United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5: GENDER EQUALITY

Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

[Kim Tyo-Dickerson, International School of Amsterdam, The Netherlands]

On the eve of International Women’s Day 2021, it is time to appreciate and celebrate women and girls everywhere who are working hard for a better future for themselves and others, as well as a successful recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. On the front lines at home, school, and work, they have demonstrated courage and empathy despite the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disproportionately disrupt and impact the lives of women and girls, endangering the limited but real progress that has been made towards gender equality and women’s empowerment. 

Continuing the fight for gender equality is mission critical work as violence against women and girls during the pandemic is resulting in a Shadow Pandemic where they have reduced access to needed social and health services. As nations and allies grapple with geo-political instability and civil war, women and girls find themselves increasingly vulnerable to violence at home and in their communities that are under threat. With the UN Foundation, we are uniting to end violence against women and girls in all nations. 

Coalitions of governmental organizations, agencies, activists, educators, librarians, authors, and illustrators are bringing energy, courage, and hope to the pursuit of human rights for every gender through literacy work, global storytelling, and reading experiences that lift up all women and girls.

The goal of this SDG 5 booklist is to connect Middle Grade and Young Adult readers to diverse, #ownvoices stories in a variety of formats and genres that illustrate the global targets and assert the importance of gender equality for women and girls everywhere.

App: Noa’s Journey to Power — developed by the United Nations Foundation (2020)

Follow Noa through every stage in her life and discover how gender equality policies and impacts help Noa grow into a powerful force for change in her world — by accessing this free online app.

Auma’s Long Run by Eucabeth A. Odhiambo (2016) / Author is American, born in Kenya  / Set in Kenya / Interest level ages 10+

In Auma’s small village Koromo in Kenya, people are suddenly dying from a strange new disease called AIDS. Auma, an inquisitive student and talented runner, has dreams of a track scholarship so that she can attend high school and maybe even university to become a doctor. These plans are put in jeopardy as first her father and then her mother fall ill. Neighbors turn against neighbors in denial of the virus or creating myths about its transmission. The people who become sick, including Auma’s Baba, refuse to talk about it. All Auma has is questions as she is pulled to care for her family and put her education and track dreams to the side, forcing her to make choices about her future with her family’s survival in the balance.

Odhiambo draws on her childhood experiences growing up in a Luo village in Kenya and her direct relief work with HIV/AIDS orphans and partial orphans to create this story that brings attention to the health crisis that is ongoing in Kenya and impacts women and girls most of all as caregivers for ill relatives and neighbors.

“I wrote this story for all of us,” Odihiambo shares in the Author’s Note, “the story of the girls and women I grew up around. I wanted to explore some of the issues that thread through the lives of women: a woman’s place in society, relationships, marriage, childbearing, motherhood, strength, confidence, and respect.”

Dawn Raid by Pauline Vaeluaga Smith, illustrated by Mat Hunkin (2021) / Author is New Zealander-Pasifika (Samoan, Tuvaluan, Scottish and Irish descent) / Set in New Zealand / Interest level ages 10+

Told through diary entries, almost thirteen-year-old Sofia Christina Savea chronicles, with humor and historical detail, her daily life growing up biracial, pālagi (White) and Samoan, in 1970s Wellington, New Zealand. From a girl without a strong political voice or social stance, Sofia’s grows in her awareness of race, culture, and politics through engaging with Maori culture at school, working a part-time job delivering milk that helps her save up for a longed-for pair of go-go boots and support her family’s finances, and observing her older brother Lenny become an activist with the Polynesian Panthers, a group protesting against the dawn raids by the New Zealand government against Pacifika migrant workers.

Sofia’s growing awareness of the human rights violations of immigrant and indigenous families across New Zealand is catalyzed when her own family is subjected to a dawn raid during a family reunion. These experiences provide Sofia with the speech topic that she is looking for, and she uses her voice and this opportunity to stand up for her family and Maori culture, becoming a leader in her class, family, and community.

The author includes a powerful historical note at the end of the book where she wonders what Sofia grows up to be, a lawyer or politician or fashionista? Smith also curated an exhibit about the dawn raids based on the historical events and groups included in her book.

Note: This book is part of the “My New Zealand Story” historical series, and Scholastic has produced a teachers’ guide for the book (here), as has the National Library of New Zealand (here).

Other strong girl read-alikes for Dawn Raid include Front Desk by Kelly Yang, Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina, and It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas.

