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Documentary photographer Paola Gianturco showcases the activism of grandmothers worldwide
When Paola Gianturco was in Kenya talking to a group of women about their children, the women were not just mothers. They were grandmothers too. Gianturco came to understand that nearly all of these grandmas were raising their grandchildren as their own, after their own children had died of AIDS. She realized in this moment what an important role grandmothers play in holding together societies.
“The future of the continent rests in the hands of the grandmothers,” Gianturco said during a recent talk at Stanford. The global power of grandmothers is the focus of Gianturco’s new book of photojournalism.
Gianturco, who graduated from Stanford in 1961, has been working as photojournalist for nearly two decades. Her books include “Women Who Light the Dark,” “Celebrating Women,” and, most recently, “Grandmother Power: A Global Phenomenon,” which profiles 120 activist grandmothers in fifteen countries on five continents around the world.
The new book documents, in pages of stunning photography, the incredible work these grandmothers are doing to provide a better world for their grandchildren. The grandmothers of Kenya, raising their grandchildren as their own, are only the beginning of the story.
Providing a nurturing environment for their grandchildren is one important role but it’s just the start. With better health and higher levels of education available to women than ever before, these grandmothers suddenly have the ability to take on unprecedented roles in advocating for change and eliminating injustices worldwide. Their campaigns, many of which pull together hundreds or even thousands of grandmothers, include battles to support literacy, the environment, and human rights.
“It is an unheralded international grandmother movement,” Gianturco said. “By the time I got to the end of my project, they were my heroes.”
Over the course of her research for “Grandmother Power,” Gianturco met with groups of activist grandmothers around the globe. She encountered women working on diverse campaigns—from ending female genital cutting in Senegal to fighting child obesity in Ireland.
Grandmothers against child abuse
In Guatemala, a group of grandmothers are working to eliminate child abuse. These women serve as a resource and a contact point for people trying to report or deal with cases of child abuse.
“They have the time to listen to the stories of assault,” Giantuco said. “And they have the wisdom to provide the right kind of referrals.”
In Argentina, she encountered a group called the Storytelling Grandmothers. This organization included 2,000 volunteers who work to combat illiteracy by reading to students within the Argentinean school system. The group was so successful that the Argentine Ministry of Education instituted a nationwide program based on their model.
Solar energy grandmas
In another example, Gianturco recounted the story of a group of 200 grandmothers from rural villages in India who went to school to learn about solar energy. “They brought electricity to their dark villages and everything changed,” Gianturco said.
After achieving this tremendous accomplishment in their own villages, these grandmothers returned to school, this time to teach their newfound skills to other grandmothers hoping to create similar changes in their homes. Their project was so successful that the United Nations began sending grandmothers from different countries from all over the developing world to learn from them. In total, these grandmothers have now electrified 10,000 households in India and 35,000 around the world.
A ‘granny gaggle’ of raging grannies
Another group, the San Francisco Raging Grannies, had some representatives in the audience. They stood out by the large, flamboyant hats they wore, a standard look for the group. This group, or “granny gaggle,” writes songs and stages protests against political disaffection in the country—for, in the words of Gianturco, “a complacent public results in a flaccid democracy.”
‘Grandmother power’ — a powerful force
Gianturco believes that “grandmother power”—meaning the widespread organization of grandmothers into these activist groups, advocating for change—is a relatively new phenomenon. She had some ideas as to why this movement is happening now.
“There are more grandmothers than there have ever been in the history of the planet,” she said.
“Grandmothers decided to band together and do something.... It’s not just about changing the world, it’s about changing values and behaviors.”
With a world population that is able to live increasingly longer than ever before, Gianturco explained, there are now 40 to 42 million grandmothers in the US alone—healthier and better educated than every before, many with professional experience. It is no wonder, then, that they have become such a force for change.
“Everywhere I went, there was a sentiment that this troubled world of ours is not good for our grandchildren,” Gianturco said. “Grandmothers decided to band together and do something about that. It’s not just about changing the world, it’s about changing values and behaviors.”
Paola Gianturco, a grandmother herself, has documented women’s lives in 55 countries. Her work has been exhibited at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters; United Nations’ New York headquarters; Chicago’s Field Museum; San Francisco’s International Museum of Women; and many other venues.