It started off slowly. In 2011, the United Nations endorsed that October 11 would be marked the International Day of the Girl Child. This October I saw, for the first time, my timeline fill with ordinary people writing something thoughtful about the day and what it means to them and the girls in their communities.
I tweeted a few reflections on why we need the this day even at a time where we see some wave of fighting back – many still ask, what about the boy? I say: we need the day of the girl because the world is still damn unequal. We need the day of the girl because you still put unnecessary hurdles in your girl child’s life which you don’t do for your boys’. This in no way means the boy child doesn’t have his own hurdles and pressures from society. It means that the girl faces more societal pressures, judgment and challenges that we have embedded in our cultures for generations.
While most governments recognize these challenges, a change will not come from declaring a day as the day of the girl child. Change will come when we develop policies that allow girls to stay in school, beat poverty, escape child marriages, and have equal opportunities to their male counterparts.
The hardest fight isn’t political but social. Even in the face of major political and policy shifts, some communities haven’t made a big leap. We need to focus on social transformation. We need to interact with social systems and focus on those relations that allow the marginalization of the girl child to continue.
This year’s #DayoftheGirl has come around a time when one of the most inspiring movies from Uganda directed by Mira Nair who has lived in Uganda for decades and has family here, told by African actors is in our cinemas. I had a chance to attend the premiere of Queen of Katwe, a Disney production based on a real life story of Phiona Mutesi, who survived and thrived out of one of Kampala’s difficult slums – Katwe.
Phiona didn’t make it alone. Yes, she had talent, but it was her Chess Coach Robert Katende who made a huge difference in Phiona and her family’s life by simply believing in her talent. The story tells of what can be achieved when men look out for girls and their abilities, in a world that is builds walls around teenage girls and, even when she has the talent, many are quick to pour cold water on it. I had a chance to meet Katende in the early stages of the film production and he has a humility you cannot escape. It was a thrill to see David Oyelowo on the screen – having mastered the Luganda\ Ugandan urban English accent – play Katende, and the care he takes to ensure this brilliant yet underprivileged girl makes it in world where it was only boys supposed to shine.
Phiona Mutesi’s mother, strong character played by the strong Lupita Nyong’o, brings onto the big screen what underprivileged women have to go through to keep their children safe in an unsafe environment. In the film, Phiona’s sister is the unlucky one, ending up pregnant, showing the number one challenge of keeping Ugandan teenage girls in school, especially those from poorer families.
Madina Nalwanga who plays the character of Phiona definitely did justice to the story – one that isn’t too different from her own. To see this story of a girl child beating all odds to become a chess prodigy, with images of Kampala where majority of Ugandans my age and my education rarely venture into, was both heartwarming and also reminder of how much we still need to for many Ugandan children living in squalor in the ever expanding slums. As many Ugandans move into cities in search of opportunities, the growing unplanned houses and slums are the current and future challenge for development in Africa. With about 70% of Ugandans still relying primarily on agriculture and a 7% of a country composed of young people below 30 years, more work needs to be done to get more children like Phiona out of poverty.
Queen of Katwe is inspiring and, if you have children close, please make it a point to take them to watch it. It makes a difference when the girl that makes it out of such a slum to the world stage is a girl you can relate to. A story where you see yourself and your family. Watching Lupita play Phiona’s mother reminded me of my own mother’s struggles to educate me and my siblings. Sure she wasn’t a widow, neither did she live in a slum, but doing whatever is possible to get six children through school almost alone is tough.
So, as we reflect on the day of the girl, let’s celebrate the achievements and remind ourselves that the journey ahead is still long, but we can make it shorter, with women like Phiona and her mother, and men like Katende on our side.
All photos are Queen of Katwe photos via Facebook