. There are records of Spartan women owning and administrating their own land as well as that of their male relatives who were at war. Similar records can be found in Delphi, Thessaly, Megara and Gortyn. Spartan women’s formal education was probably not of a very high standard but they would have at least been able to read and write.

Therefore, we see that despite worshipping Athena’s, or Minerva’s, talents, very few Greek or Roman women were permitted to develop the same skills.  Arts and crafts was virtually the only area of life that Athena was responsible for that Greek and Roman women did en masse.  It would have been seen as a wife’s duty to spin and weave fabric for her family or, in the case of poorer women, to sell.


Artemis or Diana

Another example of the contradiction between goddesses and women can be seen in the Greek goddess Artemis, called Diana by the Romans. She was the goddess of hunting, archery, the moon and childbirth. She also had a special connection with animals and woodlands. Here perhaps is a goddess who is not quite so bizarre. The connection with childbirth is realistic, although somewhat backward in a virgin goddess, who would not have had any experience in the matter!

In Greece, Sparta again gave women most freedom to participate in riding and hunting. Spartan women were encouraged to do physical exercise and may have ridden in hunts. They trained with the Spartan boys, but did not go to war so they were unlikely to use weapons very much. However, Roman women would not have hunted at all, and probably did not use bows and arrows.

I have only discussed two examples here, but there are others. Even Aphrodite, or Venus, is somewhat of a conundrum. She was the goddess of love, lust and beauty. While Greek and Roman women would have been expected to please their husbands with their good looks, they would have been supposed to be loyal and leave the philandering for which Venus is known to their husbands.

All of these examples raise the same question. Why were goddesses revered for possessing abilities that would not have been acceptable in real women at the time?

I don’t have a definitive answer but I’ve got a few ideas (which you can argue with in the comment box if you are so inclined). It seems unlikely that having talented goddesses was a way to inspire and set an example to women, because any women who followed in their idols’ footsteps seem to have been disliked. Scrap that idea then. Perhaps the idea was to have something to which unfavourably to compare women: an ancient ‘look at all the things you can’t do’. Also unlikely in any direct or intentional way though it was perhaps an effect of these personifications.

Next theory: the ancient Greeks and Romans were so used to the status quo that most people, both men and women, didn’t think about what it meant. If so, then the goddesses must have come from even older cultures.

It’s true that the Greek and Roman religions came from even further back. The polytheistic religions were the result of piecing together many tribal deities and worshipping them all at once. We saw that Athena’s, or Minerva’s, areas of patronage included arts and crafts and that Greek and Roman women engaged in these. Therefore, is it not possible that if we broke down all the elements of the goddess and re-assigned them to the different goddesses from whence they came, everything would make a lot more sense? For example, Athena is the goddess of war. Perhaps in a certain pre-historic tribe or clan, women were free to participate in fighting and a female deity was worshipped because of that. It’s very difficult to put together a coherent explanation of the minds of people who lived so long ago. There is a distinct possibility that this is all wrong and that the Romans and Greeks would cry with laughter if they could read it. So much knowledge has been lost in the ‘mists of time’ that even with a lot of archaeological material available, it’s not always easy to find an answer.

This is only the first of several posts I’ll be putting up on this subject. The next post will discuss women representing ideals or morals in society, such as justice and peace.

Photo Credits: Wikipedia, with thanks!

Room to Read

I recently heard about Room to Read, an organisation that works with communities and governments in Asia and Africa to run literacy programmes.  Room to Read operates in 10 countries in Africa and Asia. It builds libraries and schools, hiring local contractors and teachers. In this way money is put back into the community.

Room to Read

Room to Read logo

Room to Read also works with girls at secondary school level to help them reach their full potential. It provides mentors, workshops and camps to help girls in school. Room to Read helps girls who are moving from primary to secondary school as this is when most drop out happen. There are so many long-term advantages to girls’ education. Women often raise healthier families, earn higher wages and teach their own children.

I looked at Room to Read’s work in India, as one of the World Wide Women pages is about it. In India, Room to Read are mostly building libraries. Girls’ education is a large part of its work there, as there is still gender disparity in education. Although all children are entitled to free education in India, many girls drop out before finishing.

Room to Read sounds like a wonderful programme that is making a lot of difference and I hope it will continue its work for a long time.


