Why Girls Must Learn To Say No
Some months ago Caroline Mutoko wrote in her Monday column in the Star about her plan to give her daughter a black barbie doll as her next present – something which surprised me, since barbie dolls of whatever colour are a symbol of a sick consumerist society which dictates the shapes of womens’ bodies and has led in “advanced” countries to the sexualisation of girls at a very early age as well as to eating disorders of all varieties.
Now she has addressed the issue of who takes responsibility for reproduction: barbie-doll girls don’t have the negotiating skills to cope with the bedroom, it seems, so we have to leave it to the boys. They don’t get left holding the baby perhaps but they do get AIDS, STDs and all manner of nasty things so, she warns them, they had better take an interest. The little girls meanwhile are busy shuttling between age-mates for love and sugar daddies for material goodies.
I am writing this because Caroline Mutoko has enormous influence and these ideas are so wrong-headed that I feel compelled to comment on them. The barbie doll issue shocked me beyond belief: look at the powerful women in the world right now. How many of them look like that? Michelle Obama? Joyce Banda? Johnston Sirleaf? Barbie’s very blandness and conformity defy the individuality of the Charity Ngilus, Martha Karuas let alone the Wangari Maathais of this world. The most wicked aspect of Barbie-ism is the obsession with appearance at the expense of personal development. Which is not to say that they don’t take care of their health, their bodies and their dress style. Who can beat Michelle (very much a person in her own right) when she’s making an appearance with Barack? It is this obsession with false ideas of beauty that Barbies cultivate in vulnerable girls that is worrying.
But to turn to the second issue: why has Caroline given up on girls learning how to speak out for themselves? In my own lifetime I have seen a whole revolution in this sphere. Girls can be taught negotiating skills in the bedroom just as they have been taught how to negotiate business deals and boardroom decisions. Does she want her daughter to be a helpless sop in the arms of a man who does not care for her? Let us hope that Ms Mutoko will school her daughter in the art of judging men primarily as human beings and friends and not as possible sources of income, and that she will ensure that her daughter has enough abilities and emotional resources not to be tempted to depend on her body to make a living for her.
Almost 20 years ago I had the opportunity to teach girls-only classes as part of a UNICEF program for the advancement of girls’ education in rural Zambia in a school where sexual harassment was rampant starting at the top with the headmaster. Girls were aborting in the school toilets or in backrooms where they often died. The classes had to happen with no boys around because the girls would not have opened up to the horrors they described if there had been a male teacher or student. Under those circumstances, it was possible to explore the language of negotiation, if not yet emotional literacy which they were too young for. They had no idea they had a right to say no to a teacher who was trying to seduce them. That they had paid for schooling not sex. True, it was difficult, but there is strength in numbers, and eventually authorities nationwide took sufficient notice to punish the culprits who were impregnating the girls and forcing them to drop out of school at the most vulnerable age.
Now for the “baby-mamas” phenomenon; this too is a result of a failure of communication, and both girls and grown women are to blame. If a man does not want to have a baby with you, it is his right! Discuss it seriously with him when you have achieved a real relationship. Bringing a child into the world is the most serious thing you will ever do and the responsibility is yours for life. But because of the pressure to have a baby, women go ahead with it and then find lo and behold! The man doesn’t want to know. Family planning must be just that. And for those who get all gooey when they fall in love and whisper “Darling let’s have a baby I say, replace that with “Darling , let’s have a rebellious, confused, angry teenager. Wouldn’t that be simply gorgeous?” We know that divorce rates are sky-rocketing here and the effects are deeply damaging to all concerned but most of all the children who did not ask to be brought into the world. Children need at least two parents; aunts, uncles, grandparents, family friends are also helpful. Isn’t there an African proverb which says ‘It takes a village to raise a child”?
Finally, she will devote everything to achieving what her daughter wants of her. More dangerous still. As a mother of two grownups and grandmother of three, I am proud that my girls are healthy, independent and resourceful. But our attitudes and ways of life couldn’t be more different and they find it hard to accept. They have a right to their opinion, but I ‘aint about to change just to please them.