Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A girl's right

Girl according to The Gambia:
A girl is a female between the ages of 9 and 30. A girl becomes a woman when she marries and bears children. This could be at age 12 or 26, 16 or 19, rarely are girls over 27 not married with children. If a girl 23-35 is not married, it is strange. I am still called a girl, even though I am 26 and married, because I do not have children. Womanhood comes with motherhood, period. A girl lives in the family compound until she marries. Then the girl goes to live with the husband’s family where she will become a woman. That is usually the only change expected by girls.

Fifteen years after the government began providing free education for girls, life is beginning to change. A girl gets outside of the compound to learn with her peers. She has the opportunity to complete school to grade 12 free of charge. If she has good grades and exam scores, she can then go on to university. The opportunities are available for girls and it is now becoming the norm for families to send their girls to school. But if the girl fails her grade nine exam, she perhaps goes to a vocational school, where she learns tie and dye and soap making. Or her family marries her off since she will not keep going on with her schooling. I usually see single professional women in the city. When I see them working and living here in Kerewan, I am thrilled that they can be a different kind role model for the girls. Genders norms are beginning to change. For the first time here in The Gambia, the next generation of girls will have mothers who also went to school.

Girls will be Girls (Part 2): Girls’ Club Two Program!
Girl’s all over the world have the right to live without harassment and the other ills of sexism. That’s what thisu program was about, showing them that they don’t have to put up with it, that they have the will and ability to stand up for themselves and their friends. In teaching the girls about their bodies, sex, and being assertive we hoped to foster a dialogue and framework for the girls to value and protect themselves. To in the end learn how to stand up for their rights to a safe future.

So we pulled it off, a second girl’s club sleepover program. Becca brought her club to Kerewan on Friday, April 11th. We had a two day program held at the Kerewan Middle School titled, “Our Bodies, Our Minds, Ourselves.” Fifty energized girls attended, two amazing Gambian women, and three of my favorite women in Kerewan cooked four meals. Mary Louise Sambou, a teacher from Becca’s school and Isatou Bah, a leader in the Youth Action Movement and employee of ADWAC, joined us in facilitating the program. Becca and I felt more prepared than the previous year’s program. We knew how to talk and relate to the girls better. We knew what issues surrounded them everyday. We both fundraised with our clubs by raffling off soccer balls, holding luncheon sales, asking government and NGO offices for donations, and personally contributing.

We planned four sessions between getting to know you and trust games, meals, relay races, football, volleyball, and basketball. The first session was having the girls get to know each other and their place in the community. Becca had the girls write a “Day in the life” calendar for both girls and boys. What we all found was that girls did more chores and boys had more time to play football, study and hang with friends. This affects the girl’s ability to exercise, study, and be with their friends. Isatou immediately stood up and told the girls that they had to change the attitudes of their parents. Show them that they, the daughters, deserve more time to study and exercise. As an outsider I couldn’t say this, and that’s why having Isatou and Mary Louise part of the program was so crucial to its success. After the program, one of the Kerewan girls, Tida, said, “Now I can differentiate between what boys do and what girls do. Before I couldn’t.” Kaddy added, “I see the difference. Girls cook. Boys don’t cook. We all go to school. Boys play football, but girls don’t.”

That evening we played sports. I attempted to play volleyball (the girls call it volley volley). The girls laughed at me, but some weren’t that much better. We didn’t care, it was just us girls. I stopped to look around the school compound to see all the girls playing sports, talking, walking, just free to be teenage girls. Becca’s girls played basketball. Some girls passed a soccer ball around the circle of them. Nyimasata came in and out of the circle while washing and putting straightening cream in her hair. She’s a firecracker.

The Kerewan club raised their own money for a DJ. Having a dance party at the school is a big deal. All the girls got decked out. They mostly wore western club clothes. Tight jeans, cute tops, and skirts above the knees. A bit scandalous, yes, but girls will be girls. They were beautiful and confident, dancing from the minute the music began. They glowed, laughed, chatted, ran from one group to the next. Becca and I insisted on a girls only dance. We did not want boys to come and harass the girls. We also didn’t want to be responsible for any unwanted pregnancies. The girls didn’t want the boys to come either. Kaddy said, “ I don’t like it when boys are at the party. They chase you and call you. When you don’t come they insult you. I get angry.” Kas commented that the boys are “tough, tough, they are not serious.” Tida went on to confirm, “I like that, no boys. They will disturb us. Tell us this and this.” Denying the boys entrance proved to be was one of our most difficult life experiences.

We stood behind the faded red iron doors in the shadows of the street lamp. The two oversized doors served as the main entrance for the school. There was no clasp, nothing to ground the metal sheets to the soft sand. The doors were a simple tease, a mere symbol for protection. Stones pounded the already battered door creating familiar sounds of a blacksmith molding a spade. Stones came through the lacking doors, soaring through the middle opening as we let the girls enter. Sticks whipped our fingers as we closed the doors against the weight of the mob. Leaves and dirt putter down over our heads from the walls next to the doors. Verbal abuse and mocking ricochet against the lifeless door permeating the tense dead air. We looked at each other and said, “So this is what happens when boys and young men are told ‘no.’” Those doors never did come to life, swallowing the angry male mob. Those doors just shriveled away, failing us, refusing to tell the male mob no. We were the only ones. The boys and young men wanted to come for the dance party, we told them no, girls only. We told them no. So they, as young as eight years, attacked.

