Girl Rising is a global movement to help empower girls through education. In supporting their cause they created a documentary that aims to change the way girls in the world have been stigmatized.
Girl Rising journeys around the globe to witness the strength of the human spirit and the power of education to change the world. Viewers get to know nine unforgettable girls living in the developing world: ordinary girls who confront tremendous challenges and overcome nearly impossible odds to pursue their dreams. Prize-winning authors put the girls’ remarkable stories into words, and renowned actors give them voice. The power of story-telling really engages an audience that might be blind to the types of issues girls around the world face. You can view the documentary here, and you can also arrange to have a screening with friends. These stories are ones that need to be shared in order to have productive conversations about what action can be done to effectively empower the next generation of women.
Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), which is one of the oldest universities in India, is being harshly criticized because the university has banned women from accessing its main library, Maulana Azad Library (The Times of India). The victimized students were in the Women’s College of AMU, and they were not able to enter the main library on several occasions due to a variety of excuses; such as the road to the library was not safe for girls and female students would distract the male students. (The Star Online)
The university’s vice-chancellor Zameer Uddin Shah said that more boys (up to four times) would attend if they allow girls to go the library. He also justified the act by saying “The issue is not of discipline, but of space. Our library is packed.” (Mail Online) In the same line with the vice-chancellor, the principal of Women’s College, Naima Gulrez added by saying “Have you girls ever seen the library? It is jam-packed with boys. If girls were to be permitted inside the library, the discipline issue might crop up.” In response to this discriminatory act, students in the Women’s College insisted “If space is a problem, we can just borrow books and not sit in the library.” (The Times of India)
The point is that the main library has higher quality of resources compared to the Women’s College library. The university proudly states that its main library is renowned for its invaluable collections of manuscripts and rare books that are available in oriental languages (AMU homepage). As a graduate student and a woman who is blessed to be able to use great resources of the libraries in university, I could only be on the side of the female students. If they are also students of AMU, why are they not allowed to enter the main library? Furthermore, I must post a deeper, fundamental question; why do the women need a permit to use the facility in their own university? Why should female students be used as scapegoats to avoid the overcrowding of the library? Why does the university appear to be concerned about the safety of female students, but not about their education? This stance appears to be an evasive excuse to exclude women. The university guarantees the right to education for male students and protects them from being distracted by female students. Female students should have the fundamental right to education as much as male students do. If the university was established with the purpose of cultivating competent people, it cannot deny the right to education for female students any longer.
I would like to close this post with a piece of writing from an alumna of the Women’s College: “The first time I stepped into the Maulana Azad Library, I was awed by its grandeur. More than that, I felt frustration at not being able to reach out to those shelves, browse through books and borrow a tiny bit of that wealth. It is time that the university stops infantilizing and discriminating against its female students, and starts treating them with equal dignity and respect.” (IBN Live)
1 the state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones)
either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions: adults of both sexes.
“Hen,” the Swedish gender-neutral pronoun has stirred an interesting debate over the role of gender in our society. Even though this debate is not new, Sweden has undoubtedly been a pioneer in pushing for a “gender-neutral” education for children, by starting at the nursery school level. Sweden is the first country to establish a gender neutral nursery school. During the past few months, the media has increasingly addressed the question of gender in different spheres, ranging from gender-neutral underwear, to gender-neutral bathrooms, to using gender-neutral terms in schools, to the world’s first gender-neutral sex toy, to Veterans of Foreign Wars becoming gender neutral as well.
I have always been fascinated by the concept of gender, particularly how gender is socially constructed and how it gives us an identity. It is a fact that men and women are biologically different: we define our sex based on our reproductive organs. Gender however, is different. How do we define our gender? Other than the evident biological differences that exist between men and women, our society has constructed traditional gender roles that prescribe certain behaviors based on what is considered “feminine” and “masculine.” Anthropologist Margaret Mead was among the first to distinguish between gender and sex and study the ways in which cultural conditioning plays a much bigger role than biology in shaping men and women’s behaviors. Even though every culture differs as to what these behaviors entail, there is a sense of universality, (or rather, a “western universality”) among most of them, so for instance, it is the norm for girls to wear dresses and for boys not to wear them; or for girls to play with dolls and boys to play with cars, and so forth.
