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Posts Tagged ‘girls’

This post is copied from an email that my colleague Kelly Hawrylyshyn sent to me. Kelly works on disaster risk reduction (DRR) with Plan UK. If you work on DRR and gender, go on, get yourself on the map!

Women and girls make a major contribution to disaster risk reduction and yet their role and involvement often go unacknowledged. In recognition of this gap, the Gender & Disaster Network, the Huairou Commission, Oxfam International and Plan International are facilitating the greater visibility of women and girls as part of the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), October 13th, 2012.

Gender inequalities around the world mean that women and girls are most severely affected by disaster. However, they also have significant experience and knowledge to contribute to disaster prevention and to the resilience of communities.

With this in mind, our efforts aim to move beyond portraying women and girls as mere victims of disasters and to provide spaces and opportunities for women and girls to connect and partner freely with local governments and organizations. We aim to showcase how women and girls around the world are carrying out disaster reduction and prevention actions; engaging and leading in climate change awareness activities; taking part in demonstrations and simulations; promoting resilient cities initiatives; and mapping risks.

Using crowdsourcing and crowdmapping tools, we aim to generate greater visibility and recognition of local initiatives by women and girls worldwide for disaster risk reduction.

Visit our map and report your own examples, in advance of the International Day for Disaster Reduction, October 13th, 2012.

We need your help to “put on the map” the numerous research initiatives, media events, publications, training materials, advocacy, workshops, networks/associations, and other activities that are happening and need to be made VISIBLE!

Contributions from both individual women and girls and organizations engaged in DRR are welcomed.

And who knows, you may get to find out about some interesting work taking place in your country, or miles away from you!

Join Us to make visible Women and Girls on the Map!

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‘Breast flattening,’ also known as ‘breast ironing’ or ‘breast massage,’ is a practice whereby a young girl’s developing breasts are massaged, pounded, pressed, or patted with an object, usually heated in a wooden fire, to make them stop developing, grow more slowly or disappear completely.

Rebecca Tapscott* spent last August in the area of Bafut, in the Northwest, Anglophone region of Cameroon, where a 2006 study by the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) found an 18% prevalence rate of breast flattening. The practice has been known as breast ‘ironing,’ however, Rebecca opts to use the term ‘flattening’ to decrease stigma and encourage open conversation about a practice that remains largely hidden.** Rebecca wanted to understand the role of breast flattening in the broader context of adolescence in Cameroon, including past and present motivations for breast flattening; cultural foundations; relation to other forms of gender-based violence such as female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C); how and where it is practiced; the psychological and the physical implications of the practice on individual girls.

Rebecca published her findings via the Feinstein International Center in May 2012, in a paper titled: Understanding Breast “Ironing”: A Study of the Methods, Motivations, and Outcomes of Breast Flattening Practices in Cameroon.

She visited our office late last year to share the results of her work with staff at the Plan USA office, explaining that there is currently very little research or documentation of breast flattening. The GIZ study is the only quantitative study on the practice, and there do not seem to be any medical studies on breast flattening. It’s a practice that is believed to affect 1 out of 4 girls in Cameroon, more commonly in some regions than in others. Of note is that research on breast flattening has thus far only been conducted in Cameroon, thus creating the impression that the practice is uniquely Cameroonian, when in reality, it may be a regional phenomenon.

Organizations working to end breast flattening do so with the aim of protecting girls. However, the question of protection is an interesting one depending on who you talk with. Rebecca found that those who practice breast flattening also believe they are protecting girls. “Many mothers believe that unattended, a girl’s breasts will attract advances of men who believe physically developed girls are ‘ripe’ for sex. Breast flattening is seen as a way to keep girls safe from men so that they are able to stay in school and avoid pregnancy.”

According to Rebecca, breast flattening is practiced out of a desire to delay a girl’s physical development and reduce the risk of promiscuous behavior. Proponents of the practice consider that “men will pursue ‘developed’ girls and that girl children are not able to cope with or deter men’s attention. They see that promiscuity can result in early pregnancy, which limits educational, career, and marriage opportunities, shames the family, increases costs to family (newborn, loss of bride price, health complications from early childbirth or unsafe abortion).” In addition, there is the belief that girls are not sufficiently intellectually developed to learn about puberty, and therefore should not yet develop breasts. Another reason given for the practice is the belief that girls who develop before their classmates will be the target of teasing and become social outcasts. There is also, for some, the belief that large breasts are unattractive or not fashionable.

Rebecca cites a poor understanding of human biology as one reason that the practice persists. Some of the beliefs around it include: “Belief that sensitivity and pain during breast development indicates that the growth is too early and must be artificially delayed until the girl is older. Belief that when a girl develops breasts she will stop growing taller. Belief that puberty can be delayed by delaying breast development. Belief that for breasts to grow properly, the first growth should always be repressed (like baby teeth). Belief that if breasts begin growing at a young age, they will grow too large or be misshapen, resulting in a displeasing or disproportionate female form. Belief that breasts and other outward signs of sexuality develop in accordance with a girl’s interest in sex, and therefore a developed girl is soliciting sexual advances or is a ‘bad’ girl. Belief that when a girl develops breasts, she believes she has matured and subsequently, she becomes less obedient. Belief that it will improve breast feeding at a later age.”

“…For mothers there is the perception that we should delay the development of girls as much as possible, believing that physical development shows maturity. Men look at girls and talk amongst themselves and say, “she’s ripe for sex.” They are not looking for marriage prospects…Men are aggressive. In pidgin, they say “she got get done big,” meaning, she’s matured and ready for sex. I can go after her now. Women, on the other hand, know that their daughters are just kids.” ~ journalist that Rebecca interviewed.

Rebecca also heard explanations such as “A girl will stop growing taller because the weight of her breasts will hold her down. One can delay puberty by delaying breast growth. If the breasts hurt during puberty, they are developing too early.” There are also many beliefs related to a girl’s development and her sexual reputation. Some of these beliefs include that a girl with large breasts is a ‘bad girl’. This stems from the belief that breasts start to develop when a man touches them or if a girl is thinking about sex, going to night clubs or watching pornography. Rebecca found that many of these beliefs were held across all segments of society, from the very well educated to those with no formal education.

