Tagged: empowerment

Lessons to be learned

PCV Suzanne Capehart tackles tough issues with her students in a discussion about homosexuality and homosexual rights

By Katrina Shankle

In Benin there are plenty of misconceptions about homosexuality. For many volunteers, it is a subject we want to broach but a difficult one as these conversations are not always welcome in our communities. A volunteer in the Alibori North of Benin, Suzanne Capehart was able to take on the subject with her homologue and a group of students and has shared her experience.

To open the session, Suzanne started by simply just explaining to the group of students homosexuality as basically as possible: the concept of men being attracted to men and women to women. During this portion of the session she spent a lot of time emphasizing the point that being homosexual is not a lifestyle choice nor a disease- two commonly believed myths- and instead something with which you are born, like a personal trait. Students had much to say about this as many came in believing that it was a disease. A handful of students were concerned that not only was homosexuality a disease but that it was a contagious one, and as Suzanne came from a place they knew homosexuals to come from, they feared she was a carrier that could potentially infect them. This idea is not uncommon. In many countries across Africa, homosexuality is seen as an import of colonialism. People believe nonheteronormative sexualities did not exist before Europeans came to Africa.

Students were also generally confused about the sexual nature of homosexual relationships and some were confused about reproduction in regards to same sex relationships. Some students believed that someone could still produce a baby in a same sex relationship. Suzanne explained that there are many ways for a same-sex couple to become parents but that a baby could not be produced without an egg and a sperm. In this part of the conversation she explained briefly the nature of same-sex sexual relationships. Interestingly, she found that students were far more comfortable accepting and understanding the nature of women engaging in a same sex relationship but when discussing male same sex relationships the students were much more disbelieving and disapproving.

Finally, Suzanne addressed gay rights and gay pride in the United States, sharing experiences of gay pride days with the students. She said this was an interesting subject for the students as Benin has a “don’t ask don’t tell”- like culture, the idea of people being so public about their sexual orientation and expressing a pride in their community was surprising to them.

These conversations are so important to have. While some or even most students may ultimately reject what Suzanne explained to them, it is important to share a different perspective and encourage, the youth in particular, to be more inquisitive and accepting. That being said, it is not an easy thing to do and it can come with consequences. For Suzanne, many of the students she held the session with believed she was gay for discussing it with them. This raised concerns for her with dealing with students’ families that may not be accepting of their students having a gay teacher or even a teacher who teaches them a view on homosexuality that is rejected by society. She and her homologue had to work to try to dispel these misconceptions about her personal life to protect her ability to continue to work in the community. There is obviously a tricky balance with much of the work we do in respecting beliefs and pushing forward thinking, but Suzanne’s story is ultimately one of success. She has reported at least some members of her community trying harder to at least be respectful despite their personal views when referring to homosexuals. Despite having to explain her own sexuality, the community has moved on and she managed to be a very effective volunteer while still being able to push the envelope with her community through sharing her own opinions and experiences.

Manly Men

The tenets of machismo – aggression, strength and manliness – define what it means to be a man through the subordination of women and homosexuals

By Katrina Shankle

Machismo means manliness, chauvinism or virility. When describing a culture it is referring to a societal ethos of exerting aggressive masculinity with a dogmatic view of what manliness means; it is the by-product of a paternalistic society. These kinds of values are often troubling for women and homosexuals as gender roles are inflexible, and a divergence from the norm is viewed as taboo.

Generally when using the word machismo to describe a culture it is in reference to Latin American countries (with the word’s origin in Spanish). In reality, the number of countries with elements of a machismo culture is vast, with the key ingredients to this kind of culture only being a male-dominated society with very traditional views of gender roles.

In these societies, a variance from a typical “strong” male character is a weakness. The stereotype of homosexual men perpetuated by these societies is that they are all effeminate, weak or submissive, and in this manner are viewed as a second class.

So powerful is this idea of an aggressive male in some Latino cultures, that they have adopted a view that even a man who takes on a relationship with another man is not necessarily homosexual. In Colombia this is characterized by the expression “soy tan macho que me cojo otro hombre” (I’m so macho that I fuck other men). In this way, in Latino cultures, the concept of machismo hasn’t only created a hierarchy among the gay and straight but also among the gay community.

