Thursday, October 6, 2011

women's empowerment!

ah, the Michele Sylvester Scholarship Girl's Camp. i thought it was a huge success, granted it took every mental and physical fiber in my body, as well as all the other volunteers to pull it off. by the end, i was too tired to even want to speak any more wolof but that is a good thing i suppose. 

a little back ground of what is michele sylvester scholarship. peace corps has this annual scholarship program  for junior high school girls that are studious and excellent students, but may come from relatively unstable financial backgrounds. their home village could be way far into the bush and their parents are sending them to study in the larger towns but maybe the girls might not be able to continue next year. so the scholarship helps pay for their annual school registration fees. and three big winners from each school get additional money for school supplies and such. it's really encouragement and showing the community that they should care about their daughters more too.

as is our linguere region tradition, we usually have a days worth of activities in addition to the scholarship ceremony. activities cover a broad range of topics and this year, we went far and beyond and pulled off a two day girl's camp. 5 junior high schools participated in the scholarship program, which meant we worked with 45 students, 9 from each school. so what did we do?

as part of an introduction to get the girls out of their shells, we started with an arts and crafts activity. school curriculum here never has anything arts related. students cannot express their creativity or individuality in classes so here was an opportunity to have fun and do something not typical. 

the girls made small, decorated flower pots that we put manured soil in as well as a flower seed. they drew pictures and used stickers and glued different strings and fabrics together.

next we had a session about career planning and why girls should worry about their futures. they can escape the early marriages. they can escape the life of a housewife. anything is possible, so long as they work hard. we showed them a french film about women with different jobs and what their advice for young girls are. we also invited Awa, a Peace Corps gender development worker who specifically works with adolescent girls. she spoke of her work and her opportunities and planted wonderful ideas and dreams into their heads.

we also invited a panel of local working women to answer any questions that the girls had. on the panel there was a teacher, a doctor, a government official who specializes in women's group financing, as well as a university student who is a pharmacist-in-training. the women were all inspirational and they even thanked us in the end for giving them the opportunity to reach out to youths. there is such a lack of knowledge when it comes to careers. girls dont know what is available out there and they definitely dont know what they need to do to achieve something and go somewhere.

in the afternoon, we focused on sexual health. maybe the culture wants to turn a blind eye to teenage sexual activity but it's out there and the chances of sexually transmitted diseases are high, especially due to lack of knowledge. Awa talked to the girls about feminine hygiene as well as sexual activity and teenage pregnancies. we cant solely rely on the men to provide protection. women must take their own bodies in their own hands. Awa talked to the girls about prevention and protecting their bodies - condoms to stop STDs, especially HIV. 

we then showed them a series of clips in the local language about abstinence and condoms and the realities of HIV/AIDS. the skits even covered peer pressure and getting tested. our copy of scenarios from africa is probably our greatest asset in terms of HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention.

at night, we showed bend it like beckham in french. a great film showing the breaking down of gender roles, the realities of women's empowerment and its effects on family, and women in sports. the girls actually did love it.

then on the second day, the parents are invited, mainly for the awards ceremony, but also for the parent sessions that we had planned. the first session involved open communication between mother/father and daughter. parents are unaware that their daughters of minds of their own, their own opinions and ideas, their aspirations, their dreams. Awa made it very clear that these girls are great girls who have great potential and parents need to talk to their kids, get to know them beyond "go clean this, go cook this, go take care of your brother." daughters should be able to say "so there's this boy..."

our last session involves Awa taking the parents aside and talking to them specifically. the group discussions covered extremely sensitive topics such as rape, incest, pedophilia, and female genital mutilation but they were extremely receptive. as much as the blind eye is turned, people are aware that these things do happen, and sometimes quite often. if nothing is changed immediately, at least this session gets people to start talking about it. to start becoming more aware. it shouldnt be taboo. and maybe one day, things can be changed. and bad things can be stopped.

while the adults were in their discussions, we took the girls aside and gave them prompts to act out. in some ways, it was our greatest achievement. girls that were extremely shy in the begin were outspoken and acted with a passion. the skits showed us all that the girls have learned, how they would address peer pressure in the future, how they now have a new social network with girls that can support each other, how they will deal with situations such as early marriages and job opportunities taken away from them, how they will deal with sexual advances and protect themselves. i am beyond proud of the girls and i really think we've accomplished something and have left a lasting impression on these young, eager minds.

(the only photo i have of our cooking crew. they worked hard, even though they saved a bunch of food for themselves, when they shouldnt have. cooking for over 100 people is quite a tiring task...)

in the afternoon, we finally concluded with the michele sylvester scholarship ceremony. it's not a lot of money that we're giving them. but it's an incentive. it's encouragement. it's proof to the parents that their daughters are excellent and deserve better.

and i will end with the scholarship girls that i personally worked with at the junior high school of Mbeuleukhe. 

women's empowerment... yeah

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