“Why is she here, working with us boys? Shouldn’t she be somewhere else? How is she better than us?”
As a woman working in a male-dominant field, I can’t help but think of the moments when I felt insecure about myself or watched other people whisper directly behind my back. It becomes even more difficult when there is no other woman in the environment that I am working for who has similar goals as I do.
Fortunately, I found my role model when I was 14. Even though she did not have the same career aspirations as I did, her geeky personality and her infectious ambition resonated with me. Since then, I have shifted from worrying about what others think about me to making my dreams come true.
Finding a role model that suits you certainly takes some patience and effort. Yet, the benefits of finding one are huge: It helps you stay grounded in your dreams and maybe even feel a lot less lonely along the way.
I believe it is important for girls to find a role model as they strive to accomplish their dreams. In many cases, having a role model provides a greater sense of confidence and brings out the great potential that many girls are capable of achieving. Yet, given that there is a lack of great female role models, I believe we can be a role model for ourselves by not caring about what other people think of us and asking what will eventually make me happy.
What do you say, how do we get girls and women to serve as role models for themselves and for others?
Although Zambia developed the Anti-Gender Based Violence Act in 2011, Gender Based Violence (GBV) still persists at high rates today in Zambia, deeply entrenched in Zambian culture and norms. Out of the Southern African countries, Zambia ranks unfortunately high for GBV prevalence with 72% of women experiencing GBV in a lifetime and high associations between GBV and HIV positive status.
As a result, young girls living in Zambia face a myriad of challenges. Pressures from emerging womanhood, boys, and social media can force girls to experiment with their bodies and sexuality, though they may lack education and resources on safe and safer sex. Additionally, girls that come from poorer areas or families might not be able to negotiate or decline early childhood marriage. All of the unique pressures that girls face in their adolescence puts them at additional risk for HIV.
To address this, the Zambia Centre for Communication Programmes (ZCCP), in partnership with Peace Corps, is running Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) camps across Zambia to educate and empower female youth by teaching them about GBV and HIV/AIDS. I had the great privilege of attending the GLOW camp on the Copperbelt last week and enjoyed every second of it.
The girls were from grades 8-11 and came from schools across the Copperbelt along with teacher mentors from their schools. They were mature, bright students who entered the camp ready to build relationships, learn, and contribute.
Throughout the week, we played energizing activities, danced, had lessons on reproductive organs, learned about the different types of GBV, sewed chitenge pads (reusable menstruation pads made out of chitenge fabric and towel inserts), and more. I myself learned more than ever before about sexual reproductive health!
The camp quickly became a circle of sisterhood between the participants, mentors, and coordinators where each woman felt empowered and safe to share her story. I heard powerful stories of girls seeking education, overcoming gender norms in the household to find employment, and many shared their sentiments of wanting to spread empowerment and encouragement to Zambian girls everywhere.
Alas, the week was too short, and the camp came to an end. But the lessons we learned and the stories we shared will continue on. Girls from each school, along with their teacher mentors, will now create GLOW clubs in their schools for other girls and will teach the same sessions we had on GBV and HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, ZCCP will host these camps in provinces across Zambia – empowering girls everywhere.
Seventy-five grade seven girls from across Lesotho gathered at Help Lesotho’s Hlotse Centre for a week-long leadership camp last June. The girls took part in life skills trainings, which focused on preventing teenage pregnancy, rape and HIV/AIDS.
Help Lesotho staff facilitated sessions on the most critical issues facing young girls in Lesotho, such as rape, the lure of sugar daddies (rich older men who lavish gifts on a young woman in return for her company or sexual favours) and gender inequality.
After days of trainings, the girls demonstrated their new knowledge through self-written skits, poetry and songs. They showed the consequences of inappropriate sexual relationships (STIs, HIV and early pregnancy) while exuding confidence and a newfound sense of purpose to spread the lessons of gender equality to girls back home in their villages. A daily question and answer period provided a chance for the girls to ask pressing questions anonymously to seasoned Help Lesotho experts.
Spreading the Message
A 24-year-old HIV-positive mother was invited to share about her experience with gender-based violence, early pregnancy and living with HIV. The girls hung on her every word because of the rarity of her honesty in Basotho society.
Myths that foster gender inequity and the spread of HIV still flourish in rural Lesotho. Girls and women are disproportionately impacted by unhealthy stereotypes that often lead to severe consequences including sexual violence, abuse, and a severe lack of opportunities.
The girls bounced around Help Lesotho with their new friends, while wearing new drawstring backpacks, which read: BE BRAVE Sugar Daddies are baby makers ENOUGH with Teenage Pregnancy.
Based on GDP, Lesotho’s poverty level ranks number 149 out of 184 countries. Women are disproportionately affected by poverty, leading to lack of education, human trafficking, prostitution, and depression; 61 percent of women in Lesotho have experienced some form of sexual violence. Patriarchal values and norms create power imbalances and limit women’s rights; stereotyping of girls and women as ‘lesser’ leads to early marriage, lack of land rights and inability to be decision-makers and community leaders.