The Solar Grandmothers

Known as the Solar Grandmothers, Akouavi, Hotitode, Mialo Tassi and Togoalise are four elderly African women trained in solar electronics. Their story has been turned into an exhibition by photojournalist Lar Boland who travelled to Barefoot College and Toga to photograph their training and work. The exhibition will be on display at four Dublin City libraries.

These four women travelled 8,000km from their village of Agome Seva in southeast Toga in western Africa to Rajasthan in India. There, they were trained at the Barefoot College by Indian women who are alumni of the college. Although most of the students and teachers are illiterate, this is no barrier to learning. Students are taught through sign language and colour codes.

The Solar Grandmothers’ village is now powered by solar energy. They have trained others in solar electrification. They are only four of 140 African women to study in Barefoot College since 2005. Barefoot College is a non-governmental organisation that helps rural communities to become sustainable and self-sufficient. The college’s philosophy is that the poor have the right to use technology to improve their lives, even if they cannot read or write.

The exhibition is on display from February to May. Click on the link to see the details of the exhibition. If you go to see it, let me know what you think…


Girls in STEM careers

There is an ongoing debate about the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) and how to get more girls interested in them. Many campaigns and programmes encourage girls to study STEM subjects in school and consider them as careers. However, despite all this effort, in Europe less than 7% of all tech positions are filled by women. Ten years ago 47% of entrants into maths, science and computing university courses were women. In 2013, that number had fallen to 40%. Clearly something is being done wrong.

I see a problem with some of these campaigns that would certainly deter me (and as a teenage girl I am in the target audience). However, I can’t see it not having an influence on boys as well. When small children are asked what they want to be, ‘a scientist’ is an ambitious but vague answer. If one studies Science in school, but it is not applied to the everyday world, it is difficult to envisage a career in it. There is no such thing as ‘a scientist’. There are chemists, ecologists, forensic scientists, geologists, physicists, astronomers and more. I think that if Science teachers taught their students where and how theories and formulas fitted into everyday life, science would become clearer for many students. Perhaps if science was broken down into careers and students knew what each one might involve, studying science at third level would become more appealing. Although this problem cannot only apply to girls, perhaps teachers and parents of boys take the time to inform them about the options that STEM offers, but do not think it relevant to girls.

‘I Wish’ is a Cork initiative that aims to provide girls with more information about careers that are possible after studying STEM subjects. According to Gillian Keating, President of the Cork Chamber of Commerce, ‘We have to show them what being an engineer, for example, means. I think the key problem is that girls simply do not know what the job options are’. If this is so, then campaigns must focus on making the range and variety of careers obvious to girls, particularly if their parents are also not informed about them.

On the other hand, while girls are being encouraged into STEM subjects, should not boys be educated about traditionally ‘female’ subjects like Art and Home Economics? I compared two secondary schools, one for girls and one for boys to see what subjects were available. The curricula are the same except for the following differences. In the boys’ school Applied Maths, German, Design and Communications Graphics, Materials Technology, Construction Studies, Computer Studies and Classical Studies were offered. In the girls’ schools Japanese and Home Economics were offered. The boys’ school places a greater emphasis on subjects involving construction that could possibly lead onto a career in engineering.

So, I think it is equally important that boys take up careers traditionally seen as being for girls as that girls do the opposite. This equality lark works both ways and it is very easy to forget that. This is a very complicated debate and no one seems to know all the different solutions to the problem.

What are your views? Do you think that STEM initiatives are targeting girls in the right way at the moment? Do you think it is just as important for boys to be encouraged to seek different career options? Please let me know what you think.

Female sport debate

This is a debate I wrote recently, as the motion is relevant to the blog’s topic. Please comment if you have any questions!

Chairperson, adjudicators, fellow debaters, ladies and gentlemen. I am proposing tonight’s motion, that THW require broadcasters to give equal airtime to male and female sports. I will be discussing two reasons for proposing the motion: the philosophical and the practical benefits.

The opposition have stressed the point that everyone should have the freedom to watch what they want. Liberty is a valuable principle, however, the proposition also believe in the importance of equality. When liberty and equality come into conflict, we must make choices. This happens all of the time in society. For example, if someone came in here and started making racist comments, that person would have the liberty to do so, however this infringes on the equal treatment of others. In some situations, liberty must be curtailed to allow for equality. Men and women are equally part of our society. If their activities are not shown equally, it gives the impression that we do not value women as much as we do men. This is the most significant point where we clash with the opposition. They value only liberty, whereas we value liberty and equality, in balance.