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The Moon Within by Aida Salazar (2019) / Author is Mexican-Puerto Rican / includes Spanish and indigenous Nahuatl languages / Interest level ages 10+

This middle grade Novel in Verse is a celebration of women’s bodies and gender inclusivity. Celi Rivera comes from a bicultural Puerto Rican/Mexican family and her life in Oakland, California is becoming more complex. Her body is changing. She has a crush on a boy. And her best friend since forever, Magda, is exploring her gender-fluidity. Celi’s mom, Mima, wants to give Celi a moon ceremony when her first period arrives, a celebratory affirmation of women’s bodies and a rite of passage based on an ancestral Mexica ritual that Mima and her community are reclaiming. However, Celi is mortified by this and feels like her mom isn’t doing this for Celi, but for herself. Meanwhile, Magda is growing more certain in her developing identity.

What is striking about this novel is the full-bodied singing, dancing, drumming love of music, family, and respect for women’s bodies and cycles that will help all girls celebrate the powerful moon within herself. Equally powerful is Salazar’s advocacy for gender-expansive people via the complex history of Mesoamerican gender identities and the dual feminine and masculine energies of xochihuah that she incorporates into the story and develops through Magda’s character.

An excellent discussion guide is available with classroom activities, “Resources on Moon Ceremonies, Menstruation, and Connecting with Your Body” and “Resources on Gender Expansiveness” written by Dr. Carla España, who is a Bilingual Education Clinical Doctor Lecturer at Hunter College, The City University of New York.

When the Ground is Hard by Malla Nunn (2019) / Author is Australian born in Swaziland / Set in Colonial Swaziland / Interest level ages 14+

“When the ground is hard, the women dance” – African Proverb

Malla Nunn creates a time capsule of female friendship and empowerment in her historical fiction novel that takes place at the Keziah Christian Academy, a mixed-race boarding school in colonial Swaziland. Adele Joubert is sixteen and in her final years at the school, the daughter of an African mother and a white father who has two families, one white and one black. Her father is wealthy and relatively connected to his second family, able and willing to pay for Adele’s school fees and provide her with treats to bargain with and new clothes to keep her status high. When Adele finds herself rudely and summarily ousted from the clique of popular girls in her year by a new girl with more money and married parents, Adele is forced to be roommates with Lottie Diamond, the wildest, poorest and least popular girl at school. Adele feels she might break with humiliation and is desperate to regain her place with her former friends, but finds to her surprise that Lottie is difficult to ignore and has ways of making Adele look at her world and her choices that begin to change Adele’s priorities.

The roommates bond over reading the used copy of Jane Eyre that Adele’s father sent her, finding in orphan Jane Eyre’s 1847 story of hardship and triumph a kindred spirit that helps them see paths through their own lives of boarding school cruelties to a variety of hopeful possibilities about what kind of lives they want to have after school. When a boy at school, who has an intellectual disability and is thus mercilessly bullied, goes missing, the quest to find him no matter the costs brings Adele and Lottie even closer to their own, unexpected truths and ultimately to true friendship and solidarity.

Jane, the Fox & Me by Fanny Britt, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault  (2012) / Translated from French by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou

As I was reading When the Ground Is Hard I was also remembering reading the wonderful graphic novel Jane, the Fox, and Me, which I read in translation a few years ago. The connections were striking. Like Adele, 11-year-old Hélène is incredibly lonely despite being surrounded by people her own age, consumed by the judgments about her made by the powerful clique of girls in her local school. Casually tormenting Hélène is a daily thing for the popular girls in her school, much like the way Adele is treated by the wealthy mixed-race girl clique in her boarding school in Swaziland. Hélène’s copy of Jane Eyre is her only pleasure, indicated by bright pastel, full page panels contrasting with the dull brown-grey of the panels indicating Hélène’s normal life. The natural world, represented by the fox on a humiliating school camping trip where Hélène is sleeping in the “outcasts” tent, sees  Hélène and tells her that she has something to look forward to. After that encounter, a new girl, Géraldine, arrives and suddenly Hélène is no longer alone. Hélène eventually sees, as Adele and Lottie did, that Jane Eyre took every hurt and every disdainful comment made by others about her and moved forward in her life and decisions anyway. Like Jane Eyre, they have worth and promise, and they leave their reading experience empowered to act in their real lives.

Jane Eyre, since its publication, has given solace, strength, and solidarity to girls and women who need to know that they matter and have worth beyond what society’s messages tell them.

Also note the fascinating project called Prismatic Jane Eyre: an experiment in the study of translations, which is part of a larger Prismatic Translation initiative at the Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation (OCCT) at Oxford University in the UK.

Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani with Viviana Maaza (2018) / Author is Nigerian / Set in Nigeria / Interest level ages 14+

On February 27, 2021, 315 out of approximately 500 hundred female students were kidnapped at gunpoint from their state-run school in Zamfara State, northwest Nigeria. On March 2, the abducted girls were returned to their families. Kidnapping for ransom is becoming a larger and more dangerous reality for school children in the country. The news story brought up painful memories in Nigeria and the rest of the world. We have to wonder how these girls are facing reintegration into their homes, with communities that place a huge amount of value on a young woman’s body and virginity, after unknown trauma and likely sexual violence.

