Wonder Girls: Dariya is Championing Equality in Kyrgyzstan

Wonder Girls: Changing Our World is the first book to document the passionate and peaceful activism of girl-led groups from around the world—which are improving health, education, gender equality and the environment and stopping child marriage, domestic violence, child trafficking and war. The Ms. blog is running girls’ stories from the book all this week long in honor of International Day of the Girl. You can read them all here.

Dariya Kasmamytova, 17, Kyrgyzstan

“I love my country even with all the stupid buildings and stupid stereotypes. There is beautiful nature, beautiful sky, fresh air. I hope in the future my children will live in the best country in the world.”

We walk along a garden wall that’s spray-painted with members’ stenciled, feminist graphics and Dariya describes how the Girl Activists of Kyrgyzstan began. “At the very beginning, I attended a camp right here, organized by the Bishkek Feminist Initiatives. I thought it would be very boring since most of our camps are USSR style. My brother, 23, also an activist, told me, ‘Just go and see; you can leave the next day if you want.’

“First day, it was a little like school. Lectures about reproductive health and girls’ rights. But I started understanding many things. For example, I didn’t notice before that I have gender inequality at school. That people think a girl is a “thing”—a thing that cleans house, does whatever she is told. We created a small group to meet each week and discuss. After that, we did our logo, our website, Facebook and Twitter, and we made this happen. We felt support from the Bishkek Feminist Initiatives, and from my mother and brother. We had 24 members.

“Parents of the village girls said, ‘What’s this? You mustn’t know about reproductive health.’ Here, we have the culture of shame. It’s a shame to know your body. You have to be a virgin when you are married or you are defective. Those parents no longer let their daughters come to Bishkek. It was a very hard period when nobody was coming. We felt our organization was breaking. In that difficult period, we didn’t know what to do. Last June, we wrote an application to Global Voices in simple, simple words. ‘We want to do this…, make this…, our goal is…’ We won a grant to make our activism. I was shocked! It was our first project!

“We decided we didn’t want to be an organization with all the documents and official things. We decided to be more of an arts group, creative girls doing things we know how to do and want to do. After we realized that, our group became more powerful. We had posted serious stories about girls, using facts and statistics. Then we realized that only adults were reading. We wanted to change minds of other teenagers so our generation will be more tolerant and stand in solidarity. We thought: we are teenagers; what do we like? Now we are going to make a funny site that laughs at stereotypes, patriarchy, and inequality. We want to make jokes, like, about xenophobia. Videos. Comics.

“There are some funny things. My cousin was kidnapped. She was a basketball player. Big. Strong. When she was kidnapped, three guys tried to force her to come with them. She was so so so angry that she fought with them all. They were like, ‘Oh my God, we don’t want her!’

“Now, Girl Activists has four coordinators. Other girls come and hang out with us. Once a month we screen movies that focus on girls’ rights. Tomorrow, Swedish artists are coming to teach 25 of us to draw cartoons of superheroes. “We have an idea to change schoolbooks for math, geography, biology, and other subjects. I do not see even one woman scientist. The books say ‘he,’ not ‘she,’ even if you are reading about a girl. We want to take a schoolbook and make it into handmade art. There will be corrections, marginal notes, stickers, new pictures. Maybe we will give our book to the Minister of Education. We will say, ‘You must make books gender sensitive. Here are our recommendations for all the schoolbooks.’”

Girl Activists are also tackling tokenism. Dariya reports, “On International Girls’ Day, I attended a conference in Almaty, Kazakhstan, about reproductive health and violence against girls. When I stood to speak I said, ‘Look around. Whom do you see? There is only me, one girl at a conference about girls.’ There was silence. Then one woman said, ‘We are adult girls.’ They cannot feel the problems of girls, experience what girls experience, if they are not girls. We think ‘girls,’ the word, means ‘up to 18 years old.’ In the beginning of our blog, Our Stories, Ourselves, we asked coordinators from the villages to collect stories from their friends and classmates. When girls tell their stories, it’s the truth and it’s powerful.”

Dariya understands how difficult it is to cause change. “We are patriarchal girls, born in this society. We try to throw this patriarchal rubbish away, but it is in our veins. If my father doesn’t help me with heavy luggage, I think, ‘You’re a man!’ I try to remember to think, ‘I can carry it myself.’”

I ask Dariya what she’d like to tell me that we haven’t discussed. She names two things: “Gender equality is not only for girls to fight for. Boys have to do this, too. This is our ‘together work.’”

Second, “The main thing about activism is friendship. If you have a friend, even one friend who supports and listens to you, you become strong. I love my friends and colleagues from the Girl Activists of Kyrgyzstan and the Bishkek Feminist Initiatives! And I love my mother so so much. She and my brother support and inspire me. When the people around you stand with you, it gives you power.”

Between 2013-2016, noted author and photographer Paola Gianturco and her 11-year-old granddaughter, up-and-coming author and photographer Alex Sangster, teamed up to interview and photograph 102 girls, each of whom tells her own story in her own words in Wonder Girls: Changing Our World. One hundred percent of the authors’ royalties from Wonder Girls go to The Global Fund for Women to benefit grassroots groups of activist girls and women around the world.

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