Last month was my region’s GLOW Camp, or Girls Leading Our World (we held our inaugural BE Camp, or Boys Excelling Camp in August). Peace Corps Volunteers run BE Camps for teenage boys, and GLOW Camps for teenage girls across the world, and the camps are my favorite part of Peace Corps. They are exhausting, exciting, and they really make an impact.
We also had HIV/AIDS skits, where several featured topics that probably wouldn’t come up in a similar camp in the United States, like Sugar Daddies and Sugar Mommies (adults who pay school fees or give gifts to youth in return for sex), unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence in Rwanda, and witch doctors who offer “cures” for HIV/AIDS or malaria. At our GLOW Camp, I was shocked to learn about the prevalence of sexual violence, coercion, and double standards in the girls' lives. The girls in our group expressed sadness about the "boys will be boys" attitude that prevails here, and the casual acceptance of men using prostitutes (apparently, even in secondary school). They were even more frustrated by their perceived powerlessness to change the system. I think one of the most important lessons we taught at our camps is that attitudes and cultures do change, and youth can be a part of that change.
At the end of the camp, the teens made action plans on how they were going to educate others about leadership, preventing HIV/AIDS, and malaria. Many of them are forming health and leadership clubs at their schools, with both male and female members. Peer education at its best!
The camps also made me realize how many intangible things I took for granted. I grew up never contemplating taking a Sugar Daddy to pay my school tuition because I would be forced to drop out without the money, or becoming a prostitute because my family is starving and I have no other options. Economic circumstances often force people into choices they wouldn't make otherwise, and to have that choice is a moral luxury. At home, I received nothing but encouragement from my parents to be whatever I wanted to be, and to be the best at it. I never even considered that there might be something I couldn't do because I'm a girl.
I took for granted the fact that I grew up with an amazing role model at home, my Mom. She broke down barriers by becoming one of few female doctors in her medical school class, and who worked as an emergency room doctor while taking care of 4 kids, volunteering at our church and schools, and "leaning in" before Sheryl Sandberg was even born. Moreover, I grew up thinking these attitudes and support were normal. My experiences outside of the US have shown me that they are the exception, not the rule.