Neck Rings and Bullets to the Head

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Ma Moo Oh -- www.garygeboyphotography.com
Ma Moo Ooh — http://www.garygeboyphotography.com

I’m trying to be more moderate. Really. But I’m standing at the corner of a National Geographic moment and a slap in the face. I’ve just met Ma Moo Ooh – or at least that’s how I think she spells her name. She is thirteen years old and her job is to pose for photos with tourists visiting her Padaung aunt’s weaving shop on stilts above Inle Lake in central Myanmar.




Right now I’m distracting her but a glimpse at the smile on her aunt’s face tells me it’s okay. We are playing a game. Ma Moo Ooh writes a word in my spiral notebook and I try to copy her beautiful scroll while she collapses in giggles.

It’s part of Padaung custom for girls to begin wearing gold rings around the neck at age nine. Ma Moo Ooh loves her ten rings – it’s teen bling on another whole level and she suffers no lack of self-esteem. Until I ask her what grade she’s in. She looks down. Her parents made her stop school after three years.

“I cried and cried and cried forever,” she tells me in incredibly impressive English. “I love school and never want to quit.” But she did what was expected of her – pitching in to raise the family out of poverty by taking advantage of Myanmar’s exploding tourist industry.

I feel guilty and outraged all at once. Up until now, I confess that I’ve blamed religion for gender inequality in girls’ education around the globe. Religious extremism I should say – remember, I’m trying to practice moderation in my attitudes as well as appetite.


Up until meeting Ma Moo Ooh, I saw the issue of gender-based discrimination as epitomized by Malala Yousafzai. I’m reading her co-written memoir to give a talk about it back in Beaufort, South Carolina. The world will never forget her. She’s the Pakistani schoolgirl who won the latest Nobel Peace Prize after being shot in the face by the Taliban in 2012.images-3



Perhaps because she has written this moving, triumphant memoir, her shooting and the reason for it (advocating for girls’ education) seemed singular to me – a horrific incident perpetrated by terrorists with religious fanaticism at their core.

I am in no way equating Ma Moo Ooh’s situation with Malala’s but what is dawning on me is that I can no longer compartmentalize the issue. It’s not just fanatics like the Pakistani Taliban or Boko Haram to blame but also a worldwide lack of commitment to girls like Ma Moo Ooh and Malala.

I’m not a mother. My outrage is not just because this is happening to little girls who could be our collected daughters. It’s is also rage for the consequences to their lives as women. Two-thirds of the world’s non-literate adults are women. Still. Today. Or at least as recently as 2012 when these results were reported to the United Nations’ Committee on Ending Discrimination against Women.

So if I’m trying to look beyond religious beliefs as the root of this inequality, why is it still happening? UNESCO experts and others who have written about the issue point out that it’s often about money. It’s the opportunity cost of a poor family losing someone to watch over younger siblings or contribute wages when their daughters go to school instead of staying at home. The neck rings that make Ma Moo Ooh feel beautiful and connected to her tribe are also economic shackles that feed her family.

I sit next to a little girl comparing our handwriting and trying not to cry for all the opportunities she will be denied. And now I understand the insistence of advocates ranging from South Africa’s Campaign for Education to the World Bank: insistence that governments have to bear the costs of educating boys and girls. Private donations and non-profits and singular efforts are not enough. Beyond building schools, governments have to make education truly free – no hidden costs for uniforms or textbooks. The United States subsidizes scores of other foreign aid projects – why not also the opportunity costs of daughters going to school instead of dropping out to become shepherds for the family’s animals or babysitters for the younger children?

It’s easy to think of this problem as too intractable to cure. But the uplifting part of all of this is that change is happening. It didn’t happen in time to save Malala from an assassination attempt. But if a girl with a bullet through her brain can still have faith then so can I. So can every other mother.

It’s not easy – one fifth of the world’s children aged 5-17 years are exploited by child labor, but even in Africa, where education disparity is proportionately among the worst in the word, the perception that it is more valuable to educate boys than girls is changing. The introduction of free primary education in Uganda, for example, caused total girls’ enrollments to rise from 63% to 83%, and enrollments of the poorest fifth of girls from 46% to 82%.

Stipend programs and conditional cash transfer programs have been employed in settings as diverse as Brazil, Yemen, Nepal, Tanzania, Malawi, Madagascar, Gambia and Kenya, and have succeeded in reducing girls’ drop-out rates and delaying early marriage.

Schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko-Haram
Schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko-Haram

But still, I can’t help thinking of how far we have to go. Some 200 schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria last year are still missing and it feels like our country thinks that hashtag activism is the answer. Tweeting #BringBackOurGirls won’t save the next Malala.

Here is Malala Yousafzai’s own plea. Donate to the causes she supports: Free The ChildrenSave the Children & the United Nations Foundation. Or give to the charity she started: the Malala Fund.

