Where Do They Find the Strength to Resist?

Image above: “We are under a magnifying glass”, Guatemala/Peru, 2017 © Guillermo Diaz/ATD Fourth World /CJW_AR0201602018

By Isabelle Pypaert Perrin, Director General, ATD Fourth World International.

A few days ago in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Mary-Love went to enrol in elementary school. Her mother and best friend went with her. At 16, Mary-Love has rarely been to school. Instead, she spent many years helping her mother take care of the family. Together, they braved violence and disruption from armed gangs in their neighbourhood.

The elementary school, it turned out, was reluctant to enrol Mary-Love. They were concerned that she “lacked motivation”.

If there’s one thing Mary-Love has, it’s motivation. She is incredibly strong. In fact, she reminds me of Nathalie, a 17-year-old mother in France who has two young daughters. One evening, while her partner was driving, they were hit by a car. One of the daughters was seriously injured and ended up in the hospital. Her mother stayed with her.

When a friend, Brigitte, went to visit them at the hospital, a concerned nurse took her aside. “Do you know them?” she asked. “She’s very young to have two children and we’ve reported this incident to social services. Even so, she’s taken very good care of her daughter since they got here. The little girl seems to feel quite secure with her mother. The father even comes every afternoon with the baby.”

The father is 19. In school, he was always in special education classes. Yet he still doesn’t read or write well enough to fill out the hospital forms. Nathalie takes care of that. She was always good at school and her partner is proud of her. When Brigitte tells her what the nurse said, Nathalie responds, “I’m just taking care of her like I do at home. At home the children are everything to us”.

And yet, Nathalie’s younger brothers and sisters were recently placed in foster care. When Nathalie offered to take in the youngest of her sisters, social services refused. As a minor, they said, she was too young. This made Nathalie angry because, as the oldest in the family, she had often looked after her younger siblings and did it well.

Mary-Love and Nathalie are like many other women, full of courage and strength, despite a life constrained by extreme poverty. Lacking financial means, they took on adult responsibilities at a young age. Yet the support systems around these young women treat them with suspicion rather than encouragement.

One has to ask how Mary-Love and Nathalie manage to act as responsible grown ups at such a young age, especially in the face of mistrust and ridicule from everyone around them.

For more than a century the women’s liberation movement has been pushing society to give women freedom to be themselves, without disdain or reproach. It’s important for feminism to recognize women living in extreme poverty who also desperately want respect and dignity. Nathalie and Mary-Love don’t want people looking down on them either.

Around the world, women like Nathalie and Mary-Love struggle every day to find a way out of the poverty surrounding them. They face down scorn and belittlement, not only because they are women but also because of their circumstances. Like women everywhere, they have to work extra hard. Yet too often their struggles—and their tremendous achievements in the face of obstacles—go unrecognized.

This editorial was originally published in Revue Quart Monde #257 as “Malgré le regard qui pèse sur elles…”.

ATD Fourth World supports many women around the world who struggle every day for their families’ survival. Read more about these strong and resourceful women here:

African Women Speak Out
I Don’t Want to Live on Leftovers Anymore
Overcoming Poverty Through Intergenerational Connections
I Live in a Cemetery

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