“The body responds to psychological ideas. If a girl looks for a “friend,” her breasts will grow faster. If she is interested in boys or watches pornography, her body will develop faster.” ~ Interviewee at the Ministry of Social Affairs

“If a girl is interested in sex and thinks about it a lot, she will develop faster. I saw two girls of 12 years, one of whom was very developed physically and the other was not. The one who was developed could speak very frankly about sex, showing that she was knowledgeable from some experience, while the other girl was very naive and shy.” ~ Teacher

Because of potential stigma or harm to girls who talked about undergoing breast flattening, Rebecca only interviewed a few teenaged girls directly during this phase of her research. Instead, she mainly interviewed older women, as well as a few boys and men. She found that most women who had experienced breast flattening didn’t seem to remember the experience as extremely traumatic; however, she commented, “most are remembering from back in the day. Most at first said didn’t really hurt but then after a while into the interview, they’d remember, well, yes it hurt.” Rebecca was surprised at the number of people who said that heated leaves were used, because the media normally reports that a grinding stone or pestle is used for breast flattening.

“When I was 11 years old, my grandmother did a form of breast flattening to me. This was in 1984. I was walking around with her shoulders hunched forward to hide my developing chest, so my grandmother called me to the kitchen. She warmed some fresh leaves on the fire and said something in the dialect, like a pleading to the ancestors or spirits. Then she applied the leaves to my chest, and used them to rub and pat my breasts flat. She would also rub and pat my back, so as to make the chest flat and even on the front and the back. It hurts because the chest is so sensitive then—but they are not pressing too hard.” ~ 38 year old woman from the community

“To do the practice, I warmed the pestle in the fire, and used it in a circular motion to press the breasts flat. I did it once per day for over a week—maybe 8 or 9 days. I massaged them well, and they went back for seven years.” ~ 53-year-old woman attending a maternal health clinic in Bafut, attending with a different daughter whose breasts she did not flatten

“Until about a year ago, I believed that when a girl is interested in sex, watches porn, or lets boys touch their breasts, her breasts will grow larger. I think my mother must believe this. My ideas changed when I saw my own friends—I knew they were virgins, but they had large breasts. Also when my own breasts got bigger, and it was not because a man was touching them.” ~ Journalist in Bamenda

There is currently no consensus on whether the practice is effective at reducing the size of a girl’s breasts or if it has long-term effects on breast size. “People told me completely different things gave the same result, or people cited the very same practices as yielding different results,” said Rebecca.

Rebecca’s findings indicate that the practice of breast flattening is not a longstanding ‘traditional’ practice. Many people reported that it became more popular with urbanization. “People [who immigrated to cities] didn’t know their neighbors and they were worried about the safety of their daughters. It seems that an old practice that was used for ‘shaping’ was repurposed and adapted. Breast flattening is a very intimate and personal thing between mother and daughter. It doesn’t happen to all daughters. It’s very difficult to track, and there is no association with ethnic groups, education, socioeconomic levels, religion, etc.,” she explained.

“Most men don’t know about it. One boy said he thought it was good to protect girls.” When she talked holistically with men about what they look for in a woman, Rebecca said, “an interest in chastity and virginity came out very clearly. In Cameroon the average age for girls to lose virginity is 13-17, and it’s the same for boys. According to studies, for most, the first sexual experience is unwilling.”

Most doctors that Rebecca talked to had never heard of the practice. One doctor in Yaoundé said he had seen first and second degree burns as a result. Some cite that edemia may be a result. Development organizations like GIZ say it can cause cysts, cancer, and other difficulties but also cited that only 8% of women report suffering negative side effects, while 18% report that their breasts “fell” or sagged at an early age.

Many women who Rebecca interviewed considered the practice a very low concern compared to other problems that impact on their development, such as illiteracy, sexual exploitation, poverty and unemployment. “The women that I talked to,” said Rebecca, “often asked me, ‘Why are you asking me about this? It’s such a small thing compared to other things we have to face.’”

Given that there is not much research or consensus around breast flattening in Cameroon and the broader region, Rebecca’s work may be of use to local and international organizations that are working to promote women’s and children’s rights. Rebecca emphasizes that most people who engage in what are commonly referred to as ‘harmful traditional practices’ including female genital cutting (FGC) and breast flattening, actually do so with their child’s best interest in mind, as a means of protecting and promoting the child within the community and following social norms. Therefore, frightening or berating people may not be the best approach to discourage the practice of breast flattening. Community input will be needed to identify the root causes of the practice for it to become obsolete. Better sex education and a reduction in stigma around talking about sexual reproductive health may also help. Men will need to be part of the solution, and so will mothers who currently feel the need to take protection of their daughters into their own hands. Like many similar practices, it’s not likely that breast flattening will end until other systems and environments that set the stage for it also change.

*Rebecca worked with Plan Cameroon for several weeks on the Youth Empowerment through Technology, Arts and Media (YETAM) Project last June and July. She traveled to Bafut following her internship to conduct independent research.

**This distinction is similar to the difference between the terms female genital ‘mutilation’ and female genital ‘cutting.’

Read the full report.

Contact Rebecca for more information: rebecca.tapscott [at] gmail.com

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If you happen to be in New York City and have a couple of hours to spare, come on by to this panel today from 12-2 at UNICEF’s Danny Kaye Center. I’ll be doing an overview of some research that Keshet Bachan and I worked on late last year for UNICEF.

There will be some fantastic examples from Tostan, Equal Access, New School and UNICEF on creative ways that new technologies can be used when working directly with marginalized adolescent girls. We’ll also discuss how ICTs and communication for development (C4D) can be used in broader outreach aimed at changing mindsets and behaviors to look more favorably on girls and their capacities and improve their access to new technologies.

Update:  Here’s an article and short video about the panel.

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One of the great panels at last week’s Making Cents International’s Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conference was on technology and youth economic opportunities. (See my previous posts on seeing youth as assets and barriers girls face to economic opportunities, and my next post on soft skills and enabling environments).

In addition to the specific panel, I paid special attention throughout the conference for any mention of technology, and I asked some questions in panels that were not related to technology to see if people thought technology was an enabler for adolescent  girls or if my perception is biased because it’s my area of focus.

