What I Learned About Empowering Girls from Girls Themselves
When I think of girls’ empowerment, these images come to mind:
Girls’ hands flying in the air during class to ask questions
Girls learning that if they were boys, they wouldn’t be called “bossy”
As an English teacher and member of the Peace Corps Nicaragua Gender and Development Committee, I love educating others about gender. I’ve led LGBT safe zone training for Peace Corps staff and host families, and I’ve trained my colleagues about gender-equitable teaching practices.
I also teach English in Nicaraguan public high schools. According to the Ministry of Education’s English Curriculum, teachers are supposed to cover topics like gender equality, LGBT identities, and discrimination. How deeply they cover those topics is up to the teachers and the students’ parents. Teachers can lose their jobs if parents complain that their children are learning what they see as
In addition to those limitations, teachers aren’t trained on how to teach these sensitive topics, leading to a lack of awareness about them.
The barriers to learning don’t stop there. When public school classes are cancelled because of rain, or when 1 teacher is expected to teach a roomful of 60 students who don’t have enough dilapidated desks to write on, it’s less likely for students to learn.
While education has its challenges, it saves lives.
According to a 2012 EFA Global Monitoring Report, “Child deaths would be cut in half if all women had a secondary education, saving 3 million lives.” Education is undeniably important for women.
An appreciation for women’s well-being and education is evidenced by Peace Corps Nicaragua’s Gender and Development Committee’s vision: Power, respect, and opportunity are no longer gendered.
I was lucky to gain strong female role models at Wellesley College who inspired me to work abroad. Now I’m a part of the Wanderful community, which is a safe place for me to engage with other female travelers.
As a Peace Corps Gender and Development committee member, I want girls to meet their role models and realize that they can become who they want to be, not who society tells them they should be. We plan our gender empowerment camps for girls and boys with this vision in mind and with the hope of effectively educating children on topics that really matter.
I’ve taught countless lessons about gender empowerment; you’d think I was an expert. But the girls I’ve worked with have taught me an incredible amount about how to empower them.
Girls taught me to ask them what they want to learn.
Teaching girls what they should know can only go so far because it doesn’t always relate to the challenges they face.
This year I fundraised and blogged for Camp GLOW (Girls Leading our World), a week-long camp for 53 girls between 13 and 17 years old.
In 1995 a group of Peace Corps Romania volunteers began GLOW to encourage girls to be leaders in their communities. Now the camp brings girl bosses together all across the world, from Nicaragua to Senegal. Girls network with one another and attend workshops about topics like sexual health, power in relationships, and communication.
On our first day of camp, we put up blank KWL posters to see how much the girls knew, wanted to know, and learned about each workshop topic.
The girls had such insightful questions, and while few things teenagers ask ever surprise me, I was shocked by this question:
How can I reduce machismo and feminismo (feminism)?
The girl who posed the question viewed feminismo (feminism) as equally oppressive as machismo, which refers to the patriarchal forces in Latin America.
Machismo reinforces heteronormative gender expectations of men and women: Men are breadwinners, while women should take care of the home. At its most non-violent, machismo reinforces rigid gender roles. At its most violent, machismo normalizes violence against women. The Gender Index found that 70% of Nicaraguan women have experienced some form of violence. Rapes and femicides make the nightly news regularly.
I knew that machismo was a societal problem, but I didn’t expect feminism to have a bad wrap at a girls’ camp. The girls taught me to ask them what they wanted to know. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have thought to address this misconception.
Girls taught me to create safe spaces to exchange ideas.
Just as women travelers need safe, powerful spaces to discuss their realities and empower each other, so do girls!
Let me be clear about where girls’ empowerment must happen…
I don’t see this sense of gender equity, however, when I deal with daily street harassment. Hearing a stranger yell across the street that I’m a “delicious young woman” pisses me off. So does the lack of gender equity in the schools where I teach. I often tell my 13-year-old students to put away their makeup and focus on the class, not on their appearances.
Blogging for a women’s travel network and being surrounded by feminists makes me feel safe about expressing my feelings and encourages me to think critically about the world as a gendered place. I surround myself with people who are as passionate as I am about gender-based inequality.
At Camp GLOW, girls told me that they just hadn’t had the chance to talk about feminism, so they automatically think it’s the female equivalent of machismo. We wanted to clear things up in a safe, respectful environment.