These attitudes are very obviously detrimental to society. The stigmatization of what it means to be homosexual fuels violence against individuals and the gay community as a whole.

According to Avert, in 2005 it was estimated that a gay man was killed every two days in Latin America because of his sexuality. These attitudes force people to conform to heteronormativity, keeping people closeted, even participating in heterosexual marriages to avoid suspicion. These views impact people’s social lives, professional lives and their ability to participate in society. For a gay man, his sexual orientation becomes his sole identifier.

The prominent role of machismo tenets in the demonization of homosexuality among men has had an interesting effect on gay women. Not being affected by the same constraints of machismo ideology in relation to their sexual orientation, it has been seen in particular in Latino cultures, that gay women are far less visible with less misfortunes of a reactionary community. Suspicions of a woman being a lesbian are far less common than suspicions of a man being gay, a woman can remain unmarried, she can live with another woman and the perception is generally that she is frigid. However, women do not get off unscathed, the constraints of a machismo culture put women gay or straight in a secondary role making it harder to find jobs and exert independence.

Machismo ideals are not typically at work alone. In most cases the dominance of a religion with damaging views toward homosexuality further limits the support network of those ostracized by their community. While in most Latino cultures these systems of values are only embedded within social norms and values, many African nations (37) still outlaw homosexuality and in a very few the “act” of homosexuality can lead to life imprisonment or the death penalty, in these societies the homosexual community finds little reprieve within any corner of society. A machismo ethos only points to the malady of a society perpetuated in both its religious tenants, social norms and in some contexts the laws.

A Fight Yet to Be Won

Despite the legality of homosexuality, Beninese members of the LGBT community face discrimination and homophobia as part of their daily lives.

By Emily Becker

As a member of the LGBT community in Benin, Jean* is used to hearing the horror stories about being gay in a country where, although technically not illegal, homosexuality is generally not accepted. As the president of the Hirondelle Club, an association of LGBT Beninese that meets every Monday in Cotonou, Jean has met individuals who have been driven out of their homes after being seen kissing another man, individuals who have been victims of assaults both physical and verbal and in extreme situations, individuals who have ended their lives over their sexuality.

“We do not choose our sexual orientation,” said Jean. “They did not choose to be straight. We did not choose to be gay. This is our life, our identity.”


Despite the fact that neither homosexuality nor homosexual acts are illegal in Benin, laws rarely change the opinions of individuals. In Benin, like many other countries in Africa, homosexuality is seen as an abomination by churches, or as an import from the colonial influence of Europe.

“Many people believe homosexuality is either an act of witchcraft or it is imported from the Western world,” said Jacques, a member of the LGBT community in Cotonou who relocated to Benin from France in 1990. “The strong religious influence is also a challenge to face, as many preachers still reject homosexuality during their speech at churches or mosques.”

For those who feel comfortable coming out to others or who are looking for a safe place to meet other members of the LGBT community, several organizations and support groups exist in major cities like Cotonou and Parakou. More than ten meet on a regular basis, and the French Cultural Center hosts a monthly discussion in order to reduce ignorance and homophobia.

Unfortunately, Jacques believes that, for now, the safest way to live as a gay man in Beninese society is not attract attention to oneself or sexuality.

“We give advice to the most extravagant members of the community (mostly effeminate) and ask them to go out dressed normally and change their clothes while they are in a closed area,” he said. “However, this advice is hardly followed as many think they want to live their life, come hell or high water. [As a member of the LGBT community] I must always remember that I can be the subject of rejection, mockery or insult. I therefore always pay attention every time I go out with friends, making sure we should not be the subject of general attention.”

*Names have been changed

Day 20: Bonou to Misserete


On our second-to-last leg of the tour, volunteers Katie and Michelle together completed the 40 km between Bonou and Misserete. The girls finished up strong on this overcast day, and everyone on the team was feeling the excitement of ending the journey in the capital of Porto Novo tomorrow morning.


On this, our penultimate day of cross-country run, we here at the blog are concerned that we have, in fact, made this all look too easy. Or have given the impression that all we did during the run was, well, run.


There was also plenty of eating.

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And plenty of time taken to relax afterward.


And definitely, a few rests a long the way.


