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)!

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

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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

 

A Letter from The Leading Ladies of GBHS Mbankuong!

Dear folks at A2Empowerment,
We are the Leading Ladies of GBHS Mbankuong, a girls’ club comprising of scholarship recipients for the 2015/2016 academic year.
We are writing to express our sincere gratitude towards your organization. Many of us are orphaned by at least one parent and finding school fees is a challenge, especially this year in the face of poor yields on our farms and at our fisheries. Through the A2Empowerment scholarship we feel proud that we have made it at least a bit easier on our parents and relatives at the start of the school year.
We are also writing to share with you some of what we, as a club, have been doing around our community. As scholarship recipients we have worked hard to become role models in our school community in order to encourage our friends and classmates to work hard and get involved with school, too.
In November, our club leader, Madame Nkili, raised a small fund for a few activities for us to do around school and the community. The first was to paint a World Map in our school compound. We painted the map in four days! It was a lot of work but we are very proud of our addition to the school campus. It stands in the main courtyard so that everybody can see it and use it as reference for their classes. We had so much fun painting the World Map. It was actually our first time ever painting. We made a few mistakes, but at the end of the process our classmates and teachers were really proud of and impressed with us. It is awesome to think that we can return to the school after we have graduated and still be able to see our mark on our school community. As Carine said, “Now everyone can learn and be proud of how beautiful our school campus is.”
Along with our World Map, we participated in a World AIDS Day testing event in Ndop, our divisional capital. We traveled there (about 45 minutes) during a school day to help nurses from our district hospital and two organizations called Ndop AIDS Fighters (NAFI) and Knowledge for Children put on a large education and testing event in the market and at the Grand Stand by the Mayor’s office.
The day began with a parade along the main street of Ndop. The night previous we made posters and hats that informed people about HIV and the testing event. After that we helped set up the testing hall and listened to many speeches made by community officials. Then the real event began. We had so much fun welcoming people to the event and working as runners between different stations. An hour into the event five of us actually started to give condom demonstrations to our guests!
We spent the day working with our peers, as most of the people coming to the event were local high school students from the school across the street. We really enjoyed encouraging our fellow youth and each other to learn about HIV and sexual health. The condom demonstrations were a very popular station. Many of our peers started to ask us questions about sexual health and HIV, and it was really empowering to be able to answer those questions on our own. Sometimes being from a very small village it is hard to earn the respect of the ‘town kids,’ but by working hard and being able to answer their questions we became the experts and felt very respected.
By the end of the day all ten of us had also gone through the testing event. We went to pre- test counseling, did the test and at the end had post-test counseling. It was our first time getting tested, and we are proud to say that we are negative and will work hard to remain that way! Something we took away from the event was that even though we may be negative, we still have a responsibility to help our community and those living with HIV/AIDS.
We really could not have done any of this without A2Empowerment. We are so very thankful for the hard work you are doing to help the girl child in our country. Hopefully by reading about all the work girls are already doing in Cameroon for their communities it will inspire others to become leaders, too.
The Leading Ladies of GBHS Mbankuong have a motto: Hardworking and friendly girls are the leading ladies of tomorrow.
Thank you for your hard work and friendliness towards the girls of Cameroon. We hope you had a very happy new year.
With our warmest regards.
The Leading Ladies of GBHS Mbankuong

Here are some photos from our world map project and HIV testing event: World Map Project: a2
Nathilda, Carine and Favour are learning how to transfer the smaller outlines onto the wall.

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All ten of us and Madame Nkili drawing the outline of the map on the wall.

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We made a few mistakes, but in the end everything got corrected! Oops!

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We then started to paint! It was our first time ever painting – so this was our favorite part!

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Even our Principal got involved! He had never painted before either.

We made sure Cameroon was very visible on the map!

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Here’s the finished product! From the left: Vanessa, Halima, Madame Nkili’s Mom, Sylvia, Nathilda, Prudencia, Favour, Delphine, Madame Nkili, Carine, and Elizabeth. Annabel had to leave early this day.

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HIV Testing Event:

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We first went into the market with our signs and passed out flyers about the HIV event.
UntitledThen we lined up with our posters to start the parade! Here are Sylvia, Elizabeth and Halima with their homemade posters.

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Vanessa, Favour and Nathilda with their signs.

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From the left: Carine, Annabel, Nathilda, Prudencia, Vanessa, Delphine, Sylvia, Halima, and Elizabeth ready for the parade to start!

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We even made signs in Pidgin! Annabel’s hat says: Wear Plastic, It’s Fantastic!