What I heard is that in regard to girls and technology, there are large gaps as well as areas where technology can serve as a bridge for girls to achieve economic opportunities. As Wayan Vota from Inveneo noted, globally, women are 20% less likely to have a mobile phone than men and in Asia, that number rises to 37%. How can we address the ‘girl gap’ especially in terms of the poor and disadvantaged 10% of adolescent girls who are the most marginalized of all? How can we help bring economic opportunities to this group?

Girl-focused programs. In terms of helping girls feel more comfortable accessing and learning about technology, Peter Broffman from Intel brought up the importance of safe spaces. Intel’s Learn program creates spaces that are ‘girls only, where they are not competing with boys,’ he said. ‘It takes a concerted effort to construct comfortable environments where girls can explore technology.’ We have special days for girls and girls only projects. Girls tend to be more comfortable creating and using technology in that kind of environment,’ he said. Vota agreed, saying that one simple way of making spaces more amenable to girls is by having all the computer screens in a computer lab or cafe facing the public, so that it’s easy to monitor what is being done on them (eg., so that accessing ‘adult’ content is impossible to hide). Katherine Lucey from Solar Sister, in a separate panel, also referred to the need for programs that are specifically designed for girls and women. She described a microfinance program operating in one of the same communities as Solar Sister where 90% of the participants are male. ‘Solar Sister is a program aimed at women because the existing programs are biased towards men.’

Girls and women in rural areas. David Mukaru from Kenya’s Equity Bank said that the bank reaches more women and girls simply because  the majority of rural population in Kenya is made up of women. Many men have migrated to urban areas. ‘Through the financial education which the bank embarked on 3 years ago, we addressed technology fears. We were able to train the women, create awareness on bank services, train them how to use technology, how to interact with bank officials. We also introduced technology to the rural agency. The agency uses a mobile. The agency in the rural area is the normal shop keeper and he has become an agent of training and penetrating in the rural areas. This guy is in the rural shop and he trains the woman how to use these technologies to do banking.’

Mobility.  Mobile tech can really be the great leveler, according to Jacob Korenblum from Souktel. It can really help to close gender gap.  ‘Many of the young women who use our services come from traditional families that would not allow them to go door to door to find employment. They are not allowed to go around town to find job opportunities. So their ability to find jobs is limited. But since many young women have mobile phones, within the household, as a young woman via Souktel you can start looking for work and even secure a job interview from home. Your family is comfortable with how you are doing this but you are still asserting yourself, you are taking that step to get a job.’

Another program that Souktel offers is support for women entrepreneurs via mobile phone groups. ‘Through a closed mobile phone peer network, women can ask questions to each other. In Iraq for example, women cannot travel, but they want to consult with other women on a business they are starting – they can send a question out to peers who can respond with advice. It’s like a list-serve via mobile phone. For female business owners, being able to consult peers via mobile is tremendous. It’s safe for them, it’s empowering. Our studies have shown this. We’ve been able to help women play catch up and access the same resources that men have, just through a different channel.’

Access is not enough. Raquel Barros from Lua Nova, a program that trains marginalized girls in Brasil to do construction work, said that in Brazil mobile phones are very expensive and they are a high status asset for the girls she works with. But ‘access is not sufficient for the phone to be used for something good or useful,’ she said. ‘It’s important to access the mobile phone but also important to do more education about how you can use the mobile phone. All our girls have Orkut but they don’t know their email. They have computers that they can use and we started to take some photos and that kind of thing, but the girls don’t always access and use mobiles and Internet in a good way. Access and education are both important.’ [Plan did some interesting research on girls use of technology in Brazil that confirms this also – see the Annex to Chapter 4.]

Technology as an economic enabler. Technology is everywhere according to Manjula Pradeep from Navsarjan, a trust that works with low-caste girls in India, “In Gujarat we have maximum mobile owners. The mobile is a status symbol, yes. In a family you can have 3-4 people owning a phone. And it does mean a lot when young women have mobiles, you can do your marketing, you have access to people, people can reach you on your mobile, you can put it on your shop board so people can reach you on mobile.’ In addition, computer training can allow girls to replicate and train others on computer skills. ‘A lot of girls have done computers; they are running classes for the children because children are not taught computers in schools. So the girls can teach this.’ However, as David Mukaru from Equity Bank in Kenya had noted earlier during the technology panel, ‘the challenge is access to a power supply.’ Not to mention other infrastructure. ‘When we work with the tribal populations, they have no access to transport, so how can you ever get a computer repaired?’ Some young people who Pradeep works with have started their own studios. ‘They start by buying a camera — it’s not cheap but they save and buy it. We have a lot of wedding ceremonies and rituals that happen that people can do a lot of video projects.’

Wearing pants. But as Pradeep said, technology can also bring about other personal changes. ‘Ultimately, your entire outlook changes with tech. Women with computers or cameras tend to wear trousers and shirts. I’ve seen women — if you get married you only have to wear saris, you can’t get out of a sari, you struggle with that identity — but these women are wearing trousers and using a camera. Sometimes they even cut their hair! Even just using a camera or cell phone,  you will see women changing. Technology really changes their role. To bring change, mobilizing the community is important but technology itself can also change the role of women.”

Interesting indeed!

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As I wrote yesterday, I attended Making Cents International’s Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conference last week on “Breakthroughs in Youth Enterprise, Workforce Development, Financial Services and Livelihoods”

Messages I took away included:

The Adolescent Girls and Young Women track started from the reality that girls face barriers to economic empowerment, but that there are some specific things that can be done to support them and things girls themselves can do to be more successful. Some k-nowledge that got dropped:

Barriers girls face to gaining employment. Barbara Chilangwa from CAMFED (and former Secretary of Education in Zambia) commented that barriers include girls’ lack of power and male domination; the fact that money is controlled by men, meaning women don’t have an opportunity to own anything; girls not attending school, and early marriage. “Girls’ education must be at the core of any country that wants to develop,” she said.

What do girls say? The team from BRAC in Tanzania presented their holistic life skills and job training program with adolescent girls. As a key step in their program, they consulted with girls on what they consider “the good life” and what challenges they face in trying to reach it. (See “Seeing youth as assets” – it’s important to involve young people in program design and decisions).

The girls considered the good life to include (in this order): health, education, work, house, good husband, loving family, good morals, peace in the family, peace in the community, cooperation and the absence of poverty.

