I was invited to take part in a day-long workshop at GW university this past week. Melanee Verveer, the first Ambassador for Gender to the US State Department was the keynote speaker. Although I can’t say I really learned anything new I was forced to revisit some facts that have troubled me for decades. For instance, women around the world do 56% of the work but only receive 5% of the wages. Another one, women and girls in poor rural communities spend 75% of their time searching for and hauling water for their families.
Data like this are driving current decisions to invest significant sums of money into infrastructure to build good and safe roads, bring safe drinking water into remote communities (to bring it closer to women) and in electrification projects particularly those that offer employment to women and get them off the grid. I’ve seen some amazing stuff on this from India and Africa where illiterate women are being taught how to make simple but very effective solar panels that can provide electricity to their communities.
Unfortunately, I fear a lot of this will come at the cost of funding to education which EVERYONE agrees is the cornerstone to all economic and social development, essential for a stable civil society and long term basic life benefits like improved health and well-being. But, unlike investments in education, roads, water and electricity can literally happen almost overnight and show relative quick impact which politicians in particular like very much. Not so with education it’s a long haul investment and impact isn’t easy to show.
But I digress. During the luncheon after the round table discussion and keynote speech, the 4 tables of about 8 people each were assigned two questions to respond to –we were given notebooks to write our thoughts. And all our comments were going to be integrated by the organizers–GWUs newly formed global office on gender HERS (health, education rights and security)–into a briefing paper for the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR).
And for those of you who may not be sure the QDDR is (and I quote):
“a blueprint for elevating American “civilian power” to better advance our national interests and to be a better partner to the U.S. military. Leading through civilian power means directing and coordinating the resources of all America’s civilian agencies to prevent and resolve conflicts; help countries lift themselves out of poverty into prosperous, stable, and democratic states; and build global coalitions to address global problems.”
So, I’m sitting at my table with several other “luminaires” in the field of women in development, gender and girls’ education. We’re sharing what we know and our experiences that have illuminated our work over the years. Being the oldest at the table I could see my viewpoint was somewhat tainted by my 35 plus years of working in this field and contemplating what it means to be a woman in a world where we earn less, often work harder and spend much of our time lugging around things to take care of our families. And despite some gains not much has really changed.
And, then like a flash out of the past, the discussion unexpectedly turned to the topic of what things are called–and how we as women are called–more to the point–the significance of names. I was reminded of something that happened so long ago to me it was like a stroke of lightening that jolted me back into the past. What’s in a name, indeed?
When I first moved to Africa I was horrified at the conditions and circumstances of the women around me. In my view they were nothing short of beasts of burden–forced to carry the weight of survival for their families on their lone shoulders and often beaten by the men in their lives in the process. It started when they were young girls. Even after they had grown own and their own daughters had gone on to begin their daily ritual of abuse and their sons had moved on all too often to become all too sadly the abuser–they would share in the trial of the younger women in their villages. Their help was seldom offered to their daughters since in a patri-local society the married girls moved to the communities of their husband’s families. No, mothers and daughters were separated at marriage and they became even more isolated in their invisible roles in their families. From where I viewed things I imagined it’s much easier to perpetuate such atrocities of the women when the wives are not “your” daughters–and humanely I suspect it becomes harder after the years pass to remember your own daughters when you rarely see her or her children who legally “belong” to the husband’s family through the process of bride price.
As the years passed while living in Zaire I knew that doing something about this was my calling in life. I wasn’t sure what exactly but it was hard for me to sit by and revisit my own frustrations being a female–seeing it in such bold relief–and to do nothing. My mom had been a “women’s libber” and me and my sisters we were raised on the pablum of women’s rights and equality among women and men. Our father–who many outside our family thought was a weak man and hen-pecked by our mother–was truly a self-actualized man who held a larger vision of the way a man interacted with his family and for his family. The vague memories I have of his mother was of a very strong and somewhat forceful woman so maybe the fact his own mother was such a dominant figure in his life contributed to his comfort zone in my parents own gender dynamics. But whatever, I realize even more today, what a jewel my father was and how fortunate I was he was thrilled with his three daughters and no sons and took such an active role in raising us and our children.