The counselors decided to hold an impromptu “Feminism 101” session. I led it with Nahima, a Nicaraguan counterpart who worked at the camp.
I wrote down the words “machismo” and “feminism” on the board, and Nahima asked the girls,
What do these words mean?
Here were their responses:
Machismo: Men who are controlling and violent against women in the home and in public spaces
Feminism: Women who are abusive and manipulative toward men — they believe they are above others.
Nahima explained that feminism isn’t oppressive — it’s inclusive. Feminism takes into account everyone’s differences when meeting needs. It’s not just about equality; it’s about fairness. The girls related to Nahima’s point of view because she knew where they were coming from as a Nicaraguan woman. The girls needed her because many of them only assumed the worst of feminism simply because they hadn’t talked about it in their communities.
“This is a feminist camp!” I added.
We brought girls together this week so that we could talk about gender, sexuality, and self-esteem in safe ways. You will be using what you learned to help your communities, regardless of whether you help girls or boys.
“What is an ideal woman supposed to do by age 30?” asked Nahima.
One camper responded,
Society says that she is supposed to get married.
Nahima said she hasn’t fit into that expectation, and the room fell silent.
Nahima continued, “I’m 29. I’m not married. I’ve been with my boyfriend for 10 years. I do, however, have a Bachelor’s degree, a career, and I’m pursuing a Master’s. I’m happy!” she said with a charismatic smile.
The girls had probably never heard a Nicaraguan woman say that she is happy despite being unmarried. Feminism is important to Nahima because it encourages her to value herself.
“I have all of these things that make me happy, but my family asks me, ‘When will you get married? You are getting old. It’s time.’” Society pressures her to be ideal by getting married, but she’s learned not to listen to how others tell her to live.
“People tell me that my boyfriend will leave me if I don’t marry him, but that’s wrong. Marrying him shouldn’t be a reason for him to stay with me,” Nahima affirmed, wagging her finger.
Throughout the camp, Nahima had heard some of the girls telling each other that they should want to get married. Instead, she said, they should be encouraging each other to follow their dreams.
If you value yourself, then you can follow your dreams, whether it’s to get married, to have a career, or travel the world.
Nahima used her own vulnerability to be real with the girls. She doesn’t fit into her society’s expectations of an ideal woman, and she is okay with that. Her talk helped make the girls feel safer in thinking that it may not be a bad thing if they don’t fit societal norms. Empowering girls means giving them safe spaces to talk about their realities.
Girls taught me to be real with them.
After we found out what the girls wanted to learn, we addressed their realities and pushed them to think about their sources of self-esteem.
Just as patriarchal forces encourage girls to want to fulfill unrealistic standards of beauty, these forces prevent girls from having autonomy over their sexual lives. Although girls in Nicaragua can access birth control, pharmacies are not confidential. Girls don’t feel safe getting condoms (if they can even afford them) because employees are free to gossip about the girls’ “loose” habits. Misconceptions about birth control are abundant and mislead teenagers of all genders.
During a condom demonstration, some of the girls thought that drinking coconut water after having sex was an effective contraceptive. Misinformation and lack of awareness are some of the reasons why Nicaragua is called Latin America’s “Teen Pregnancy Capital,” but it’s also much more than that. It’s a country with bright, intelligent girls who, through camps like GLOW, have honest, respectful conversations about what they know and want to learn.
The girls at Camp GLOW taught me that empowerment is an exchange. They taught me what they need to be empowered. Once we ask girls everywhere what they need, create safe spaces for them, and address their realities, we can empower them more effectively. Once we help girls learn what they want to learn, they’re more likely to be fierce leaders in their communities around the world!
Sixty-two million girls around the world aren’t in school. The Let Girls Learn initiative is a partnership between First Lady Michelle Obama and the Peace Corps that aims to change that. Learn how you can help. In March 2016 the Peace Corps added 23 new countries that would benefit from girls’ empowerment projects.
Girl Powr empowers girls to achieve educational access and reach their full potential by discovering their true self-worth. This non-profit was founded by a returned Peace Corps health volunteer who continues to work in Nicaragua.
Hold a screening of the film Girl Rising in your community or for your organization.
This film tells the stories of girls’ challenges and successes all over the world. Want to get even more invested in girls’ empowerment? There are lesson plans for educators interested in discussing gender empowerment in their classrooms.
Why do you think empowering girls is important? What other amazing organizations empower girls? Share in the comments!