The challenges to the good life that the girls noted were: early pregnancy; early marriage; bride price; gender discrimination; HIV and STIs; dropping out of school; alcohol and drugs; a complex family situation; poverty; a limited voice in the family; limited participation in the community; violence, rape or prostitution; limited opportunities for income generation and lack of opportunity for receiving training and loans.

Is 15 too late for girls? Judith Bruce from the Population Council focused on the message that once a girl hits puberty, she must fight for control of her own body, her sexuality, her fertility and her labor. “Most youth policies begin at 15, and this is 5 years too late for girls,” she said. “We need to invest in late childhood [starting at age 10], which is the critical period for girls.” Girls face intensified social exclusion during adolescence as their movement and mobility is restricted by family and community, Bruce said. In addition, there is a weak link between secondary school completion and earning for girls. “It’s difficult for females to control their earnings and other assets,” she noted. “This is something boys and men don’t have to deal with.” On top of that, there is a disproportionate dependency burden on females in both time and income.

Bruce said that the girls who are participating in financial services and different programs are those who have “survived girlhood,” overcoming a number of obstacles in order to enter into these programs. But what about the girls that don’t get into the programs that agencies design and develop, she wondered. We need to build social capital early, help girls develop friendship networks, provide regular safe spaces where girls can meet, provide female mentors, ensure they have personal documentation and safety nets, and support age-graded, gender and context specific financial literacy. “All girls should have small emergency savings and be introduced to goal-oriented savings,” she said. “This work is hard and costly and it matters who we invest in and work with.” She advocated that 12-year-old girls should be the focus of economic opportunity programs.

Formal or informal? Mary Hallward-Driemeier from the World Bank gave some fascinating insight into gender inequities and where they occur. (I’m not sure which exact studies she was working from but perhaps start here or here). The Bank takes a holistic approach to economic opportunities, looking at human capital (education, training); access to assets (financial and physical); an enabling environment (cultural, social, business) and motivation (drive, connections, empowerment). In this context, gender and youth can matter, she said, both directly (girls and women face constraints because they are female and young) and indirectly (due to the nature of where young women are disproportionately active economically.

Once informal, always informal. Hallward-Driemeier brought out that the constraints that young women face are quite often based on the activities that they tend to go into. Small, informal sectors tend to be where women are working, and there is not much difference between genders within the sector, however more women end up in the informal sector, which is more challenging than the formal sector. So, it’s not about girls’ and women’s participation per se, it’s about helping girls and women move into higher value added activities. “There are not an awful lot of transitions. Once you are in a small, informal enterprise, it’s not likely that you will move out of this sector. This is why youth opportunities are critical to what girls will do with their futures.”

“Sextortion” was a new word I learned. It refers to the sexual harassment that girls and women often face when trying to get a job, eg., “I’ll give you a job but you must provide sexual favors if you want it.” Statistics seem to show that “sextortion” occurs more often in formal employment situations (in the context of HIV/AIDS work I’ve heard that this happens quite a bit in the informal sector also, though I have no studies to back this up). A woman may not be able to report this because her husband or family will no longer allow her to work, it can cause trouble for her, she can be blamed, she can be shamed or stigmatized by the community. A video shown by Youth Build/Catholic Relief Services in an unrelated session the following day included a concrete case of ‘sextortion’. The young Salvadoran woman featured in the video explained that she had studied auto mechanics and was unable to find a job. At the most recent interview she went to, she would have been required to sleep with the manager, so she declined it.

Discriminatory laws that make girls and women vulnerable. Another point that Hallward-Driemeier brought up was that in certain countries, customary and religious law is the formal constitutionally recognized law even though it is discriminatory against women. Marriage, land, property and inheritance are exempt from nondiscrimination and there is no recourse in most cases. She showed some very interesting graphics comparing head of household laws in low versus middle-income countries, and there is not much difference in terms of customary law across countries – discrimination against women is present in both.

Hallward-Driemeier shared some life decisions that can affect a woman’s ability to pursue opportunities or render her less or more vulnerable including:

  • Registering her marriage: legal rights and protections can vary based on whether a marriage is formally recognized by the state or not.
  • Her choice of marital property regime: Separate or community property have different implications for the control of property within marriage and the division of property in the case of divorce or inheritance.
  • Registering property jointly with her spouse: This can protect a woman if the marriage ends.
  • Registering her business in her own name:  So that she can have control as well as ownership of it.
  • Writing a will and having her husband write one too: So that she is legally protected in terms of land ownership, property, custody of children, etc.
It’s clear that the challenges and barriers that women girls face are in many cases much higher than those that men and boys face, but as Bruce said in her comments:  “Girls are such performers!”  In the face of great obstacles, when given an opportunity, girls and young women most certainly can overcome the barriers and shine.

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This is a guest post from Lil Shira, one of the girl delegates who attended the 55th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women in February, 2011. Lil Shira was part of a Plan led Girl Delegation which took part in high level panels, side events and caucuses. This post appears complete in its original format. You can read a post by Fabiola, another of the girl delegates from Cameroon, here.

Lil Shira in the community

My name is Lil Shira, a high school student and a Cameroonian.  I am the second child out of five children in my family, three girls and two boys, and we live in a rural area. Because I am a girl I was selected by my school authority to be part of the journalism club in the school. This paved my way into YETAM (Youth Empowerment through Technology, Arts and Media) project sponsored by Plan Finland since the Journalism club was chosen for this project.

Because I am a girl I had to use the skills I have acquired in YETAM on music, media and ICTs to indentify issues like the problem of early and forced marriage, high rate of school dropout and violence against the girl child. Because I am a girl, I had to mobilize other youth (girls and boys) victims, so as to speak out as a unique voice, to raise awareness to the general public using music, drawings, drama, poems, videos, computers and overhead projector as tools. This led to many local advocacy actions spearheaded by us.

I was also very happy to celebrate the 21st anniversary, in Yaoundé in Cameroon, of the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child within the framework of YETAM project. These created a big impact in my life, the lives of my friends, youth, school, family and my country. All these activities took me to a higher level because I was again selected, this time to be one of the girl delegates to represent Cameroon in the 55th session of the UN Commission on the Status of women (CSW) in New York City.

Lil Shira presenting at the CSW.