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We weren’t told how far to parade so we ended up walking the entire length of Ndop.

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Here we are marching down Long Street with our posters. We shouted things like, “Know your status!” and “Act Up, Fight AIDS!”

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We then did condom demonstrations to our peers in Ndop high schools. It was at first a bit awkward but by the end we gained confidence and had so much fun talking to fellow students about condoms, HIV, and sexual health. Here are Favour and Sylvia demonstrating how to use a condom to a group of students on their lunch break.

Meet the Girls: Sa-adatu Adamu

The following profile comes courtesy of Dicko Sulle, the interim head of English Language and Literature of English Expression at GSS Upkwa.

“Sa-adatu Adamu is a first time recipient of the A2 Empowerment
scholarship. Last year, former Peace Corps Volunteer and i missed her
a lot on the program. One of the outspoken and front role player among
all the girls, Sa-adatu Adamu is the type of girl to be on such a
program. In fact, we included her for most of our sessions last year
because she triggers discussions and pulls the girls along in public
speaking. Coming from a community where women play the back role, most
of the girls spoke in their armpits out of shame and shyness. It took
the likes of Sa-adatu to break the silence and even engage the boys in
discussing gender sensitive topics. She is focused and [does] not avoid
eye contact when speaking to her teachers let alone her peers.

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“Our wish have been to have her on the program and we luckily did. She
is also one of those girls who has multitudes of potential husbands
for her beauty and elegance. ” Sa-adatu Adamu will not stop school for
any man until she finishes school” her father declared when [I] sought
to know from him how he is coping with the pressure of marrying her
off. On her part, Sa-adatu is bent on continuing school and dreams to
become a journalist. She is writing her end of course GCE Ordinary
Level examination this June 2016. If she succeeds, she will proceed to
high school out of Upkwa, her village. Going out of Upkwa to continue
high school remains a serious threat to the education of not only
Sa-adatu but all the girls. Because this will mean them staying away
from their parents, a thing which majority of parents would not prefer
for various reasons. Among the reasons is the lack of money to pay for
not only fees but house rent and food allowance out of home. The fact
that these girls will live alone is also a highly detested idea as
they think this will further expose their daughters to social vices
like prostitution.

“When [I] sought to know what she feels about the program, this is what
she had to say, ” I do not know how to thank A2Empowerment for this
scholarship. My parents are just too happy and it has increased their
pride in me. Now they see me as a girl who can make a difference in
the society”. Sa-adatu will remain at the center of school activities,
from [singing] the National Anthem during morning devotion to carrying the
school flag during public events. She is also the senior school
prefect girl who sits in all disciplinary council and Parent Teacher
Association meetings as a students representative….”

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Meet the Girls: Fatimah Abdullahi

The following profile comes from the Dicko Sulle, who is the interim head of English Language and Literature of English Expression at GSS Upkwa.

“Hi there,

“Let me begin the stories of our A2Empowerment girls in GSS Upkwa with
Fatimah Abdullahi.

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“Fatimah is an orphan who lost [her] dad to thieves
when she was still a few years old. She grew up with her grand mother
in Upkwa, a resettlement camp for 1986 Lake Nyos survivors. Fatimah is
a second time recipient of the scholarship award and is by far the
best in academics, punctuality, dedication to community service and
humbleness. She is a role model with a big dream of becoming a medical
doctor. She is now 17 years old and plans to graduate from secondary
school next year and go on to high school. Recently, her uncles
attempted to pull her out of school to marry one of her cousins. She
remained strong and determined to resist until the plan was finally
halted. This term that just ended, her performance in school was
encouraging more than ever before. “[I] will work hard to merit the
support of people until [I] graduate from school and get a job” she
recently declared to me a few weeks back when [I] sought to know how she
was faring on. Like all the other girls in the Aku community, Fatimah
wouldn’t have been in school if GSS Upkwa was not created. The school
is now host to some 57 girls less than 1% of whom would not have been
in school if the school was not opened.

“In the Aku community, secular education has just begun to sink deep.
Previously, Aku had total distrust for secular education. They claimed
that children who go to school end up morally bankrupt with unwanted
pregnancy being the  inevitable for the girl child. It was considered
a taboo for one’s daughter to have a child out of marriage. Hence
girls were  married off as early as twelve years old. Even now, many
parents only allow their girl children in school only as long as a
husband does not show up. Every year, we have kept losing many girls
to early marriages. But girls like Fatimah and a few others are poised
to change the situation. It is also my wish to see this happen.”

Note: This post was updated because Mr. Dicko Sulle was misidentified as principal at GSS Upkwa.