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.
Latifah, 14, Uganda
I visit Latifah and her mother at home, a few hundred yards down a dirt road from the local well. They run a grocery store in their house. Latifah reflects, “I’m the youngest, with four brothers. There was a time when we had nothing. Totally nothing. Nowhere to stay. Nothing to eat. Nothing to wear. We covered ourselves with polyurethane bags and slept on newspapers. Now we live in a home with two rooms. We do not rent. We built our house.”
Her mother remembers, “When I got some money, we put up some plaster. Little by little. Cement. Iron sheeting for the roof.”
Latifah explains, “Our father does not send us money. It’s only our mother who looks after us. She is our light. She is the one we lean on. Being youngest is usually like being the baby. But here Mother and I are our family’s heads. She gets up early, goes to market and buys things to sell. We sell tomatoes, onions, banana leaves, and cooking oil so we earn school fees and have enough to eat. We struggle. If customers don’t come, we pray we will have enough to eat for the day.”
While we are talking, several customers hand Latifah coins to pay for vegetables. The store nets $1.50 U.S. on an average day. Yet Latifah feels fortunate. “God helped me. The Christian Women’s Concern, a partner of Rhythm of Life, was passing by. They gave scholarships to two of us, so mother could use the money she earned to take care of the rest. I passed my English interview, and got a five-year scholarship that covers half the cost. Mother pays the other half plus uniforms, shoes, mattress, bed sheets, books, jerry can, everything. I study hard, so I can be someone important, help my family, pay back what my mother has done for me and make her proud of me. My dream is to become a lawyer. Children are being tortured. They are denied their rights, like the right to education. The right to have love. The right to eat. Even where to stay. And the right not to marry at an early stage. Girls are discriminated against, segregated, and not liked in the family. That can be stopped by my effort. That gives me the determination to be a lawyer, to defend young people and see that wrongdoers go to prison.”
Until Latifah earns her law degree, she helps girls other ways. “We counsel girls up to age 18. I am proud that sometimes I advise girls older than I am. We help them if they are having problems. We guide them on what to do. Rhythmic Voices makes our voices heard in every sector. Everyone can listen to me and pick something that is inspiring. Life is hard; we need to struggle and change it so everyone gets a chance for everything she is owed, and equality can be promoted.”
Latifah has been part of Rhythmic Voices since it began. I ask what she found most difficult. “If I try to help someone and I see that I’m failing, that hurts me the most,” she replies. “But at least I do everything in my power and put a smile on that person’s face.”
I ask, “What have you done that you are most proud of?”
“Helping a girl who was forced into early marriage. Now she is free. She is learning to do handwork. If she can go back to school, she can be economically free. She can earn a living and even save for her future.”
I ask which issues are most important to Latifah. She names three.
“The problem of being discriminated against. That one I can help so girls have equal rights and opportunity.
“The problem of rape. I tell local leaders they have the ability and the right to stand up for younger ones who are tortured.
“The right to education. Once, local leaders and other big people thought girls were not supposed to go to school. They thought women should cook and serve their husbands. They didn’t know that girls can also become MPs and presidents. We are using our power as educated girls who know our rights, to stop this, so girls become a priority and segregation ends. I mostly talk to the parents about this. As children we need their support most of all. If there is a chance, I talk to local leaders so it becomes easier for the girls in the community. I would even talk to MPs and the President, who could pass a law against discrimination.”
I ask if Latifah has ever pitched an MP. “Yes. At the Let Girls Lead training, we talked to a Member of Parliament. She promised change. We are waiting.”
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.