In Uganda, young mothers are predominantly called women, although some young mothers contest that representation and prefer to be called girls. The normative insistence on categorizing young mothers as women despite girlhood being a transitional phase locks young mothers in an in-between category, a space in which they can be neither girls, nor children, nor women. International Women’s Day celebrations further risk widening the gap between such girls whose daily realities centre on survival, writes Annah Kamusiime. The need to recognize diverse girlhoods is a first step in ensuring that girls are included in discussions on womanhood and girlhood.
During one of the interviews I conducted in 2021 for my PhD research on representations of young motherhood, Nandi, a 16-year-old Ugandan mother, told me, “Even though I am a mother, I am a girl, not a woman”. Her statement is an example of the agentic manoeuvres of girls whose voice remains silenced and their existence pushed to the liminal space – liminal because as mothers, they are in an in-between category where they are not girls anymore, nor children, and nor women, especially when they are not married.
Being a parent is the main marker of transition to adulthood/womanhood; in most of Uganda others also include menarche, a sexual debut, and wifehood. But the young mothers I spoke to did not consider themselves to be adults – women – despite having borne children. And, having borne children, they were no longer children themselves. As a result, their needs as young mothers may not be adequately addressed by efforts that separately target girls, children, or women. Young mothers who fall into none of the marked categories of girl, child, or woman thus face marginalization and exclusion. In this article, I discuss why the recognition of a distinct category of diverse girlhoods is necessary to further their inclusion – also in celebrating International Women’s Day.
‘Girl’ or ‘woman’? How words make worlds
The terms we use are not neutral – the way in which words are combined allows for certain meanings to flourish and for others to be minimized. For instance, consider these two statements: “The girl-child is pregnant” versus “The girl is pregnant”. Both can be used to describe an adolescent mother. But an emphasis on a pregnant girl as a child (as the first statement does) may elicit a different interpretation and response when compared to using only the word ‘girl’. And often such word choices are deliberate. Words make worlds; struggles over meaning are not just about semantics – they are strategic, they have an effect, they shape discourses, actions and rhetoric, and they are contested. Thus, there is a need to be reflexive on how we frame different categories of persons because conceptions shape engagement.
Another example that shows how words matter for girls: While I was writing this article, my 18-year-old daughter read it and told me that at school, their teacher told them that a girl becomes a woman on the day of her sexual debut. I asked her whether that mattered and whether it would make a difference if a girl would be referred to as a woman or a girl. Yes, she said, ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ mean different things, and it matters which is used. As in the case of Nandi, the labels ‘woman’ placed on a ‘girl’ has specific connotations – it means she engaged in sexual intercourse yet she is expected to be asexual, she is a mother at the wrong time, and she has ruptured normative notions of conceptions of ideal childhood and youth because she is expected to be innocent. As a result, young mothers are stigmatized and are seen as a threat to the social morals and social order, which fuels their exclusion.
These two examples show that yes, the label of a woman that is placed on girls who are young mothers matter to them even when everyone else may not acknowledge it. Many of the young mothers I have spoken to choose to be called girls, not children, or girl-children, or women. The failure to consider the desire for this distinct categorization means that these young mothers’ voices remain unheard. I therefore argue that we need to reimagine and reconstruct girlhood as diverse and distinct in policy, practice, and debates at different levels-national and international.
Girls just wanna be girls
Several renowned scholars studying girlhood, including those highlighted by Claudia Mitchell, have advocated for what they have referred to as the girl-method. Rather than continue to lump girls under either the categories ‘children’, ‘young women’, or ‘women’, they argue that it is vital to add ‘girls’ as a distinct category. This would remove girls from the shadows and place them in the centre of the discussion on diverse girlhoods, including those of young mothers.
My argument above does not mean that we should dismiss distinct moments like the UN Decade of the Girl Child (1991-2001) and International Day of the Girl Child. Indeed, such moments have been and continue to be an open platform for considering and rethinking issues girls face. However, a merger of ‘girl’ with ‘child’ in what is celebrated as the day of the ‘girl-child’ has been problematized as being passive, essentialist, and homogenizing. My sentiments of the ‘girl-child’ label are that it emphasizes their innocence, vulnerability, and dependency and brings out connotations of powerlessness while also infantilizing girls.
It also poses a risk of illuminating the ‘child’ and marginalizing the ‘girl’ because the ‘child’ may take precedence over the ‘girl’. There are words which are nice sounding, such as ‘girl-child’, and the nicer they sound, the more useful they are for those seeking to establish their moral authority. To counter the risk of applying labels to exclude and marginalize girls, the category ‘girl’ ought to be conceptualized, deconstructed, and reconstructed from their perspective.
How International Women’s Day can exclude girls
This is my first ever blog article. I decided to write it because I wanted to reflect on how International Women’s Day (IWD) celebrations relate to the experiences of young mothers in urban poor locales, such as those that I have continued to engage with as part of my PhD research. In rethinking this year’s IWD theme (‘DigitALL: innovation and technology for gender equality’), several questions came to mind. For example, are girls considered in this debate on gender equality? How relevant is this debate on the role of technology and innovation for young mothers living in poor locales in Uganda where only 9% of the populations aged 15 years and above own a smart phone? Moreover, where only 8% of females use internet? And why should young mothers care about such discussions? How will tech-driven developments benefit them?
Unable to answer these questions, I decided to read up on International Women’s Day. What initially sparked IWD were spontaneous demonstrations to protest inhumane working conditions women faced and to press for improved working conditions. Other issues, such as the right of women to vote, were consequently included, and today IWD marks efforts to enact gender equality more broadly.
What is interesting is that International Women’s Day is assumed to be for everyone, everywhere, and is intended to celebrate and encourage collective action in pursuit of gender equality and extended rights for women. However, discussions about women’s suffrage, gender equality and parity are often far removed from the daily realities of many girls and women, including the young mothers in impoverished areas that I worked with – those who are primarily concerned with meeting their survival needs. In this way, specific categories of girls, or even women, including young mothers, may find themselves being excluded from efforts to enact gender equality and from celebrations of these.
International Women’s Day was initiated by working-class women and while it has since significantly highlighted the plight of women and efforts to close the gender gap, it is at a risk of becoming too universalized and corporatized to include women who face a range of intersecting struggles that stretch beyond voting rights and workplace equity. In celebrating International Women’s Day, it is important to remember those girls and women whose voices still go unheard, who move around in the shadows, and whose intersecting struggles leave them far behind.
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About the author:
Annah Kamusiime is a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam (ISS-EUR). Her research interests are in gender and adolescent and youth sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). She is also a Director of Programmes at Nascent Research and Development Organization Uganda.
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