Entirely lost in the moment, I suddenly find my hands folded over my heart and my eyes welling with tears. I look over at John and his eyes too are full to the brim. I steal a glance at Rodnika and she is quite literally beaming with pride. Alexis has a smile that couldn’t shine brighter.
10 young, brave, intelligent girls stand in front of us, performing a skit they’ve created about overcoming the obstacles that might obstruct a young Mozambican woman from pursuing her education. These young women, as young as 10 and as old as 20, confidently demonstrate to the rest of the 50 girls that with strength, perseverance, and focus, they can achieve their dreams. I am so proud I could explode.
The skits were the last event of the weekend. Sunday, we finished up our two REDES* Workshops (basically a summer camp type deal) in the province of Zambézia. Over 60 young women and their facilitators came from from far and wide to participate in the 3-day events where they learned all about HIV/AIDS, healthy living, puberty, pregnancy, healthy relationships, self-esteem, and good methods of communication. We made re-usable pads, capulana bracelets, sang songs, played games, had some pretty excellent dance circles and had a giant slumber party.
As the skits finished up the importance of what we – Mozambican and American facilitators together – had done began to wash over me. These girls were receiving information that will empower them to choose a healthy life, that will empower them to say yes or no when the time comes. These girls were given the opportunity to travel and to make new friends from new places. They were able to ask tough questions in a safe place and receive accurate information. Additionally, these girls were given three protein packed meals a day, a brand new t-shirt, and a certificate of completion they flaunted with pride.
The stories I heard over the course of the workshop reinforced my passion for REDES. One facilitator reported that no one had ever told the 10-13-year-old girls in her group about menstruation, and so she had to explain what happens to the female body during puberty. Let me repeat: no one had told these tween-aged girls that blood was about to come out of their bodies and it is normal. Can you for one second imagine getting your period for the first time without warning?
Another facilitator told me their girls had never heard of the immune system or about HIV/AIDS before. Zambézia has a 12.6% rate of infection. That same facilitator told me that a few years ago one of his girls had been disowned by her family and forced to leave her home because she didn’t want to get married. She now lives on her own, pays for her own school, and takes care of herself because she knew that getting married so young meant the end of her dreams for a future.
Another facilitator told me she wanted to start a group in a town in the middle of nowhere, an hour away from where she lives. A REDES group is necessary there, she said, because girls frequently get married off and become pregnant extremely young, drop out of school, and the number of people infected with HIV/AIDS is unusually high. I agreed and asked how I can help. She explained that all I needed to do was go with her to the secondary school. By accompanying her and showing the director my flimsy Peace Corps ID, I could provide her with the legitimacy she needs to change girls lives that she otherwise alone would not have. The entire experience sparked so much reflection.
It was a lot of work. As the REDES Coordinator in Zambézia, I was responsible for putting on both workshops even though I wouldn’t be able to attend the one farther north. I made and remade budgets, coordinated with over 20 facilitators entirely in Portuguese, made multiple after-school trips to Quelimane to get everything printed, buy materials, get t-shirts made, etc., prepped the materials for every station, the list goes on. Luckily for me, I had an incredible support system in Alda, my amazing counterpart, and all the wonderful PCVs in attendance. Special shout out goes to Sid who kept me sane, kept me going, listened to me vent, and jumped into action, helping at moments notice. With all that said and done, I can’t really imagine anything else that could be any more worth every second of the preparation.
I know it was only 3 days and I know information can easily be forgotten. I don’t imagine that this workshop or a REDES group will fix all the problems or wash away all the challenges these girls encounter and will encounter. Even so, I know with certainty this work means something. I know it is important. I know that these girls have gone home with just a bit more knowledge, a bit more power, and with a few more friends than they had before.
*REDES – Raparigas em Desenvolvimento, Educação, e Saúde / Girls in Development, Education and Health