Monday, June 16, 2014

Intellectually Acknowledged by Ciara C.

Ciara C.
Ngoma District, Eastern Province

Being my first blog post as a GAD member, I feel the need to introduce myself.   Hello, readers!!  My name is Ciara.  I’m a recent graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C., with a Bachelor’s of Arts in Political Science, and a newly elected GAD member from the Education 5 (ED5) group.
Similarly to my ED5 colleague, Sam, I was unsure what I wanted to write about for my first post, so, I’ve decided to begin with a personal experience. 

While perusing through the clothing section of the Kibungo market on a typical Saturday afternoon, I happened upon a group of American volunteers who were exploring my town for the first time.  Their leader, a professor at a small, liberal arts university in Missouri, said that my glasses told him I wasn’t Rwandan and the accent of my “hi” gave away my American nationality.  After a brief and pleasant conversation, we agreed to meet at the private, Anglican school, directly adjacent to mine on the following Tuesday.                                                                                                                       

Embarrassingly, I have to admit that in my six months as a teacher, I’d never visited the school that practically shares property with my own.  I was pleasantly surprised to learn, upon arrival, that my pastor teaches there.  As I waited for the professor, Pastor Ray showed me around the main office and introduced me to available staff members.  Among them was a teacher who I will simply refer to as “M.”

“M” is a Ugandan teacher of Economics, and holds a degree in History.  I learned these and many other interesting things during our lengthy conversation.  Little did I know, that first conversation would be the prologue to what is blossoming into a lovely friendship.  I ended up seeing “M” a number of times that week, both by chance and by choice.  In that initial introduction and in every subsequent interaction, “M” has shared how much he appreciates my intellect and ability to articulate my ideas.

HOLD THE PHONE. I am in East Africa, right?  I am in a male dominated society where women are not regarded as complex thinkers with ideas of their own, right?  I’ve intentionally pushed hot buttons and limitations with controversial subject matter when speaking with “M.” We’ve touched on subjects that are culturally sensitive, especially in regard to gender.  “M,” while having no problem disagreeing with me, has yet to dismiss my opinions or tell me that I’m wrong.  In fact, he’ll often tell me that because of his cultural upbringing, he disagrees with me, but yet understands my arguments and sees them as being valid.  He even introduced me to one of his friends as being “rich in the mind.”

Before meeting “M” I didn’t realize how long it had been since I felt appreciated for my intellect, especially as a woman.  Thanks to my sheroes, like the late Maya Angelou, I already know myself to be a “phenomenal woman,” but there’s something to be said about a man who can recognize and appreciate the same, particularly in a culture such as this.  It made me wonder about my female students.   Have they ever felt appreciated for their minds?  Have they ever felt regal and beautiful and strong for their opinions?  Have they ever been acknowledged by their male counterparts as being wildly intelligent? 

I’m certainly not suggesting that one needs to be validated by men, however it’s appreciated when members belonging to the group deemed “dominate” are able to recognize and acknowledge that members of “the other” are not, in fact, inferior.  These interactions with “M” challenge me as   educator.  They remind of my responsibility to the young queens in my care.  It is my job to acknowledge and appreciate their intellect and to encourage my young kings to do the same.  It is through cultivation of the mind that they might, too, see themselves as being phenomenal.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

LGBT Issues and the PCV by Samuel B.

Samuel B.
Kirehe District, Eastern Province
(sorry, no picture this time)

This being my first blog for the GAD Committee, I wasn't really sure what to write about, so I decided I write about something that's been on my mind since the Friday following the All-Volunteer Conference. That night some of us attended the LGBT Panel at the Goethe Institute. With the exception of the Scandinavian(?) scientist who felt it necessary to Google a bunch of bullshit statistics on the factors contributing to the likelihood of being “homosexual or lesbian” and present them in poor English, it was a great event. I think what caught my attention the most, well everyone's attention, was the presentation by the Ugandan lawyer who started a coalition for the defense of those Ugandans being prosecuted under the new anti-homosexuality law. I think his, as well as his colleague's, view on the nature of local LGBT issues and the influence of various types of international pressure directly relates to our position as PCVs.

