Bra Project, Take 2

by Anne Cheung

In the fall of 2016, I got an email from a friend at work asking if she was still collecting bras for disbursement through her A2Empowerment network in Cameroon.  Why not?  After all, the original project had been successful and a few bras had rolled in here and there since the first collection in 2012.  I thought I’d just stuff a couple more into the closet until the next big donation drive…well, that drive happened sooner than I thought because by replying yes to that email I had inadvertently agreed to the next big bra donation drive!  Next thing I knew, I was copied on an email distribution list to the women’s network at the company where I work!  I didn’t want to deny those in the A2Empowerment a chance to donate, so I put out an email. Hundreds of new or nearly new bras were donated last fall.  Longtime A2Empowerment supporter and dear friend, Mia Rushe, along with her daughter Maeve, volunteered to take over.  They sorted through all of the bras, packaged and repackaged them to find the most efficient means of shipment, and paid hundreds of dollars to ship them to Peace Corps Volunteer, Gina Dettmer, in Cameroon.

Gina and local women in her community held a bra sale in late Feburary.  As relayed by Gina in March,

The bras arrived last week.  Oh, have they been a hit.  We are selling them at 200F each (about 30 cents) to various women’s groups:  our A2 girls, our Widows Empowerment Project members, and local farmers.  All proceeds go to our widows’ group.  I wish you were here to hear the comments.  “This breast wear is STRONG.  Beautiful!  Beautiful!” Makes me so happy.

Thank you for making me so happy.  For making my counterpart (the one in the green dress) so happy, and all the women and girls who are benefiting.  Rock on!

What’s better than sending 200+ bras to Cameroon to literally support women, improving their confidence and self-esteem? Sending 200+ more!  We have hundreds of additional bras, many collected in Western New York by Anne Rapin’s mom and aunt, waiting to send and still sorted in the Rushe basement. This fall the Women’s Internal Network (WIN) at Biogen plans to hold a fundraiser to collect funding to ship the remaining bras to Cameroon.  Stay tuned for Bra Project, Take 3…

A special thank you to the Rushe family, Gina Dettmer, Gloria LaSota, Lynne Rapin, Parika Petaipimol, all volunteers and everyone who made a donation!

Who We Are–PCV Emily Strauss

Emily Strauss is one of our awesome PCV’s: below is a speech she gave about A2Empowerment in 2011. Thanks to Emily and several others, we’ve only grown and improved as an organization since the time this speech was given!

Emily Strauss benefit speech 2011

 

Good evening.

As Anne just said, I was in Peace Corps Cameroon between 2006 and 2008, and was the lucky volunteer into whose lap this project happened to fall.  I was sitting in the Yaounde transit house, and Sylvie, our Cameroonian funding coordinator, came in and said, “There is an American woman who has been emailing me.  She wants to do something for girls’ education.  Can you do it?”  I didn’t even really think about it, I just said, “Yeah, I can work with that.”  So I started brainstorming and emailing Anne, and A2Empowerment was born, as was our long-lived and rewarding cyber-friendship.

My region was an excellent candidate for this project for several reasons.  The Adamaoua province is one of the least populated and poorest provinces in Cameroon.  Infrastructure is minimal – the only paved road is the one leading to the capital of the next province.  Most of the population is Muslim, and women and girls are often second-class citizens, in every sense of the term.

Cameroon has a very male-dominated and highly sexualized culture.  The school where I taught had six hundred students, only one hundred of them girls.  We lost 20 or 30 girls over the course of every year to pregnancy or marriage.  The reasons were various, but often boiled down to the fact that in large families with limited resources, girls were required to sacrifice their prospects to relieve the burden on their families.  In some cases, this meant marriage; in others, modified forms of prostitution.  The girls most at risk for this were those between 13 and 16 – generally, once girls finished the first three (of seven) years of school, odds were much better that they would finish entirely.  For this reason, we decided to target girls in this age range.

It’s been a while, so the girls with the stories I remember are the ones that I helped select, that came out of my village.  One was a fourteen-year-old who had just begun school whose father was in prison.  One was the daughter of a subsistence farmer whose family lived miles away, on the Central African border.  She was looked after by the pastor in the village, who said that her father cried when he was told that she had been awarded a scholarship, and could go to school the next year.  The day after the scholarship notifications went out, one of my colleagues told me that one of our girls couldn’t accept her scholarship, because her father had promised her to an older husband.  I flew off the handle, got depressed, and thought we would have to find someone else.  My colleague told me not to give up, and we went to talk with her father the next day. (My colleague talked.  I controlled myself).  He agreed to postpone the marriage, and sent his daughter to school the next year.  In area where life is so difficult in general, and for women in particular, you can imagine that these stories are pretty representative of the girls that we help.

A scholarship gives a girl more than just another year in school.  Our scholarships are renewable yearly if a girl’s grades are high enough, and we do renew most of our rewards.  While the program is still new enough that we haven’t graduated many girls, it’s encouraging that most of the girls who enter our program stay in it.  As part of the award, we also include seminars for the girls and their parents.  We educate them on health issues, like AIDS and birth control; we also expose them to the possibilities that can exist for women, even in the Adamaoua, by having role model conferences with professional Cameroonian women.  The girls get to develop friendships – the adults get to see what we’re doing with their daughters, and can take revised attitudes and useful information home to benefit other female children.  It is a truth acknowledged even among the more conservative Muslims in the area that an educated woman will raise a healthy and educated family, increasing the favorable prospects for her children.  Finally, earning a scholarship gives the girls the opportunity – often, the only one they will get – to achieve something and be recognized and rewarded for it.  Our scholarships are renewable yearly if the girls’ grades are high enough.  This means that not only can they put themselves all the way through school if they wish, but that they gain a measure of control and agency over their own lives.  It’s otherwise extremely unlikely they could ever contemplate, or much less achieve these things.

