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Peace Corps helps empower Girls in Education: Fixing the Girls or Fixing the Problem?
Peace Corps helps empower Girls in Education: Fixing the Girls or Fixing the Problem?
Empowering Girls in Education: Fixing the Girls or Fixing the Problem?
Nov 1, 2003 - Off Our Backs
Author(s): Kays, Lisa
"Clap for her, clap louder, louder," the MC bellowed into the microphone, occasionally stopping the ceremony to ensure that each participant was applauded loudly enough.
I witnessed this in 2000 in the West African country of Benin, where Peace Corps Volunteers and local organizers, three of which were men, organized a talent show to honor girls' education and abilities. The event featured every schoolgirl from two surrounding villages and was highlighted by the speeches of two girls who participated in a girls' empowerment program, Take Our Daughters to Work, sponsored by Peace Corps.
The emcee implored the crowd to clap louder in recognition of girls and their skits, speeches, and songs. A few times, he encouraged encores from the smallest girls and offered enthusiastic translations of their performances into local language.
A scholarship winner from Benin
A man showing such enthusiasm for girls' education was not often the norm in Benin, and I was somewhat shocked to be witnessing it.
It was shocking to me because I was on my third year of service in a country where, according to UNESCO's 2002 EFA Global Monitoring report, enrollment ratios for girls in school are two-thirds or less of those than boys. Further, I had spent two years teaching in classrooms where only about 6 of the 70 students per class were girls.
These statistics are fairly representative of the situation in the rest of Africa. UNESCO found that gender disparity was a general rule in sub-Saharan Africa as of 2002.
The reasons are often socioeconomic factors such as the need for girls to stay at home to watch younger siblings or maintain the household, assumptions that girls are not as intelligent or capable as boys or a family's assumption that an investment in a daughter's future is not wise since she will marry into another family.
I often asked my students why there were so few girls in my classes and was told (by the boys) that girls are lazy, don't like school and would rather stay home.
Interactions with my teaching colleagues, all of whom were male, were also enlightening. At a faculty meeting, a medical practitioner was brought in to discuss birth control methods. The faculty began debating which methods were best for the female students with whom they slept. After this, I often explained how I got through university without sleeping with a teacher (now it was their turn to be shocked), that I did not feel that girls were inherently stupid or lazy and that I did not support their using their female students as waitresses, cooks and "girlfriends."
Despite the difficulties African girls encounter to reach classrooms, there are signs of hope, due in part to international initiatives. In 1973, the Percy Amendment to the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act required that U.S. foreign aid take women into specific consideration. The Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 made strides to get women's concerns on the international agenda. Gender equality became one of eight United Nations Millenium Development Goals in 2000.
A class in Benin where only 5 of 43 students are women.
In Africa, the results of initiatives such as these are evident in decreasing disparities. Since the 1990s, gender disparity has lessened in at least 92 countries, among them the African nations of Benin, Chad, Guinea and Mali, said UNESCO in 2002. As an example of action leading to improvements, Benin eliminated girls' school fees in rural public schools and launched a parental awareness campaign about gender issues in education.
Two Different Worlds
The distinct differences between the opportunities afforded me as a young woman in the United States and those unavailable to so many of my female Beninese students and friends motivated me to become active in Peace Corps Benin's Women in Development committee.
According to Lyn Messner, Peace Corps' Women in Development/ Gender and Development Coordinator, out of roughly 25 countries in Africa with Peace Corps programs, 19 have gender-based committees.
Like many of those countries' committees, Benin's has a nationwide girls' scholarship program for financially needy and academically promising girls.
Before its funding was cut this year, the committee also conducted a mentoring program called Take Our Daughters to Work, modeled after the Ms. Foundation's program. It consisted of introducing girls to successful professional women to inspire them to continue with school and seek careers. For many of these girls, their trip to the capital to meet their maman modele was the first time they saw a computer, telephone or toilet. The program also trained local women in the girls' villages to serve as role models. These mentors were given small funds to execute leadership activities for their community.
Their girls' clubs, girls' soccer teams or micro-credit trainings built in HIV/AIDS education, reproductive health education, self-esteem building, study skills, and other activities.
Peace Corps is not unique in its work on gender issues in Africa. According to the Education for Democracy and Development Initiative's Web site, the U.S. government funds girls' scholarship programs in over 30 African countries, reaching over 16,000 girls.
The Forum for African Educationalists, a group started in 1992 by former ministers and leaders in Africa, promotes girls' education through policy, advocacy, intervention, replication and mainstreaming. It currently has 33 national chapters throughout Africa. Beyond this, countless individuals, churches and governmental and non-governmental aid agencies promote girls' education.
