Meet Gloria Steinem's extraordinary houseguest

NEW YORK — Gloria Steinem sits in the ground-floor den of her brownstone apartment with a young Zambian woman visiting America for the first time.

The lives of the two women — one an icon, the other quietly charismatic — could not be more different, though the paths that led them here share common threads.

The 82-year-old activist struggled with a lack of formal education during her itinerant childhood on the road, fled an engagement to the wrong man, admits she's living the life her mother never could, and is the entrenched face of a powerful feminist movement. Her houseguest is 26-year-old Alice Saisha, who struggled to stay in school because of her family's poverty, at 14 nearly wed a 42-year-old man, is living a life her widowed mother could never have dreamed, and is an emerging face of a powerful feminist movement.

For both women, success began with education. While Steinem says she did not see a full year of school in her first decade of life — her father was a traveling salesman — she was aided by educated parents and the ready accessibility of books. Saisha, who dropped out of school at 14, was aided by the nonprofit Campaign for Female Education (Camfed), which offered her a scholarship to return to school. She graduated, and went on to complete a sociology degree through distance learning at Women’s University of Africa.

Steinem and Saisha may live thousands of miles apart, but their body language suggests a deep connection. They sit among Steinem's eclectic mementos — magazine covers documenting the women's movement and photographs of the activist throughout her life; with Hillary Clinton, with Barack Obama, with her family. When Saisha speaks, Steinem looks at nothing in the richly hued room but her. When one leans in to murmur something to the other, tenderness is palpable.

"If I could have taken the energy from the room with Alice and others who have gone through this rebirth, you might say we could have fueled anything," Steinem said of her first meeting with Saisha last summer.

Saisha felt an affinity, too.

"We felt she was one of us, because she got to tell us her story about her education and how she struggled through school and managed to persevere," she said.

According to the U.N., educating girls improves economies and helps to save children and mothers' lives. Yet, despite advances toward gender parity, fewer than 90 girls for every 100 boys receive secondary education in at least 19 countries, many of which are in sub-Saharan Africa. And so, on International Women's Day, Steinem hosted a gathering in her home to support the work of the organization that changed Saisha's fate.

Since forming in 1993, Camfed says it has educated more than 1.6 million students in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania and Malawi. The group, which Charity Navigator rates at three out of four stars, says it takes $240 to keep a girl in high school for one year. In Zambia, where Saisha was born the youngest of 10, gender inequality is a major issue, according to a 2016 U.N. report. Limited education and poor employment mean few opportunities for women to empower themselves.

Camfed says a critical part of its success is talking to families in the communities where they work. In 1991, when Camfed founder Ann Cotton visited Zimbabwe to better understand why so few girls were attending school, she entered conversations under the assumption that gender bias was the barrier. But when she spoke to parents, she learned poverty was keeping girls out of the classroom. Poor families, the group said, chose to send their boys to school because they had better job prospects afterward.

"Just sitting down with people and asking the questions I think has been and continues to be the transformative piece in our work, and just respecting the wisdom and the expertise that comes from lived experience," said Camfed CEO Lucy Lake.

Here, Steinem says, is where greater lessons lie.

"The people who are experiencing something are more expert in it than the experts," she said.

Actress Emma Watson, a supporter of Camfed and a friend of Steinem's, attended the gathering at her home on Wednesday. Watson, a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador, asked Camfed how the current political climate, specifically President Trump's reinstatement of the global gag rule, might affect the organization's mission. The rule bans U.S. funding for international organizations that provide abortions or information on abortion as a family planning option.

"It's a tragedy playing out everyday in the lives of women that are lost now as a result of the global gag rule," Lake said. Reproductive healthcare is a crucial part of keeping girls in school, according to the U.N. "But I think we have to look at the positive side in the solidarity that's being unlocked and the possibility I think that's being presented among this movement."

Zambia has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world, according to Girls Not Brides, a global partnership to end child marriage. Saisha said girls must recognize it's their right to "decide when to marry, who to marry and how many children to have."

As part of her work with Camfed, Saisha now acts as a mentor and in some cases a caretaker for 10 girls and one boy so they can attend to school. The alumni association Saisha is a part of is crucial, Camfed said, because low academic self-esteem is a major barrier to girls' education.

Camfed said it not only fights for communities to believe in their girls, but also for girls to believe in themselves. This, Steinem says, goes far beyond Africa.

"If you can't see it, you can't be it," Steinem said. "Each of us needs to see someone or someones, plural, who we relate to or identify with doing something that is outside of the traditional role, so we know we can do it, too. ... We need each other to set ourselves free, and it's so exciting. I mean, nothing is more exciting."

Alia Dastagir writes about media and culture for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter @alia_e.

USA Today


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