Avrankou VSLA

By Morgan Merge, CED volunteer

Every Thursday in the village of Avrankou just 10 km north of capital city, Porto Novo, I meet with 19 women for a Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) meeting. The VSLA is a very simple and informal savings account. Once a week for eight months, each woman puts at least 200 CFA, which is about $.35, in a lockbox that she wishes to save. This money accumulates over time and is available to any member of the association who may need a loan during this period. She can borrow it from the safe as long as she repays it at an interest rate determined by the group. At the end of the eight-month cycle, each woman will receive the money she has put in the safe as well as a portion of the interest paid on the loans.

 

Since last July, my local counterpart and I have established several VSLAs in neighboring villages, and the VSLA in Avrankou is what I would consider the most successful among them. My counterpart, who is a director of a local NGO that supports women’s and children’s rights, has worked with these women in Avrankou for several years. He knew they would greatly benefit from a VSLA since most of the women either never went to school or left when they were very young, and they typically live hand-to-mouth. This becomes a problem whenever there are big household expenses, like at the beginning of the school year when school fees are due. With little or no financial support from their spouses, they are forced to make spending cuts to their already meager budgets to make ends meet. Their low income and lack of formal education makes them ineligible for loans from banks or microfinance institutions, and most wouldn’t be able to afford the high interest rates, anyway.

 

The VLSA mitigates these problems and gives the women of the group more financial freedom. First and foremost, it provides them an opportunity to save money. Every member must save each week, and the women considered everyone’s financial situation when choosing the minimum weekly savings amount. Most plan on using their savings to pay for their children’s school fees. Second, they can borrow from these savings and repay the loan at an affordable interest rate. So far, 10 women have taken loans of 10,000 CFA, which is about $16, and repaid each loan with 5% interest. They have all used their loans to invest in their business affairs. Lastly, this interest gets shared among everyone at the end of the savings cycle, so they are essentially earning money from their savings.

 

These 19 women not only have access to financial services they normally wouldn’t have, but they have also learned invaluable accounting and budgeting skills through the VSLA. The group is entirely self-run; my counterpart and I attend the weekly meetings solely for support and to answer questions. The women are in charge of tracking their savings, calculating loan interest, and enforcing the rules that they established. Furthermore, as I mentioned above, it is mandatory that members save every single week, so everyone has to create a weekly budget to ensure they can meet this requirement. The skills acquired through the VSLA will help them better manage their business affairs and personal finances, which will ultimately put more money in their pockets and allow them to live comfortably year-round.

Camp Gamia

By Shannon Johnson, TEFL volunteer

“Oui, nous pouvons” chanted fifty students from CEG Gamia. Yes, they can, and yes they did. Over the course of a three-day holiday, twenty-five boys and twenty-five girls participated in Camp Gamia, an initiative to spread gender equality, information, and fun to the student population. A boy and a girl from each class from 6th to 8th grade were selected to attend.

Months before the local camp, the five boys and five girls who participated in the national camps for boys and girls expressed interest in sharing what they had learned. They had a vision—a local camp that was not separated by gender. So, with the French teacher who had attended Camp Glow, we began planning. The national campers were designated tutors who would organize sessions, songs, and be leaders of smaller groups of students. Each tutor chose one or two sessions to present to their fellow students. The weeks preceding camp, we reviewed songs, the steps for a solid session, and public speaking tips. They were pumped. The administration was also supportive of the camp as a cultural activity, a way to develop student leadership and discuss important topics. As such, the local camp was fully-funded by the CEG’s budget, a rare occurrence with Peace Corps projects. The local camp proved to be much less expensive than a national camp, without the costs of travel, lodging, lunch and dinner.

Finally, the day of camp arrived. We waited anxiously to see if, after all the preparation, the students would actually show up. We set up the rooms, got water ready, and discussed the first few sessions at 7 am. Finally, at 8 am, students began to flood in. Out of the 60 nominated students, over 50 showed up to attend the camp. We were thrilled, knowing that students had to get special permission from their parents. Normally, schools breaks are an opportunity for these children to contribute to their families’ income by selling food in market or working in the fields. The students were split into teams of different colors that represented “les petites familles” with ranging age and genders, with tutors as the “grand frères” and “grand sœurs.” Throughout camp, teams would compete for points in competitions and behavior, with a special prize for the winning team.

