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Susan M. Blaustein Headshot

Mother's Day Challenges for Us All

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A mother in Kisumu, Kenya, contacted by her daughter's teacher because the usually bubbly 10-year-old had seemed so flat in school in recent weeks and her performance had slumped dramatically, told the teacher to speak with the girl's father. Since the economic downturn, the mother explained, the girl's father had lost his job, and the entire family -- she, her husband, this child and her five siblings -- had to give up their two-room shack and crowd into a single room. Humiliated and demoralized, with no jobs on the horizon, he had taken to coming home drunk almost every night, insisting on having his way with her. Whenever the mother resisted, she told the teacher, all six children were captive to the ensuing fight, sometimes violent, always loud, always terrifying. You really need to talk to him, the mother insisted.

The teacher, a mother herself and a school counselor selected by the Millennium Cities Initiative and trained by MCI partner LitWorld, a New York-based NGO focused on literacy and child empowerment, did, bless her, call in the father. So mortified was he, at being singled out and mustered by his daughter's teacher -- a woman he'd never thought to ask about, whose name he'd never heard, who somehow seemed to care more for his own child's welfare than he -- that he agreed to stop drinking and to find a place to live with a separate room for his children. He started coming home at night, and within days, the teacher reported that the girl was back to her bright-eyed self, eager in class, sunny and buoyant again outside.

The child's problem was identified through our Girls' LitClubs program, created by LitWorld and implemented in partnership with MCI and the school districts in two of the Millennium Cities, to strengthen girls' literacy skills, self-esteem, self-expression and self-reliance, and to create meaningful, substantive connections with girls worldwide. The female teachers coordinating the programs are trained, along with lessons in creative skills strengthening, to teach and demonstrate compassion and a sense of sisterhood, and to identify the warning signs of girls suffering hardships taking place well beyond the school grounds. This low-cost, brilliantly designed project has been so effective that the Kisumu school district has asked us to double the number of girls covered, from 80 to 160 (from 4 to 8 schools), and to start up boys' clubs, as well; the other, in Kumasi, Ghana, has insisted in our starting large, covering 450 girls, in 15 schools.

Another girl came to our attention in Kumasi only because one day, after a LitClub session when the coordinator talked with her girls about personal hygiene, family planning, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, she approached the coordinator, also a mother, and confessed that she was afraid she might be sick, since she was now living with a much older man whom she'd met soon after leaving her village and mother at age 13 to come to the city to continue her education. The man had offered to pay her school costs -- uniforms, snacks, school supplies -- and to give her a place to sleep, in exchange for her being available to him, upon his desire. Her mother in the village didn't know this, of course, nor did her usual school teachers. But because she felt safe within the context of the Girls' LitClub, this child was able to voice her sudden panic to the kindly coordinator, and MCI's project director in that city, a mother and grandmother, immediately reached out and has been working quietly ever since, pulling together a circle of women and daughters who protect this child, with a little money, some wonderful learning opportunities and their friendship.

These two cases, straddling a continent, are but a tiny glimpse into the challenges faced by so many of the world's girls, at these delicate, precarious ages, in nations rich and poor. Our many efforts at the Millennium Cities Initiative to ensure safe pregnancy and birth with our ultrasound and neonatal trainings, made possible by such illustrious partners as the International Society of Ultrasound in Obstetrics and Gynecology, Siemens, Ben Gurion University, the American Academy of Pediatrics, Johnson & Johnson and AmeriCares, make little sense, if a girl is going to survive a traumatic birth only to be abused at age 10. Any positive outcomes of our, or so many others' robust attempts to improve family health, nutrition, access to safe water -- or our work together with Columbia's Urban Design Lab to create safe vibrant markets and spaces for children to play within dense low-income neighborhoods, or our groundbreaking early childhood education program, brought to Ghana's two Millennium Cities by the Government of Israel and Mount Carmel Training Center -- are all equally jeopardized by the many manmade dangers facing these very children, whatever their earlier good luck or opportunity.

Our latest exciting undertaking, together with a fabulously rich set of grassroots-to-international partners, is to build in downtown Kumasi a comprehensive Women's and Girls' Center that can serve as a safe haven and "opportunity hub," run by the neighborhood women themselves and offering day care, reproductive health care, counseling, banking, girls' clubs, training in adult and financial literacy, job skills and IT and a gathering place to showcase films, speakers, exhibits and other services, as desired or needed by the women themselves. But -- all such creative efforts will lose significant value when so many of the children affected -- especially girls, but boys as well -- are growing up only to have their confidence, their families, and in so many cases, their very bodies violated or ravaged, therein endangering their lifelong prospects for learning, earning, healthful living and raising healthy families of their own.

This is not sustainable development; this is the failure of a world to save its children.

And it will take a world -- a world of mothers, most likely -- rich ones, poor ones, all of them empowered, all speaking the truth like those in Kisumu and Kumasi, all led by their enormous hearts and open minds, their immense capacity for forgiveness, and for empathy -- to raise a universe of daughters and sons who know to treat each other with care and with respect.

On this Mother's Day, with so much of our world in so much pain, let us thank those mothers in those two ailing, little-known African cities. Let us witness the extraordinary rescue -- at least, so far -- of those two children, in Kenya and in Ghana. Let us count our blessings as parents, as daughters and sons ourselves, as shepherds of the coming generation, and let us hope that we can be as courageous, to equally heroic and transformative effect regardless of the venue, to save the lives and spirits of many more 10- and 11- and 12- and 15-year old girls -- themselves mothers in another decade or two, carrying it forward. And let us dedicate ourselves, this Mother's Day, to a world without such pain, for all our children.

Although the task sometimes feels overwhelming, it actually takes so little, as these brave women have shown, to change the world.