These might seem like pretty trivial examples, but if we analyze them closer we will soon realize that these behaviors are “taught” or “imposed” on us. I think that even if some children are given the choice to decide what toy they want to play with, family, society and school will still be responsible for shaping that child’s gender. This is why Sweden’s move to neutralize gender in schools is revolutionary in that it is challenging societal preconceived notions of gender.
Foucault’s studies on power relationships, gender and sexuality, explain how we construct our social meanings of normalcy, and how these social constructions are used to marginalize and oppress behaviors that divert from the “norm.” All social institutions play a role in forming these notions, and gender is certainly one of them. Foucault encourages us to find our identities outside of the “normal” patterns established by society (Feinberg & Soltis, 2009).
The deconstruction of gender, from a woman’s perspective, I think poses an incredibly interesting challenge and question for our future generations. Gender has undoubtedly played a role in power structures around the world and throughout history. Millions of women around the world still face discrimination and violence- just for the sake of being female. For example, women in Iran are worth “half” than their male counterparts, limiting their inheritance and property rights, making them victims of “justifiable” domestic violence, and requiring the permission of their husbands to travel, among many other differences. Will deconstructing gender and redefining gender roles improve their lives? Will our world become more egalitarian, just and equitable if gender as we perceive it today changes? I don’t have the answer to these questions but I do think they are worth asking and worth exploring.
In conversation with Dr. Mark Stern, who specializes in political economy, social theory, and public education, among others, when asked if he thinks gender matters, offered the following interesting insight: “I believe that gender could represent human potentiality. Gender represents a horizon or possibility for human engagement with the world–how we express who we are, how we feel, and what we do with that. Gender represents possibility to be and to be otherwise–potential, rather than limit (the way it currently functions).” Seen from this perspective, gender becomes an enabling factor as opposed to a disabling one. It represents another dimension of freedom- of freedom to choose and feel what we identify ourselves with.
Does gender matter? I would argue that it matters as long as it empowers us, and as long as it doesn’t function as a means of oppression or “normalization” where we hinder the potentiality of expressing our identities as human beings.
Many sources are reporting outrage over Indonesia’s “Two Finger” test for women, who are required to prove they are virgins before joining the police force. The China Daily and The Singapore Straits Times have condemned these types of tests. This happened after Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently published a report calling on Indonesia to end these invasive tests. Phelim Kine, HRW’s deputy director of the Asia Division, told msnbc. “Women have been too ashamed or traumatized to talk about it for decades.”
The test is considered a “health check.” A health official inserts two fingers to make sure the hymen of the female is still intact. Applicants have to strip down and submit to these tests without question.
Police spokesman Ronny Sompie said the “comprehensive health test” is for all applicants, in order to make sure candidates were free of sexually transmitted diseases. He said that a women who were not virgins could still apply. However, HRW said a post on the police website indicated that female applicants must be virgins. Currently, women make up about 3% of the 400,000 officers in the force and there have been talks to try and increase that percentage to 5% by the end of December.
Moreover, this test does not adequately determine whether a female is still a virgin. Women have torn their hymens for other reasons. Some have reported that hymens can tear from intense physical activity or even from riding a bicycle. Therefore, many women could be discredited without actually engaging in any sexual activity.
This issue appears to be a clash of cultures in trying to apply moral values that end up discriminating women and keep them out of the workforce. Augusto Lopez-Carlos Director of the Global Indicators and Analysis Department at the World Bank, spoke at the Penn International Development Conference about how discriminatory laws affect women. He stated that laws like this do inhibit women from entering the labor force, and inhibit growth and opportunity in many countries. It seems counter-intuitive that the government requires this test while also stating that they plan to increase female police applicants in order to better address femicide and sex crimes.
Education could bring awareness to the discriminatory nature of this test. Sex education could help dispel the myth that a woman is a virgin by using a “two-finger virginity test.” In addition, educators should teach both genders about separating sex from human capital. A female’s sexual activity is not tied to her capabilities as a police officer, as this test infers. If officials want to better address sex crimes, they need to reexamine how this test could prevent females from joining the force.
