Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Young Girls in Action - Lifting my Spirits

I have written far less blog entries in year two; one reason is recently I’ve been in a slump and not felt much like writing. Homesickness is setting in after 2 years of living so far from my family. I also had the privilege of having so many visitors from the States this year, and as soon as they all left in early August, my roommate Abby has also had to move from our home for work-related reasons. That meant a harsh readjustment from having constant company to being very isolated. Compounded with that, I got sick and had an overall bad week during all the strikes and rioting that recently took place in Mozambique. I was feeling really ready to go home, getting frustrated easily and just struggling to keep a positive attitude!
Luckily, last weekend we had a girls’ empowerment conference for my main secondary project called REDES (Raparigas em Desenvolvimento, Educação e Saúde – Girls Developing in Education and Health), and it was just what I needed to drag me out of my slump and get me in a better, more positive mindset to finish out the rest of my service!

I have written about the REDES Project before, but I’ll include a quick recap of our mission and vision statements before writing about how the conference was my saving grace.

Mission Statement

Our mission is to empower young Mozambican women through gender-awareness and skills-based activities, giving them the knowledge to make healthy decisions and build successful futures, thus reducing their vulnerability to HIV and AIDS.

Vision Statement

We envision a future in which young Mozambican women are equipped with the skills and self-confidence needed to make their own decisions about what is important to their lives and futures. We envision REDES as a national movement linking young women throughout the country and encouraging them to work together to advocate for women’s rights, learn about women’s health, and become leaders in their communities. We hope to someday soon see young women become their own best and strongest advocates.

September Gaza Provincial REDES Conference

To achieve our mission and work toward our vision, Peace Corps Volunteers and Mozambican professors and exemplary women are working together to form REDES groups in primary and secondary schools for girls between 12 and 23 years old. These REDES groups meet throughout the school year doing a variety of educational and fun activities, giving the girls a safe space to learn. Additionally, twice a year representatives from each group are selected to participate in regional and provincial conferences. I have had the honor of participating in three such conferences and they have been some of the most inspiring and most hopeful days in my whole service. And the latest provincial conference could not have come at a better time to lift my down spirits.

At the provincial conference in Gaza, we had 55 participants and our theme was “Analyzing the Roles of Women in Society.” One of the areas the REDES Project has been focusing on is to allow the Mozambican professors to take more leadership in the project, and have the Peace Corps Volunteers take more of a back seat. I had the opportunity to work with the professors from my town before the conference so that they were equipped to lead all the HIV-related sessions and activities without my help. I was so proud watching them stand in front of the girls explaining the risky behaviors associated with HIV, and helping the girls distinguish the myths from the facts. You could also tell how proud they were of themselves, and how happy they were to be making a positive difference in the lives of the young Mozambican girls.

Another highlight from the conference was watching the young girls present what they learned and practice public speaking. Often in classes, it is difficult to get the young girls to speak up and share their opinions. Many of my PCV friends have shared their frustration that when calling on a girl in the classroom, she will refuse to answer or just giggle and put her head down, even when she knows the correct response. I think one reason is because this culture places more value on the opinions and education of males, although it is beginning to change. I often see males speaking for females, and rarely hear females challenging males or strongly asserting their opinions. But the REDES Conferences provide an all-girl setting that gives the young women a chance to speak their minds and gain self-confidence, hopefully giving them courage to speak up more in their schools and communities after they leave even in mixed company.

Before the public speaking presentations, we broke the girls into four small groups giving them each the chance to discuss different roles of women in society. The youngest group discussed girls and education because it is still common to see girls drop out early to get married to older men and have babies, especially in the rural areas when their parents sometimes give them no choice. We also talked about how many of the schools have many more male teachers, and how sometimes the female teachers face discrimination. The girls are challenged to form an opinion and a plan of action on what they can do to rectify these injustices. The next group talked about girls and sports focusing on an interesting article about a group of Afghani girls who gained self-confidence and new dominion over their bodies through participating in a soccer league. Before the Afghani girls only used their arms to clean the floors and cart water, which is very similar to young women in Mozambique. When the boys saw them playing soccer, it changed their perceptions of the role of girls and helped them see girls more as their equals. The young Mozambican girls talked about how this article parallels their lives’ in many ways, and how sports can be used to empower young women. The third group spoke about women in the business world, debating if women should start businesses and why it is important to have a business skill to be able to support yourself. Too often, women turn to transactional sex or stay in abusive relationships in Mozambique because they have no means to support themselves financially. The oldest group talked about domestic violence and came up with a definition and what women should do about it. It happens very frequently here, especially because there is such inequality between the genders, and all too commonly people turn a blind eye or stay quiet, so the vicious cycle continues. The girls talked about how this is dangerous, how women (and the community) need to stand together in solidarity to denounce it, and provided information on where to go to get help.

