On International Day of the Girl, we sat down with mentor Nelly to talk about gender equality, and the issues facing young women in South Africa today. Here’s what she had to say:
Even in the 21st century when much progress has been made toward gender equality, why is it still important to recognize the gender gap?
When you’re a girl, you are assigned an image that you are weak and fragile and you can’t be as good as guys are; you can’t be as strong as guys are. But I can do anything a guy can do. At my house, I live with all girls. If there’s a problem with our electricity, we fix it. If the yard needs to be cleaned, we do it. If we need to cut down a tree, we do it. Growing up, boys get the recognition that they are strong, and girls are told they are weak, instilling the hierarchy – men are above, women are below.
In my culture, if you are a woman, no matter what you have – a higher paying job, educational qualifications – you still have to behave in a certain submissive way. This has transferred in to the workplace, even; men will say, “I will not be dictated to by a woman. A woman will not tell me what to do.”
What do you feel contributes negatively toward gender equality?
As girls, we’re expected to behave in a certain way, especially because of the things you see on TV and in magazines and in society as a whole. They expect you to go to parties, they expect you to dress provocatively, and if you don’t do those things, you’re considered not cool. If you don’t go out, you’re considered not cool. Even if I’m seen as “uncool,” I know I’m standing up for what I believe in. I’m not going to go to parties because I don’t want to – not because someone else is telling me what I should do. It’s my own choice. I know what I want in life. I know where I’m going. The little choices you make can determine your whole future.
What would you say to the people that poorly portray women?
They’re killing dreams without even realizing it. Young women see things on TV, and then do what they see, and then it backfires. We must be incredibly careful about what messages we are sending to both young women and young men. We are having to unlearn all of these harmful messages.
As a young black woman, what is your biggest frustration with gender equality in South Africa?
We as black girls are “known” for certain things. When I was in school we were stereotyped for certain things, by peers and teachers, and they would always assume we would end up just like the girls that came before us because you live in the same society, you live in the same community, and so how would you not end up just like them?
As black girls, we limit ourselves. We think to get on top, you must know someone who’s in a high position. We never think we can do it ourselves. You see girls that live next door that might have a degree but is unemployed, so you think, “even if I go to school, even if I study hard, I’ll still end up like that.”
Those thoughts can happen as a result of the community you’re in but also the family you’re brought up in, neither of which you really get to choose. I was a big dreamer growing up and I was always told that my dreams were too big and what I wanted to do “wasn’t for me.” They limit you. You don’t have a right to dream beyond your neighborhood. You don’t have a right to dream beyond what you see. And of course you get discouraged, and girls think that they only way to get to the top is to get a Sugar Daddy. We need to allow ourselves to dream big. We need to allow ourselves to take opportunities that were meant for men.
Where is the turning point when young women begin to give up on their dreams?
Limiting dreaming big can start at school. It was difficult to show my true potential at school. I was often graded on my skin color and the fact I was a girl, not the quality of my work. I was told I was dumb and that I didn’t know anything, which obviously hurts. I wasn’t given an opportunity to show my capabilities. Negativity keeps ringing in your ears that you’re not good enough; it’s easier to remember what the bad people say than the good. It’s easier for them to destroy your confidence than to build it up.
Because of this, you find a lot of students don’t work to their fullest potential. I was like that in school. I didn’t work to my fullest potential, but I still passed because I was an average learner. I did have one teacher that told me I could achieve more, but it was in grade 12 and was already too late.
Growing up, I taught myself to keep quiet about my dreams, and if I fail, I fail on my own. I think we need to make sure girls are sharing their dreams, but finding a safe person to share it with. Sharing a dream with the wrong person can wipe away all confidence and motivation. You end up giving up on your dream because of one person, and you never had the chance to share it with others that would listen to you and help you materialize the dream. We all have insecurities, but I managed to rise up because I believed in myself. I hope other girls can find people that believe in them, too.
What’s something you wish you could tell young women everywhere?
You can do anything you want to do. Nothing can stop you – not your gender, not your race, not your anything. Women aren’t just housewives or caretakers. Women are worthy of respect. We’ve got our own mind, our own opinions, and our opinions matters.
This isn’t going to be conquered overnight; it’s a long process. It’s going to take many years. But we all have equal rights.