In 2014, 276 predominantly Christian girls kidnapped from their Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok by the Islamic jihadist terrorist group Boko Haram were not so fortunate. Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree tells their story, with the unnamed main character, a girl with a loving family and dreams of becoming a teacher, facing unimaginably painful choices and heartbreaking sacrifices in captivity.

Nigerian author Nwaubani collaborated with Italian journalist Maaza to bring the stories and voices of many survivors together into one narrative by drawing details from interviews and news reports about the girls who survived their harrowing experience. The pain and suffering of reintegrating into their communities after surviving such an ordeal is equally unsettling.

Surviving the City by Tasha Spillett, illustrations by Natasha Donovan (2019) / Author is Canadian (Inninewak (Cree) and Trinidadian); illustrator is Métis / Interest level 14+

“Little sister
I see you even if you have yet to see yourself…”

This debut graphic novel, the first in a projected series, focuses on the deep friendship of two young First Nations women in Canada who have just completed a full year Berry Fast together, a rite of passage for their respective tribes. Miikwan is Anishinaabe, while Dez is Inninew and growing into her two-spirit gender identity but hasn’t told Milkwan about her truth yet. Both have known painful loss and are facing more in a city that is hostile to Indigenous girls, women, and two-spirit people. As Dez grieves over her grandmother’s deteriorating health and the prospect of being sent to a group home, Milkwan becomes involved in political activism demanding justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women. When Dez runs away, Milkwan grieves and remembers the loss of her own mother. Dez’ return is more than uncertain, it is more than possible that she never will like so many others before her.

What makes this story riveting is that the characters are unknowingly surrounded by unseen, evocative ghosts of dead or missing Indigenous women who accompany  and comfort their loved ones as they move through the city streets. In stark juxtaposition are the sinister, malevolent ghosts that hover over and behind men whose intentions are to resurrect and possibly enact old violations and prejudices.

Author Spillet includes statistics for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit People (MMIWG2S) and further reading at the end of this brief but powerful installment.

Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina by Michaela DePrince with Elaine DePrince (2014) / Author is American born in Sierra Leone and adopted at age 4 / Interest level ages 13+

Born Mabinty Bangura in Sierra Leone, Michaela DePrince’s journey from her war-torn birth country is nothing short of miraculous. From the orphanage where she was left by an uncle and abused, shunned, and called the devil’s child by superstitious care workers due to the little girl having vitiligo, a condition that causes patches of skin to lose its color, her survival in the bewildering chaos and constant cruelty is a powerful testament to DePrince’s strength and determination against all odds.

Ballet fans, dancers, and artists, transracial adoptees, and students of human rights all over the world first met her in the documentary First Position where she was a featured dancer competing in the Youth America Grand Prix, one of the world’s most prestigious ballet competitions. Now a soloist with the Dutch National Ballet, DePrince has followed her passion for life and dance, becoming a professional ballerina just like the one she saw on a magazine cover that made it to the grounds of her orphanage due to the Saharan winds, fueling her hopes for survival and sanctuary when she was just four years old.

DePrince was featured in Beyoncé’s Lemonade video in 2016 along with other Black women role-models. Breaking barriers in so many ways, DePrince’s story was adapted as Ballerina Dreams: From Orphan to Dancer (Step Into Reading) for young readers between the ages of six and eight years old and a picture book in 2017 Ballerina Dreams. She is also featured in the collection Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World, where stories illustrate that feminism is a personal statement and multiple gender expressions are included. Since 2016, DePrince has been a War Child Holland ambassador advocating for children in conflict.

The Girl from Aleppo by Nujeen Mustafa with Christina Lamb (2016) / Author is Syrian / Refugee story from Syria to Germany / Interest level ages 10+

While Middle and High School Librarian at the International School of Stavanger, Noway, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in reading aloud The Girl from Aleppo with our entire Grade 7 cohort. Guest faculty readers would come to the library and Social Studies classroom to create this unique community reading event.

Born with cerebral palsy, sixteen-year-old Nujeen Mustafa undertook the 3,500 mile journey from war-torn Syria to Germany with her courageous sister Nasrine pushing her in a steel wheelchair, a young woman who had rarely prior to this ever left her family’s apartment in Aleppo where she watched American TV shows and taught herself English. Her deeply human observations about life as a refugee, the boredom of waiting, the intense anxieties surrounding transport, bathrooms, food, family members’ safety, all combined to make this book a treasured story about sisterhood, family, and the triumph of survival, told with unflinching truth and surprising moments of humor and heart. Nujeen has been supporting the work of the UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency, since 2018. For an update on her life since the book was published, see this September 2020 BBC news report video.

