22 February 2012

GLADI SL: Part 1

Eleanor Roosevelt once said that “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” A woman who was a champion for human rights and worked towards making women equals among men. These words of wisdom are often hard to remember especially for those girls out in the world without a voice. Most of us had countless women before us as our teachers, role models, mentors and influencers but I asked myself who do my girls have? What women have came before them to say that it’s ok for a girl to lead the boys, or to say no to sex or to work for the betterment of the female situation in Salone…well the question is many. My principal, Mrs. Shereef leads Harford School with an iron fist and doesn’t take slack from many men in the community, a fellow teacher Koma Hassan Kamara, who is transforming girl’s rights policies in the Moyamba District and even all of us female PCVs. But unlike our teachers who graced the spotlight, Salone’s females silently do the hard work, without little notice. It was high time, that girls from all over county begin to “lead” and “develop” Sierra Leone.

The first annual “Girls Leading and Developing Sierra Leone” (GLADI SL) Girls Conference officially opened in a music filled hall of the girl-centered Harford School for Girls. My Principal addressed the 65 girls encouraging them to continue to their education and to work hard to share the conference’s message to others in their school. After the African jams were quieted, the real work began.

Girls Conference was like a summer camp. They were woken up by a bell, slept all together in the boarding home and mentored by their camp counsellors (PCV) started Goal Setting was first on the agenda and it started with a catchy jingle lead by a fun, energetic Sierra Leonean. The girls were taught about the importance of having a goal and each one had to set a short term and long term goal. Then discuss with their PCV on how they wanted to achieve these goals.

It was important to address what challenges the girls face in getting an education and to help them think of ideas to revolutionize these challenges. We asked the girls how they thought that their communities could increase people’s awareness of the importance of girls’ education. Here were some suggestions. Students could organize discussions or theatre presentations about the importance of girls' education. Students, village elders, and teachers could discuss the importance of delaying marriage until a girl has finished her education, to encourage parents not to overburden girls with chores and to divide chores evenly between sons and daughters, have older girls could arrange a time to visit a primary school, and primary school girls could visit a middle or high school and girls could write letters to local newspapers or radio stations to talk about the importance of girls' education

 Sex, the reproductive system, women/male sexual anatomy and menstruation can be topics which are taboo to talk about here in Sierra Leone, especially while in school with boys.  With the professional guidance of a few highly expert Sierra Leonean Nurses and Midwives as well PCVs, the girls were taught what happens biologically in sex, when women conceive, the process of menstruation and what happens in childbirth. Coupled with this sex talk, was a discussion on family planning. Many girls don’t understand their options in contraceptives or how they even work.  This session brought on lots of chatter between the girls and questions in general about sexy women things.

 Like Eleanor Roosevelt, Oprah, your first grader teacher, your Mom, we all had mentors to admire, inspire and lead us. It was important for the girls to notice that they too have great female leaders around them and most are right in front of their eyes. We invited a variety of woman from different career paths to come share their life experiences on a Career Panel. Wanted to make sure each Career Panellist focus on their education and it’s challenges and how they overcame those challenges. Who were their role models and how their career has contributed to Sierra Leonean society. Each leading lady also gave the girls advice and took questions from the girls conferencers.

Restless Development is an NGO focused on training youth as community mentors to educate and raise awareness for HIV/AIDS. The group is best known for their songs and dramas all produced by the trained children. It was important for the girls conferencers to see their own peers getting up in front of a crowd and talking about these issues. Osman, the Moyamba District coordinator, talked extensively about how the disease is transmitted. He said it was like a business and trade. You give and you get. Each girl was given an envelope and had to trade with each other aka perform transmission. Some envelopes were HIV positive and others had condoms. But they didn’t know who had which while one girl didn’t do business with anyone representing abstinence. At the end of their ‘trading’ some opened their envelopes only to find AIDS. The girls need to get a visual on how fast the disease is spread. After the activity, the discussion moved to prevention.

Any Dispatch reader with little kids or those who are Disney enthusiasts (like myself) know the story of Mulan. Daughter of retired Chinese warrior takes her father’s place in the army to beat the Huns and find family honour.  She ends up saving China. It’s a story about girl power and shows that girls are capable of anything boys can do. As Mulan beat the Hun leader the hall was filled with cheers from the girls. They enjoyed the story and the music; singing the songs throughout the next day.
Group work discussing Gender Equality

Learning how to properly use condoms

GLADI SL: Part 2

Do you know what the symptoms of Syphilis are? What should you do if you have Syphilis? How do you get Syphilis? Those were just some of the questions the girls were asked the morning of GLADI SL Day Two. We started out with an intensive talk about sexual transmitted disease, including symptoms, how they are treated and how they are transmitted. My colleagues played some fun games with the symptoms getting the girls moving around the room.

After the game and getting them sweating a bit, it was time for a rest and a small mid morning snack of bananas. However, they were not to eat. Proper condom is a preventive, realistic way to stay clean from all the STIs they girls had just learned about. But it won’t work unless you know how to use it. Each girl was armed with a banana, a condom and a detailed demonstration on how to proper use that condom. This of course bought on lots of giggles but in they end every girl wanted to show their PCV teacher that they did it.

As head of “logistics” I was running around in the back ground of Girls Conference making sure that everything ran smoothly. Day two I wanted to make sure to sit down with my girls after many of the sessions. Before I could get them all rounded up after the STI/Condom session one of my girls came running up through the crowd. “Miss Allison, I never knew how condoms work or how to put one on before, it used to scare me,” said 14 year old Mahawa Bamakpa. I knew then that some change was happening.

In Sierra Leone, they always talk about “50/50”, men and women as equals. Most of the girls are aware of what gender equality is but do they understand why it is important or in what ways they can work towards gender equality. They didn’t know women do about 66% of the world's work in return for less than 5% of its income or that by educating a girl one year beyond the national average boosts her earning power 10-20 percent. They were broken up into groups and given scenarios of gender inequality. Each group worked through the scenarios doing a brainstorming on how to make the scenario equal.

After GLADI SL, the girls are supposed to bring its message back to their friends, family, schools and communities. As the end of the educational sessions, the girls had to sit down together and think of creative ways on how they are going to tell their communities what was learned at Girls Conference. Harford Girls decided that the best way to reach the most people is to utilize the radio. My girls are currently producing “Girls Conference Radio” to spread the message alongside multiple presentations at morning assembly to the rest of the student body. GLADI SL was closed with the giving of certificates accrediting the participants as peer mentors, t-shirts, the sounds of Shady Baby and lots of dancing.

Girls Conference was a monumental experience for me and it’s hard to express the joy it was to work on such an undertaking with my PCV colleagues. Change became tangible; I witnessed it with my own eyes. Mahawa said when I asked her about what change does she want to make, she replied, “I will finish my education before having sex to prevent getting pregnant.”  These girls were transformed and I can only hope they continue to educate others and spread the message. Girls can lead and develop Sierra Leone, educating girls and empowering communities.

I want to personally thank all of those you who supported the success of GLADI SL in anyway whether monetary, verbal words of encouragement or by spiritual vigilance…Thank you!

I want to dedicate the success and experience of GLADI SL to my Grandma Norma and all those strong women in my life who first taught me even as a girl you can still break barriers, blaze a trail forward and do anything that the boys can do.  -Alli

Restless Development's Coordinator, Osman, teaches the Conferencers about HIV/AIDS Transmission
Session on Sexually Transmitted Infections