At a certain point in the lawyer's presentation, it was asked how international pressure, such as rescinding aid, was affecting the internal situation. Essentially, the belief was that withdrawing aid only exacerbated the tension, making the LGBT community the scapegoat and doing little to directly affect wealthy politicians. This question led to many more like it, and I started to think about how we, as PCVs, can take a stance on LGBT issues in a productive way. For weeks, I've been wanting to do some sort of controlled lesson, in a GLOW or BE Club setting, on different lifestyles to maybe spur a debate or at least show that I'm someone that students struggling with their personal identities can talk to. But when I heard the lawyer's colleague claim that Museveni only signed the anti-homosexual bill into law after Obama's public statement objecting to the bill, which was particularly popular to the Western audience, I reconsidered my plans. The colleague went on further to discuss how prior to the bill's signing, it had been passed by parliament on several occasions, after which Secretary Clinton was known to call Museveni personally to discuss the matter. After the panel concluded, I approached the speaker and asked his advice on introducing LGBT issues in the classroom or in after-school activities. He suggested only doing so under the umbrella of general human rights issues, allowing the students to take the initiative. He claimed that he and his colleagues have been trying to restrict the debate in Rwanda to politicians only in hopes to prevent wide-spread support for a bill similar to that of Uganda's. “If we were to open the debate up to the general public, 90% of Rwandan's would vote for an anti-homosexual bill,” he said. With that in mind, I realized that as good as my intentions might be, in a country that currently has no law against or for the LGBT community, simply talking about these issues at a grassroots level would in fact be harmful; a grassroots wildfire, as it may.

Maybe his answer was simply common sense, but I hadn't considered before that at the very least my GLOW and BE Club, the students who are supposedly more enlightened on gender-related issues, wouldn't be the appropriate audience for a direct discussion on LGBT issues in Africa. So, if you have also been wondering what you can do to introduce these issues, do so with caution. Don't champion an issue in the hopes of advancing open-mindedness only to leave a bad taste in the mouths of others who aren't ready for it.

I think we sometimes think we have all the right answers. It's hard to remove ourselves from the subconscious superiority we feel as Americans, but we have to remember that we aren't here to force change. We aren't here to perform invasive surgery on the culture and society we're serving. We have to let the change come to us, as painful as the waiting might be. That doesn't mean do nothing; it just means serve softly. I know there are things about my personality and opinions that I won't sacrifice to blend in or integrate, and I think that's fine, but I can choose how I represent those parts of myself, especially if it means a more positive outcome for something I'm passionate about. It's odd to think about how being less democratic might lead to progress, but then again, the LGBT community in Rwanda is a silent minority; so don't do them a disservice by being vocal for the sake of good intentions. Take a step back. I said to my PC recruiter back in August 2012 that I didn't care about changing every life I came into contact with, whether it was 150 students or more than that in the community, I was doing this in the hopes that a handful get it, that the few that need what I can offer receive it. It's not grassroots, it's bean shoots, and that's quite alright.

Monday, May 26, 2014

2014 Kigali Peace Marathon by Eliza F.

Eliza F.
Ruhango District, Southern Province

When I was in 3rd grade, I was obsessed with Mia Hamm. At the time I was a pretty good soccer player (for an 8-year-old) and was confident that I too would join the U.S. Women’s National Team at age 15. Though by 7th grade I had a feeling that I would never be as good as Mia Hamm, or that I’d even be good enough to play soccer professionally, I still looked to Hamm as a role model. She had so much talent, and not only was the face of women’s soccer, which at the time was just getting off the ground (their first World Cup wasn’t until 1991), but also, with the help of the 1999 National Team, helped bring attention to women’s athletics and inspire girls throughout the country.

As a soccer fan, I knew that when the Men’s World Cup rolled around every 4 years, the Americans didn’t stand a chance. But the American women always medaled at their Cup the following year. Soccer is far more popular in most other countries, and this goes a long way in explaining why the American men just can’t compete with the Brazilians, the Spanish and the Germans.  So why do the women do so well? Because hundreds of thousands of little girls like me had the opportunity to play on teams like our brothers did, and we had role models like Mia Hamm.

While we still debate and fight over the inequality that exists between men’s and women’s sports programs in the U.S., I think we overlook just how much American girls are encouraged to get involved in sports. They have access to teams, fields, coaches, cleats, and uniforms and a support system that will encourage them to stay involved for years. That isn’t how it is for a lot of girls in this world.

Last weekend. 18 Peace Corps Volunteers brought 38 students from 13 schools to the International Peace Marathon in Kigali. The day before the marathon, students took classes in nutrition, fitness, body image, and HIV prevention. The day of the marathon they ran with over a hundred others in the 5k Fun Run. Half of the students were girls. I don’t know how much we were able to teach them during the short weekend, but I hope that some of those girls were inspired to stick with running, or whatever the sport is that they enjoy, despite the challenges they face. Maybe a girl saw one of the female marathon runners, and thought, "I want to be like her – and I can be!"