I was very happy, excited together with my friends and family members and I was planning and preparing on the role I was going to play while in New York. My expectation was to work with other youth from different region and country but did not really expect I was going to talk to Ministers from all the members’ state of the UN. I did my first presentation with the Canadian Minister on a panel about the importance of commemoration days and the importance of setting up an International day for the girls.  Another thing which made me feel so opportune was the panel with UN women Ministers in the UN building.

I was very impressed seeing ministers from over two hundred countries and above listening to me and in effect giving a positive response to the issues I presented. In fact their reaction made me feel at home and so happy. I was equally happy to listen to other girls raise issues like gender based violence and discrimination in their various countries and what they have been doing to combat it.

Coming in contact with girls from Sierra Leone, Finland, United States, Indonesia, Canada and others, not mention to share our ideas, was so wonderful and exciting.  This was a forum for me to dialogue with them to know more about them and some of the issues affecting them in their own country which was contrasting with mine. Though I was nervous during my first presentation, meeting new faces it all passes away like a breeze and I did not have any complex because everything was cute.

Life in the US to me was very enjoyable and meaningful, but I could not stop complaining of the cold and snow. In addition, I tried eating food not familiar to that of my home country. All these contributed greatly to the wonderful experiences I had on the weather condition and the food.  I have learned to adapt to situations wherever I find myself. I hope to continue sharing this experience so that others may learn from it.

This is the time for girls to take up the challenge. I know my rights and have claim them, and no one can take them from me because I am a girl.

Thanks to Plan International, Judith Nkie our Chaperone, Kate Ezzes and Lia de Pauw.

Girls, claim your rights!

Related posts and videos about YETAM and the CSW:

Girls voices in global forums

Girls in rural Cameroon talk about ICTs

55th CSW: Women, girls, education and technology

A catalyst for positive change

On the map: Ndop, Okola and Pitoa


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As I mentioned in an earlier post, I spent last week at the 55th meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women. The organization where I work supported 12 girls from various countries to attend and speak at different panels and side events during the week.

Why is it important for girls’ voices to be heard at global events like the CSW? Why should they be allowed to sit at tables with adult decision makers? Is this a wise investment when we could have spent that money to bring an adult staff member instead? Well, from a strictly rights-based perspective, it’s because girls have a right to participate in decisions that impact on their own lives.

But there are so many other reasons that girls need to be present at these events. They bring perspective that is otherwise missing. Before women are women, they are girls. It’s well known and well documented that investing in girls’ education and other areas has impacts that go far beyond schooling. At these big meetings, issues that impact girls and women are being addressed and discussed – so there needs to be space for girls and women who feel these issues directly to speak for themselves, especially girls and women who are typically left out of these processes. Girls bring a reality check. They offer ideas and solutions from their own contexts. They bring points home that can otherwise be missed. They are often amazing speakers and have incredible wisdom and insight to share. We can all learn from them. And bringing girls and their opinions and voices to a huge event like the CSW can really have a positive impact both on the event, the event participants, the decisions made there, and on the girls themselves, as they return home with a mandate to live their leadership in their own communities and countries.

Early in the week, I shared a panel with Fabiola, one of the girl delegates from Cameroon, and she truly stole the show. Here’s how:

Fabiola participates in the Youth Empowerment through Technology, Arts and Media (YETAM) project, and was selected by her peers to represent her group and Cameroon at the CSW. More information about Fabiola and Shira, the other girl delegate from Cameroon are in this post: Girls in rural Cameroon talk about ICTs. Shira also spoke at high level panels, as did the girls from Sierra Leone, Indonesia and Finland.

The girls also planned and managed their own side event where they talked about girls and new communications technologies.  In preparation for the event, they brought with them videos from their home countries, and Kirby, one of the girls from the US, edited them together into one piece. The video was shared at a few different events, and the girls were even asked to show it at the general assembly (at the last minute they weren’t allowed to for one reason or another). In any case, you can see it here:

On the last day that the girls were in New York, 3 of them sat on a panel in front of hundreds of high level decision-makers: UN officials, Ministers and government representatives. They talked about the challenges girls face in terms of accessing ICTs and raised the issue of violence against girls and how violence in schools impacts heavily on girls’ education.

My Cameroonian colleague, Judith, who works on the YETAM project with the girls, told me afterwards that she felt unbearably proud, seeing them there in front of the whole room, with everybody hanging on their every word. “I was floating,” she said. “As if my feet were not even touching the ground.” She was proud that Shira didn’t only present the issues that girls are facing in accessing ICTs or in terms of violence or early marriage, but Shira went further and talked about what they are doing in the community and how they are working with ICTs and conducting advocacy with decision makers and traditional councils to resolve the issues, and what impacts they have already had.

Josephine, one of the girls from Sierra Leone, said afterwards: “When I was there, speaking, I felt like I was on top of the world because people were listening to my voice.”

There needs to be more of this!

But if you are still not convinced, my fabulous colleague Keshet Bachan, coordinator of this year’s Because I am a Girl Report and the previous 3 reports, gives a convincing overview here about why girls and why now. Worth watching.

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The 55th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women is taking place this week in New York City, with the core theme of: “Access and participation of women and girls to education, training, science and technology, including for the promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work.”

Some of the girls that we’re working with in our programs are participating, including Fabiola and Shira from Cameroon. I met them both last July when we worked together on the Youth Empowerment through Technology, Arts and Media (YETAM) project. The YETAM coordinator in Cameroon, Judith Nkie, is also attending the CSW as the girls’ chaperone. She certainly also has a lot to contribute on girls, women and ICTs. Judith once said to me “This project is a catalyst in my body.” Judith is awesome.

Girls from the YETAM project worked to prepare the interviews, film and videos below. Each girl interviews another girl from the community about the role of ICTs in their lives. The videos are worth watching as the questions and the responses of the girls are very insightful.

