Every Tuesday afternoon I meet with my Girl's Club at school. The club consists of about 30 Grade 7-9 girls. Over the past two years my counterpart and I, and amazingly empowered Gambian woman who is a teacher at my school, have touched on a wide range of topics with the girls from reproductive health, to preventing pregnancy, to planning for their future and making responsible decisions. The highlight of the club, and the reason that at least half of our members are in it, is the annual excursion program. Gambian kids rarely get the opportunity to leave the 10 k radius around their villages so going on trips is a really big deal for them. Last year Rachel's (my good friend and partner in crime) Girl's Club came to my village to have a sleepover and empowerment program so this year my girls and I traveled the 30 k to Kerewan to return the visit at the Kerwan upper basic school. The girls held luncheon sales and raffled off footballs at the school to raise money for the trip and were very excited to wear their crisp new Club uniforms to travel in style in a gele gele rented exclusively for the trip. For many of my girls this was the first time they had been away from their village without a family member, the first time they had seen a large town, the first time to cross a bridge and for some the first time to leave their district.
While planning for the weekend program Rach and I jokingly entitled it "Our Bodies, Ourselves" and that pretty much some up the activities. We had sessions on the impact of gender on the division of labor, mapping their bodies and talking about taking care of themselves during menstruation, eating right and exercising. We also had sessions on the reproductive system, preventing pregnancy and STIs and breaking myths and stereotypes around sex and repro health. We also through some fun stuff in there like relay races, a DJ and dancing at night and of course lots of food with lots of meat - a necessity at any Gambian program.
Of course the weekend couldn't go down without a little drama and we had our fair share of it Friday night when the DJ was at the school for the girls to relax and have fun. Rach and I were pretty against having a DJ from the get go because anytime one comes to a village or town for a program the rif-raf seem to come out of the woodwork to oggle at teenage girls and just generally cause trouble. But the Kerewan girls really wanted to their program to have that extra umf of classiness so they went door to door around their community asking for donations. Rach and I were so impressed at their initiative that we didn't want to crush them by saying no. So against maybe out better judgement, the DJ arrived and ndaga and pseudo-reggae filled the night sky, spilled out of the school grounds and was like a siren to hundreds of boys and men throughout the town that were just sitting on stoops with nothing to do. They arrived in mass at the school and were decidedly pissed that Rach, the night watchmen and I were not letting boys come into the school grounds for the program. Rachel and I wanted to protect the girls, give them a chance to enjoy themselves and the company of each other without men oggling them, shouting at them suggestively or groping them - which is the general run down of how boys/men treat women in this country. So few people stand up for girls rights to be protected here and feel safe. So few people respect a woman's right NOT to be sexually harassed. We wanted to give that to our girls, at least for one night so we stood at the gates and did not let the boys enter explaining that the program was only for girls and that any girl of the town was welcome to come but that boys were not. Well, that did not go over so well. Men, and even 7 year old boys, are not accustomed to women telling them no or that they cannot do something. As a result, throughout the night profanities assailed us, we were spit at, stoned with rocks and just generally harassed. We held out ground till about 12 am then we got tired and left our posts to go hang out with our girls. Boys came in, but they were already jumping over the schools walls before this, but the majority had given up so it was a manageable number and we were able to keep them away from the girls with only one incidence of unwanted ass grabbing. Through it all, our girls were coming to check on us and seemed genuinely surprised that we cared about protecting them so much and were angry that we were being treated so poorly. Sexual harassment is something that most Gambian girls don't even question, male preference and dominance is so ingrained that few people question their right to say no to them.
Despite all the Friday night drama, the weekend was a huge success. I felt so much more prepared and able to really connect with the girls and transfer some useful and relevant information in a way that would be heard, as compared to our program last year. My relationship with my girls is so much stronger and I just feel more comfortable in general teaching and interacting here. The girls are still talking about the weekend and bragging to all their friends at school about what they saw and heard and ate. I feel a great sense of fulfillment listening to them excitedly explain something they learned and seeing their faces light up when they talk about the fun memories with their friends. And really....you haven't lived till you've been stoned protecting a girls right to be free and have fun without the danger of harassment or assault. Rach put it the best....for the rest of our lives we are going to hear horrible stories about injustices perpetrated against women around the world, but we will always have these moments to look back on where we did our part, we stood up for their right to be safe and protected and we taught them to fight for rights and no longer be ashamed.
*See my flickr page for pics!