Last year, hundreds of students were trained by Planned Parenthood in Yogyakarta, a province with one of the country’s most progressive reproductive rights communities. These students called on the province officials to include sex education in school.
Andreas Nugahita, a student and workshop attendee stated,“The more people understand, the more they can take responsibility for their own sexual behavior. That could change teenagers’ attitudes toward sex all across Indonesia.”
However, considering the cultural context in Indonesia, changing legislation to abolish the virginity test or to include sex education could be difficult.“We have this conservative point of view because, for generations, sex has been seen as a bad thing.” said Dyana Savina Hutadjulu, a program officer at Hivos, a global development agency helping to coordinate the effort.
Addressing the youth is important, but in order to abolish the “virginity test”, the Health Minister should take a stand as well. Dr. Nafsiah Mboi, a physician who promoted sex education outreach in the past, was appointed as Indonesia’s health minister in 2013. He has not commented yet, but if he did this could help, considering he is a doctor and has advocated for sexual health awareness. Hopefully, Dr. Mboi and others can add their input to hopefully put an end to this test and create better gender equity within Indonesia’s police force.
Have you ever seen a pregnant mannequin? If so, you must have seen it in the stores for expecting mothers. At a mall in Venezuela, mannequins of pregnant schoolgirls wearing school uniforms are being displayed. Shoppers who see the mannequins were shocked and as a result, a debate over sex education was provoked (Buenos Aires Herald). The mannequins were set up by two local charities for children with the intention to draw attention to the nation’s adolescent pregnancy rate. This idea was formulated because of the alarming statistics that one girl under the age of 18 is getting pregnant every three minutes and 23 percent of all births come from that age category in Venezuela (Latin Times); the phenomenon is one of the worst in South America. A shopper, Auriselvia Torrealba said “Yes, it’s disturbing to see such sight in a window. But it’s the truth. You see pregnant girls all the time on the streets. So this forces you to think about the problem, doesn’t it?” (New York Post) Although this issue is a subject of taboo in Venezuela, the campaign is playing the role of igniting awareness for the current status of girls.
Teen pregnancy has been a major issue in developing countries. Even it is a girls’ choice to get pregnant, teen pregnancy can be detrimental for both the mother and the baby in terms of medical problems as well as mental health problems. In order to avoid the risks, many civil agencies or foundations insist that sex education needs to be improved and parents need to take the subject more seriously (Latin Times). Since sex education can provide the girls with information on various contraceptive measures and knowledge about the human body, the girls are given the opportunity to reduce the rate of pregnancy. Nevertheless, it cannot be a solution in the case of forced marriage. Teen pregnancy results to girls being deprived of not only the right to be healthy, but also the right to be educated. If they get married or give childbirth, they face difficulty in going back to school.
In addition to improving the quality of sex education, society has to be equipped with the proper systems and networks to provide a safe environment for girls. The more important thing for the girls is the change in overall recognition toward girls/women through the cooperation of parents and communities. Girls are not a tool to help men vent their desires or a reproduction machine, but a being worth valued. If this view is not properly established, gender disparity in education can never be broken. Beyond Venezuela where the attention to girls’ pregnancy was ignited, we have to go the extra mile for all the girls who are suffering from early or forced marriage as well as teen pregnancy to stay healthy and stay in school.
The hope of making it big in business attracts many entrepreneurs to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. The area is known for “disrupting” business and creating new products and services that challenge traditional frameworks. However, in the sea of this “disruption” there are few that focus on the most marginalized populations in the world: girls. One incubator program is addressing a global problem through the start-ups focusing on girls first. The Girl Effect accelerator aims to tackle these problems not through nonprofit philanthropy or government aid, but through social impact businesses. The Girl Effect Accelerator Program is supporting its first round of businesses with a two-week workshop that took place in early November. These new businesses address the most pertinent challenges girls and women face, such as healthcare, education, personal finance and safety. The program chose ten companies that specific focus on girls in developing countries.