Monday, May 12, 2014

They Why and How by Caitlan S.

Caitlan S.

Rusizi District, Western Province 

The other day, some kids came up to my house and asked for food, "Mpa ibiryo." Usually, I say there isn't enough for them or just simply no, but that day I decided upon a different approach. I asked why, "Kureba iki?" Instead of giving me a reason they simply looked confounded and said, "Bye!"

One of the most difficult aspects about teaching and living in Rwanda can be the lack of critical thinking. I'm not sure how cross cutting a lack of critical thinking is across the developing world, Africa, or even East Africa, but it is a striking difference between students in the United States of America and Rwanda. It is also one of the biggest impediments when striving for true gender equality.

In Rwanda's 'Vision 2020' the government has put a large emphasis on gender balance, and every student and Rwanda can spout off the term and describe its meaning. However, the practice of gender balance is much harder to see.

Throughout the past year and a half of my service, I've tried asking my students why things are the way they are. At first it's difficult. As seen by the kids asking for food, it isn't a common question. In relation to gender and the roles of men and women in Rwanda most students have never truly thought about why girls are destined to be mothers and caretakers of the household and why boys are expected to provide money for the entire family. It's a heavy burden on both sexes, and it's the first step in addressing gender equality. Even more difficult seems to be the how. "How can gender roles change?" When I asked this during a lesson, I received blank stares for probably 5 minutes.

As a committee for Peace Corps Rwanda, GAD is trying to put together the materials and resources to help PCVs address this issue. We are trying to create lessons and activities that provide a setting for both boys and girls to look at the "how" and "why" of gender*. It's not an easy task, but I do believe it is the first step towards behavior change. Before there can be true gender balance in Rwanda both sexes must take a hard look at why things are the way they are and make a choice to change for the better. Not all aspects of gender must change in Rwanda, but many should. It is not until boys can understand the effects of violence that they can stop the violence in their homes. It is not until girls learn to speak for themselves that they will be comfortable to change their futures.

We must begin asking the difficult questions. It is the Why and How that will create a paradigm shift in terms of gender roles in Rwanda.

*A curriculum specific to boys will be coming out in the next month and PCVs are welcome to use the International Women's Day Toolkit which is available in the IRC at the Peace Corps Rwanda office.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Where My Boys At? by Liz S.

Liz S. 
Karongi District, Western Province

Follwing the International Women's Day training last month, my counterparts decided to hold an ibiganiro (literally, a conversation, but means a ceremony that involves some kind of lesson and discussion) to teach the students about what they had learned. The ibiganiro lasted about an hour at the end of the day, and included good discussions about why there's a need to celebrate International Women's Day. At the end of the ceremony, however, boys still felt slighted. Even doing lessons about IWD and gender roles in class, boys can give the pat answers they've been taught about gender balance, but once challenged further, they reveal that they feel left out, threatened, or just scared about what it means for them. Boys see girls getting scholarships, sponsors, extra marks on exams, opportunities to participate in groups, camps and more. It doesn't seem fair. This isn't a new phenomenon of course, but it does pose questions of how we can better engage men and boys in discussions about female empowerment, development, and overall human rights.

Many development organizations have begun to work with co-ed groups to address this problem. By creating clubs and cooperatives for both men and women that provide life skills training and education about GBV and family relations through the lens of human rights, organizations hope to engage community members at a family level that isn't as off-putting to men. While I praise the efforts of these organizations and think they are doing fantastic work, I do believe strongly that there is still a need for women and girls to have their own space. I think GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) clubs and camps have been an enormous source of support and encouragement for the girls at my school, as well as a space to ask questions they would otherwise feel uncomfortable asking. Without boys in the room, girls feel safer to speak up, to voice their opinion, and talk openly about sex, health, families, hopes, and dreams. But where does this leave boys?

In Peace Corps, we have BE (Boys Excelling) clubs and camps to provide life skills education along with important information about HIV/AIDS, sexual health, and GBV. But many times, volunteers struggle with what to do with their boys' groups. And many boys can be resistant to some of the material – no one likes to be confronted with privilege nor do they like to be addressed as a perpetrator. The GAD committee is currently working on an updated BE curriculum that aims to better address these issues for boys. Too often, we forget how gender roles affect and constrain men as well. Too often, men are never educated about how issues that seem to pertain only to women affect their lives and well-being. And too often, the materials we have only address the bad things men do to women without diving deeper into the greater societal constructs that leads to that behavior.

