written by Emily Best
In the Matam region of Senegal, traditional cultural practices limit the ability of career-oriented girls to achieve their goals. Part of the work of Peace Corps Volunteers in the region involves working with young people to encourage them to stay in school and to further their education.
In late March 2012, six volunteers, with the support of a Peace Corps Partnership Program grant, held a 3-day camp. This was the first overnight camp to be held in the region in recent memory, and due to the success of the camp, volunteers hope to be able to repeat the camp on an annual basis.
In northern Senegal, many female secondary students come from families that place a high emphasis on traditional gender roles. While there is gender parity in primary education in the area, the statistics show that the ratio of female to male students drastically declines in middle and high school. There is a strong expectation that girls will marry young and leave school to take care of the family. Those who are able to continue their studies struggle to balance school work and domestic responsibilities, which may include taking care of younger siblings, cooking, and cleaning.
In response to this gender inequity in secondary-level education, Peace Corps Volunteers in this region have been working with local schools to distribute Michelle Sylvester Scholarships to encourage high achieving girls from financially stressed families to continue their studies. As part of this work, the volunteers wanted to hold a camp for the scholarship winners to reinforce the “stay in school” message through both volunteer- and community-led sessions.
The idea for a camp in the Matam region came about in early 2011 as a way to bring the region’s volunteers together and to continue the work of the Michelle Sylvester Scholarship winners. Work began on writing a grant proposal for a weeklong camp to be held in October of 2011. After the grant was approved, fundraising by the volunteers in the region took more time than originally anticipated. The delay in fundraising, plus the departure of several of the region’s volunteers, led the remaining volunteers to delay the camp to Spring 2012.
In Winter 2012, the volunteers decided to reduce the length of the camp from 7 days to 5days, and to emphasize career skills and empowerment. Volunteers had carried out the Michelle Sylvester Scholarship program at three local schools: Ourossogui, Tiguere, and Seddo Abbas. The nominees and winners from those schools were invited, plus three girls from another village, Mogo Yalalbe.
The camp was planned for Thursday afternoon on March 29, 2012 to Monday afternoon on April 2. The camp was held at the Centre Polyvalent de Ogo, just 5k outside of Ourossogui. The Centre provided rooms, meals, and the use of a conference room. The keystone session was on Sunday and featured two sessions with local working women: a career panel and small Q & A sessions. Other sessions included two discussions with a local Matron to cover reproductive health, a first aid lesson, two sessions about life skills—including a viewing of Elle Travaille, Elle Vit— as well as two sessions about business skills and personal finance. Volunteers utilized fun activities between sessionsas a way to emphasize team-building and leadership skills, as well as creativity and dance.
The participation of the local community was paramount to the camp. From each of the 4 villages sending girls, volunteers requested one or two responsible, mature chaperones to accompany the girls to the camp. These chaperones, all mothers of participating girls, occasionally participated in sessions; most importantly, they took care of the girls and made sure they stayed safe and comfortable during the 4 nights of the camp. In addition to the chaperones, volunteers worked with other community members for other sessions. A matron from Agnam Civole spent two days at the camp, first for the reproductive health session and then stayed for the career panel. Five other women came from surrounding towns and villages to participate in this panel. Volunteers also invited Pelle Ba to help explain the camp and the MSS scholarship to the chaperones.
Volunteers relied strongly on the participation of Peace Corps employees and administration to help with the camp. A PCV Response volunteer led a session on Junior Achievement, and the CED PTA led a session on the Best Game. The Regional Support person in the North, Tidiane Diao, played a tremendous role in the camp, by leading a session on gender roles and facilitating the career panel and Q&A. Most importantly, Mr. Diao, plus the Inspector of Education of the Department of Matam, led a final session on Monday April 2. For this presentation, the fathers/parents of the girls were invited to have lunch and to hear more about the camp and girls’ education. Through the presence of Mr. Diao and the Inspector, the information about the importance of keeping a girl in school and delaying marriage was presented to the families in a culturally appropriate way.
Twenty-one girls aged 14-17 participated in the camp. The goals of the camp were to give the girls an opportunity to learn about balancing cultural expectations and personal goals, to help them acquire confidence and communication skills, to encourage them to continue their studies, and to build a peer network of ambitious girls in the Matam region.
the community also participated. Through the participation of the working women
in the panel, and the chaperones from the villages, the message of female
empowerment and importance of education was spread to the older generation, as
well as to the younger. Additionally, with the final session involving the
parents, that message was reinforced.
Through observation and feedback from parents and the girls, the camp was deemed a success, having achieved the set goals. The girls wrote anonymous evaluations on the last day of the camp and many of them mentioned specifically the sage femme Q and A,, the sessions with Mr. Diao, and Indian dancing as being some of their favorites.
The first problem we encountered
was the delay in fundraising. Next year, it would be advantageous to have the
grant submitted and approved at least 6 months before the camp is to take
place, so that money can be earned in time.
In terms of the camp itself, the largest issue that came up was due to cultural expectations and misunderstandings in terms of the chaperones. As volunteers, we assumed that the chaperones would be donating their time as community members and as the community’s contribution to the camp. But this was not explicitly talked about, and the chaperones assumed they would be earning a “per diem” of some sort. In the end, with Mr. Diao’s help, we discussed giving the chaperones a small amount of money for their help; we also told them that in the future, there would not be any per diem given to chaperones. It is clear that all expectations must be made explicitly to avoid this sort of misunderstanding.
From start to finish, the Matam Girls’ Leadership Camp was a
surprisingly smooth and successful experience. That said, there are a few
points that could be improved in the future.
With the chaperones we learned that they are a huge help in making the camp run smoothly but more care should be taken to make sure they enjoy themselves, feel included, and take away a good impression of the camp.
First, the community should understand ahead of time that the chaperones will not receive per diem or a "small gift" for their work, that they are donating their time. Secondly, it would be a good idea to have some sessions for them. Having them attend the girls' sessions is hard because their babies can interrupt the session and they make the girls nervous. Perhaps have national geographic film screenings for the chaperones only while the girls' have sessions.
With the various sessions, it was very clear that advance preparation and coordination with local partners pays off in the end. The sessions that were led by Peace Corps staff or administration were seen to be successful and were smoothly run. We experienced a few issues while coordinating with local partners, especially with the Matron running the reproductive health session. Due to the sensitive nature of that topic, it was difficult to find a local health partner who was comfortable leading this session.Having enough time to work on the session content with local partners before the event is crucial. If there is trouble finding a local work partner, it may be worthwhile to coordinate with Awa or another Peace Corps staff member. While volunteers successfully ran sessions in French, it was helpful to have local partners available to translate or re-word the idea in the local language. Volunteers leading sessions should always try to work with local partners in order to overcome any communication barriers.
Going forward, volunteers will continue to work with the local communities to advocate for and encourage these girls to stay in school. We hope to make the camp an annual event. Additionally, volunteers will continue to carry out the Michelle Sylvester Scholarships.