How Dare the Sun Rise by by Sandra Uwiringiyimana with Abigail Pesta / Author is from Democratic Republic of the Congo / Refugee story from DRC to America / Interest level 13+

This book is my freedom. This is what I have been waiting to tell the world for so many years. Writing this book was my healing…”

Uwiringiyimana’s memoir begins when she was only ten and a Congolese refugee in the Gatumba Refugee Camp in Burundi. She survives the massacre at the camp by Burundi rebels that kills 166 Congolese refugees and her beloved little sister Deborah, only six years old.

Her story of resilience and persistence in the face of persecution and prejudice against her and her family as Black African refugees follows her from Burundi to the United States. Many war memoirs end there, but Uwiringiyimana’s story details the daily racism, new to her and her family as they had never been seen as “Black” before in their communities, sexism, as experienced by non-stop media messages to be skinny, and struggles she has to face to attend public schools, learn English, despite the jeers of her classmates, and create her place of strength and hope as an “artist, activist, student and lover of human rights.”

Girl Rising: Changing the World One Girl at a Time by by Tanya Lee Stone, companion to the documentary Girl Rising (2019) / Author is American / Interest level 13+

The Girl Rising campaign for girls’ education and empowerment began in 2012 as a documentary celebrating the lives, hopes, and coming of age of nine young women from all parts of the developing world. See these profiles of nine young women from Afghanistan, Cambodia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Nepal, Peru, Sierra Leone. Updates to the documentary and commitment to these girls have allowed the organization and we as viewers to support them as they grow up, most recently in Girl Rising: The Fifth Anniversary film.

This nonfiction companion book written and expanded by Tanya Lee Stone includes unseen interview stills, original research, and stories from more than twenty-five other girls around the world who are “conquering obstacles, becoming empowered, creating their own possibilities.”

Interview with Ethiopian-Amerian author and writer for the Girl Rising, Maaza Mengiste, where she discusses her role in choosing and developing Ethiopian representative Azmera’s story.

CANCELLED - Sally Nuamah, author of How Girls Achieve | A Room Of One's Own  Books & Gifts
How Girls Achieve by Sally A Nuamah (2019) / American born in Ghana / Case Studies in Ghana, US, South Africa / Professional Learning / Interest level Adult

For girls, working hard at school is not enough, and has never been enough to overcome the barriers to equality they face at school, at home, and in the world. Schools, Nuamah states, never had girls in mind to begin with, so how can they truly help girls achieve their educational aspirations? 

How Girls Achieve points to a radical re-evaluation of schools and learning where schools become Feminist Schools, which she defines as anti-racist, anti-sexist and thus liberatory, and girls are explicitly taught three skills that create Achievement-Oriented Identities or AOIs: confidence, strategy, and transgression. Nuamah writes, “We might stress ‘grit,’ ‘resilience,’ ‘girl power,’ and the need to ‘lean in,’ but this won’t change the situation in which girls find themselves”. 

Nuamah’s research in three schools in three countries — Ghana, the United States, and South Africa — expose the sexist structures that persist and and changes that schools need to make in order to fully recognize and then completely dismantle the internalized and institutionalized sexism that negatively impact girls’ achievement in their journeys through school. Throughout Nuamah provides evidence and suggestions for concrete changes to teaching and learning that need to be made in order to create truly safe schools for girls. She also includes a sample Feminist School Tool Kit to identify some specific measures for a school that truly wants to address equity and safety in their schools.

Kim Tyo-Dickerson has been an international teacher librarian for 16 years after beginning her career as a school library media specialist in Ithaca, New York. Kim has both a BPh in Interdisciplinary Studies with a minor in Women’s Studies and an MA in English Literature from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She recently completed her MSLIS from Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. Kim is the Upper School Librarian and Head of Libraries at the International School of Amsterdam and has also worked in international school libraries in Ethiopia and Norway. Kim’s librarianship is informed by her commitment to literacy, feminism, and social justice. She is inspired every day by her children, both born in Ethiopia and raised as Ethiopian-American Third Culture Kids, and she seeks out #ownvoices authors from around the world so that every child can find windows and mirrors to their experiences in their international school libraries and classrooms. You can follow her on Twitter: @kimtyodickerson and ISA library team: @ISA_Libraries.

Note: all the books highlighted during this month of SDGs can be found on this GLLI Goodreads shelf.

What are your favorite books for SDG Goal 5: Gender Equality? Please share them in the comments. Let’s make this a conversation and work on the goal together.

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