Monday, May 3, 2010

A Week of Girl Power! 2010 REDES Conference

Being on call as a chaperone, big sister, teacher for 40 + Mozambican teenage girls for a week straight is no easy task let me tell you! But last week was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. REDES (Young Women in Education, Deveopment and Health) is a Mozambican girls’ organization started by a Peace Corps volunteer. My neighbor, Dona Adelia, joined me at this year's REDES conference. I also brought two girls from the agricultural school, Fernanda (21 years old) and Leocadia (16 years old), to represent our group.

The conference took place in Xai-Xai at a hotel on the beach, but there was little time for sunbathing. The week was jam-packed. Even by fast-paced American standards it was intense and our Mozambican counterparts complained that they didn’t have enough time to digest their meals. Some of the girls who attended have never been away from their families before, have never slept in a hotel, and have barely left their village… I can only imagine how intense this week was for them. Hopefully it opened their eyes and gave them new opportunities and hope for their futures.

Each day had a theme:
our healthy lives
women’s rights
your future and education

On Tuesday, for example, the girls learned about HIV/AIDS biology, transmission and prevention. We had an outside agency come to the hotel to offer HIV testing and counseling. It was also a day for general sex education. There were accurate diagrams of sex organs, condom demonstrations, the works! The girls made bead bracelets representing their menstrual cycle. They talked about pregnancy and family planning. There was also a nurse who came in to answer all their questions. Even though many of them receive sex-ed in schools, it’s often superficial and sometimes inaccurate information. For some, this was the first time they had a safe, girls-only environment where they could ask tough questions about sex. Ages ranged from 12 to 27 so there was a wide range of experiences. Some weren’t even clear on the details of vaginal intercourse. Others had already had many sexual partners or even suffered abortions.

Guest speakers came throughout the week to talk about their personal experiences as Mozambican women, how they overcame adversity, became educated and assumed leadership positions. The girls read a translation of the poem “My Short Skirt” from the Vagina Monologues and talked about women’s rights. We discussed gender-based violence in its many forms (beating, sexual abuse, emotional abuse). This last discussion brought out personal accounts by some girls that brought me to tears later in my hotel room.

Sexual abuse is frighteningly common in Mozambique. In small groups we discussed the particular issue of teachers having sex with their female students in exchange for passing grades. It’s considered common practice in too many schools. When word gets out the school administration usually just transfers the teacher somewhere else where he will continue to abuse his students. In general there is no justice when Mozambican women suffer sexual assault. Accordingly, their families sometimes take justice into their own hands.

With so much heavy information to absorb, it was important to break things up with a little levity. There was much singing, dancing, clapping and laughing to be had throughout the conference. Music was a fun way for the girls to express themselves on serious issues. Each day a group of girls would write and perform a song related to that day’s theme. We even had some particularly talented individuals get up in front of everyone and sing songs they had written themselves. And dancing… well, Mozambicans LOVE to dance! Any chance they had to break-it-down the girls were all over it, the teachers too!

Each afternoon, I led break-out sessions on public speaking. I have already seen what a challenge this is for my female students. In English class I normally ask for half boys and half girls when calling students to the front. The boys jump up immediately but it’s pulling teeth to get the girls to volunteer. Of course the boys like to tell me it’s because the girls are lazy and stupid, at which point I remind them that their teacher is a girl and they’d better watch their tongues! When I finally get the girls up they put a notebook in front of their face or cover their mouth with their hand. It doesn’t help that the boys vocally criticize them when they make mistakes. “See teacher? Girls don’t know anything!”

With these experiences in mind, I tried to create an environment of encouragement and positivity. We started with some warm-up activities then we brainstormed good public speaking skills. To practice we did the “60 Second Hall of Fame” where each girl took a try at standing in front of everyone and talking for 60 seconds without stopping. Those who succeeded got certificates. If they didn’t succeed they could try again at any time throughout the week.

The last day of the conference I was eating dinner when I got tapped on the shoulder. A group of girls was standing behind my chair and said “teacher, we would like to hit you.” Startled, I asked them why. “Well, you didn’t give us certificates!” I said they could have another try at the Hall of Fame after dinner, but then I was caught up in some planning meetings. Much later, around 10 pm, I got a knock on my hotel room door. Three girls came in and said they were ready to try again. We went down to the dining room, me in my bare feet, and all three of them did the whole 60 seconds no problem. They were so excited they grabbed my hands and jumped up and down for joy.

Saturday breakfast was bittersweet. I looked around at the 40-50 girls and could name two thirds of them. Some of them had shared personal stories that I will never forget. Some of them had made huge accomplishments during the week. There was much hugging and kissing and goodbyes. Later that night I got text messages from friends I had made, some of the teachers or the older students, asking if I got home safe, saying they missed me.

I learned a lot that week, but most of all I learned that making a difference isn’t about numbers and statistics. When you hear about the numbers of women affected by HIV/AIDS… you say “oh, that’s terrible.” But when you have a friend who confides in you when she discovers her HIV status, suddenly there is a face to all those numbers. It hits you that each of those women is someone’s daughter, wife, sister, mother, friend...

And those other numbers, the ones NGO’s report to show their “success” rates to donor organizations. The number of people they have “educated.” That doesn’t mean shit. You can hand out 100,000 pamphlets and not help a single person. What matters are the individuals. If I helped even just one girl find her voice, if just one girl can find a brighter future because of this conference, then it was all worth it. However, I think that not one of us who attended walked away unchanged and none of us will ever forget that week.

1 comment:

  1. Of all the entries I have read so far, this is by far the most moving for me. These girls are so lucky to have you there (as well as all the other volunteers) to help with such things as having the self-confidence to speak in public. What an amazing program.

    I can also tell this experience really touched a nerve with you as well...hell it takes a lot to get Clancy to swear in frusteration :)

    Keep it up babe, you are doing amazing things.