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What a Girl Needs

May 8, 2014

Girl in Classroom

My most interesting class this semester is Rural Sociology and Gender. I’ve been planning to write about it for months, but there is just never time.

There are at least three required courses on the new curriculum that are gender focused. As far as I can tell, they’ve always been assigned to fifty-year old men who snort, “Gender. What’s that? Humph!” in our faculty meetings. This semester an American was supposed to come and take over, but when she cancelled at the last minute I started to work on my boss.

“Really. I can do it. If you’ll let me teach soil science why can’t I do this?” He said they needed someone with a master’s degree, but I insisted, “I know this doesn’t mean anything to you, but I’m a Bryn Mawr woman.” Finally, they had no choice and agreed to let me co-teach with the elderly gentleman.

This was colossally awkward until I earned his respect by fixing his computer.

He is teaching all the rural sociology and I’m handling all the gender. (The highlight of his unit was when he pretended to be a ol’ ma crying because she had no grandchildren.) A different gender professor visited from America last semester and left materials with me in the Resource Room. She had started outlining the curriculum for this course and she dropped all of it in my lap. It’s fascinating!

For example, did you know there is a strong correlation between women’s rights and food security in a country? When women are respected and taken care of everyone is less hungry.  We’re covering everything from gender in agriculture education to the conflict between breastfeeding and infant formulas. I have found myself moderating and leading vicious debates about everything from rape and sexual violence to wife beating and household decision-making.

As with any class like this, there are the one or two men who raise their hand with the inevitable, “Sis RB, this is a gender class not a women’s class. I hope you will also talk about men’s rights.”

The most heated days are when I bring in statistics about Liberia. For example according to the 2007 Liberia Demographic and Health Survey, 59% of women think it is acceptable for their husbands to beat them for either burning the food, refusing to have sex, going out without informing them, arguing, or neglecting the children. Only 22% of married women who work outside the home say they hold decision-making power over that income.

“You don’t understand our Liberian setting!” “That’s our culture and our tradition!” the men yell. If I hadn’t already been in Liberia three years I wouldn’t have the confidence to laugh and challenge them. “Don’t argue with me, gentlemen. Argue with the UN and the IFPRI.  I didn’t dream this research last night.”  I’m not sure I ever thought I’d have the confidence to stand in front of fifty Liberian men and shoot off my feminist mouth… but here I am doing it three days a week.

The most rewarding part has been watching the girls slowly speak up. Most days the class is primarily me arguing with the loudest mouth boys interspersed with cheering, clapping, and yelling. The girls are listening though. I can see it in their eyes and in their smiles and some of them are starting to open up, even telling off the boys. Tuesday men were arguing that if a woman gets educated she won’t want to get married and one of my usually quiet girls flung her arm in the air. “I did not come to college to get a husband. I came to college to get an education and whether or not I get married has nothing to do with that!”

You go girl.

Maybe I’ll get through to some of the men and they’ll have more respect for their wives and partners, but I’m really doing it for the girls. I want them to hear what no one else here is going to say: that they deserve more and it’s ok to demand it, that when men are idiots you can tell them, and that they can be whatever they want, whether it’s a mother, a scientist, or both.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again:  I am humbled to have the privilege of being an American girl and a Bryn Mawr woman.

“A state that does not educate and train women is like a man who only trains his right arm.”
~Jostein Gaarder

Great books I’ve read for this class:

The Politics of Breast Feeding: When Breasts are Bad for Business by Gabrielle Palmer

Complementary Feeding: Nutrition, Culture and Politics by Gabrielle Palmer

Unbowed: A Memoir by Wangari Maathai

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 8, 2014 11:29 pm

    Rebekah, wow, awesome post. Thank you for showing how the other side of the world lives. I didn’t know you were from Bryn Mawr. Keep up the wonderful work.

  2. Andrea permalink
    May 9, 2014 3:09 am

    Really enjoyed your article. In Jamaica, there is an American couple who has lived in the community that I’ve worked in for several years. There responsibilities vary but one of the things they try to do is be an example of a healthy marriage and an example of how men should treat women…I think that’s one of the most important things we’ve done in the community there. I’m glad you’re there to be a voice of respect for Liberian women.

  3. Kitty permalink
    October 10, 2014 12:46 am

    Fellow Mawrtyr here feeling proud that my college produces graduates like you. I will keep hope alive that your work there can continue. Thank you for giving us a glimpse of Liberia through your writing.

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