Girl Rising Malala Fires Up a New Generation
Part 3: Valentini's Rebellion in South Africa
For Valentini, the rebellion began when she was cleaning a hotel room and suddenly came face-to-face with Lindiwe Mazibuko. Mazibuko is the opposition leader of the South African parliament, a woman from a township who made it to the top and is known for her skillful opposition to the male-dominated government. Valentini had cut her picture out of newspapers, because the politician was her most important role model, next to US First Lady Michelle Obama. They were two distant, unreal idols, the kinds of people the child of farm workers couldn't hope to meet.
But suddenly her role model was standing in front of her. She was staying in the hotel to attend a wedding, and she started asking Valentini questions: How old are you? What are your concerns? What are your dreams?
Valentini is 17, a girl in a brown-and-yellow school uniform who lives on an apple plantation in South Africa's largest fruit-growing region, which produces Pink Lady apples for export to Europe. The Monteith Farm belongs to a wealthy white farmer. Valentini's parents, and everyone else in the area, work for him. There are few alternatives in South Africa for so-called "coloureds," or mixed-raced individuals like Valentini Valentine and her family.
Some time last year, during the harvest, she was walking to the bus in the morning, along the rows of fruit trees, and watching as female apple pickers sorted apples. She thought to herself: I don't want to live like they do. Not like those day laborers, slaving away for the boss and raped by their husbands, who drink too much. Not like those women, who know nothing other than everyday life on the farm, who are poor and kept uneducated, and who become resigned to their fate at an early age.
From the Farm to the Classroom
The farm is like a trap, she says, but many don't even realize it, or at least not early enough. Why did she realize it? Perhaps because she has a mother who worked her way up to an office job and tells her daughter, "Go your own way!" Or because she has a young, dedicated teacher (a rarity among the many apathetic educators) who tries to build the girls' self-esteem, and tells them: Believe in yourselves!
Teachers like that are having an impact, as more and more girls go to school, in South Africa and around the world. Education creates a thirst for more education. And education brings with it the knowledge that things don't have to be the way they are.
Last summer, when she was feeling especially dissatisfied, she heard about a meeting of female farm workers and decided to go. For the first time, she encountered rebellious girls who had the courage to have an opinion and be vocal. The girls asked themselves: Why is life so hard? How can we change that? It feels good, she says, this new feeling of not being alone. This is our rebellion, she says.
Valentini now makes public appearances where, glowing with pride, she talks about the plight in education to groups of 200 girls. The girls list their demands, dance, sing old anti-Apartheid songs and clench their fists.
The Search for Universal Values
Education, as the globalization of knowledge, conveys new ideas. It conveys news about countries where women are the heads of companies, and about other countries where women are not even allowed to drive cars. There are countless ideas about what the life of a woman should be like -- so how can one be pushed aside for another? Can universal values exist?
The hope that they can has been around since the Enlightenment. In 1791, French feminist Olympe de Gouges wrote a "Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen" in response to the "human and civil rights" declared in the French Revolution. In it, de Gouges wrote: "The woman is born free and remains equal to man in rights. Women have the right to mount the scaffold; they must also have the right to mount the speaker's rostrum "
Women's rights have been codified since 1948, when the United Nations published its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is meant to apply to everyone, "without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex." It is not a treaty that is binding under international law, but merely a guideline, and yet it is one that girls learn about in school.
'That Sort of Thing Must Not Happen'
Or at least in a good school. Many schools in South Africa are not good, including, in Valentini's opinion, the school she attends. Valentini calls herself and her comrades-in-arms "Survivors," people who are surviving a situation that many see as hopeless.
She does have opportunities, better opportunities than her mother, her grandmother or her great-grandmother had. She has the means to network with her female friends, through text messaging or Mxit, a social network used by many young people in Africa. She knows more than they did. She is a part of the world, much more so than her mother and her grandmother were.
And yet she has a lingering fear. Valentini talks about a girl she once knew, who became pregnant when she was 12. But she doesn't say what happened to the girl. "That sort of thing must not happen. It simply must not happen."
A 12-year-old girl usually can't defend herself. No matter how determined she is, she simply lacks the necessary physical strength.