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!
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!