The best work experience I had in my first year of the Peace Corps was helping organize and lead Camp Success, a girls’ empowerment camp for 60 of the Donga department’s top female 6th, 7th, and 8th grade girls. For a week, the girls worked with dynamic local women, Peace Corps Volunteers, and a feminist male math teacher, to learn about topics for their “epanouissement” (blossoming): goal-setting, leadership, female reproductive health and family planning, healthy relationships, careers, child trafficking, gender-based violence and sexual harassment, and computers, for instance. They played sports, learned new games, sang songs, and made crafts. The week was packed with activity, tremendously fun, and inspiring.
For the girls, the rewards were great. It is rare that female students are honored for their achievements in a public way, and it is even rarer that they are given access to this kind of life-improvement information. Life skills are not part of the Beninese school curriculum; even reproductive health is not taught in schools until 9th grade, after many female students have already learned the lessons first-hand and have been forced to drop out of school to raise children. During the week of camp, the organizers observed a positive change in the girls: they became more motivated, more courageous, more willing to speak up, and more ready to see themselves as future leaders.
In my second year in Benin, I’ve continued to work with two of Bassila’s participants as leaders in my Girls’ Club. One girl, Leontine, had only recently come to Bassila. Orphaned as a child, she was sent to live with an uncle, but instead of sending her to school, he sent her to work as a “domestique.” Her older brother eventually heard out about this and dropped out of university, took a job as a teacher in Bassila, and began supporting her. At camp last year, she was one of the quietest participants, and she seemed unsure of how to handle the camp’s themes. I worried that perhaps we had selected the wrong girls to participate or that our message didn’t have an impact.
It did. This year, Leontine is by far the most enthusiastic and dynamic participant in Girls’ Club. She “gets” everything I try to teach, and she brings her own ideas; this month’s “Day of the Young Girl” I held for local Girls’ Clubs was her idea—she wanted to encourage girls to succeed in school. One of the first activities we did as a club was to write stories about our futures. Most of the girls had similar aspirations: After finishing school, I will become a midwife, get married, and have five children. Leontine positively beamed as she read us her story:
After finishing school in Benin, I will apply for a scholarship for university in France so I can see the world; then I’ll come back to Benin and establish my own business. After making money there, I will open an orphanage and a Non-Governmental Organization to promote the rights of women and girls. I will work my way up to become a government minister, and then, if God wills it, I’ll find a good husband and start a family: one son, one daughter.I think I know where she got those ideas!
This year, my postmate (Naima) and I are organizing the camp again, and I believe it will be even more spectacular. After last year’s success, we have tremendous community support this year, accounting for almost 40% of our budget. We will co-organize the camp with a male math teacher, a female director of a weaving center, six dynamic local women, and seven additional Peace Corps Volunteers. This year, we hope to take the girls to see Benin’s Tata Samba houses (a UNESCO World Heritage site) to learn about environmental protection, entrepreneurship, local cultures, and agriculture; we hope to have a greater emphasis on reproductive health and relationships; we hope to create a camp manual and life skills guide that the girls can take home, and we hope to provide every participant with a new school uniform and book bag.
This won’t be possible without your help. Please consider donating to Camp Success 2010 and helping solicit donations from others in any way possible.
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