The interviewee in the first video says ICTs help you find out what is happening around the world. She comments that she found out about what just happened in Egypt (the February revolution) because of ICTs. Some of the other things I found most interesting in the videos are:

  • The girls’ recognition of the importance of information for making good decisions
  • The technologies that girls have most access to (mobile phone!)
  • The first time the girls encountered a mobile phone (a few years ago, at a local call box for one, and via an uncle who brought one back from travels for the other)
  • Why it is hard for girls to use ICTs in the community (lack of ICT devices, cost, parents don’t allow girls to learn about ICTs, at school the computers are few – you will see at least 20 persons per computer – and half are broken, the boys are very powerful and they fight us to occupy the computers, girls’ illiteracy, girls don’t continue in school)
  • How often the girls use ICTs (mobiles are used every day, there is only one place to access Internet in the community)
  • What they like most about ICTs (ICTs help me to know what is happening in other countries, I came to know about what happened 2 days ago in Egypt via communication technologies, many youth have been able to be employed through their mobile phones)
  • What they like the least about mobile phones and Internet (scamming, its easy to tell lies by mobile)
  • How can ICTs be helpful to girls (in my community a girl was able to borrow a phone from a friend to report that she was to be married at the age of 12, and the marriage was stopped)
  • Can ICTs be used to hurt girls? (yes, the girls who can afford their own mobile phones are those who are wealthy, when the poor girls see the wealthy girls with their phones, they go into competition, they can go into prostitution to have money to get a phone; but on the other side, girls are also self-employed through the phones, so the mobile phone hurts but it also helps girls)
  • How the communities use the Internet to sell their products (most people in the community use ICTs to communicate to find buyers for their products)
  • What girls would like parents, community leaders and government to do regarding ICTs (improve our access to ICTs, bring in programs and projects that can support youths to use ICTs and learn to use them better, educate parents to help them to see that girls also should be allowed to access this type of training and technology)
  • What hurts most about this ICT thing (when those who are really privileged and who can use the Internet don’t put their talents and privileges to good use, they go there to scam, to do robbery, not to do good; if these youth have the time and this privilege they should not do harm but they should do good.)
Kirby, one of the girls from the US, edited together portions of the videos above with video footage from the rest of the girls in the group, and they used the video to kick off their ‘Girl Led Side Event’ today. The turnout was great. They will continue throughout the rest of the week getting their ideas and messages across in different events and panels. You can follow their thoughts and impressions on the Plan Youth Tumblr or by following @plan_youth on Twitter. My colleague @KeshetBachan is also blogging from the CSW at the Girls Report blog.

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The 55th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) happens in New York City Feb 21-25, 2011. For me, the most exciting thing about the event is that several girls from some of the countries where we are working (Canada, US, Finland, Cameroon, Sierra Leone and Indonesia) will be participating and speaking. This aspect of our work – helping to bring young people’s voices into these large influential forums – (when done properly) can be very effective at bringing a reality check to the ivory tower and helping influence decision makers at the very highest levels.

This year’s CSW is especially interesting to me since I work in the area of ICTs, and the theme of the CSW is:

“Access and participation of women and girls to education, training, science and technology, including for the promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work.”

The girls will be presenting at the Girls Take the Stage: Growing up in a Digital World on Feb 22nd:

I’ll be presenting with Fabiola from Cameroon at the Empowering Girls: Education and Technology” session on February 23.

I’ll also talk at a panel-workshop hosted by the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation on Tuesday Feb 22, from 10-11.30, called “Breaking the Cycle of Poverty of Women and Girls through Education and Training,” on the 2nd floor room of the CCUN (Church Center of the UN).

Update: Ika one of the girls from Indonesia, will speak at a panel on Commercial Sexual Exploitation and the Girl Child: A Human Rights Approach at the Main Auditorium, Salvation Army Social Justice Center, 221 East 52nd St between 2nd and 3rd Ave, on Feb 24th from 2-3.30 pm.

Update: Lil Shira from Cameroon will present on Violence and Discrimination against Girls in School, along with Marta Santos Pais (UN Special Representative to the Secretary General on Violence against Children) and others on Feb 22, from 16-17.30 at UN Church Center, 777 United Nations Plaza, Drew Room, Ground Floor.

Join us at the some of the sessions or come for an evening with the 21+ crowd at #ICT4Drinks Feb 23rd at 6 pm at Me Bar.

We’re trying to interest the girls in tweeting during the CSW on the @plan_youth account and to blog at  http://plan_youth.tumblr.com, so check it out as of this Monday. (We’ll see if they are willing or not!)

You can follow the events on Twitter at the hashtag #CSW55.

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Yesterday I inadvertently clicked on a link to the first blog post by Talesfromthehood that I think I ever read. The post starts by saying ‘There is just no way around the critique that aid is ultimately about imposing change from outside….you’ve got to make your peace with that reality.’  (Not what I like to hear).  Tales goes on to say that we need to better define the term ‘bottom up‘ development and concludes that we may really not be talking about ‘bottom up‘ development at all, but more about ‘meeting in the middle‘.

The idea of imposing change from the outside is a little uncomfortable sounding when you normally think of your work as ‘bottom up‘, and you have seen the countless problems that ‘top down‘ approaches create.  But funny that Tales happened to include a link to that particular post in the more recent post that I was reading, because I was in the process of writing up some notes about a community development approach that I believe is quite good.  And looking more closely, it actually sounds a lot more like ‘meeting in the middle‘ than ‘bottom up‘….

I spent this past week in a workshop with colleagues from Cameroon, Mozambique and Kenya discussing a program we’re all working on at different levels. The initiative (Youth Empowerment through Technology, Arts and Media -YETAM) aims to build skills in youth from rural areas to claim space at community, district, national and global levels to bring forth their agendas. It looks to create an environment where peers, adults, decision makers, partners, schools, and our own organization are more open and supportive to young people’s participation and ideas.  It uses arts and ICTs (both new and traditional ones) as tools for youth to examine their lives and their communities; identify assets, strengths and challenges; build skills; share their agendas; and lead actions to bring about long term and positive change.

It is clear from listening to my colleagues that ICTs in this case have been effective catalysts, tools and motivators for youth participation and voice in their communities and beyond, but that other elements were just as critical to the program’s successes.  Throughout the meeting they kept saying things like ‘we are adopting the YETAM approach for our disaster risk reduction work’ or ‘we are incorporating the YETAM approach into our strategic plans’ and ‘we are going to use the YETAM approach with new communities’.  So I asked them if they could put into words exactly what they considered ‘the YETAM approach‘ to be so that we could document it.

I furiously typed away as they discussed how they are working, and what they consider to be the elements and benefits of the ‘YETAM approach.’ And it’s probably a pretty good example of what is normally called a ‘bottom up approach‘ but which might actually be a ‘meeting in the middle approach.’  And I’m definitely OK with that.

