Annie Banda is a 17 year-old girl that lives in a small, rural village closely situated near a beautiful skyline of smoky blue mountains. Annie normally starts her day off at half-past 4 in the morning by fetching water from the borehole about a kilometer away so that she can then wash dishes, clean the house, and prepare breakfast from whatever food is available. In the past, she had gone to school and dreamt of the day when she would become a nurse. But things were different now. Her mother and father had passed away, and her grandmother (i.e. the only relative willing to adopt the girl) was old and perpetually ill. So Annie mostly had to fend for herself. With no education past the first two years of secondary school, her options were very limited. Annie married the chief’s nephew–a 34 year-old drunkard that was emotionally and physically abusive. Her grandmother suggested Annie do so after she realized her illness was fatal. “Be a good girl and always do what your husband says,” she told Annie right before she died. So Annie endured more abuse, more neglect, and more hardship. “How did I get here?” she wondered as she saw other women from her community working at the local clinic. She had recently gone in for her first antenatal visit and discovered that she was HIV positive.
Annie’s story is similar to the majority of Malawian girls and women. According to The World Bank, 27% of Malawi’s girls are enrolled in secondary school. Of that, 13% will attend, and only 5% will pass the MSCE (Malawi School Certification Exam). Gender inequality is a ubiquitous problem here; leaving many women with limited access to income and personal choice. This often results in a shared sentiment of subordination and even subservience amongst women, which is exacerbated by another common issue: gender based violence. Women are more or less objectified–thought of as powerless things first and human beings second. So in a country that has one of the highest HIV/AIDs rates, females tend to be the most vulnerable population.
Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is a Peace Corps sponsored camp that works to empower girls to address the issues mentioned above. This year 66 girls from rural villages all over Malawi attended. Throughout this week-long event the girls learned about different topics that revolved around leading healthy lives, leadership, self-esteem, having a positive identity, self-confidence, and gender equality. Thankfully I was selected to be a camp counselor and I was also allowed to lead a session on natural beauty; mainly concentrating on self-esteem related to hair beauty and healthy hair practices. There was also an emphasis on sustainability which was introduced to encourage attendees to create “girl clubs” in their home villages in order to teach others what they learned during camp.
Now that Camp GLOW is over, I must say that out of my 5 months of living in Malawi, it has been the most incredible, life changing experience I’ve had thus far. I met some amazing young women with the most heart wrenching stories of loss and pain, but also inspirational stories of triumph in their most hapless moments. All of these girls have overtly and covertly been told that they cannot achieve their goals–that they cannot exist in their communities as important figures. Yet despite this, they have exceeded beyond the socially constructed expectations outlined for them. And our goal as PCVs was to inspire them to continue towards this positive, aberrant path. There was one nightly session where we all–campers, counselors, and coordinators–wrote down what we had been told we couldn’t achieve as women on a piece of paper. We then read it aloud, crumbled up the paper ball of negativity, and threw it into a monstrous bonfire. Oh, what a powerfully palpable moment!
Throughout the rest of camp we all shared in many more emotionally charged moments. We cheered and sung as if no chant or song could be “played-out.” We laughed; especially during the session about masturbation. (“Let’s talk about what???…Sex!”). We danced awkwardly together–arms flailing, shoulders grooving, hips winding, and feet stomping. We even cried together. On the night before the last day, we sat solemnly in a large circle. The first person that spoke lit the candle she held, said what she had learned during Camp GLOW, and then proceeded to light the candle of the person sitting adjacent to her. The activity continued as so until the whole circle was shining bright by candlelight. Maybe deep down, we were all starting to realize that our magnificent journey together was slowly coming to a close because afterwards my group of girls wailed laments in Chichewa (the language I have yet to master). So because I could not find the words to assuage them, I had us all stand in one big circle, huddled together, and cry. And eventually those tears turned into open dialogue about their personal testimonies and the fears they had about going back to their villages. Back to realities that had not been as supportive and empowering as GLOW.
Still, I’d like to think that Camp GLOW gave these girls a glimpse into what their realities could be–a life devoid of the issues that many women like Annie face in Malawi. I told my girls to remember the strong bonds and relationships they had built during camp. And I said this is what they should try to recreate back in their villages–open space where girls go to learn, grow together, and support each other in all their endeavors. I hope they realized that they aren’t objects in which man and the world are acting upon, but rather, they are individuals that have the power to act upon, and change, their surroundings. They have inspired me, just as much as I hope I have inspired them, and I thank God for the opportunity to do so. I have gained new, little sisters and I am excited to watch them grow and continue to help other girls in their communities. I will never forget them!
(Please support our cause by checking out more pictures on the Camp GLOW Tumblr and sharing the video located on the page with your families and friends on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…tell Oprah! Lol. Seriously we really want to get the word out about gender inequality here in Malawi so anything to help our cause will do. This camp occurs annually so if you would like to contribute please leave a comment and I will contact you with further information. Thanks in advance! 😊).
Campers, counselors, and coordinators after a session
Me, during my presentation
The girls from my group making menstrual pads from local materials. (Check out those “Shining Sisters” table toppers I made! ☺️)
The bonfire! We roasted marshmallows too!
Me and my group of girls! Loved them!!!
“I need women’s empowerment because…” Why do you?