Whilst researching into different international volunteer programs I noticed that none focused on gender inequality, until I came across Girl Impact. When you hear facts such as one in three girls between the ages of 13-24 have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lives or that 1 in 10 girls in Sub-Saharan Africa miss school during their menstrual cycle, it makes you stop and think, aren’t we in the year 2017? Have we not come far enough that these issues are long distant memories, scars on humanity’s history. Evidently not. What attracted me to The Girl Impact project more than anything was that it clearly understood that women’s issues are everybody’s issues. It is vital that young men and boys are educated about the necessity to empower women within our communities. Empowerment is the “hot topic” of my time volunteering. Empowering the children and young people I have worked with but also being empowered to make a difference, to help run/organise different workshops and activities. Just to be able to see lives so very different from my own was an incredible experience.
The first time I drove into a township in Cape Town was a hot Tuesday afternoon, after completing a morning induction where my imagination had, somewhat, ran away with me. Thinking back to the movies, television adverts and news segments shown back in England, various thoughts flashed through my mind of children crying in the streets, hungry, alone and orphaned. Mothers looking deflated, about to give up on any hope that their lives or their children’s lives were going to get better. As we drove closer to Khayelitsha I suddenly grew nervous of safety, would the bus get attacked when we stopped? When I got out would I be taken by some stranger? Looking back all these worries and expectations seem incredibly silly. Getting off the bus to Sonwabile, an after school club for some of the local children, no where did I see crying, starved child, indeed I saw the exact opposite, nothing but smiling, excited faces. The tiny building where the after school club takes place was simple, one room painted with orange walls (it goes further back with a few other rooms, a bathroom and a kitchen however, I did not venture further back much) upon which there are posters with the South African national anthem, the days of the week and months of the year in English and Xhosa. Essentially, a classroom you would get anywhere in the world. More excited children came running in as the session went on and my nerves eased. The activity of the day was an acrostic poem about a special person in their lives. Many had chosen their mothers, some their sisters but overwhelmingly the poems were about women. It always amazes me how essential women are to a community, many of these children only see positive female role models, yet inequality still prevails. What is it that is holding women back? Outdated gender roles or perhaps violence against women?
One group of young girls that refused to be held back are the dancers of Buyulekhaya. Girls aged between 12-16 with some amazing moves and even more amazing views of the world. Running a workshop on role models for teenagers on a Friday afternoon is always risky however, the girls of Buyulekhaya were incredibly responsive. When asked how she would like to be a role model to the community, one girl’s response was that she wanted to tackle teenage pregnancy. I was simply blown away by the honesty and courage of her answer. Indeed, each of the girls had dreams, not only of being role models within their community but aspirations that stretched beyond the stereotypes so often associated with girls in poverty. Some wanted to be business women, singers, doctors. It’s incredible to think that in the midst of Khayelitsha a group of girls are determined to fight the gender roles they been given.
Challenging stereotypes is difficult, at some point we have all had to toss aside preconceptions we’ve had of a person or a group of people. That is why it is so important to educate young men and boys about women’s issues (Girl Impact’s #educateboysempowergirls embodies this philosophy and is one I believe should be trending more on social media). Teaching both girls and boys alike about team building through different activities, such as Magic Carpet (children stand on a mat and have to flip it over without anyone touching the floor), blind obstacle courses, group skipping and my favourite, partner yoga. All these exercises, I like to believe, helped to empower and educate both girls and boys, teaching them that only by working together can they be successful. Teamwork was most important with partner yoga, which is extremely fun as much as it is challenging. The children would have to do various poses and perhaps the hardest one was elevator (standing toe to toe and holding hands the two partners must stretch apart then lower themselves into a squat position). Often one partner would go down before the other, or one wouldn’t be strong for the other so they would both fall. This pose literally embodied what I believe Girl Impact to stand for, both partners having to be strong for the other as well as vulnerable, letting them trust the other so that together they can be strong. When one partner fell, the other did; when one gender is unequal, we are all unequal.
Before coming to Cape Town I had this idea that I would work a few weeks and suddenly there would be this change that took place. The men would respect women, young girls would go out and become whatever they wanted to be. I understand that this is an idealistic, possibly even narcissistic view on how my volunteer time would be because it’s not until you come to Khayelitsha that you realise the magnitude of these issues, there are so many people living in poverty that it is impossible to touch the lives of so many in the space of three weeks. So this gets me wondering, out of the children I have worked with, how many go home and practice being strong in a certain yoga pose and realise that being strong is not just about being tough, that you can be leader no matter what gender you are. You really can’t ever be sure of the impact you have on people’s lives but I can be sure that all the people I have met have impacted me. I have felt more educated as I have broken down those stereotypes I see so often back home. That’s the key to empowerment, isn’t it? Education. By stepping out of the “bubble” you are automatically empowering yourself to see the world as it truly is, empowering yourself to effect change. That is The Girl Impact.