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Sometimes being a girl is no piece of cake.  For the Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media (YETAM) workshop we hoped to have 50% girls participating, and we ended up with about 15 girls and 40 boys.  The boys raised this on the 3rd day of the workshop (through no prompting by the facilitators).  “Why aren’t there more girls here? And the girls who are here, they never talk, they just sit there.” “They don’t have the ambition or the drive to improve themselves so they don’t even come to workshops like this when they have the opportunity”. Photo: Painting the mural.

Most of the girls listened to this criticism without responding.  “Girls – what do you have to say about this?” asked one of the facilitators.  Silence.  “See, even now they just sit there and don’t defend themselves,” complained the boys. More silence.  Finally one girl spoke up “You don’t know what it’s like.  We can’t get permission to come. It’s very difficult for us. Our parents don’t trust us. They think we are just coming to play. They want us to stay at home to do work during our school break.”  “But you have the same letter from the school that we do! Why can’t you learn to negotiate with your parents like we do?”  More silence.  The discussion turned to effective negotiation skills to communicate with and convince parents to allow both girls and boys to participate. “Our parents and grandparents are not ignorant donkeys; they are just from another time. They have never had the opportunity to participate in projects and workshops or even to go to school. They don’t know why we think it’s important.  We need to become better at talking with them, to counsel them and help them to see what we are doing so that they will allow us to join in these efforts.”

Being a girl isn’t only an obstacle to participating in workshops.  In the community over the past 3 weeks, I saw and heard about the challenges girls face to achieve an education, avoid unwanted advances, including from teachers, and avoid early pregnancies.  Most of the time there is no space for these issues to be discussed openly among both boys and girls, and with adults.  Plan’s two campaigns, Learn without Fear and Because I am a Girl, seem extremely relevant to the context.

A Conquista

The hottest debate of the 2 weeks was not “poverty” or “lack of water” or anything typically thought of as a “development” issue.  It was “a conquista” or the process of getting a girl/being wooed by a boy.  It was nice to see the girls getting more vocal as we got further along into the workshop. “We try to talk to girls and they don’t respond.  They just ignore us! So it makes us angry,” said one of the guys.  A girl countered “We are afraid when someone approaches us, because if we don’t agree, a boy or a man may get angry and they can find us and take out their aggression on us, they can rape us.”  “Sometimes if girls talk to one of us, and then talk to another of us also, what boys do then is to join together and show her that she can’t play with us, show her she can’t act like that,” said one of the boys. “It’s true,” said a girl, “We are afraid because they get mad if we don’t talk to them.”  “You should talk to us then!” interrupted a boy.  “What, can I give myself to every single male in the village just because he wants me?” exclaimed one of the girls.  This forum was incredibly important for guys and girls to have a time and a place to hear each other out, see each others’ points of view and try to understand each other.  There is a lot of room for awareness building on gender violence.  I even heard one teenage girl in one of the nearby communities say “if it’s just one man, it’s not really a rape…. it has to be 3 or 4.”

So I was really happy that the theater group decided to do their play about the things that girls face, even more so because there were only about 4 girls in the theater group, and the 3 facilitators were male.  (There are not many female teachers and facilitators to work with). Now that we had divided into small group and we’d been working together for several days, the girls’ voices were much louder. Photo: the issues chosen by the theater group included early marriage, drug abuse, physical aggression in families, corrupt police, professors/student fights, lack of value placed on girls within families.

Community Showcase

The groups had their showcase on Nov. 20, coinciding with the celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Some 300 people from nearby primary schools and communities attended the event.The painting group’s mural greeted people as they came into the school grounds. Under giant orange tarp (which pretty much ruined any chance of getting good photos/videos since everything had a very strange light) the music group sang 2 songs about education and HIV prevention and performed a traditional dance.  The media group showed 6 of their videos, on life in the community, the importance of the river, trash in the market, the discotheque, and the local cinemas.  The journalism group shared their community newspaper, and the theater group performed their play.