So, what is an accelerator program? An “accelerator” is a program where participants apply and those who are accepted are able to start or expand their businesses. Once they join a cohort they are able receive mentorship from leaders and build their skill sets. On the last day, they get to pitch their idea or show a demo to investors. These programs have become popular for entrepreneurs since other companies like Airbnb and Dropbox have been incubator graduates and have succeeded later on. Most accelerator programs only focus on building enterprise. The Girl Effect program is a first to use accelerators for different purposes. The Girl Effect is backed by the Nike Foundation and the Unreasonable Group. They are sponsoring this not just because fighting poverty is the right thing to do, they see it as a business opportunity. As research continues to show, educating, supporting and protecting girls in the developing world can be a catalyst for creating economic growth and opportunity within developing communities. Shaifali Puri, executive director of global innovation at the Nike Foundation, said at the opening remarks of the program, “these entrepreneurs have made the impossible merely difficult.”
One company in the Girl Effect program is specifically addressing education, is Bridges International. It is a for-profit school that costs students about $5 per month to attend. At first glance, their program is quite similar to what the Education for All Initiative (EFA), tries to achieve. EFA was first launched in 1990 by the World Bank. Upon inspection, it is hard to see how Bridges is addressing girls access to education. Furthermore, how is their model different from EFA and other initiatives that take a top-down approach to education? Hopefully, the Girl Effect program will help them fine tune their approach to create inclusive education programs for girls.
It is inspiring to see programs like the Girl Effect are trying to take an innovative approach when tackling complex issues like girls living in poverty. In the past, this has been traditionally addressed by Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) and more recently Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs). These approaches were developed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank and their missions are to alleviate poverty through economic growth. These programs have been criticized in the past and might be able to reduce poverty for some, but they can also exacerbate inequalities for others. The Girls Effect shows promise to get things done faster, by working through the business lens, instead of aid organizations or local governments. However, there are several considerations that need to be addressed in order to distinguish these programs from the traditional approaches that have been previously implemented:
- Beneficiary voice needs to be incorporated to find sustainable solutions.
- Understanding and respecting cultural contexts should be taken into account.
- Business is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution. There needs to be collaboration from different sectors.
- Development work already exists in many of the areas where these businesses are starting. Will these projects overlap with other initiatives in the area? Is there potential for partnership and will this be encouraged or as seen as competition?
These considerations are not easy to discuss, but as the Girl Effect scales, they will need to be addressed and incorporated into the program curriculum. Nevertheless, the Girl Effect is the first of it’s kind in the accelerator space to focus on girls in developing countries, so there is promise that other businesses might want to shift their focus on girls as well.
Entering this new space in social impact and business to address real-world problems with market solutions is a trend I like to see. Hopefully, with this new approach, these new businesses will better promote opportunities for girls within the communities they serve. The answer of “how” this will be done is not clear yet, but the Girl Effect is off to a good start. Nevertheless, I believe we as global citizens are only as strong as our weakest link, so I encourage many different stakeholders and sectors to come together to change the future for girls in developing countries.
USAID, (The United States Agency for International Development) pledged $216 million to fund a major women’s empowerment program in Afghanistan. This is the largest women’s empowerment project in US government’s history. Newly-elected President Ghani has reaffirmed his commitment to invest in girls’ education, claiming that educating a girl will have it’s impact on the coming five generations. The funds will be spent through Promoting Gender Equity in National Priority Programs (Promote), which aims to advance the opportunities for Afghan women so they can become leaders in the political, private and civil society sectors. The main goal of the Promote program is to strengthen Afghanistan’s development by boosting female participation in the economy, supporting women’s rights groups, helping women gain business and management skills and increasing the number of women in the decision making positions within the Afghan government.
President Ghani’s wife, Rula Ghani, has been outspoken about her commitment to promote greater respect for women and advance women’s rights. As the country’s First Lady, Ms. Ghani’s role in expanding and supporting women’s rights represents both a threat and an asset for Afghan society. The mere fact that Rula Ghani is an American-Lebanese Christian poses serious opposition in a greatly conservative and Muslim society.