I like the approach because it builds on good community development practices that we’ve endorsed as an organization for quite awhile. It brings in new ideas, new tools and new ways of thinking about things at the community level, but it doesn’t do so in a top-down way.  It doesn’t encourage youth to abruptly raise controversial issues and then leave them to deal with the consequences.  It thinks about implications of actions and ownership.  It addresses the ‘what’s in it for me?’ questions but doesn’t turn the answer into unsustainable handouts.  It looks to instill a sense of accountability across the board.  On top of all that, it incorporates ICT tools in an integrated way that gets youth excited about engaging and participating and helps them take a lead role in advocating for themselves.

YETAM Point Persons: Mballa (Cameroon partner), Anthony (Plan Kenya), Pedro (Plan Mozambique), Lauren (Mozambique Peace Corps Volunteer teacher), Nordino (Plan Mozambique) and Judith (Plan Cameroon)

So, ‘bottom up’, or ‘meeting in the middle’ or whatever, here’s ‘the YETAM approach’:

Meetings…. Lots of them. We meet with men, with women, with children, with youth, with local authorities and district officials and relevant ministries, with partner organizations and community based organization, in short, with all those who have a stake in the initiative, to get their input.  This is an opportunity to understand what everyone wants to get out of the project, what value it adds to what they are doing or what they aspire to do, and what role everyone will play.  Then we meet with everyone all together at a community assembly. Once we pull together what everyone’s interests and contributions are, we can go forward.  This means a lot of time and a lot of meetings, which can be tiresome, but in the end it is worth doing for the long term success of the initiative.

Partnerships. Everyone brings something to the table – communities, local partners, young people, schools, teachers, local leaders, and us.  So we work to ensure that the contributions of each entity are clear and detailed, and that all sides are accountable if they don’t hold up their end of the deal. The community might contribute time or food or labor or a training space or some other resources that they have. We might contribute funds or technical advice or facilitators or the like.  Local partners might bring in technical expertise; schools or governments something else. Youth are putting in time and efforts also. To ensure that the project holds up and succeeds, we negotiate with all involved partners to see what they can contribute. If you see that people are not willing to put something into the initiative, it means that it is not of value to them.  If you push the project on people, and move it forward without it having value for them, it will be a constant struggle and a headache.  Seeing the level of commitment and interest in different community members can tell you if the initiative is a good thing for the community or not, so that you can adjust it and be sure it’s worth doing, not pursue it, or continue to work on buy in if some parts of the community are interested, but others are not.

Accountability. We set up agreements with all partners in the initiative, detailing what everyone will contribute and what they will get out of it, establishing everyone’s roles.  This is critical for accountability on all sides, and gives everyone involved a common basis for any future discussions or disputes, including if the community wants to hold us or a local partner accountable for not fulfilling our promises.

Buy-in. We don’t pay people to participate in projects or for sitting in workshops.  If you pay people to participate in a project once, you will have to pay them forever and it becomes a weak project without any real buy-in.  Our particular role in community development is not creating short term jobs, but contributing to long term sustainable improvements.  So what we do is to sit with the community and any participating partners or individuals from the very beginning and fully discuss the project with them. Then those who participate do so with a clear understanding of the set up, the longer term goals, the value to the community, and they have decided whether they want to be involved, and what is their level of commitment.

Some NGOs find that paying people to participate is an easy way to move budgets. This may help get things done in the short term, but for the type of programming that we do, it doesn’t work in the long term. It takes away people’s ownership of their community’s development if you pay them a fee to participate in their own project. So to avoid misunderstandings, everything needs to be clear before the project activities even start. We spend time with the community and all those who would be involved.  In the very first meetings with the community before concrete activities even get started, we address the issue of payment.  It’s not our project for the community and they are not working for us – it’s the community’s project.  We do negotiate with them to cover additional expenses that they may incur for participation in a workshop or event, for example, transport, food, etc.

What’s in it for me? Many NGOs have come around before, just giving hand outs, and people are used to seeing an NGO come in paternalistically to give them things.  They imagine that you have a lot of money and you’ll arrive to just start handing things out.  This is not how we want to work.  But people want to know – well, I’m not making any money from this, and I’m going above and beyond, so what do I personally get out of it? What’s in it for me? They even ask this directly, and that is normal. There’s a need to help people think beyond the immediate project. What value does this project add to people’s lives in the long term, to what they do on a daily basis?  If they are not thinking in the long-term, it may be hard for them to see value in the project. If during this discussion with them it’s clear that people don’t see any value in an initiative, then you should be aware that they are not really going to participate.  And that is also logical – if there’s really nothing in it for them, why should they do it? So you need to listen to people and be prepared to discuss and redesign and renegotiate the project so that they are really getting something of value for themselves and the community out of it.  If you come in with an idea from the outside and people don’t see value for themselves, and you go the easy route and pay people to participate in the project, you will see the whole thing fall apart and the efforts will have been for nothing, you will see no impact. So we take the time and discuss and co-design with the community to make it all work. That way it becomes a catalyst for long term positive changes.

Understanding local culture and how your government works. We work to involve local governments and ministries in this work as well as other kinds of decision makers. It’s important to understand how local culture works and what the hierarchies and protocols are in order to do this successfully. It’s critical to know what your government is like and how they work.  If you are not aware of this, it will create problems.  You need to know how to engage teachers, district officials, school directors.  We follow local protocols so that we can ensure good participation and involvement, especially when we need support from the government or ministries in order to move forward with something.  We involve people at these levels also because they are the duty bearers who have the ultimate responsibility here in our countries.  If you leave them out of the equation, you are really harming the initiative and its sustainability as well as losing out on an opportunity to make sustainable changes happen at that higher level.

Respecting community schedules. Communities are not sitting around, waiting for NGOs to show up so that they can participate in NGO activities and projects.  They have their own lives, their own other projects, their own work and their own goals that we need to harmonize with.  Projects that we are supporting are just one part of what community members are doing in their lives.  So we need to be flexible and let the community dictate the pace.  Sometimes partners, colleagues from other parts of the organization and outside donors do not understand this, which can cause conflicts and misunderstandings with the community.  In our case, for example, we are working with youth. They are in school.  We can’t interrupt their primary responsibility, which is getting their education, so we work with them during school holidays or after school.  Often parents want them to work during their school holidays. So again those meetings with parents, community leaders and so on become very important so that they see that their children are participating in a broader initiative and they see the value in it.