On being a girl…

The storyline in the play is of a girl whose father marries her off for money; she is taken off to her new husband’s place and becomes pregnant. Her husband is abusive, alcoholic and brings other women home. He beats her, but her mother finds out and they report it to the police.  The police come to take a report, admonishing the husband and telling him that he is going to jail.  No matter, nothing a little private conversation and bribe won’t solve.  So the tables turn with the policeman admonishing the girl that she should not treat her husband badly and she deserves what she got.  As soon as the police leave, he beats the girl again, shouting as her father had shouted at her mother “In this house it’s the man who’s in charge!” He throws her out on the street. A friend tries to convince her to prostitute herself and make good money and she refuses.  The play ends as she looks at the audience, carrying the small bundle of her child, and asks “Why will people say this is my fault?”  The other actors come out one by one, calling on governments, parents, friends, school, teachers to see the situation clearly and to take on their responsibilities to change this scenario.  I have to say it was one of the best theater pieces I’ve ever seen, and it was written entirely by this group of 9th and 10th graders. Photo: Theater group closing out after a day of rehearsing.

The best tools to get the message across

Each different art or media form carried the messages on issues that the youth want to raise and change in their communities.  Once more it was a reminder that it’s the communication objectives and impact on the audience that matter, and the choice of the tools should be secondary, based on the outcomes to achieve.  We are not “doing media projects”, but helping kids to use different tools, including media, to dig into their realities and then use those tools as effective means of communication to make change in their communities.  What may be a great topic for a video, may not work so well as theater, and vice versa. In the process of discussing the issues and the media forms that would be best to make change in the community, both boys and girls learn new personal skills and improve their self esteem as well as their own communication skills.  They also have an opportunity to openly and deeply discuss issues among themselves and to understand each other better.  The discussion around gender issues and how the same challenges may affect girls and boys differently is one of the most important that they can have.

Related posts:
On Girls and ICTs
An example of youth led community change in Mali
Breaking it down: Violence against Children
Stories that touch the heart

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Next week I’ll have the honor of (wo)manning the expo table for Plan at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Exchange [the networking event after the actual CGI meeting]. It’s Plan’s first year at the CGI, which is exciting for us as an organization. The project that we’ve committed to is a convergence of many of the things that Plan has been getting deeper and deeper into in the past few years – youth engagement, youth employment, participatory media, social media, ICTs, youth voice, youth-led advocacy, and last but not least, girl power. I’ll be supporting the project with some training around social media and ICTs based on experiences in past projects such as the Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media project.

Our commitment, Vocational Skills and Media Training for Adolescent Girls in Ghana, is a three-year project that combines job skills training for girls with media production by girls.  The combination of these two elements will give girls key skill sets for employment opportunities while also creating public platforms for girls to raise awareness and advocate on issues affecting them. Through the project 140 adolescent girls will participate in training on media production and journalism, including citizen journalism/social media.  Of those, some will go on to participate in an internship program to do hands-on work in media.  The girls will be trained on how to use diverse types of media, including traditional as well as new media, to advocate against gender discrimination.  Adult journalists will participate in Plan’s training program on child rights and gender respect in media.  In the process, the project will engage the public through radio, television and web communication around the challenges that adolescent girls face in West Africa at the community, national, and regional levels. Participating girls will also have opportunities to meet and share experiences with each other and their female Ghanaian journalist mentors.

I really like this project because it brings so many critical elements into one initiative.  More and more Plan is supporting this type of work in Africa, and it really makes a difference in the youth themselves in terms of skills, self confidence, team work, and learning how to communicate issues of importance in a confident and respectful way.  It helps them access information and new skills that help them find employment. It also has an impact on communities who see their youth in a new light and who become more open to dialogue with youth around issues that youth want to discuss but may not be able to bring up in existing forums.  The media produced by children and youth can raise awareness and encourage dialogue at the national level, and it can be presented in global meetings to bring youth voices and a dose of reality into high level discussions. It can be shared on the internet to engage and involve people in other parts of the world, and to break down stereotypes about Africans. I also think one outcome will be that the participating girls and women will contribute to modernizing the field of journalism in Ghana because they will be trained on new media tools and they will likely think seriously about how girls are portrayed by the media in the future.

Plan’s research “Because I am a Girl: The State of the World’s Girls” came out in 2007, highlighting the urgency for us to focus more programs on girls as key players.  Out of this report, a decision was made to make girls Plan’s key focus over the next several years, and the Because I am a Girl Campaign was launched.  Since then, two in depth studies have highlighted specific issues: Because I am a Girl: In the Shadow of War (2008), and Girl’s Economic Empowerment (coming out later this month).

Come by our table to say hi if you happen to be at CGI exchange!

Related posts:

On Girls and ICTs

Being a girl in Cumbana

An example of youth-led community change in Mali

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