So, when we left Zaire and I began my graduate studies at Michigan State I knew from the day I began that my dissertation would focus on the situation for women in Central Africa and how girls were being educated. For years, whenever I could, I did my research papers on something that had to do with women and girls. I read prolifically about women’s rights and feminism. I became submerged in the field. No matter I knew I was preparing myself for the work ahead of me. Without a doubt I lived and breathed the issue of the role and situation of women particularly poor rural women.
While finishing up my dissertation my parents moved in with me and the kids since Bob had relocated to DC for his new job with the World Bank. Like all those women I had been studying and writing about over the years–I was alone carrying the burden of taking care of my children, working full-time and writing my dissertation. It was overwhelming and slow progress. So when my parents came it was a tremendous relief and even the thought of their support alone was just the push I needed to finish up the writing.
I dedicated my dissertation to them. But I realized as I signed my name on the paperwork for the diploma I needed to have my maiden name there too. Not only did all the support they’ve given me all my life need to be acknowledged–I realized it was their dynamics, and my father’s comfort with his own unusual role in our family–that was such a catalyst in how I viewed the world and a model to me in how I saw gender dynamics and relationships. I wanted that documented in an official way and I realized the best way to do that was on the piece of paper that awarded me my PhD.
Needless to say I was stunned beyond belief when Michigan State didn’t agree. Indeed, they told me it couldn’t be done. After all, since it wasn’t the name I used when I applied for my program how did they know definitively that “VanBelle” was really ME? I pointed out to them that my under-graduate records which I had been forced to submit to them to gain entrance into their noble institution should be documentation enough. No deal. I was repeatedly told (and mostly by the women who I talked to on the phone and in person which made the conversations and denials all the more frustrating) that the ONLY things that would legally count was a social security card or a driver’s license. Efforts to obtain one of those in my maiden name ending up in a dead end as well. I was finally told the only way I could get my name legally changed was to go to court and pay some judge who didn’t know me from a hill of beans to give me my maiden name back. I was not only horrified at this; I was incensed.
I wasn’t quite sure what my next step was when I moved with the family to our new home in DC. But like years before I knew I had to do something. Shortly after my move to DC I got my first consulting job with USAID to spend two months in Uganda supporting a pre-design team for the first education project starting up after the horrible regime of Idi Amin. The local USAID mission wanted someone who knew villages well and could speak to girls’ education. As I contemplated what I should do there I also came to a decision on what I needed to do about my diploma.
Before I left I wrote a seething 10 page letter to the president of the university. I lashed out at their antiquated rules and procedures that wouldn’t let me get my identify back and honor the two people who had done more than anyone to support me to get that degree. I raved on about the injustices heaped on women around the world and screamed out about their invisibility. And I told him….”keep your stupid diploma I don’t want it if I can’t get it in the name that is really me.”
When I got back from Uganda many weeks later one of the first things Bob mentioned to me was that a very large envelope had come in the mail from MSU. I knew what it was. I was prepared to throw it away. But I decided to take one look before throwing it out. I’m glad I did. I smiled with satisfaction when I saw someone had listened for written in giant script was my name exactly as I wanted it: Diane VanBelle Prouty. It may have been a small battle I’d won. But, nonetheless it seemed like a big enough one for me.
Just two weeks ago I was reminded of the importance of names and what you are called. I am applying for a visa for India. On the application–like all applications–it asks me for my maiden name. No problem. And the name on my passport–again no problem. Well, that happens to be my ex-husbands–it’s easier for work since all my academic writings were in that name when we divorced. It’s not easy getting that name back once you’ve stamped your mark with another. And, unlike any other embassy and passport application I must submit a copy of my driver’s license. No big deal I have one. And then, for the first time ever on a visa application I was asked if I’m married and the name of my husband. I pondered over that for a bit. What to do? If i don’t put down I’m married and they discover in their due diligence (which can be pretty involved anymore what with terrorism and all) that I am–well I’m screwed. So, I reluctantly indicate that yes indeed I am married. And then I write down his name. But it’s neither of the names that are attached to me in my documentation. Three different names and they all are about me. But how to get from one to the other?
I talked to the visa company that expedites our passports. They are a bit concerned about getting this work visa since India is one of the toughest ones to get. They’ve been in this business a long time and told me they’ve never had this “name problem thing” before (I find that a bit odd). So….they’re telling me I might have to get copies of my first marriage license and divorce papers to prove I am who I am. What a mess.
So, what’s in a name. Not much? Nope, it’s just everything!