"Women are on earth to serve men."
"Women are not allowed to say no to a man."
"HIV spreads so rapidly because women are loose and sell themselves for sex."
"Women should be beaten to keep them in line."
"A young girl is the least important person in a household."
These are the currents flowing beneath the homes of Lesotho. And they’re not simply cultural norms that are silently understood. These statements are boldly spoken and believed by most men in Lesotho. I feel a fire burn through me when I hear many of the teen boys in my youth groups say these words to my face with no shame. But more deeply, and more softly, I feel a dull ache for the females of this country—condemned to servitude, disease and death by not being allowed a voice, but still being openly blamed by the very perpetrators of the crime.
Because of these beliefs, and because of the fact that girls aged 15 – 35 are at the highest risk for contracting HIV in Lesotho, I joined up with two other volunteers, Adam Peel and Juliana Fulton, in March to hold a GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) camp.
We invited 25 girls from our communities who are recently graduated from high school to attend a weeklong camp focusing on female empowerment. Subjects included:
Self-esteem, where the girls explored the foundation of their self-worth and ways to improve their self-esteem;
Leadership skills, where the girls defined leadership in their own personal ways and learned of other women in history who have changed the world;
Communication skills, where the girls learned how to express their thoughts and feelings and deliver confident and assertive messages;
Relationship skills, where the girls explored ideas of love and romance and discussed aspects of healthy and unhealthy relationships;
HIV/AIDS prevention and mitigation information, where the girls were able to hear the life story of a strong, successful woman personally affected by HIV;
Sexual/reproductive health, where the girls learned about, well, themselves;
Transactional sex, where the girls learned about the dangers of entering in relationships that center around goods or money for sex;
Delaying sex/abstinence, where the girls explored their personal choices and found ways to support their choices regarding sex;
Condom use, where the girls learned to put condoms on carrots so they never have a reason to avoid using a condom; and
Career guidance, where the girls explored goals they have for their lives and ways to reach those goals in Lesotho.
The highlight of all the sessions had to be when we had a certified Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructor come in and teach the girls Fight Like a Girl, a fantastic self-defense program that really had the girls pumped. In addition, each evening we showed movies related to our sessions from the day with discussion time after, and then topped the whole week off with a fantastic talent show so the girls had a chance to glow with pride and showcase their new-found confidence.
Gender inequality affects so many aspects of Lesotho’s welfare in vast ways. I will say however, females in Lesotho generally have equal opportunity in education and employment. In fact, an article published on International Women’s Day listed Lesotho as the best country in the world for women to learn to read. However, further down in the article, Lesotho was listed as the worst country for women’s health since the life expectancy for women is currently 48. To me, this shows how women are still seen as inferior in their homes and families when it comes to their personal health and how women, far above men, are desperately suffering from HIV/AIDS.
Even though it will be years before the gender norms change in this country, I am so proud to say that I am playing a very small part in that transition.
You might have missed International Women’s Day (March 8), but you can still hug a woman in your life today and tell her exactly why she is so amazing and necessary in this world.