Challenging Gender Roles in Madagascar

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         What is a leader?  A leader is a role model.  A leader is powerful, brave, influential and responsible.  And in Madagascar, a leader is predominantly male.  In Malagasy culture, men hold the power as the head of the household, the bread winner, and the decision maker.  One morning, I started my tenth grade English class the way I always did, by asking the date and introducing the topic of the day: Opinions.  When we were practicing debates, I jokingly asked my tenth graders who was better, men or women.  I was shocked when the majority of the class including the girls immediately decided the answer was men.  When I asked why, I got a variety of answers all leading to the same thing.  Men are leaders.  Men can have whatever job they want to have.  Men can continue to go to school.  Men can make rules.  Men don’t have to worry about getting pregnant.  When I played devil’s advocate and said women can also do those things, the response was unanimous, “Not in Madagascar.”  In that moment, I recognized a need for gender equality and leadership training. 

           I started small, switching the gender roles in the classroom by having the boys sweep the floors and having the girls be my “policewomen” who kept everyone on track.  I taught about the differences between sex and gender and led sexual education classes where I taught about the importance of consent, protection, and visiting the doctor.  When another Peace Corps Volunteer in my region led a gender equality camp for men, I decided I wanted to host my own gender equality camp for women and began to write a grant.
peace corps madagascar glow camp sava wall of strengths
The Wall of Strengths: Each young woman drew a picture of themselves and wrote 5 of their strengths.  They wrote compliments to each other everyday at the bottom.

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The young women at the beginning of the GLOW Camp.
           The grant process is no easy task.  It takes literally months to fill out an application, finalize an appropriate budget, and raise the money for the camp.  I started the process in May for my Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) camp that would be held in December.  I worked with Malagasy counterparts and other Peace Corps Volunteers to develop a 5-day camp in Sambava for 13 young women across the SAVA region.  We led sessions on gender equality, self-esteem, women’s health, sex education, goal making and leadership.  I invited women from the community to participate in a career panel and share their stories on how they got to where they are now.  I brought in doctors to lead health sessions.  I watched as the 13 young women grew together and empowered each other to follow their dreams.  In the evenings, many of the young women were caught practicing their swing dancing, yoga, and self-defense techniques they had learned.  On the final day, all of the young women put on performances to teach others about what they had learned and when I asked them, “Who is better, men or women?” they unanimously answered, “Women!”

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The FLAGE camp students getting a tour of the university.
           When I moved to Diego in early January, I was excited to hear that there was an opportunity for me to lead another gender equality and leadership camp, this time for young men and women!  I picked up a grant left by previous volunteers and brought together 14 young men and 14 young women from different towns across the North of Madagascar for a 5-day camp in Diego.  The topics of the camp were similar, but this time I had young men and women learning together which meant there were some disagreements and a lot of debates.  There was also a mix of students from the countryside and from the city, which brought different perspectives on topics many of them had never even thought of differently before.  On the last day of the camp, we all took a tour of the University of Diego where the students could get a glimpse of what it’s like to continue their education past high school and start planning for their futures and ended with a ceremony on the beach.  Watching all of the students play frisbee, dance, and laugh together on the beach was heart-warming and a beautiful end to a successful camp.

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The FLAGE Camp students at the final ceremony.
            I wish I could say that gender equality is now a norm in Madagascar,  but realistically it takes a lot more time.  As a result of these two camps, I can confidently say that 41 students in Madagascar now have a new-found knowledge that they are eager to share with others.  The more people we can educate, the more things will change.  Through our classes, our clubs, our conversations with others, our bigger projects, and through the passing down of information from those we teach, we are working together to make the world a better place, where our dreams rather than our gender determine our future.

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