Establishing gender equity is essential to creating sustainable social change. Despite significant legislative changes promoting gender equity and the rights of women, cultural barriers and limited enforcement continue to limit the implementation of these changes at the family, peer and community levels.
Help Lesotho provides a safe, non-judgmental environment to question and openly discuss issues related to gender equity in an atmosphere of psychosocial support to foster understanding.
Ending the Epidemic
Near the end of the week, Help Lesotho provided HIV testing for the girls with the help of local organizations. The girls were encouraged to know their statuses. Many of the girls were nervous, but one by one they took their lives into their own hands and got tested.
A group of girls lingered hesitantly around the testing room. They said they were too scared to test. After a conversation about how it was their responsibility to keep themselves healthy and prevent future infections – a light switched on in each of their young minds.
Women in Lesotho are more vulnerable to contracting HIV—in the 15-24 age bracket, 1/4 of men and half of young women have HIV or AIDS.
HIV stigma is ever-present in Lesotho and those infected are often ashamed and keep it a secret, which continues the spread of HIV. Lesotho has the world’s second highest rate of HIV/AIDS. With an infection rate of nearly 24 percent, nearly a quarter of the population is infected, and everyone is affected.
We cheered as each brave camper entered and exited the testing room – it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen: girls empowered to take care of themselves in a society that does not encourage them to do so.
Help Lesotho is committed to preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS through education. We equip beneficiaries with the knowledge they need to stay HIV-negative or live a healthy HIV-positive life. Help Lesotho challenges program participants to understand the consequences of stigma and discrimination in their communities. By breaking down stereotypes, challenging unhealthy behaviours and dispelling myths which contribute to the spread of this disease, Help Lesotho’s programs are a long-term strategy in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Girls’ Camp ended with a candlelight vigil in honour of the victims of teenage pregnancy and rape in Lesotho. As each candle was lit, the girl-leaders’ spirits were lifted with hope for a new Lesotho free of sexual violence and gender inequality.
In the highly rewarding journey of asserting girls rights and empowering girls, everything counts. Thus, it is unacceptable that “Sport” is often overlooked in strategic frameworks and programmatic engagements, as a cross-cutting developmental platform for girls. Against the backdrop of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015 in Canada, there cannot be a better time to advocate for more girls to appear on the field in order to discover their potentials and enhance groundbreaking performance off the field.
Many individuals who participate in active sports, struggle to express the incredible feeling that envelopes them when they win. Whether it is scoring an unexpected goal, making a formidable pass or completing a challenging marathon, the “can do it” attitude that accompanies optimum participation in sport is indeed one of a kind. This is in addition to the innumerable physical, mental and health dividends of sporting.
Despite the game-changing nature of sport, it is interesting that girls and sport are rarely mentioned within the same context. Backed by age-long socio-cultural stereotypes, many girls who manifest keen interest in sport are quickly redirected to more “girlish” interests like cooking and sewing. In Nigeria (where Physical Education is one of the elective subjects in Senior High School) female students account for less than 20% of a regular Physical Education class, as opposed to other elective subjects in the field of Home Economics – where up to 97% of the class are girls.
The price for the absence of girls in sport is far-reaching, both for girls themselves and the society. For one, girls’ participation in sport is a simple and practical way to crush gender stereotypes and advance gender equality across the globe. When girls can perform the same activities as their male counterparts on the field of play, encouraging equality off the field becomes more feasible and attractive. This means that keeping girls away from sport takes the world two steps backwards, in the quest for gender equality.
Again, the fast-paced and inclusive nature of sport unarguably presents a natural atmosphere for learning to take charge and make sensitive choices. Since sport is an excellent avenue for nurturing these leadership skills, girls who stay away from it are more likely to lag behind in learning to be proactive and responsible. More importantly, anti-sport girls continue to miss out on the immense health benefits of sport and this greatly affects their general well-being. For instance, in the sphere of Adolescent Reproductive Health, it has been widely proven that girls who exercise regularly or engage in sporting activities have less painful periods and are less likely to suffer from menstrual-related depression.
While it is crystal clear that not every girl has a Serena Williams to unleash from within, supporting girls to be active in sports and play is a gigantic step in the right direction. This is why Girl Pride Circle is throwing her weight behind the #GirlsCan & #GirlPowerInPlay advocacy campaign launched by Women Deliver, UNICEF, Right to Play, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and One Goal . Among other things, the campaign seeks to increase global awareness on how sport can positively influence girls’ lives and call for more research and funding for girls’ sport.
Engagement in sport is a dynamic way for girls to acquire several competencies and life skills that prepare them to stand out. Consequently, bridging the gap between girls and sport ensures that girls jump swiftly across all hurdles that separate them from their beautiful dreams.