Now to some practical matters, the proposition is interested not just in the broadcasting of sport but in the doing of it. Sport has many benefits. There are the obvious health giving benefits, it promotes physical fitness. Sport brings other benefits like co-operation and teamwork. Sport promotes ‘sportsmanship’, things like discipline and accepting defeat graciously. It has been shown that women and girls play sport less than men and boys. According to the World Health Organisation there is, ‘considerable evidence from around the world suggesting that most (girls) do not’, engage in sport, why? Boys have only to switch on the TV to see male sports players in matches, winning or losing. They act as positive role models. While sometimes sportsmen let the side down and act wrongly. They are, by and large, positive role models. These role models are not available to girls in the same way. Sure, the Olympics come around every four years and girls are inspired by sportswomen for a few weeks. Girls see Katie Taylor, get inspired and go out and punch someone. However, this doesn’t last long enough. Girls lack the role models that are visible to boys week in, week out. The World Health Organisation also says that there is an ‘evident lack of female sporting role models available to girls’. If this motion is supported and more female sport is broadcast, this is bound to increase girls’ participation in sport. Just as boys can have role models, so too can girls. Not just irregular bursts of female sport, but regular showings. Girls will be healthy, team players and highly disciplined. Everybody can benefit from that. All we have to do to achieve this is to support tonight’s motion.

To sum up, I have made two points in this debate. The philosophical reasons: it’s the right thing to do, to curtail liberty somewhat, sometimes, to promote equality. This is one of those cases. I have offered practical reasons for proposing the motion as well. Through the increased visibility of female role models, more girls will play sport and enjoy the benefits. These benefits will radiate out to society as a whole. I urge you to propose. Thank-you.

2014: A Summary

2014 has been an exciting year on Stand Strong Girls, with new campaigns and victories. In this post I will do my best to summarise some of the topics that have appeared here this year.


One of the issues I mentioned this year was the debate of single-sex education versus co-education. Drawing on my own experience in both types of schools, I tried to reason out the pros and cons from both points of view. While I still remain firmly in support of co-educational schools, I tried to appreciate the advantages of single-sex education as well.

I also wrote about women’s universities. Their numbers are growing in developing countries, where they are often women’s only option for higher education. However, in western countries their numbers have decreased significantly in recent years. I am of the opinion that women-only universities are just a short-term solution to the problem of women still being barred from many universities.


This year was Read Women 2014, a campaign started by writer and illustrator Joanna Walsh that encouraged people to read more books written by women. At the moment, I’m doing quite well, reading Code Name Pauline. It is about the experiences of Pearl Witherington Cornioley, an SOE agent during WWII. The book was edited by Kathryn J. Atwood. Earlier in the year I read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, a novel based on SOE agents’ experiences.

Let Books Be Books campaign also kicked off this year. The campaign aims to put an end to the gender specific branding of books. Already several publishers and booksellers have got on board, promising to stop producing or selling gender specific books.

                               Adventurous Women

The Adventurous Women series began this year, a series of post about women who achieved, created or just did something different.  I have already written about the pilot Amelia Earhart, the nurse Mary Seacole and Sophie Germain, who was a mathematician. I also wrote about Katharine Wright, who helped to develop the first aircraft and Nadezhda Durova who served in the Russian cavalry. If you know of a woman you think deserves a mention, please let me know.


I’ve talked quite a bit this year about how children’s toys have changed from neutral and non-gendered to the pink and blue gender-specific toys that we know today. One example is Lego, which seems to think that girls can only build with pink blocks. However, this year Lego produced the Research Institute, featuring three female scientists.We saw it being put to good use by Donna Yates, who tweeted pictures of Lego scenes using the new set on @LegoAcademics.

                                  Malala Yousafzia

As an education activist, Yousafzia has made the news quite a few times in 2014. I read her book earlier this year, I am Malala, co-authored by Christina Lamb. Yousafzia also won the Nobel Peace Prize this year, along with Kailash Satyarthi, to recognise their struggle for children’s right to education.


I have written about campaigns such as HeForShe, Man Up and White Ribbon this year. One thing these campaigns have in common is that they are looking at the role men have to play in order to build an equal world. I think this approach is hugely important because it shows that inequality is not just women’s problem and that it is up to everyone to resolve it.

These are not all of the topics that I blogged about in 2014 but I think I have covered all of the bigger ones. I’ll be back in 2015. Happy New Year!

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