And thats it!

United State of Women

Peace Corp Volunteer, Kathleen Kirsch (served in Education volunteer in Babadjou, West Region 2014-2016), attended a summit called the United State of Women in June. Here’s what she said about her awesome experience:

Myself at the summit

Last week I attended the first White House Summit on women and girls’ issues- the United State of Women. This summit brought together 5,000 women from around the world to focus on “pillars”- topics that included Violence Against Women, Health and Wellness, Economic Empowerment, Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Educational Opportunity, Civic Engagement and Leadership.
The panels and speakers can be viewed here:  https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/06/10/white-house-united-state-women-summit

The speakers were amazing, with a highlight being the panel with Oprah and Michelle Obama.

First Lady and Oprah
The two most powerful speeches were by Vice President Joe Biden, who made an impassioned speech about violence against women, and President Barack Obama’s speech, which can be viewed here: https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2016/06/14/follow-along-united-state-women
There was a lot of discussion in the panels about Let Girls Learn and girls’ education that directly related to the work A2 Empowerment is doing in Cameroon. I participated in smaller break out sessions which I chose based upon my Peace Corps projects (specifically on HIV/AIDS prevention and as a math and physics teacher). I attended one session on girls’ HIV/AIDS risks and another on getting girls into STEM fields through education.
The summit’s format was large plenary sessions targeting their pillar topics, broken down into panels and solution seminars focusing on best practices for those issue areas. More so than all of the fantastic panelists, it was the women I met throughout the day who are doing grassroots work in women’s health, education and empowerment every day who were awe inspiring.

I’ll close with my favorite part from President Obama’s speech:

“It will take leadership.  It will take the right policies.  It’s going to take creating more opportunities.  It requires us telling each other and our children the right stories — because the stories we tell matter.
We admire the men who shaped our country, and rightfully so, the men we see as heroes — from Alexander Hamilton to Muhammad Ali — for their confidence and their courage in believing they could change our nation, this idea of self-creation, that there’s nothing holding us back.  In them, we see America itself, constantly reinventing itself, fearless, looking out over the horizon at the next frontier.
But our country is not just all about the Benjamins — it’s about the Tubmans, too.  We need all our young people to know that Clara Barton and Lucretia Mott and Sojourner Truth and Eleanor Roosevelt and Dorothy Height, those aren’t just for Women’s History Month.  They’re the authors of our history, women who shaped their destiny.  They need to know that.
A woman did not magically appear on a space shuttle.  It took Sally Ride’s relentless commitment, Mae Jemison’s boundless courage to shatter that glass ceiling.  A group of California farmworkers — they weren’t just handed their rights.  It took Dolores Huerta organizing and mobilizing, fighting for the dignity and justice they deserved.
Rosa Parks wasn’t simply a tired seamstress who sat down by accident.  She was a civil rights leader with the eye of a strategist and the heart of a warrior.  She had the confidence to board on that bus, the courage to risk her own life and liberty for the sake of ours.  History did not fall into her lap — she seized that moral arc and she bent it with her bare hands in the direction of justice.
That’s the story that’s still being written, today, by our modern-day heroes like Nancy Pelosi or Sonia Sotomayor or Billie Jean King or Laverne Cox or Sheryl Sandberg or Oprah Winfrey or Mikaila Ulmer or Michelle Obama — the countless ordinary people every day who are bringing us closer to our highest ideals.  That’s the story we’re going to keep on telling, so our girls see that they, too, are America — confident and courageous and, in the words of Audre Lord, “deliberate and afraid of nothing.”
That’s the country we love, and I’ve never been optimistic — as optimistic as I am now that we’re going to create a country where everybody, no matter who they are or what they look like or where they come from or who they love, can make of their lives what they will.  And together, we can build a world that’s more just and more prosperous and more free.  That’s a job for all of us.”
We are the United State of Women.
President Obama

Giving Thanks

A2Empowerment scholarships would not be possible without all the help we receive from those in Cameroon. Today, we would like to give a special thanks to Buba Sulle, who serves as an English teacher at GSS Upkwa and president of the Aku Cultural and Development Association (ACUDA). Sulle co-facilitates A2E sessions for the girls and as they working their way through the curriculum, they have seen real improvements in the self-confidence of each girl. ACUDA and Buba Sulle are largely responsible for A2Empowerment’s success in Upkwa and we are so happy to have their help.

Thanks to the awesome PCV, Sean Gray, for passing this info along.

A letter from Buba Sulle to A2Empowerment:

A2E Appreciation

Some letters from our A2E Scholars!

We love receiving feedback from our A2E scholars. At the beginning of the year the girls receive their scholarship contracts:

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At the end of the year we received some great reflections from the girls about how the A2Empowerment scholarship helped them and their families:

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Thanks to our Peace Corp Volunteer, Mary Screen, for sending over the reflections and the great pictures!

A2Empowerment Scholarship Winners

Our A2E Scholarship winners! The photo features our Peace Corp volunteers, Alex & Joyce Hall, along with the principle (left) and vice principle (right)!

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

This photo includes the A2E Scholarship winners and their family members that came to the information meeting for the family contract.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

A2Empowerment Gift Bags

Some of our A2Empowerment scholars receiving our A2E goodie bags with items that include pens & pencils, bracelets, folders, hair tires, etc. Thanks to Dick Sulle, the interim head of the English Language and Literature of English Expression, for the awesome photos! Remember it only costs $75 to send a girl to school in Cameroon, so donate today!IMG_20160425_115453_328 IMG_20160425_115933_821 IMG_20160425_115948_822