Gaborone, Botswana — This week, I joined thousands of activists, campaigners, thought-leaders, and change-makers in New York to advocate for women's rights and promote gender equality during the 63rd session of the UN's Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).
While many of the conversations will push for policies and programs at the global level, we must not lose sight that the work of dismantling patriarchy and gender inequality must also begin within our families and communities.
I was raised in a small village in Botswana called Palapye. Like many Batswana children, I was raised by my grandmother alongside 3 of my boy uncles and cousin. I was the only girl child in this houseful of boys.
I did everything with these boys. I played soccer on the streets with them. I climbed trees with them. I would fall and bruise my knees with them. I was carefree and naive. I never consciously saw myself as different from them. Until one fateful Saturday morning.
I was 8 years old. My grandparents had left for another village and wouldn't be returning until a day later. In their absence, we did what most children do with newfound freedom. We ate what we wanted including the rice and meat that was reserved for Sundays. We let a heap of dishes pile up in the sink.
As the day went on, the place became a mess. We didn't bother with any broom or mop. How could we? We were glued to the TV-watching whatever channel we desired. There was no adult policing us to say, "But that is for adults! Watch cartoons instead!"
When my grandparents came back the next day, my grandmother (May she rest in power), nearly had a heart attack at the sight of the messy state of her house. "Le thakathanktse ntu yame jaana, naare la tsenwa?" she exclaimed in Setswana. "Why have you messed up my house like this? Are you all crazy?"
Our eyes darted about with no proper explanation. My grandmother continued, "Lorato! Ke a go botsa!" Lorato, I am asking you! I paused. Why was I being singled out to answer this question?
So, with my notorious loud mouth I asked, "Why me when they all created this mess?" "Because you are the girl," she responded.
I protested of course. The person who should be responsible for this is my older 15-year-old uncle, since in my 8-year-old mind, older people had to be the responsible ones. My protest sort of worked. I didn't have clean the dishes. But my uncles did NOT clean up either.
It was my grandmother who did what she did every day-all the chores.
This moment was my first introduction to gender roles. It was my first memory where I came to realize that girls and women must physically labor in their households. I realized that my beloved grandmother labored daily for us not because she was older, but because she was the only woman in the house.
And here I was, at age 8, being recruited and positioned for that same role.
Since then, I became more aware and conscious of the many inequalities in my world that were rooted in gender differences. In the classroom, for example, I noticed how as girls we had to act "more appropriately." We had to tone our voices down and not go galaotega - to not speak on loudspeaker.
I noticed how when puberty hit, our developing breasts were a source of embarrassment. Our periods had to be talked about in hushed voices. We had to hide our sanitary pads. Our legs. Our legs had to be closed because respectful women close their legs.
Also, if you do not close your legs, men will see your thighs and they would want to see what is between your thighs. And no one will believe you because what business did you have, not covering your juicy, near ripe 15-year old thighs?
I noticed on National TV and newspapers and school books how there was little or no representation of women leaders in all kind of spaces in my country. I read history books about all the great leaders. Not a single mention of any African woman.
I witnessed inequality in everyday life: in education, in access to health services, in transport, in political power, and in the microcosm of family life. But it clicked and became more clearer when I was recruited to participate in research project during my 3rd year at University of Botswana.
During this project, we explored access to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) services for young girls like me. We explored how girls showed up in my world.
Ambitious but with a limit.
Aware of self, but not too self-aware so as to not scare men off.
We explored how the world showed up for girls like me: With violence and rage and policing.
We explored our reality. The prevalence of sexual violence and rape and all types of violence upon our bodies. Although gender-based violence is prevalent across the world, in Botswana, over 67 percent of women have experienced abuse--which is double the global average. Research shows that 40 women are raped each week in the country.
We explored the policies and laws that sought to either protect us, or further our plight in the patriarchal society. We explored all this and own existence and agency in the world.
I better understood how access to SRHR and agency over women's bodies are all linked to gender inequality. But it all began when I was 8. Access, or lack thereof, to SRHR services is linked to a need to police, dominate, and control women's bodies.
Until we don't dismantle patriarchy and gender inequality at the core within a family and community, we will not make progress at a societal, national, or global level.
In the words of Tapiwa Mugabe, "My ancestors live and breathe vicariously through me." Unlike my grandmother's generation, I have the space to speak up and speak out.
Being here today, I know she would be proud. Her defiant, rebellious granddaughter who at 8 refused to clean the house, stands before you today at 29 refusing to accept how the world shows up for women like me, for women like us.
*Lorato Modongo was born and raised in Botswana. She earned a Mandela Rhodes Scholarship to pursue a master's degree in Research Psychology. She is also a Women Deliver Young Leader from the Class of 2013.