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Becoming visible – Oxfam’s partnership with the Moomins

Posted by Nikki van der Gaag Director of Gender Justice and Women’s Rights at Oxfam

26th Oct 2017

"You all know, don't you, that if people are frightened very often, they sometimes become invisible."

Ninny is the central character in The Invisible Child, a story written and illustrated by Finnish author Tove Jansson as part of the Moomins series, and now published separately for the first time as part of a partnership with Oxfam.

The Moomins are a fictional family who epitomise the values of respect, equality and love of nature. When Ninny, the invisible child, first comes to the Moomin house she is invisible but for the bell around her neck.  As an abused child, she knows all about fear. It has, quite literally, made her invisible.

Tove Jansson too must have known all about fear and what it can do to women and girls. Born in Finland in 1914, she was a woman ahead of her time. As well as being the Moomins' creator, she wrote adult fiction, and was an accomplished artist and trail-blazer for women's rights and social justice. She opposed the second world war, drew satirical cartoons mocking Hitler and lived with a woman at a time when homosexuality was illegal.

But Tove was also someone who was not prepared to be silenced. "I'm not sure Tove ever used the word 'feminist', but she was one in every sense of the word," says Sophia Jansson, Tove's niece and Creative Director of the Moomin Characters company. "She challenged a lot of the assumptions that were still held by society about how women should live at the time - for example, that they should stay at home and dedicate themselves to bringing up children. She was all about daring to make choices that are not necessarily easy."

This was why the Oxfam partnership with the Moomins seemed like such a perfect fit.

In its 75-year history, celebrated this year, Oxfam has worked with millions of women around the world to ensure that their voices are heard. Because if women are afraid to speak out, they cannot participate equally in society, become leaders in their communities, or fulfil their dreams. Like Ninny, fear makes them invisible.

Earlier this year I was visiting some of Oxfam's women's projects in Morocco. We are working with women strawberry pickers, who have had poor working conditions and often suffer from sexual harassment.  Laws are in place that should protect them, but the women did not know their rights and many did not feel able to speak out.

Oxfam supported local organisations to work with the women to build skills and confidence and ensure that they knew their rights - and worked with their employers so that they could exercise them without being afraid of the consequences.  Like Ninny in The Invisible Child, the women told me that the first step was to find their own voice.

"It used to be true that we would not speak out. We would never have spoken to someone like you before. Now if we are insulted we will defend ourselves. Even our bosses know about women's rights,' said Sara, who told me that she is now running for the local council.

Or take the Raising Her Voice programme, which worked with more than a million marginalised women in 17 countries to ensure that women's voices influenced decisions about services, investments, policies and legal frameworks, from community, through to national and regional levels.

Together, 45 local partners, 141 community activist groups, and over 1,005 coalition members contributed to ten new laws to prevent and protect against gender-based violence, and supported the passing of nine laws to promote a wider spectrum of women's rights globally. This included new domestic and sexual violence legislation in Uganda, Nigeria, Mozambique and Pakistan, and a law aimed at preventing political violence against women candidates and voters in Bolivia.

'The Community Discussion Class gave me the vision and confidence and developed my capacity which has enabled me to earn the respect and trust of the society. This (is) something which no wealth can buy,' said one Community Discussion Class member in Nepal.

Becoming invisible is not just something that happens to women and girls in the poorer countries of the world. Oxfam is also working with marginalised women in the UK to offer support and skills development through a six-month supported volunteer placement in an Oxfam shop as a pathway to employment. I met some of the women in Manchester a couple of months ago, and once again, like Ninny, the theme of voice and confidence was there throughout:

'I have learned to dream again. It is very important to be able to dream.' said Marzia, who was a court judge in Afghanistan.

It seems so fitting that these women - and many others like them - will be supported through a fund from Tove Jansson's work. Tove "wasn't willing to compromise on her beliefs," says her niece. "Her work says: 'This is me. This is who I am. Take it or leave it.'"

Like Tove, the women that we work with are now able to stand up and speak out for what they believe in - and in doing so to change the world.

Blog post written by Nikki van der Gaag

Director of Gender Justice and Women’s Rights at Oxfam

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