We set the base framework of Camp Gamia by the first two sessions—self-confidence and gender and sex. For self-confidence, we encouraged all the students to speak comfortably and express their ideas, even if they may be wrong. Each student wrote a positive characteristic as well as a negative one on small sheets of paper. We formed a large circle outside and triumphantly ripped up the negative characteristic and threw it on the ground—BAM—representing that we have the capability to change our negative characteristics and that they don’t define us. The gender and sex session was the major basis for gender equality for the weekend. We defined the difference between gender and sex, the first a social construct and the latter biology. We established that sex doesn’t change over time or in different locations. The parts of our body remain the same.  Gender, though, varies and changes constantly. Ultimately, this broke down the argument that girls were incapable of doing well in school or working and boys were incapable of doing household work. The students also created typical daily calendars for boys and girls and compared them, realizing that girls have less time to study at home because of their chores. For the rest of camp, we established that boys and girls would split the work evenly. One boy and one girl would be in charge of fetching water, cleaning the room before sessions, serving food, and cleaning plates for the next three days.

The first day of camp continued to address gender. The subsequent sessions on the importance of girl’s education and violence against women further established that educated girls and women were more likely to be autonomous, without having to rely on other people for their basic needs. We discussed the four types of violence, agreed that all are present in Gamia, and that is it easier for educated women to leave situations of violence. The tutors were especially helpful in these sessions by performing skits and leading group discussions.

A variety of sessions filled the second day of camp, starting with a session on waste management. The students competed to find the most trash in bags. I had never seen kids so enthusiastic about collecting trash! The schools grounds were spotless after the 15-minute competition. The students learned what to do with different types of trash, and we set aside pure water sachets to use to plant Moringa trees later in the day. Other sessions for the second day included how to study, Moringa, and nutrition. Students took home two seeds of Moringa in a small, plastic nursery.

For the last day of camp, the main sessions were family planning, STDs, consent, malaria, and black is beautiful for the girls and alliance with girls for the boys. At the end of the last session, all of the students practiced putting on a condom, knew contraceptive methods, and how to avoid malaria and STDs. My counterpart, Delphine, talked to the girls about skin whitening and why they should be proud of their black, beautiful skin. They saw pictures and photos of successful, beautiful black women. The boys in the meantime discussed how to help the girls in their lives against unwanted pregnancies, violence, and abandoning school.

After four sessions a day, every day was filled with fun activities—competitions to see which team can build the strongest house made out of straws and tape, egg drop competition, a “color hunt” for hidden sticks, and finally, an obstacle course. Each day the students chose an elective, art or yoga, both led by tutors. We sang many songs, the most popular of which was boom chica boom.

By the end of camp, the students were motivated to share what they had learned with others in Gamia, their families, their friends, etc.  Since each class had one boy and one girl represented at camp, the pair planned what they wanted to share with their classmates. We finished the weekend with one final chant “Oui, nous pouvons!” cementing that the students are capable of addressing these important issues in Gamia, particularly gender equality. It seemed that the students were more open and at ease in this local camp than national camps because they were in a familiar place with many familiar faces. They were not afraid to point out what the village says about gender and family planning—the ideas that girls cannot do well in school and that women who use birth control will cheat on their husbands. By their openness, we were able to discuss the realities of village life frankly. By the end of camp, boys were offering to wash the dishes, sweep, and get water without being asked, a sign that change is indeed stirring in the “gros village” of Gamia.

Ouidah English Day

By Yea-Ree Chang, TEFL volunteer

Ouidah English Day is an English-immersion event primarily for English teachers of the South of Benin. This year, the participants learned about the difference between gender and sex, and had a frank discussion about gender-based violence and the educator’s role in confronting it in a school environment. To do so, they analyzed different scenarios and shared their own experiences as witnesses, victims, and perpetrators. In Benin, gender-related injustices ranging from petty discrimination practices to sexual harassment in an educational context are painfully common and having this discussion helped instill awareness and empathy in those who have a huge impact on the future generation of Benin.

Scholarship Girls Weekend

By Aviva Maslow, TEFL volunteer

Over February 16-19, forty-four girls from all over Benin gathered in Lokossa for the Scholarship Girls Weekend to learn about leadership skills and discuss important issues including sexual health and gender-based violence. This event was a part of the year-long Scholarship Girls Program, which provides high-achieving, low-income female students with academic scholarships and the opportunity to be mentored by a Peace Corps Volunteer throughout the school year. Participating volunteers work with a committee of school and community leaders to select one or two girls, whom the volunteer then works with and mentors during the year.  Since being selected in October, the girls have met regularly with their Peace Corps Volunteer in their respective villages, and all twenty-one of the participating volunteers brought their girls to Lokossa for the weekend training. One of the goals of this weekend was to create an environment that would help strengthen the relationships between the girls and their mentors. The weekend also aimed to equip the Scholarship Girls with the necessary information to make healthy and informed decisions, as well as leadership skills so the girls would feel confident returning to their communities as strong, positive leaders.