How international development work is executed, despite the best of intentions, can have unexpected ramifications that must be considered to ensure that the interventions have the desired effect. Gender is no exception and is not without complicated questions and concerns.
These questions became real to me at a 2001 training for education Volunteers and their Beninese coworkers. The climate was alert and agitated as a room of primarily female first-year Volunteers and Beninese teachers (mostly male) debated gender issues.
I listened to the men say that girls can't sit together in class because they talk too much, won't pay attention, and so on. More disturbing than these, and the usual unfair generalizations, was the idea, held by many well-meaning men and women, that we must find strategies to make it easier for girls to succeed so they could compete with boys.
Top: Students in a classroom. Bottom: Women at conference.
After the Americans presented their ideas about gender and education and explained their intervention programs, it became clear that their colleagues had not heard that these interventions were designed to compensate for an unfair system. Rather, when they heard "girls' education, women's empowerment" they thought they were to create situations in which the inferior, weak girl could compete with the superior, strong boys that consistently outnumbered and overwhelmed them in the classroom.
They asked sincerely how to bring girls up to the level of boys. Girls' clubs, extra study sessions, more lenient discipline, more strict punishment for harassing and belittling girls? They had finally gotten the message and were seeking solutions.
But what message? Which solutions?
That we must protect our girls, watch out for them, create a smooth road on which they could successfully travel, since they were clearly unable to walk the rough terrain trusted to boys?
No, no, I thought, overwhelmed by the implications of this misunderstanding. It's not about special treatment, but about strategies that include everyone. The problem is not that girls can't speak or give a correct answer, but that all too often, they're not asked to. Their disinterest is assumed, and therefore never disproved.
Top: Students in a classroom. Bottom: Women at conference.
Women and girls at a meeting about the Peace-Corps sponsored Take Our Daughters to Work program.
This is not a question of ability, but of environment, says a 1999 Gender Matters Information Bulletin: "Girls and boys in the same classroom do not receive the same education. In developing countries...boys are taught to be assertive...girls, in contrast are socialized to behave more passively and are...ignored by teachers. When teachers use methods that encourage standing and shouting, boys learn better. Because boys appear to be more responsive, teachers perceive them as more interested and smarter..."
We thought we were saying that the reality is not that girls are the problem, but that the way they are treated is the problem. But our signals were getting crossed. And while it was bad if teachers and parents were misinterpreting our programs, it was far worse to think that the girls might be internalizing this message as well.
Since the problem extended beyond the girls to encompass their educational and societal systems, it was evident that the participation and education of men and boys, as well as women and girls, was essential to assuring girls the place they deserved in their schools and countries.
This is one of the criticisms of a Women in Development (WID) approach to gender development-that it targets women as the "problem" and doesn't include men as part of the solution.
Women in Development? Gender and Development\?
The evolution of thought concerning gender and its role in development has been occurring since the 1950s and 1960s, when women's concerns were seen in terms of their role as mothers and caretakers, says a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) WID publication. Women's contributions...beyond the "reproductive sphere" were not acknowledged in developing countries because "their work in this sphere was 'invisible' because it was not recorded in national statistics."
According to USAID documentation, an increased understanding and awareness of women's contributions to their societies led to the WID approach in the mid-1970s, which raised global awareness of women's issues and helped women organize around issues relevant to them. This approach focused on incorporating women into the already existing power structures within their societies.
The Gender and Development (GAD) approach developed in the 1990s out of concern that WID didn't address the overarching framework in societies that continued to be male-dominated, says USAID. It was designed to turn development away from an approach of mere inclusion, or developing separate programs for women, and rather aimed to integrate women's issues to change the structure that created the inequalities. According to a paper by the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women, GAD is "not concerned with women per se but with the social construction of gender and the assignment of specific roles, responsibilities, and the expectations to women and to men."
While WID then, might develop girls' scholarship programs to put more girls in school, a GAD approach might include such measures while also educating parents about the obstacles girls face in schools-such as limited access to toilet facilities, harassment from teachers and students, curricula that are gender-biased-and mobilizing the community to eliminate those obstacles. A GAD approach might also sponsor community meetings where parents and educators examine how boys and girls spend their time during the day to better understand the extra responsibilities girls and not boys have at home to try to encourage a more equitable division of household chores among siblings of each sex.
The tensions between WID and GAD are somewhat similar to those of the affirmative action debate in the United States, where many have trouble deciding if affirmative action corrects an unjust system, or sends a signal that certain types of people need assistance to be competitive in that system. The overall question, whether for race or gender, has to be answered in terms of long-term impact.
For gender specialists working in international development, this impact is through a change in structure.