Day 18: Cove to Zangnanado

Day 18_Zagnanado_IMG_9875

Future coordinator of the GenEq committee Betsy took on today’s 7 km run between Cove and Zanganado. But don’t doubt her commitment to the program just because she was scheduled for one of the shortest legs of the tour. Betsy has served the past two years as an English teacher in a public middle school and has seen first-hand the impact that programs that focus on females can have on a village at large.

“Women and girls are the heart of the community,” she said. “Starting with them leads to empowerment and development throughout all genders and age groups.”

Betsy hopes to continue to focus on empowerment through athletics next year, including collaborating with the national Ministry of Sports and other community partners.

May 23rd: Runner’s log

From May 30-June 19, GenEq Benin is holding Le Tour Du Benin, a grueling 21-day relay-run across the entire western African nation of Benin. Here, our editor Emily Becker, chronicles the training for her 25 km run on June 12. Visit indigogo.com to donate to the fundraiser.

Distance: 14.07 kilometers

The last three kilometers, all I can think about is water. Drinking Nalgene after Nalgene of it. Pouring it over my head in the shower. Jumping into a pool of it. I didn’t start until too late in the day and the noon sun has zapped most of the water from my body by just halfway through this long run. The next hill I climb, I pretend is a waterfall.

The last two kilometers, my thoughts turn to other beverages: cold Coke, cold Sprite, cold Gatorade. I used to run with a bottle of water. Now, I run with a GPS. I begin to severely question this trade.

The last kilometer, I am swirling the remaining spit in my mouth around, trying to distract myself from how much longer there is until the water severely lacking in my system is replenished.

When I make it home, the first place I head is my kitchen and my water filter, resisting the urge to just stick my head under it and open my mouth like it’s a faucet.

I stop drinking 2.5 liters later.

May 22nd: Runner’s log

From May 30-June 19, GenEq Benin is holding Le Tour Du Benin, a grueling 21-day relay-run across the entire western African nation of Benin. Here, our editor Emily Becker, chronicles the training for her 25 km run on June 12. Visit indigogo.com to donate to the fundraiser.

As I rounded the last turn of my run, the middle school that marks my return into my village looming up ahead to the left, I encountered three of my students coming out of the woods that line the road.

The woods here aren’t like the woods full of dense trees and small limestone cliffs in my backyard where I grew up in the US. Here, as the trees are mainly cashew tress or mango trees or some other fruit-bearing tree and the main method of cooking is over a wood-burning stove, it’s not uncommon to see people crashing out of the woods along this road with branches or mangoes balanced in basins on their heads.

These students were carrying palm tree branches. I’m not sure what they were going to do with them: use them as a covering for some structure or were just messing around.  But regardless, after greeting me, they started running alongside me, normally something that would irk me, but something that I’ll allow if it’s my students.

As a pretty noticeable stranger here, a lot of times, people just want to be with you. They gain respect by appearing to be associating with an American or they think you’ll have something for them or they’re just interested in what you’re doing.

Which is to say that I’ve been followed before. On my bike, while walking through the market. Once, I ran almost four kilometers before noticing that a kid I was vaguely familiar with has followed me the entire way on his tricycle. They want you to know that they’re intrigued by what you’re doing. Even if it’s sometimes a little bit off-putting.

My students followed me for about a quarter of a kilometer, their palm fronds waving as they ran, before they stopped, waved and walk off into the village.

African female athletes stand out as models of empowerment

By Katrina Shankle

“Half of running is training your body. The other half is training your mind.” That’s what I remember from training for my first marathon. At some point your mind says, there is no way you can keep doing this for another 12 miles, it tells you that you’re tired, you’re thirsty, that if you just stop you can slow your heart rate back down and catch your breath. At mile 24 you hit the wall, you muscles start to tense, your mind fatigues, literally your entire body is trying to put the brakes on what you are trying to accomplish; and yet we don’t stop. That’s the mental part, where you keep saying “just a little further”, you remind yourself of how good it’s going to feel when it is over and that victory awaits you. With the GenEq Tour du Benin fundraising run around the corner, certainly Peace Corps runners have begun gearing up: increasing their mileage, perfecting their playlists and modifying their diets. This article is dedicated to the other part of training, offering up the awe-inspiring stories of four larger-than-life female African athletes. Any one of these stories should offer enough inspiration to help push through the mental roadblocks along the run.

