Here is a video from the GLOW Camp in Northern Zambia 2019/2020!
I started writing this post back in February 2020 pre-evacuation.
Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) is a Peace Corps initiative encouraging girls to become more active citizens by building self-esteem and confidence, increasing self-awareness, and developing skills to set goals and life planning. Thousands of clubs around the world are promoting gender equality and female empowerment for girls ages 10-19. GLOW creates a safe space for girls to express themselves and discuss important issues that are sometimes taboo and stigmatized. Topics covered include, but are not limited to, confidence, healthy relationships, female reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, gender-based violence, income-generating activities, and leadership.
During my second year of service in Zambia, I had the pleasure of facilitating a weekly GLOW club at the new secondary boarding school in our community. Though the girls were shy at first, they eventually opened up with a flood of questions about sex, contraceptives, and pregnancy. Part of the reason why they began to feel more comfortable is that two of the girls who attended the week-long GLOW camp have been helping facilitate the lessons and answering many of the questions. One of the best moments of the club was when I stepped aside while the GLOW girls stood up in the front answering questions about contraceptives, healthy relationships, and HIV/AIDS.
GLOW camp is a week-long program where a few volunteers bring two girls and an adult mentor to learn about relevant topics while having fun just like summer camp. Peace Corps volunteers write a grant and organize the logistics in order for it to happen every year; it is not something that Peace Corps as an institution organizes.
The 2019/2020 Northern and Muchinga Provinces camps spanned over two weeks at Eventure School on beautiful Lake Tanganyika. My group attended the second week with seven other volunteers and members from their respective communities. Throughout the week PCVs and mentors co-facilitate interactive lessons using evidence-based interventions. An example of a lesson is teaching the anatomy of the reproductive systems followed by how menstruation and pregnancy work. Then the girls learned how to make reusable menstrual pads from local materials so they can make more at home and teach their friends. Buying menstrual products is challenging in most rural areas so girls sometimes skip school during their periods.
The girls are expected to learn the topics well enough so they can help lead GLOW clubs in their respective communities in order for this program to be sustainable.
Besides learning such topics, we did normal summer camp activities like swimming at the lake, playing sports, tie-dying, and making snores over the campfire. It was also the first time many of them visited to Lake Tanganyika and meeting other young people from different parts of Zambia as well as other Americans.
Why is gender work important
Gender roles are quite defined in Zambia. Cooking, cleaning, fetching water, and taking care of children are primarily women and girls’ responsibilities whereas men mold bricks and build houses, chop firewood, and hold most leadership positions. Both men and women work on the farm and do very hard work every day. However, women’s work requires longer hours, leaving less time to focus on school or engage in income-generating activities. Additionally, men make most of the decisions and those decisions are not always in the best interest of the women.
Families tend to be large – a couple may have five to eight children. While primary school is free, secondary education is not. The cost is prohibitive for some families, so parents may prioritize the boy to finish his education so he could earn money and later support them in old age. When girls do not have access to education, they do not have as many opportunities to earn a living to support themselves, so they may get married young. Other times, men give girls money or gifts in exchange for sex. This creates a power dynamic, meaning the man may feel like it is his choice whether or not to use a condom. Then of course, unprotected sex can lead to unintended pregnancies, STIs, and HIV. According to UNAIDS, “Women are disproportionally affected by HIV in Zambia: of the 1 200 000 adults living with HIV, 700 000 (58.33%) were women. new HIV infections among young women aged 15–24 years were more than double those among young men: 13 000 new infections among young women, compared to 5600 among young men.” So while having girls do the cooking and tapping water seems relatively harmless, the gender rolls can snowball into serious repercussions.
What about boys?
When I first started meeting with the GLOW club, the staff and students asked, “what about the boys?” I absolutely agree! Adam and his counterpart soon began their BRAVE (Boys Respecting and Valuing Everyone) club. A girl can be equipped with the tools to practice safe sex and consent, but she wouldn’t be able to utilize these tools if the boy is not on board. So it is equally important for boys to be involved in such education. Our BRAVE and GLOW clubs are segregated because men tend to speak more in meetings while women sit quietly, but when the meeting consists of women only, they surely have a lot to say! So we wanted to foster a safe space so students feel less shy about speaking about taboo topics.
One of the difficult aspects of this work is finding the balance between respecting traditional culture while introducing new ideas. I do not want to be a weird foreigner coming in and telling people to change how they have been living their lives. They have to come to the conclusion on their own on how (or even if) they want to enact change in their society. I see my part as leading by example and facilitating discussions to bring up new ideas. Otherwise, some of these topics may never have been brought up. You never know how one discussion can spark something. The girls’ jaws dropped when they learned I am in my 30s and do not have children yet. They then nearly had a heart attack when I said this was by choice. Some girls even scolded me, telling me that I must have children soon, which was ironic because we had just had a lesson about “my body, my choice” when it came to consent, peer pressure, and delaying sex until emotionally ready. I simply said that for me, it is important to respect people’s choices on what they do with their bodies because it doesn’t affect other people at all. If they want to have children, there’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s also nothing wrong with somebody choosing not to.
In this post, I do not want to make it seem like all women and girls are repressed in Zambia. That’s absolutely not true. I’ve met many confident women and girls who take charge and speak out like queens. I admire them so much. One specific example is Cecilia in the video above, an amazing woman who leads GLOW clubs and passionately serves as a role model for girls in Kasama. In our community, Grace was usually the only woman who stood up and spoke at meetings. Men often interrupted her, but she did not let down and spoke even louder with conviction and confidence. She leads a successful Women’s Club and is just a general bad ass. There are already plenty of women doing the work already in Zambia and I am so inspired by them.