And don’t forget the organization that has always considered education a human rights issue: Amnesty International.

If you’re passionate mostly about improving the situation in Pakistan, consider donating to the alliance formed by Oxfam, Plan Pakinstan, Care International: the Girls Education Alliance Pakistan.

But back to the Padaung women and girls in Myanmar. It’s time to get into my boat and head back to my hotel on Inle Lake. I will probably never see Ma Moo Ooh again but I will never forget her. I’m just about to close my little spiral notebook when she wants me to learn another phrase. I repeat it after her and when she is finally satisfied enough to stop giggling at my pronunciation, I write it down the way it sounds to me.

Ta-Lye-Bahn-Na. I do a double take. My phonetic spelling out of Ma Moo Ooh’s phrase looks like Taliban. She repeats the phrase. It is musical, as lovely as the expression on her face. “It means thank you, where I come from,” she tells me as she squeezes my hand goodbye.


A Village of Other Mothers

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If Byrne had been a psychotherapist in the 1980s she might have been accused of re-parenting me. If I’d met her when I was still competing she’d have been called some sort of life coach. If she had been a journalist or writer she might have been labeled  a mentor. But none of these definitions describe the role she played in my life, or the role I believe many “Other Mothers” play in the emotional development of women.


I do not claim first dibs on the term othermothering. In the state where I now live it goes back to when slave mothers were sold off the plantation and other women took over the caregiving of the babies forced to stay behind. Anthropologists call these substitute mothers “Fictive Kin” and in her book “Black Women and Motherhood,” University of Maryland professor Patricia Hill Collins says “the tradition of othermothering constitutes a challenge to the notion that children are the private property of parents.”

It’s no coincidence that the pop-culture expression “it takes a village to raise a child” stems from African parenting traditions, according to philosophy professor emeritus from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Dr. Carl Hedman. “We only hear about the negative stereotypes in the black family but in this sense they’re way out ahead.”

He should know. While his wife was getting her master’s in nursing in the 70s, their family lived in a multi-racial commune. “ I don’t know why society is so locked into private attempts to be happy,” Hedman says. “Having other mothers to help raise our two sons was good for our marriage.”

Family Drawing 2012 copy

Even the way he pronounces commune, more like the what-you-do-with-Mother-Nature verb than the wacko-hippy connotation, confirms what he sees as the benefit of othermothering. The Hedmans stuck with group housing even after their own boys were grown. “It eased the empty nest syndrome. I could still be a father figure in everything from teaching little boys to ride bikes to helping one of them cope with the stress of getting through Yale.”

Perhaps the same forces were at work when Byrne Miller added me to her collection of daughters.

Me with several of my "sisters by Byrne"
Me with several of my “sisters by Byrne”

The Case for Crowdsourcing Motherhood

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The benefits of othermothering aren’t limited to older women like Byrne Miller, or to women whose children are all grown. I believe it can be a release valve for women without children too – call it my case for crowdsourcing motherhood.

Here’s how I got to this idea: I’m astonished by the social media frenzy around women freezing their eggs to give Mr. Right more time to show up, or those who choose single motherhood over co-parenting – not because I’m some Betty Crocker throwback but because I’m awed by the guts it takes to be a mother of any stripe these days. Let me “out” myself  – I’m a happily married writer and filmmaker without children. Can you blame me? Just think about the range of the modern stereotypes pre-judging almost every style of mothering.


If you’re an ambitious “Tiger Mom,” then you might as well wear a scarlet letter “A” for child abuser. If you’re a hippy BFF mom then clearly you’re too needy to form adult friendships.



If you’re a helicoptering, Baby Boomer mom then everyone knows your kids will fail to launch and will eat up your data plan photographing themselves instead of getting jobs. And speaking of jobs, let’s not forget you working moms – from “Lean In” corporate climbers to single moms for whom “stay at home” means sick days without pay. According to recent studies at least 50% of your neighbors think your kids are “disadvantaged” thanks to your non-traditional tendencies.


Other mothers are held to a much more humane standard. We get no flack about our age or biological clock. Nobody expects us to consider it a full-time job. We don’t pay college tuition. And we are privy to secrets no-one would dream of telling their mom.

I’m sure that some people will interpret my decision to opt-out of full-time motherhood as selfish at best, or at worst question whether I’m really a woman. But my experience on the receiving end of othermothering gives me confidence that I have a way to pay it forward. More than just coveting my role as best-aunt-in-the-universe, I love that my younger sister relies on me to be an “Other Mother” to her three children and that one of my best friends welcomes my commitment to her non-verbal daughter. I am fine-tuning my emotional radar to young women I sense need impartial support and nurturing. Someday I will be a Byrne for one of them.

birthday in Chihuahua