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Mill Valley photojournalist Paola Gianturco documents activist grannies in new book

Marin Independent Journal (marinij.com), September 18, 2012. By Vicki Larson.

PAOLA GIANTURCO has been documenting women’s lives around the world for the past 16 years, but nothing quite prepared her for what she saw in Africa a few years ago.

Everywhere she went, there were children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic, but they were not alone — they were being cared for by their grandmothers.

As a relatively new grandmother at the time, Gianturco was deeply affected, not only by the women’s incredible losses but also by their unwavering dedication to raising their grandkids despite having so little themselves.

“I thought, you know the future of this continent is in the hands of the African grandmothers, literally,” she says.

That inspired Gianturco, 73, to see what grandmothers elsewhere were doing. As it turns out, they’re doing quite a lot. She documents the work of 120 grandmothers in 15 countries who are fighting against poverty, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation and human rights abuses in her just-released book, “Grandmother Power: A Global Phenomenon” (256 pages, powerHouse Books, $49.95).

And there are many, many more she couldn’t fit into the book.

“There are grandmother groups in 30 countries all working on completely different issues with a kind of energy and creativity and passion that really surprised me,” the Mill Valley photojournalist says. “And as far as I could tell, nobody was talking about this, nobody was writing about this looking at this trend all over the world.”

There are more grandmothers now than ever before, she says — 38 million in the United States alone — and many are healthier, more financially stable, better educated and a lot younger than grandmothers of years past. Two million children live with their grandmothers in the U.S., sometimes because of illness, immigration issues or incarceration. But many more grandmas are caring for their grandkids part or full time because so many parents need help, she explains.

“The influx of the boomers into grandmotherhood is having a huge impact,” says Gianturco, adding that many boomer grandmothers themselves are still in the workplace. And because of divorce and remarriage, many kids have multiple grandparents.

What all that has led to, she says, is yet another women’s movement.

“There is a new women’s movement under way that is not really yet on most people’s screens, the activist grandmothers movement. It goes beyond raising grandchildren,” says Gianturco, who will donate her royalties to the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign, which provides aid to African grandmothers raising their grandchildren.

While grandmothers in Africa are dealing with AIDS and grandmothers in India are learning about solar technology so they can light their villages, grandmothers in the U.S. often rally around political issues, like the Raging Grannies.

“Remember, the boomers’ roots are in the ’60s, so these are women who know they can change the world because they did. So many of the grandmother groups in the United States came from the peace movement,” she says.

Not to say that grandfathers aren’t doing their part, but Gianturco’s focus is on women. And, as she notes about grandpas, “sadly there are fewer of them since women live longer.”

While elders aren’t necessarily always respected in the U.S., they are in other parts of the world. Because of that respect, she says, Senegalese grandmothers were able to convince village chiefs and others to stop the deeply entrenched practice of genital mutilations in their country once they learned it was causing their own daughters to hemorrhage and die in childbirth.

Activist grandmothers are problem-solvers, she says. They have to be.

“Our world is so interconnected now and so troubled that grandmothers everywhere are just impelled to improve the world for their grandchildren to live in,” she says. “It’s simply not acceptable the way it is.”

Gianturco’s book is “wonderful,” says Zahra Mohamed, director of the SLF’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign.

“When she came into the SLF, she just loved the way we’re working with grandmothers; it really spoke to what she had seen in Africa,” Mohamed says. “It’s such an honor to work with someone like Paola. Paola being a grandmother herself really speaks to the women in the campaign.”

Now grandma to two granddaughters, 4 and 7, Gianturco is delighting in teaching them, inspired by the many grandmothers she’s met around the world.

“If you ask them now, they’d say I’ve taught them tea parties,” she says with a laugh. “But it certainly has reinforced my hope to help them understand how to become responsible citizens in the world they’re going to live in.”

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