“This will be a first for Afghanistan that the first lady is seen in public and this can have a very positive effect on women,” said Shukria Barakzai, a women’s rights advocate and member of Afghan parliament. “This is a male dominated society and a strong woman like her in the palace will make a huge difference. As an Afghan woman, I will be thrilled to see this great woman standing with our new president and advocate for women.”
However, this view is considered too progressive and it’s not shared by a great number of Afghans. According to Mawlawi Habibullah Hussam, an important religious scholar and imam in Kabul, Ms. Ghani’s public presence “can be fatal for the faith of Muslims in Afghanistan.”
A former member of Kabul’s provincial council and conservative who counts with a large following added: “The incoming first lady is not qualified … as she is a non-Muslim so she does not meet [Muslim] piety requirements… She is a foreigner so cannot be the confidant of a Muslim ruler. This is a very serious issue.”
Does Ms. Ghani represent a brighter future for Afghan women? There is a lot of speculation from both advocates and opponents within and outside the country in terms of her power as First Lady to push for girls’ education and gender equality. Former president Karsai’s wife, Zeenat Karzai, was also a well-educated woman, and a doctor by profession, but she never appeared in public with her husband nor worked in support of Afghan women. Ms. Ghani stands as a symbol of hope for many Afghan women who desire a better future for themselves. In the words of an Afghan writer, Asma, women in Afghanistan want Ms. Ghani to be more than a symbol: “Our new First Lady can prove this by showing her face, by asking Afghan women about their difficulties, and by becoming a public figure actively working for women’s rights.”
Thirteen years after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, women in Afghanistan still face serious issues. In a country that has been described by many organizations as one of the worst places for women worldwide, the challenges ahead are substantial. Child marriage, lack of education, lack of economic opportunities, isolation, discrimination, sexual abuse and lack of judicial protection are just some of the many issues that women face daily in Afghanistan.
These inequalities within the society are deeply ingrained in religious dogma. Sharia Law heavily discriminates, punishes and treats women as inferior. In my first post, I raised the question of the role of religion in morality. I dare to raise the question again: up to what point is it acceptable to justify and defend religion when it so evidently discriminates and punishes women? Why do we accept this as normal or justify it by attributing it to a “cultural identity”?
I respect freedom of religion and I do believe that we should all be free to choose the path that makes us better human beings without harming anyone along the way. But how can a path that oppresses, penalizes, is prejudiced and violent against women ever be considered acceptable? I raise my voice against this injustice.
I truly hope that the Promote program is successful in giving a voice to the women in Afghanistan. Their focus is on women’s leadership, women’s participation in government and the economy and women’s rights groups and coalitions. If Rula Ghani wants a brighter future for Afghanistan’s women, she will work together with Promote and be an active advocate for women’s education, empowerment, and equality, and serve as an example for the millions of voices who are desperately crying for change.
In a high density region of New York City, Shoshana B. Roberts, a 24-year-old unknown actress, walked around the city for 10 hours wearing jeans and a black T-shirt. A hidden camera was filming Roberts and the reactions of the people in her surroundings. During the ten hours, there were more than 100 instances of street verbal harassment as well as countless winks and whistles (The Washington Post). This filming was processed by Hollaback!, an anti-street harassment advocacy group.
Street harassment is a form of gender-based violence; domestic violence, forced marriage, sexual trafficking (read my fellow blogger iregreaves), femicides (read my fellow blogger danibicknell), and forced prostitution could also be regarded as gender-based violence. Street harassment is defined as unwelcome and unwanted attention of a sexual nature, objectifying and targeting women in particular. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three women has experienced unwanted non-contact sexual experiences. Apparent physical actions can be dealt by law or regulations; however, ambiguous comments and actions such as leering, catcalling, and whistling are not dealt with. This might be because the unwelcome and unwanted attention is truly subjective, and the degree to experience harassment could only result to individual variability. For example, if a man says “Hey, you’re beautiful,” some women will take the comment in a complimentary manner while others will take it as a form of sexually assault and be offended. Due to the vague characteristic of perception, it is difficult to criminalize harassers and various behavior of harassment; moreover, victims have difficulty raising their voice about street harassment.