Once the girls started presenting and speaking, the flood gates opened and we could not get them to stop! The following activity was for them to create posters with HIV messages to take back to their communities, and so we asked for a few volunteers to come forward and share. It was crazy because they all lined up with big smiles on their faces, and started sharing one right after the other when usually it is like pulling teeth to get them to open up in big crowds!

In the afternoon, we had a special treat because an exemplary Mozambican author who has challenged what the role of women should be in society was our guest speaker. We had the privilege of hearing from Paulina Chiziane, the first Mozambican woman to publish a novel. She is a 55 year-old-lady who was born in Gaza Province and her words were powerful. She has written books on topics such as polygamy, the practices of traditional healers, and her experience of living through the war for independence and the subsequent civil war (she spoke of writing one of her books holed up in her house as bombs exploded all around her, not knowing if she would live to see it published). Paulina’s story resonated with the young women because she was born in the same province as them and spoke of how she learned to write on a dirt floor using a stick as a pen because there were no proper writing utensils at her school. Only later did Paulina learn to write using a pen and notebook, something that she pointed out only totaled about one dollar in cost. Paulina pointed to her appearance; as a youngster, she did not like to spend her money on fancy clothes and hairstyles, preferring to spend them on books – something she sticks to her guns about today. I thought this was a particularly good point because many of the girls choose to spend their money on weave to make their hair long and stylish and fashionable, tight clothes to attract men (same as in the States). Paulina told them she chose reading over vanity, and it was one of the best decisions she ever made. Another interesting thing she shared was that she first wanted to be a painter, but did not have money to buy the materials so decided to instead express her thoughts through writing. Not only that, but after writing, many people discouraged her from publishing saying she could be in danger if the government or people did not like what she had to say. Her dad was not supportive of her decision to publicize at first, but Paulina is a strong woman and felt it had to be done. She drew strength internally and started publishing, and eventually gained the support of her father and many others. Being the talented writer that she is, she has become a famous author and her books are translated into many languages including English, Spanish, French, and Chinese. Paulina’s address captivated the girls as she shared these importance lessons telling the girls to speak up, think independently, read, and value education. You could tell that Paulina really made an impression on them, and I think many of them took her message to heart and will try to follow suit because the potential is there.

In the evening, we had each back home group perform in our FAMA REDES Show, giving them the opportunity to present a song, dance, or theater piece that they can share with their communities. The show started out with dancing, one thing that Mozambicans are not shy about, which was a lot of fun. Other groups created songs with messages encouraging people to get HIV tested. I think the most impressive though were the theatre presentations on domestic violence, unplanned pregnancy, and HIV. My friend Emily brought a group of girls who often do theater, and she was shocked at how well they performed during FAMA REDES because although they acted boldly and fearlessly in the environment we had created, she said they often clam up or they are overshadowed when they act in mixed company. This conference served as a learning opportunity for these girls because it gives them an opportunity to shine and see what they are capable of; I think they frequently leave happily surprised by discovering hidden gifts. Emily followed up with the girls encouraging them to continue with their gained self-confidence once back in their communities in mixed company. My group did a theater piece on unplanned pregnancy and I think all our mouths hung open when a young girl named Anatercia, a 17-year-old, ended up being the funniest one in the whole play. My group was asking her beforehand if she was going to actually talk during the theater piece because although there was a general plot, the lines were improvised. Anatercia is generally shy and unsure of herself, but as soon as they started acting she had everyone howling with laughter and we could not get her to stop talking. It really is an amazing transformation to watch, and leaves you with the best feeling.

To round it off the next day, we concluded with a game of writing compliments on the papers we had taped onto everyone’s backs. Again, we asked for volunteers to read some of the adjectives people had used to describe them and we had so many beaming girls. I heard exclamations of “Wow, she thinks I’m intelligent,” or “she thinks I really am capable of achieving my dreams,” or “she says I’m a good singer.” It was so nice to see them building one another up, and all the girls left smiling and eager to go home and share what they had learned during our conference. I left feeling rejuvenated and lucky that I was able to participate in such a special project. Not only do the girls get to travel and see different parts of their country, meet other girls, sometimes take a shower and eat with a knife and fork for the first time, but they learn so much and gain self-confidence. The conference participants and organizers both benefit from this awesome project geared at helping create brighter futures and women leaders in our world!