And strong, empowered women can flourish better surrounded by educated, supportive men.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Educate Women - Do it Now! By Caitie G.

Caitie Gibbons 

Kigali City, Kigali 

Rwandan women are amazing, so much so that I cannot fathom everything they do in a day, let alone in a week. They are awake before sunrise sweeping both the inside and outside of the house. They’re out the door by six or seven headed to the fields with a baby on their back, and only tea in their stomach. They farm for eight hours a day, usually without eating. They arrive back to the home around sunset, wash, and begin preparing to cook dinner on charcoal in the dark; a three hour or longer process. They don’t relax until eight or nine earliest and depending on how many babies they have they don’t even relax then. They serve their husbands every want and need, even though they’ve worked all day. And they do all this respectfully and without complaint.

I could never do this. I did this for one day and afterward slept for a day and a half fatigued by all the strain I put my body through. 

As January arrived March 8, International Women’s Day, weighed heavily on my mind. International Women’s Day is a day of celebration and appreciation; it is also a day of action and change.  Women are the backbone to this country the unsung heroes, and this year this was going to be celebrated in some way.  
It came in the form of a training of over seventy participants, from governmental officials to local community leaders to volunteers serving abroad.  The training taught participants how to lead celebrations for women in their communities, initiating change, and promoting awareness in the gender gap.

Since the training in mid February, I have been fortunate enough to attend several celebrations and participate in conversations about gender in Rwanda. Many groups questioned if we needed more awareness on gender and if it was actually a problem in Rwanda. The most common thread among groups was that gender is a form of colonization. I’ve heard this argument before regarding a different subject eating raw vegetables, but I digress. Here’s the thing: development is a choice and about choosing that choice. Frankly, if you want to develop both sexes need to be equal, encouraged and given opportunities. When you limit an entire population based on their sex you are ultimately limiting your country from developing by limiting its resources and brain power. Only half of your population is being developed, only half of its people are using their brains for development.

The men, surprisingly, voiced their fears of educating women. After all they might take over, what would we do then? That may be true, and as much as I would personally like to see that future all over the world, I am careful to voice that. Gender and development is not about women taking over, but rather women having the right to choose without a firm male hand guiding her every decision.

The next question remained. So what now?

Education. Educate women and girls, educate all sexes equally. Educate about gender roles and norms. Educate woman and girls so that they can have a choice and access to other options.  
Ultimately my own goal for Woman’s Day was to use the Three E method. The Three E method was developed by a former PCV and an amazing woman. It goes like this: Empower, Encourage, Educate.

Empower (Women and girls to have confidence, make choices, and strive for what they want).

Encourage (To continue striving, we are in for the marathon not the sprint and there are many barriers for women).

Educate (Provide resources and all the knowledge you can to boys, girls, men and women).

Education does so many different things for development. It is the root of everything. It creates opportunities, increases critical thinking, decision making skills and provides access to different options. All of these things in a concrete sense sum up to producing jobs. Jobs are the source of economic growth which creates stability and leads us to development but it begins with education.  And not only providing an education but an equal opportunity education for both sexes. I work for a future in which every girl and woman has the choice and the skills to make that choice. Only then can development really truly occur. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

World's Apart; or are we? by Maria L.

Maria Lockhart

Ngororero, Northwest Rwanda

I was sitting at a soccer game the other day with a few friends after giving an HIV lesson to community members.  As we were sitting there, 5 young girls stood behind me and were having a seemingly controversial conversation in Kinyarwanda.  As I started to listen harder I realized that there were arguing about whether being a "doctor of cows" is a good or bad job.  I found myself laughing and reflecting on young girls in America.  What kinds of conversations do we hear 12-year-old girls having in America?  As this thought sprouted deeper ones, I started to think about whether women in Rwanda are so very different from those of us in America.

