I am a Girl Scout through and through. It is because of Girl Scouting that I sought out service opportunities, joined a sorority (nothing quite like a support system of inspiring women), was voted “Most Likely to Start Everything with an Icebreaker” during Pre-Service Training and am here. Needless to say, I believe full-heartedly in Girl Scouts (minus the uniforms – I’m only lukewarm about them). This year Girl Scouts celebrated their 100th birthday and while I was thousands of miles away from the celebrations, I’ve been able to celebrate and honor their mission through opportunities here in Cameroon.
I rang in the summer with something characteristic of both the season and of Girl Scouts: a camp! With students out of school, my friend and fellow PCV, Charla (a Youth Development Volunteer) saw an opportunity to work with girls in my village and her town, Meiganga (30 minutes away from Lokoti). In both of these places, the gender disparity in high school is outstanding because many girls stop school after primary school. Knowing this, we focused our camp on girls in the last two years of primary school (ages 11-15). Our camp was called “Choisissez un futur!” (Choose a Future) and concentrated on transferring the life skills needed to make healthy life decisions. We spent a week in Lokoti and a week in Meiganga. Each day had a theme that blended nicely with the day before. The themes were: leadership, HIV/AIDS prevention, communication, decision making and goal setting.
One of the best days was the HIV/AIDS prevention themed day. This also happened to be the day I was most nervous about presenting, mainly because Lokoti is a fairly traditional village, therefore the topics of reproductive health, sex and HIV/AIDS are not discussed that openly (we did have parents sign permission slips acknowledging that we would be covering these topics). However, Charla and I did our best to create a safe environment where everyone would feel comfortable talking and asking questions. We knew we had succeeded when after doing a condom demonstration, the girls asked if they could open the packets and touch the condoms. This led to some silliness, like blowing them up to become balloons and stretching them over arms to test their strength. But however silly those things seem, having the girls become comfortable navigating condom usage was no small feat. I believe it was that same safe environment that has allowed the girls to become more outgoing overall. While in the beginning of the camp, girls were reluctant to speak in front of their peers, they are now (during club meetings) all clambering to be the first to speak up. Those leadership skills we talked about starting to be put into action.
Later in the summer, I was invited to attend the first annual National Girls Forum, organized by Peace Corps Cameroon’s Youth Development program. The objective of the forum was to bring together Peace Corps Volunteers and host country nationals (each volunteer brought two people from their village) who are working on girls empowerment issues with the ultimate goal of sharing best practices and creating a national network of advocates. I attended the conference with the Guidance Counselor from the local high school and a very motivated 18-year-old high school student named Hadidjatou. In many ways Hadidjatou could be the poster child for girls empowerment in Cameroon. Hailing from a large traditional Muslim family in a mid-sized village, she has persisted against the odds to continue with schooling. She is the third oldest, out of ten children and the first child to continue with her education way into high school (she currently has three more years left). Her older sister, only a few years older, married and with one child already, represented Hadidjatou’s expected future. However, being a very bright student, she wanted to continue with schooling and vowed to herself not to get married until she finished with school. She knew that she could make all the promises to herself that she could imagine, but that in reality, she was not the sole decider of her future. She pleaded her case to her parents and her parents agreed to let her continue with her studies, but stressed that they could not continue paying for it. As a result, Hadidjatou has found odd jobs, such as selling in the market and working in the fields to pay for her school supplies (thanks to her stellar performance in school, the teachers have agreed to pay her school fees). Needless to say, her participation in the conference brought a lot of perspective and life to the statistics that were read during presentations.
Upon returning from the conference, Hadidjatou and I have continued working with the girls who participated in the camp in Lokoti. The girls have so much potential, but so little opportunity to exercise it. To remedy this, they’ve formed a girls club called The Dynamic Girls of Lokoti (“Les filles dynamiques de Lokoti”). During meetings we talk about life skills (similar to what was covered during the camp), do teambuilding exercises, play games and of course, we start every meeting with an icebreaker. The girls have really started to take ownership of the club and be vocal about what they want to do as a group. One example is that the girls wanted to do more sport-type activities. As a result, we started “Sport Samedis” and we do a variety of sports every Saturday morning at 6am (chosen because there are not a lot of boys out at the field to interfere or bother them). Whether we are teaching ourselves how to play soccer, doing some sun salutations or partaking in some traditional dancing and singing, it is obvious that “Sport Samedis” and the club, in general, are wonderful outlets for these girls, many of whom are becoming leaders before my very eyes.
The “Two Thousand Twelve is the Year of the Girl” tagline has been used on a lot of 100th anniversary Girl Scout products, but it many ways it has also defined my year in Cameroon and if the Dynamic Girls of Lokoti have anything to do with it there’s nothing stopping at the end of 2012, Thousand Thirteen is looking pretty bright too!