Throughout the weekend, the girls participated in sessions about self-confidence, puberty and the reproductive systems, gender equality, sexual harassment, malaria prevention, hygiene, sexual health and family planning, and girls’ education. The girls also had the chance to speak with a panel of five “Mama Modèles,” Beninese women who have found success and independence in their personal and professional lives. The women included Peace Corps’ Taibatou Osseni, Colleen Sayi, and Tatiana Houndji, as well as a military captain and a businesswoman, both from Lokossa. The women met with the girls in small groups, and took the time to answer the girls’ questions, tell their personal narratives as examples of how to overcome obstacles to achieve one’s goals. Towards the end of the weekend, all of the volunteers and girls participated in a session about the relationships between the girls and their mentors, and the girls made plans with their mentors on how to improve their relationships and work together when they returned to their communities. Another session focused on community service projects, since one of the requirements of the program is that the girls complete a community service project with the assistance of their volunteer in their local communities.  The girls and volunteers discussed what a community service project is, how to identify a community’s need, and how to effectively plan and implement a project to address this need. Each girl and her volunteer then discussed the problems they see in their own communities, and chose one of these issues to address through a community project, and completed a detailed action plan to use when they return to their communities.  We closed the weekend with with a certificate ceremony and, of course, a full-on dance party (complete with West African Top 40 songs) to celebrate everyone’s hard work and accomplishments!

Several volunteers remarked on the noticeable changes they saw in their girls throughout the weekend, as girls became more comfortable participating in group activities, speaking in front of a crowd, and opening up to their volunteer. For many of the girls, this weekend was their first time not only visiting Lokossa, but connecting with other girls from all over Benin and being a part of a tight-knit community of female students. It was clear by the end of the weekend that the girls felt proud of themselves, as they carried themselves with a new sense of self confidence and purpose, and it was inspiring and heartwarming as volunteers to witness this growth.  While all of these girls face numerous challenges on a daily basis at home, they still strive to complete their educations and overcome the obstacles they face as girls in Benin. Over the course of the weekend, the girls displayed their strength and courage, embracing their roles as the future leaders of Benin.

Seeds Of Hope Screening

By Julia Dejean, TEFL volunteer

October 11th is the International Day of the Girl. For this occasion, and to celebrate female students around the world, I held a viewing of the Peace Corps Benin produced documentaries “Seeds of Hope” at my school.

These documentaries share the story of exceptional Beninese girls that fought to receive an education despite their circumstances, in hopes that they inspire young girls to fight for their rights, as well as to promote the importance of sending girls to school amongst youth and adults.

Since the independence of Benin in 1960, much progress towards gender equality has been made. However, there are still families that refuse to educate their girls. A majority of these girls are exploited within households or offered in marriage at a young age to men that are considerably older. Some outstanding girls are convinced that it is through education that they can best invest themselves in the development of their country. They fight the sad realities, injustices, and sociological barriers that they are faced with in order to receive a quality education.

The “Seeds of Hope” films were an excellent gateway to an open discussion with the girls at my school about the many obstacles and challenges they face in their daily lives, and the different ways they can overcome these obstacles to achieve their dreams. We talked about ambition and several students shared their dreams and aspirations with the audience. Some wanted to become teachers, others nurses and others simply wanted to work hard in school and get good grades. The girls concluded on the importance of fighting for their education, working hard, and finding the strength and courage to pursue what they believe in. They came to this conclusion on their own.

At first, I was afraid not many students we’re going to come because it can sometimes be hard to organize a big event on such short notice, a week after the beginning of school. But in the end, 114 girls showed up. These 114 girls are my seeds of hope.

Ordering Menstrual Pads From The Local Tailor

By Henry Berghoff, EA volunteer

In Beninese culture, communication is very indirect, especially when concerning topics that are taboo. That is why it was so difficult to order menstrual pads for the 50 girls who will be attending Camp GLOW Savalou this vacation period. Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) Savalou is a camp for high-achieving girls in the Savalou region traditionally organized by Peace Corps volunteers, and will take place this year at the end of September, just before school starts again. The goal is to encourage girls to continue to succeed in school and to teach them life skills such as malaria prevention, feminine hygiene, and sexual health. As a gift for girls who attend the camp, each girl will receive two locally-made menstrual pads. To an American who can buy these items easily at any drug store, this may not seem like such an interesting gift. But to a girl who faces the prospect of either missing school or being shamed for dirtying her school uniform each month when her period comes, this is a game-changer. This removes one of the barriers girls must overcome to achieve the same education as boys in Benin. The only problem was: how can I order 100 menstrual pads in a community that traditionally does not talk about sex, menstruation, or other taboo topics out loud? Describing to my tailor what it was that I wanted him to make for me was one of the most difficult, hilarious, and rewarding conversations that I have had in over a year of service in Benin.