The impressive aspect of the video is the attire that Roberts wore. Rob Bliss, who filmed the video, said “we choose the type of clothes that women commonly wear because we don’t want people to say that she wore clothes which invited sexual harassment” (The Huffington Post Korea). I have been told by elders to wear clothes neatly and behave properly to not lure men and become a victim of sexual assault. Whenever I heard such statements and advice, it seemed as if sexual harassment was caused by women’s shortcomings or misjudgments. However, why do men give leering hellos and unpleasant compliments to women that pass by? Why do they pass the buck to how women dress and their behavior, and not take into consideration the form of attention they give to women?
After the video released by Roberts caused her to receive numerous rape threats, a fierce debate about the video was initiated. Nevertheless, the video brought forth an important topic that is a commonplace issue and is one that needs to be solved. This video could be a tool for helping women who are in the status of victims be liberated from becoming getting numb about their experience. I hope this effort would show how intimidating the men’s trivial behavior or comments are and bear fruit for women’s right to be safe.
In West Africa, the spread of Ebola has reached epidemic proportions and scientists, doctors and governments are scrambling to try and reduce the spread of this deadly disease. However, many communities have not been educated about what they as citizens can do to help combat the disease, until now. In the West Point slum of Monrovia, Liberia, a girls group is knocking on doors and singing songs to alert residents about Ebola and how to prevent the spread of the disease. This simple act is empowering for these girls and could be life-saving for their community and country.
West Point, Liberia is one of the poorest and most dangerous slums in the capital of Monrovia. Violence is rampant and lack of proper sanitation leaves the community at risk of contracting and spreading Ebola. Moreover, violence against women has put many girls and women in fear of going out in public, let alone becoming public figures. The girls of A-LIFE are combating that fear and stepping out to help educate their communities. A-LIFE stands for, Adolescents Leading an Intense Fight Against Ebola, and it was started in by UNICEF in 2012, initially to help teach girls about how to protect themselves against sexual violence. However, since Ebola is now a top concern within the country, the girls started learning about the disease and what they could do to protect themselves. Liberia has some of the highest rates of sexual and gender-based violence in the world. Empowering girls with educational tools is not only beneficial for their community, it could also help change the way girls are perceived in the country. There is poor sanitation within West Point and people are not accustomed to properly cleaning themselves. So, the girls of A-LIFE are going door to door, singing songs and alerting people to the spread of Ebola and providing information about how be more sanitary. These girls are using their voice to connect with these citizens and make sure they know about the disease and what they can do to prevent it.
Recently, the World Health Organization reported that of the 10,141 cases and 4,922 deaths from Ebola so far, more than half are in Liberia. Initially, the government of Liberia was criticized for not handling the outbreak of Ebola within the country very well. There was a looting spree in one of the quarantine centers in Monrovia, and people stole blankets, mattresses and other things that could have been infected with the disease. The looters were reported screaming, “there’s no ebola,” after they ransacked the center, which caused many unaccounted people to flee while possibility contracting and spreading the disease. This threat of spreading Ebola made officials impulsive to do something quickly. The government responded with a military quarantine of West Point and had guards prevent anyone from leaving or entering. This resulted in violence and many argued that Liberia’s enforced quarantine was not helping reduce the spread of the disease. Only 10-days after the quarantine was initiated, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf lifted the quarantine in response to the clashes between the military and residents, and although people are allowed to move freely within West Point, there is still an enforced curfew from 9pm to 6am.
The distrust Liberians have in the government is what makes the girls of A-LIFE so powerful. They are members of the community, coming out and talking to their neighbors about the dangers of the disease. They are not armed and they use songs and posters to communicate with as many people as they can. They are using information in creative ways to bring public awareness about Ebola and showing skeptics in the community that Ebola is real.
“I feel good educating people about Ebola and helping them see how they can prevent themselves from getting it,” said Jessica Neufville, a 16-year old member of A-LIFE.