Becca and I were on the fronlines, protecting the girls’ right to a safe space. The male population just couldn’t believe that girls can enjoy themselves without them. We were stoned standing up for these girls’ right to be, for their right to be free of sexual harassment, their right to have fun, to dance without boys lurking around trying to touch girls inappropriately. Girls need to know that they have the right not to be touched when they don’t want to be. Eventually at midnight, we couldn’t hold the male mob back. They had been jumping over the fences and hiding in the shadows. With an hour left in the program, Becca and I walked away from the door. Isatou and the Kerewan girls came over, worried and upset that the boys were being to rude and awful. I remember Tida saying, “Liisa, let’s go, come and dance, these boys will always be rude. I don’t want them to hurt you.” So we reluctantly pulled back. We still walked around keeping the boys away from the girls. But the girls didn’t even talk to them, they just stayed with each other. Luckily it took forty-five minutes for the boys’ shyness to wear off. Fifteen minutes later we turned off the music. There was a moment when Becca and I simultaneously pounced a boy who touched a girl’s butt. We looked at each other as we finished reprimanding the boy and said, “Since when did we become the chaperones of a middle school dance?!” We plopped down feeling like the older, responsible adult that we never thought we could become.

We managed to get some sleep between the girls chatting and the heat. The next day we had a packed schedule. I knew it would be tough with the lack of sleep and the oppressive heat. We began with relay races to get everyone’s blood flowing. Isatou led the second session of the program: Adolescent Sexual Reproductive Health. She talked all about STIs and pregnancy prevention. The biggest issue she emphasized was “proper use of condoms,” not just use of condoms but proper use of condoms. She knew that some of these girls were already sexual active, so why only talk about abstinence. Isatou is a true progressive here in The Gambia! We did a proper use demonstration – checking the expiration date, putting it on, putting it in place, disposing of it – with my hand (too wide and not long enough, but it worked). Nyima reflected, “I liked the session with Isatou about STIs and properly using condoms. I learned that sperm makes a girl pregnant. I did not know that before.” Other girls echoed this. Nyima continued, “I learned how STIs and HIV/AIDS are transferred.”

We then covered the reproductive system. I led the group in a body mapping activity. The girls traced each other’s entire bodies. They then had to label the parts they knew. Some girls even labeled their breasts and vagina. I asked what made us girls, they shouted out hips, breasts, my privates, one even said hair is certain parts. I then placed a picture of the reproductive system on one of the bodies. We learned all of the parts and what their functions are. Isatou had a great diagram of a penis entering the vagina. It just helped make everything more clear and available. Tida explained, “Now I can label all the parts of my reproductive system. Before, I could not label it.” Binta said, “I learned about my body, my… internal body.” I enjoyed teaching sex education to the girls. Knowing our bodies empowers each of us to know how to protect and keep ourselves safe and healthy.

The third session was about the myth versus truth when it comes to sex, pregnancy, and STIs. Some myths include pregnant women can’t eat eggs, if you wash yourself after having sex you can’t get pregnant, oral sex can’t give you an STI, you can’t get pregnant before your period, and so on. The best part of the session was Isatou and Mary Louise validating that these myths were crazy and should not be taken seriously like many other Gambians do.

Our last session talked about being assertive and making the right and safe decisions. We wanted the girls to know and fight for what is best for them. I wrote up some secenarios where they had to make decisions about whether to have sex, walking alone with a boy, how to be assertive, stand up for oneself, and what strategies they can use to stop abuse or avoid unsafe situations. They can’t say no with a smile. They have to say it with power, say it like they mean it.

When I talked to a couple of the girls a week later, we talked about why it was good to not have the boys at the dance party. Kaddy stated, “Boys, they disturb us… telling us I love you.” Tide interrupted, “We say to them an assertive ‘no!’ No! No! NO!” Tida’s clear and steady voice grow louder and more powerful. I smiled and thought to myself, “this is the greatest moment of my service.”

By the end of the last session the girls were spent. The heat seeped into our muscles. We ate lunch and cleaned up the classrooms we slept in the night before. While cleaning, I realized that my mobile was stolen. Who knows who stole it, people walk through the school all the time. My club immediately went and searched the other girl’s things. Then Becca’s girls got offended. So it was a little dicey as we wrapped up the program and said our goodbyes. My girls were just protecting me, it was really cute. I hate that it was at the expense of offending others, but it was what they do, protect your family.

I look back to being stoned. Neither of us were seriously hurt, but boys were throwing stones at us. I have never been so disrespected, so under attack. So whenever I hear the devastating reports of women under attack all over the world, being raped, assaulted, stoned, murdered, disenfranchised, undermined, I will know that Becca and I truly stood up for these girls. We played our part in the fight for a girl’s and woman’s freedom to be.

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