At first, I thought the conversation was going well. I had translated into French a description of how to sew the pads, including pictures. So when the tailor was asking questions about the dimensions, size, and construction of each pad, I thought he had understood what they were for, even though I had yet to use the word: menstruation. Finally, after discussing the price of each pad, I was about to go back to my house when I heard him describe to one of his employees that they would be making 100 bags for girls. No! They are not supposed to go over the girls’ shoulders and hold their pens and notebooks! It was time to start over again from the beginning… The second time I tried to describe what the pads were for, I mentioned the removable cloth that was for absorbing blood, and he got really confused. OK, at least now he understands that they are not just purses, even if he still does not know what they are. What blood? I tried to indirectly explain ‘what blood’, but eventually realized that I was out of options. I had to say it. There was no other way about it. So I said: well, to absorb the blood each month when the girls menstruate. There it was. I broke the taboo, but in the same moment, I finally reached him. He finally understood! Not only did he now know what I wanted him to make, but he understood why I wanted him to make them! He told me a story about visiting the local high school one time and seeing a girl stand up after class with a blood stain all down the back of her skirt. He said that the girl was so ashamed. Even though it is a totally natural phenomenon, in Beninese culture, menstruation is very taboo and girl was incredibly embarrassed. Yes! That’s exactly it! That’s exactly why it is important to give these students menstrual pads: girls in small villages can’t afford to buy disposable pads or tampons, and this way they can go to school every day of the month and compete with the boys. Wow! That conversation was not easy: everyone was uncomfortable, and at times I thought I would not succeed and I would have to find another tailor. But by the end, it was all worth it. Not only did the tailor agree to make all of the pads for the camp attendees, but he also volunteered to buy all of the necessary fabric as a donation. I was touched. What a sweet man!

This is my success story: I made it through an uncomfortable conversation, overcame cultural taboos, and taught a Beninese tailor how he can help break down barriers to girls’ education in Benin.

Exploring Gender Roles and Barriers to Education at Environment and Food Security Camp

By Emma Edwards, EA volunteer

The Environment and Food Security Camp in June 2016 was a week-long camp focused on developing students’ environmental consciousness and leadership capabilities. Held at CPN Les Papillons an eco-tourism site near Dassa, the camp included 27 students (15 girls and 12 boys) in 4eme and 5eme from rural areas of the North, South, and Collines regions of Benin. Students learned about topics relating to the environment, climate change, and food security. They also had the opportunity to practice new food preservation and gardening technologies.

Traditional gender roles manifest themselves in all areas of Beninese life, even in the garden and field. Even though farm work is generally a responsibility shared by men and women, the men are expected to carry out the more physically demanding tasks on the fields, while the women provide food for the workers, and clean the harvested products.

Because of this clear division between males and females in the environmental domain, the camp also incorporated discussions about gender and barriers to education for girls. Peace Corps Benin staff member Tatiana Houndji visited the camp to teach the students that Beninese girls have a much harder time succeeding in school than their male counterparts because they are also burdened with housework and other responsibilities. She impressed upon the students that it is important for the development of Benin for both girls and boys to succeed in school, and that boys can help girls succeed in school by stepping up and helping around the home.

It was clear that the students, even the boys, appreciated Tatiana’s message. When presenting statistics about the gap in academic success between girls and boys, she asked, “Is this fair?” A loud “NO!” resounded throughout the classroom. The themes discussed continued to develop throughout the week as the girls and boys were expected to share responsibilities of keeping the site clean. After breakfast, lunch, and dinner, boys and girls did dishes together. The students seemed enthusiastic to demonstrate that girls and boys can be equally strong in the garden as well as in the kitchen.

At the end of the week, students gave skits to present what they had learned. One group chose to present about gender roles. The main character, a boy, played a girl who had become pregnant and thus had been told by her parents that she needed to stop going to school due to shame. The professor, played by a girl, visited the parents and convinced them to allow their daughter to continue in school. While the skit drew many laughs, it was also very insightful and spoke to the necessary role that gender equality should play in the development of Benin.