The girls have visited over 4,000 homes and they are seeing a change in the behavior in West Point due to their outreach. The government was not able to educate the people of West Point about the disease, so the girls used their voices to help their community understand what they could do to help themselves. It has been reported, that more people now have buckets outside of their homes to wash their hands. Although there is still much work to be done to eradicate Ebola, this grass-roots response from girls is inspiring and strengthens their image as leaders. Hopefully, this educational campaign will help change the way women are perceived within Liberia and help give these girls confidence to continue their work and become even more influential in their community and beyond.
For more information about the A-LIFE girls group in Liberia, you can go to the UNICEF facebook page to stay updated.
As a woman and a Venezuelan this topic has always interested and concerned me. In the last twenty years, the plastic surgery industry in Venezuela has become one of the most profitable businesses in the country, and Venezuela ranks among the top 20 countries that perform plastic surgery. The majority of these surgeries are breast implants for women.
Women have become enslaved to the country’s cult to beauty. This cult to beauty has been exacerbated by the media, with a pressure to look a like a Barbie doll, with body proportions that are only possible (if even so) by undergoing plastic surgery. Huge breasts, tiny waists (removal of ribs are necessary for this), butt implants and nose jobs to make the noses look tiny. This pressure is summed up in the words of Venezuela’s “beauty guru” and the owner of the Miss Venezuela Emporium, Mr. Osmel Sousa who nonchalantly said: “when there is a defect, I correct it [with plastic surgery]… Internal beauty doesn’t exist. That is something that ugly women invented to justify themselves.”
In the last few years, even shop owners have started making mannequins that have fake breasts proportions, and their sales have increased since then.
Plastic surgery is a phenomenon that influences women from all social sectors. Despite the high poverty rates in Venezuela, women from the lowest-income backgrounds undergo breast implant surgery. Former President Hugo Chávez, who died in March of 2013, publicly condemned plastic surgery, claiming it was “monstrous” that poor women would be spending money on breast surgery when they struggled to make it to the end of the month. Certainly the plastic surgery industry goes very much against the socialist ideals that Mr. Chávez endorsed of a society free of commercialism and consumerism, and he condemned it as a “mark of capitalist propaganda.”
Earlier this month, the annual “Miss Venezuela” contest took place, and girls from across the different states participated in the most-watched TV show of the year. The next day, the winner and the runner up spoke in a press conference about their plastic surgery: “I got my boobs done because I had to fill my bust… I’m not against surgery, I’m in favor of science and plastic surgery is a science.”
“I got a nose job…the important thing is that you’re happy with whatever you got done, and I love my nose, despite what they say…” Reading their declarations ignited my desire to write a post regarding this hot topic. Also, the shortage of breast silicone implants hit the news a month ago, emphasizing the importance placed by Venezuelans on the topic of breast implants.
I am very concerned about the obsession with breast implants that has taken over the country. When one of my friends said to me once, “getting a boob job empowers me,” I was perplexed and asked her why. She replied that it made her feel more beautiful, more desirable (to men) and that it boosted her self-esteem. I have given a lot of thought to her remarks along with many of my girlfriends’ who have undergone plastic surgery and express similar thoughts. In a free, democratic society everyone has the choice to do as they please, and if having bigger breasts make women feel better about themselves then why shouldn’t they get them?
However, I am digging deeper into this issue and find a truly worrisome problem ingrained in our cognitive social conscience. Why should our self-esteem as women be based on the size of our breasts? Why has our society given so much value to our outward appearance to the extent of sacrificing our health and even endangering our lives? Why have we succumbed to this objectification of our body parts? To me, this obsession with plastic surgery shows a severe crisis of values in our country, and it is a mark of the profound and overly plastic, materialistic society we have become. It is truly alarming how much of a role the media plays in shaping our identities as women and setting the parameters of what is and isn’t considered beautiful.
In class we have been studying the different theories and perspectives on development discourse. Is expanding people’s choices critical to development? According to Amartya Sen, development as freedom means expansion of choices, so then perhaps under this light, the choice to get breast implants can be seen as a form of freedom. If it makes women feel empowered, then more so. But when it comes to choices, we need to think of priorities and values, and dig deeper into their meanings. Can we objectively say these are “choices” that empower us and give us “freedom” when they appear to actually make us slaves to a standard of beauty set by a group of people?