Sitting at that training, fuming at participants trying to find ways to compensate for girls' inabilities, I considered this. It is unjust and unproductive to assume that women are the problem, that by "fixing" them and giving them more skills, education, self- esteem, etc., it will remedy the reality that they are not respected, included or valued in society. The disrespect for women is not, and has never been based upon their inability to achieve, but upon the willingness of everyone-men and women-to believe they had no place despite their capabilities.
There is a place in development for increasing women's access to education, for granting them the skills they often cannot acquire or practice and for giving them educational and vocational opportunities they may not otherwise have. It is crucial to prepare women to take on previously unknown and unfamiliar roles.
At the same time, the structural issues that lead to these inequalities must be addressed. If WID is an acknowledgement that women, due to society's failures on their behalf, need exposure to certain ideas and skills to acquire them, GAD represents the idea that it is everyone's responsibility to meet those educational needs and incorporate the ensuing skills into all facets of development. It isn't acceptable for girls to need to go outside of public schools to find an education that meets their needs; this education should be intrinsic within the existing system.
And sometimes that change comes from development programs focused on inclusion and access, said Peace Corps' Women in Development/ Gender and Development Coordinator Lyn Messner, with the main difference being that GAD allows for program design and intervention based not on outside assumptions about gender roles but on the reality of the community as a whole.
Of the 19 Peace Corps gender committees in Africa, all have switched in the last few years from being WID to GAD committees, said Messner. However, some committees globally wish to remain WID committees, she said. They feel their programs reflect women's issues and empowerment and that is where they want their focus to remain.
These group's programs won't necessarily look that different from a GAD committee's, said Messner. A shift to GAD, she said, does not necessarily mean a shift away from working with women or drastic changes in programs. "The bottom line," she said, "is that it matters how you get there. Did you use gender analysis to get there or did you just go on assumptions based on stereotypes? Did you take into account the socio-cultural structure or did you just make an assumption?"
The difference between WID and GAD is not in the outcome, said Messner. "Looking at any given activity from afar one can make a guess at...this is a WID activity or this is a GAD activity, but you don't know until you know how they got there," she said. "If the Volunteers are doing [a particular activity] because they want to do a women's-only or girls'-only project and they want to address the economic disparities among women and girls, that's a WID approach. But, if they're taking into account gender roles and access, gender division of labor, power relations and they've identified this as a gender need, then it's a GAD activity."
The shift from WID to GAD then, at least for Peace Corps, meant mainstreaming women's issues. Instead of having Volunteers that worked solely on women's issues, all Volunteers, whether education, agriculture or small enterprise, would account for gender in all activities.
Gender analysis was defined in 1997 by the U.N. Economic and Social Council as an assessment of the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programs, in any area and at all levels. It makes the concerns and experiences of women and men an integral part of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programs in all political, economic and societal spheres. Women and men benefit equally, so inequality is not perpetuated.
Benin student in a classroom.
Continually Moving Forward
According to Patricia T. Morris of the Commission on the Advancement of Women, writing for InterAction's Stories of Equitable Development: Innovative Practices from Africa, at the 1999 International Gender Conference in Ghana, over 40 percent of the participants were African men hoping to build partnerships with women to promote equitable and sustainable development.
Whatever the approach to girls' education or the progress of the theoretical debate, the lives they lead are changing for the better- a sign of hope for everyone on the continent. While much of that hope stems from efforts to put girls in school, a crucial element arises from the increasing participation of men in efforts to enhance the status of girls and women.
As I sat at the same ceremony honoring girls, the one that crystallized my thinking about girls' education and the best ways to execute it to help Africa's women, I noted a few elderly women circulating in the crowd. They probably understood very little of the ceremony because it was conducted in French, Benin's national language-one they probably didn't speak, since one learns it in school.
I wondered what they were thinking of this man demanding louder and louder recognition of girls. Did they think he was insane? Did they see the girls being recognized as weak or necessitating special attention? Did they feel that educating girls was a waste of time considering their societal structure? Were they merely stunned at the changes that had occurred since they had been the same age as the girls being recognized?
Or were they simply asking themselves where the encouragement and demands for applause were when they were young, without the opportunity to go to school at all?
The ideas expressed within this article are in no way endorsed by her employer, Peace Corps or Lyn Messner.
All photos thanks to Lisa Kays.
It is unjust and unproductive to assume that women are the problem, that by "fixing" them and giving them more skills, education, self-esteem and so on, it will remedy the reality that they are not respected, included or valued in society.
This is one of the criticisms of a Women in Development approach to gender development-that it targets women as the "problem" and doesn't include men as part of the solution.
Lisa Kays was a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1998-2001 in Benin, in West Africa and worked at the time this article was written for a program that grants girls' scholarships to African girls. She has researched, written on and given trainings on gender and international women's issues for publications and for non-profit organizations. She maintains her ties to Benin and spent time there this summer on a professional visit.
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Nov/Dec 2003