Being the youngest of four girls and one boy in a family with a single mother, I would say I have been exposed to quite a bit of feminism.  My mother has always driven the idea of being independent and never having to rely on a man to complete your goals or to be happy.  When I was 11-years old in my social studies class in middle school, my classmates and I were asked to draw a picture of ourselves in 20 years.  I looked around and noticed that others were drawing pictures of two-story houses with a man and woman holding hands, while holding the hands of two, three or four small children.  As the class posted their pictures on the board in the back, I grew self-conscious as I pinned mine next to the others.  Amongst the happy heterosexual families was my picture of me with a shaved head, wearing an army uniform.  In my hand was one baby, and next to that baby in parenthesis stated “adopted”, just in case anyone was under suspicion that I needed a man to have that baby.  I was the weird one now, because I had no dream of being married and finding a husband.  I was 11 years old in 1997.  17 years later, have things changed that drastically?  Are women’s dreams still only to be married and have children?  Can a successful career and fulfilled dreams mean nothing if you have no man or partner to share it with? 

In Rwanda, I believe that having a husband and child is a need of many women.  While this is something in common with America, the drive behind this can be quite different.  Women in Rwanda are not given the same opportunities as majority of women in America.  Often women are not able to live independently or leave their parent’s home until they have found a man.  If a single woman lives in the village alone, you may find that she is criticized and mocked.  People can say she is promiscuous, or is a sex-worker; therefore finding friendships may be difficult.  While things are quite different in the capital city, Kigali, this struggle for women is met for the majority of the country who live in the surrounding villages.  This makes the search for a man a crucial one.  If you would like a life with your basic needs met, or a life independent from the one you’ve been raised in, most times you must search for the man with the means.   

These reasons are clearly breeding what I consider a very male-dominated society here in Rwanda.  The women are left with limited options, and are often times valued through their ability to have children and behavior as a wife.  Why is it then, in America, do women still value their lives at times through men?  We have the means and capabilities to have dreams beyond just finding a man and raising children?  Our privilege, even in the lowest income neighbors in Detroit, far exceed those in Rwanda.  I do not believe that the amount of women on a man-hunt in America greatly exceed those who are not, however in 1997 I do recall that very few girls had dreams of their own outside of raising a family.  Perhaps if I went into that classroom today, there would be pictures of all different sorts spread across that wall.  Maybe there would be some drawings with families, and others with girls flying planes to other countries, or opening the next big computer company.  I do know however, that my experience in life in these short 28 years, I do not see a huge difference between America and Rwanda in terms of woman valuing oneself through the man they found.  The difference I do see however is that women in Rwanda have a far greater need to find this man since their life can remain stagnant until they do so.  So what is it that needs adjusting in this world to make women more independent and less in need of a partner, but simply just a want?

I believe self-worth is what is needed.  Women in the world and Rwanda in general need to believe in their own self-worth and ability.  We can do some pretty amazing things, especially the incredibly strong women I have had the privilege to know in Rwanda.  So when can we start believing that we are the bread and the butter that we need?  This is not to say that a desire to have a family and life-long partner is a flaw in a woman, because I do not believe that.  However, when a majority of women in the world have to make this their priority and need, instead of a desire, this is when I believe it is a symptom of sexism.  When a woman chooses to have a family because she has gotten to a stage in her life where she wants to share and have a companionship, there is a true beauty in that life.  However what I am seeing here in Rwanda is that women are forced into a position where they must find a man and have children in order to have any sort of life here.  This is something that I believe GAD here in Rwanda wants to help influence and change.  Helping women believe they are worthy of having their own life with their own dreams, this is the kind of message I can only hope myself and others can share with young women in this country. 

American women, we are not many years out of oppression.  Sexism is still influencing our society, income and life in America greatly.  I believe it was in the most recent presidential election that a candidate expressed that companies need to be more flexible with women so they can go home and cook dinner for their families in a timely manner.  Perhaps if we can continue to grow out of these systematic flaws in America, then we can begin to understand how to be examples for other women in more challenging situations like the ones women are facing here in Rwanda.  I had my mother as an example of how to have self-value outside of a man, and I hope to be that same example to Rwandan women.  I attempt to live independently with pride and dignity here.  I attempt to say through my actions that I am happy and content, man or not.  Perhaps culturally, myself and other female PCVs here in Rwanda are viewed upon as strange or too old to not have children, however we may also be confirming one girls dreams to be something other than a wife with five children.  So keep on keeping on ladies of the world.  Worldwide we need these examples, not only just here in Rwanda.  Be that example and let women choose their own dreams, whether that be with a man, a woman, children, or not.  The men will begin to understand, and perhaps they too will begin to fall out of the places that society has molded for them as well.  Rwanda cannot come to the place it desires to be until both men and women alike are educated and creating opportunities.