It is an unfortunate reality that even in modern times, girls have fewer opportunities than boys when it comes to receiving an education. Girls all over the world face discrimination within their cultures where they are not seen as equals to men, and therefore an emphasis on educating women is mostly absent. Barriers such as early marriage, low social status, chores and responsibilities, unsafe schools, and sanitation mean that young girls are not learning and not getting jobs to generate steady income. Without an education, they can’t educate their own children, which keep their families living in a cycle of poverty.
“If we educate a boy, we educate one person. If we educate a girl, we educate a family – and a whole nation.”
We’d like to think of this as a problem found only in impoverished countries, but the discrepancy is found in America as well. I have visited many projects that Children Incorporated is affiliated with all over the world, and girls both here in the U.S. and abroad face difficult circumstances when it comes to getting an education. From Kenya to India, to Bolivia, to Eastern Kentucky, women are less likely to be educated and more likely to live in poverty as adults than men. However, thanks to efforts made by organizations like Children Incorporated, there is hope that the achievement gap between girls and boys will close.
Children Incorporated provides basic needs to impoverished children – usually food, clothing, school supplies, and hygiene items through our sponsorship program. Beyond support from individual sponsors, we help young girls and women so they have a better chance at overcoming obstacles in their lives through skill training, job training, tutoring programs, and by building infrastructures such as dorm rooms and homes.
One of the best examples of supporting women’s education I have seen in my travels with Children Incorporated was in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Last spring, I visited Villa Emilia, a group home where a group of dedicated nuns help women and children who have been living on the streets. These families often come from hard and dangerous conditions, and the sisters who run the home help them transition and turn their lives around for the better. If it weren’t for Villa Emilia, the children who live at home would grow up uneducated and homeless. At best, the boys would eventually become laborers or field hands. The girls, however, often have no options but to take to the streets as their mothers had done – thus continuing the cycle.
When mothers and children come to Villa Emilia, they are offered a temporary home. The children attend local schools, and the women are taught garment making and given jobs in the factory, where they make their own money and are encouraged to save so they can eventually move out on their own.
Not only are the mothers taught integral life skills that they can pass down to their children, they also feel a sense of empowerment from applying their work ethic and earning their own income.
Villa Emilia also helps families to build permanence and stability. The sisters who run the home put down payments on pieces of land for the women, who then pay the mortgage on the land. Children Incorporated was able to step in and fund the building of eight houses for the women and their children so they could move into a permanent living situation.
If it weren’t for the mothers’ hard work and dedication to learning new skills, they would have never escaped poverty. These women have become role models for the girls – and the boys – of the next generation.
Photo Courtesy of New York School Talk
Last year, I visited San Miguel de Allende, in Mexico, where Children Incorporated has promoted girls education by purchasing computers for the local library, where girls and boys from local schools can come and take classes after school. This past summer, while visiting our affiliated projects in Telangana, India, I found that Children Incorporated supports mainly girls’ homes, which ensure girls from poor rural communities are given the opportunity to go to school and are encouraged to pursue higher education.
We have built dozens of dorms and schools so these homes can increase the number of girls who can attend – girls who otherwise would never be educated.
In Lages, Brazil, Children Incorporated began supporting the women of Grupo Art’Mulher, a community bakery that sells cookies, bread, pasta, and cakes. The group’s purpose is to teach business skills and a trade to local mothers. As a result, they are able to earn a steady income and provide for themselves and their families. When the program began five years ago, twenty women received instruction on how to bake and sell pastries. Since then, the program has only grown. Grupo Art’Mulher began making a name for itself at the local market, and many members of the first class ended up getting jobs in the food industry. The mothers of Grupo Art’Mulher have learned to support their families and cooking and business skills they can pass down to their own children. They’ve also earned enough to give back – a percentage of the bakery income will be donated to start music and theater courses in a building across the street from it this year.
In Kentucky, Children Incorporated’s higher education fund encourages young women to pursue college or vocational school. One former sponsored child from our program, Alesha, is now the mother of two children. She had a sponsor that supported her throughout high school and while she attended Morehead State University where she studied Education. She is now working towards becoming a speech and language pathologist. Without the support of our program and the encouragement of her sponsor, Alesha might have succumbed to the financial and emotional hardships she faced growing up in poverty with a father who struggled with a pain killer addiction.
While visiting our projects in Nairobi, Kenya, I met a young woman named Mwanaharusi who lived in the Pumwani slum, one of the largest and worst slums in the world. Between 70,000 and 100,000 people live crowded together in shacks with no water or electricity. One of our affiliate projects near the slum is St. John’s Community Center, where 200 children are taught academic subjects, along with trades like woodworking, metal work, sewing, and cooking. Mwanaharusi, who learned to sew while she was attending St. John’s, started a small business out of her home mending garments and making clothes for her neighbors. She saved enough money to buy a foot-powered sewing machine, which she demonstrated for me how it worked. It’s modest success by some standards; but in the darkest corners of the world, it’s a major victory. A girl born into poverty – in a country where girls are often not educated at all – finishes school, starts her own business and is able to support herself and her family. With every success like Mwanaharusi’s, and the other success stories we see, we move one step closer to equality for girls.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.