Gradual processes.  In this particular project, we are working with youth to have more of a voice.  This can be threatening to some adults in the community, and can go against local norms and culture, just like working with women to overcome gender discrimination can.  If youth are not used to voicing their opinions, they may be fearful of reprisals.  We don’t want to show up, give young people the tools and means to speak out, create conflict in the community, and leave.  This can be very counterproductive and even dangerous. This is where those meetings and building those relationships with different parts of the community again become very critical. We’ve adapted a methodology of intergenerational dialogue.  We sit with the elders, with the community leaders who hold elective positions, and share the project idea and what might come out of it, sit with women, sit with youth. This is like a focus group.  You don’t go in accusing people either. You ask them – what issues do you think youth are facing in the community? They will tell you, and when you’ve heard from everyone, you triangulate the information. Then you find a way to bring everyone together to find common points to start from.  The shift cannot come so strong and fast.  You need to take a slow process.

Listening to children and youth. The strongest point of reference will be what children and youth have talked about, because that is our focus. And for a child to tell you something, it’s taken a lot of work inside themselves to say something.  We had one case where a child decided to stand up and raise the issue of incest at an inter-generational dialogue meeting. A man stood up and said ‘you are lying, this doesn’t happen here’.  But there had been an on-going community process already, and there were other people in the community who were aware and were prepared to stand up and support the child.  In that case, a man stood behind the boy and said, ‘in our community we don’t talk about this, and it takes courage.  Let’s listen to the boy.’ This community process and work is really important to give confidence to the children to be able to speak.  If you are not yet at the point where children can stand up publicly and speak out, then ICTs can also be a good tool.  We’ve found that children’s radio is an excellent place to speak out anonymously about a sensitive community issue.  Children can call in to raise an issue and others can call in to confirm it if it’s happening in the community.  Theater, cartooning and other media area also good ways to raise issues.  Making a drama video on a sensitive topic and sharing it with the community can also be a way to raise an issue without directly accusing someone or implicating a child or youth for having raised it.

Expecting yourself to be held to task too. If there is a track record in the community with children speaking out but nothing happening or changing, then that will deter them from saying anything. So if you want to go down that road, of encouraging children and youth to speak out, you need to be prepared to take it through to the end, to support them. You have to be prepared to really take children and youth voices seriously, to follow things through to the end.  This is actually also true if they raise an area where your own organization has failed, that you yourself have not done something that you promised.  If we encourage them to use their voices, we have to expect that they will hold us accountable too.  We raise funds in the name of these children and communities, so we need to be accountable to them.  We need to be open to children, youth and the community also calling us out.  And have no doubt that they will. It’s happened before and will happen again. So we encourage them to challenge us as an organization, to be honest and to hold us to task.

Change and growth from within. As part of the whole community process, we do mapping, problem tree analysis, assets analysis with the youth and accompanying adults, and they learn much more about themselves. They think about where they are coming from and where they are going, and what local resources they have. This offers perpetuity, especially for the children and youth.  Because of knowing where you come from, you can know where you are going. Where you dream to be.  Using this kind of documentation and these tools actually helps a community to be open to absorbing new things, to be open to change and growth. But not external change and growth, change and growth coming from within the community.

Addressing gender discrimination. As part of the process of mapping and prioritizing issues, there is a lot of discussion.  Very often this brings up issues that are closely linked with gender discrimination.  We see this over and over again. Because we are working in a safe space and using different tools, the issues come up in a way that is not so threatening. Boys also are at a stage where they are more adaptable. They see their sisters and mothers being victims of discrimination and they are more open to hearing out their female peers.  So, we are able then to build a shared agenda that is favorable to girls, and which both boys and girls are then acting on and working to address.  Issues like child marriage, early pregnancy, girls’ schooling come up, but there is a way to look at them and do something.  We also open opportunities for youth leadership roles within the project, and we’ve seen girls start to fight to have a space there, whereas before they would not have thought that they could play an executive role.

Opening space for youth. We work to build new skills in youth to manage new technology, new media, and to do research in their communities.  Through this, youth claim a space that they didn’t have before and can influence certain things, advocate on certain issues they feel are important to them. You see them start taking ownership in communities and in leadership, they want to pick up new things for this role.  We used to invite youth to community meetings. We would start with 20 youth, then it would go down to 10, to 4, to 3 to none. They got bored with it because they didn’t see any relation to themselves. But with this integration of technology and arts, youth have a high interest. It’s really bringing in their opinions, their thoughts and ideas to join their voices with their parents. Now they use arts and media to promote communication, dialogue on their issues and look for ways to resolve them. Before they were totally missing. We tried to come in with programs for youth but they never worked before. With this new way of working, they have become more responsible because they  are not waiting for adults to come in with something and invite them in to ‘help’. Now they are designing strategies and solutions themselves and bringing these to the table.  It’s less easy for politicians and parties to manipulate them and incite them to violence.  Arts and media are effective in this way to share ideas, issues and to use in generating dialogue and solutions in their communities.

ICTs providing reach, motivation and skills. In addition to using ICTs to generate interest in young people and for them to take actions in their communities, we also use ICTs as a cost-efficient way of actually advocating at different levels. You can use video at the local level but also at the national, regional and global level. That is cost effective and has a real impact. You can use videos in invited spaces, for example, where governments, schools, other communities, or our organization itself invite children’s and youth’s voices in.  But we also support youth to use these tools to claim spaces, to fight for space and to get their voices heard there.  We give youth the tools, and you see their brains rewiring. They learn better hand-eye coordination by using a mouse and a computer, and you see then that in class, they can copy from the board without looking at their paper. They learn organizational skills by creating folders and sub folders. They learn structure from filming a video and making a time line while editing it.  They learn to speak with adults and decision makers from talking on the radio, using a recorder or a camera.  They become more motivated to complete school.  All this makes them more effective leaders and advocates for themselves and their agenda.  They also know that they’ve learnt a skill that puts them at the top of the pile in their community for jobs now. They are plugged into something that would never have existed for them before.

Related Posts on Wait… What?

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Putting Cumbana on the map: with ethics

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