The last two Fridays, I hosted GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) Nights for 23 high school girls. The idea was to create a safe and fun environment for girls to discuss issues like HIV/AIDS, girls’ empowerment, and gender-based violence. The girls all go to a boarding school, and while some of these things are supposed to be taught in schools or by parents, in reality, they are not. The girls and I (with the help of my fellow PCV Kate) played various educational games throughout the evening, and they had a lot of questions. I myself learned most from this game called Agree or Disagree. Kate and I would read statements like, “A woman must always obey her husband, no matter what he tells her to do” or “If a woman is raped, it is her own fault” and the girls would hold up signs saying AGREE or DISAGREE, and then we would discuss why they felt that way. Their answers, while not completely shocking, saddened me greatly. I felt like I was in an episode of Mad Men, except with teenage girls and school uniforms instead of gorgeous 60s costuming.
Listening to the girls explain their reasons for agreeing or disagreeing was also really fascinating. When we read the statement “It is a big problem if a woman makes more money than her husband”, all of the girls raised their AGREE cards. I expected to hear that their reason was that the husband would feel jealous and threatened by his wife, but the GLOW girls said the reason was that they wouldn’t have any respect for their husband, and would basically have no reason to get married if their husband wasn’t benefitting them financially! Ah, true love.
|My amazing GLOW girls...yes, I realize I look like a midget in this picture|
We discussed domestic violence, which is very present in Rwanda, but highly secretive. I was brought back to one of the most difficult moments of my service, when I lived with my Rwandan host family during training. I awoke one night to the dull thud of fist on flesh, and heard the cries of my sweet host Mama being beaten by my host Papa. The next morning, my host mother had bruises on her body. When I asked her what happened, she simply shrugged and said that Papa was drunk the night before. And that was it. I was outraged, but it was simply part of her reality. All of the girls at GLOW Night agreed that domestic violence happens in Rwanda, but they didn’t know how common it was. I asked them to think about the reasons a women might be afraid to seek help in Rwanda, and we came up with several reasons: the woman is afraid that if she reports her husband to authorities, he will be put in prison and leave her and their family destitute; The woman is afraid that she will be shunned/judged by her family or members of her community; The woman is afraid that her husband or other men will seek retribution.
|Watching Mulan after the discussions! Yay girl power!|
One of the hardest things for me to realize is that some of these problems are just as present in America as Rwanda. Sure, it may be more acceptable for women to be working mothers or to share household responsibilities with your husband, but it was sobering, to say the least, that the very week I was teaching the young women about rape and domestic violence, the Steubenville rape trial verdict was reached, and the American media collectively wrung its hands over the "ruined lives" of the rapists rather than the victim.
The two GLOW Nights I hosted have brought me more questions than answers. Perhaps the biggest question on my mind is: how do we change a culture? How do we go about changing the culture that condones rape, which blames the victims rather than the perpetrators, that offers little recourse for women who experience domestic violence? And I think the answer is: person-by-person. Mind by mind. Heart by heart.
The process of changing a culture is slow. Sometimes glacially slow. Sometimes it’s frustrating and it seems like things will never change. But I am happy to have the chance to at least start the conversation with the GLOW girls, because if we all work together, the future will look a lot brighter than the present.