Tirunesh DibabaEthiopia, Long distance track athlete


Dibaba should win an award for just the sheer number of records she has broken. With an extensive number of wins under her belt, her most noteworthy achievements are that she is the 5000-meter world record holder at 14 minutes 11.15 seconds (at the Oslo Golden League 2008 meeting), the current World and Olympic 10,000 meter champion, and winner of five world track titles as well has five world cross country titles.

In 2001, at age 15 she competed in her first fully international outdoor track event at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships; she came in 5th place. In 2003 she won the silver medal in the 5000-meter race at the Afro-Asian games, and then went on later that year to become the youngest athlete to ever win an individual gold medal at the World Championships. Then, at the 2005 Championships, she broke another record by becoming the first woman to win both the 10,000 m and 5,000 m at the same championship. Again, in 2007 at the Championships she won the 10,000 m, becoming the only woman to win back-to-back titles. In 2013 she ran and won the 10,000 m in Moscow, making this her fifth individual World Championship gold medal, the most ever by a female athlete.

At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, she placed third, again breaking a record by becoming the youngest medalist for Ethiopia in the Olympics. Ironically, although she broke a record, this was viewed as a disappointment as she wanted the gold. Making up for her first go at the Olympics, she won the gold medal in the 10,000 m race in the Beijing Olympics, and in her normal fashion managed to break another record by finishing it in a record time of 29:54.66. She also won the 5,000m race making her the first woman to win both the 5,000 and 10,000-meter race at the same Olympics. At the 2012 London Olympics she again won the gold in the 10,000-meter race, in the fastest run of that year, making her the first woman to win back-to-back Olympic 10,000 meter titles.

Chioma Ajunwa, Nigeria, track and field athlete, specializing in the long jump


Ajunwa achieved worldwide notice at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta when she became the first athlete in her country, as well as the first West African woman, to win an Olympic Gold medal. To date, she remains Nigeria’s only individual Olympic gold medalist. She was born into a self-described poor home, resulting from her father’s untimely death, leaving her mother as the sole caretaker for 9 children. She originally played soccer for the Nigerian’s woman’s team, including during the 1991 Women’s World Cup, but remained unknown as she had minimal playing time. She started competing in track and field events in 1989. She began to be noticed in 1991 after the All Africa Games where she won a gold medal in the long jump. Unfortunately the following year she was banned from the sport after failing a drug test.

Following her Olympic win in 1996, Ajunwa retired from the sport and became an officer with the Nigerian Police Force. In 2012, she started her own anti-doping campaign that she has self-financed. Her initiative includes anti-doping messaging communicated directly to athletes and their coaches during athletic events.

Catherine Ndereba, Kenya, Marathon runner


Catherine Ndereba, also known as “Catherine the Great” is a two-time winner of the marathon event at the World Championship in Athletics and two time silver medalist at the Olympics (2004 and 2008). Additionally she is a four-time winner of the Boston Marathon, a world renowned marathon that draws the best runners from all over the world. She broke the women’s marathon world record at the Chicago Marathon in 2001, finishing at 2:18:47. In 2009, she met Katrin Dorres’ record of completing 21 sub-2:30 hour marathons when she finished 7th in the London Marathon that year. In addition to her marathon fame, she also ran the world’s fastest times at the 5K at 16:09, at the 15K at 48:52, at the 12K at 38:37 and at the 10 mile at 53:07 in 1998.

Catherine the Great was named the greatest women’s marathoner of all time in 2008 by the Chicago Tribune. She has also been twice awarded the Kenyan Sportswoman of the year (in 2004 and 2005).

Natalie du Toit, South Africa, Swimmer


Du Toit first competed internationally at age 14 when she participated in the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumper. In 2001 she had her left leg amputated at the knee when she was hit by a car while riding her scooter. Not 3 months after her operation, before she was even walking again, she was training again in hopes of competing in the 2002 Commonwealth Games. She accomplished her goal and swimming without the aid of a prosthetic leg, won both the multi disability 50 m freestyle and the multi disability 100 m freestyle in world record time at the 2002 Commonwealth games in Manchester. Then in 2003, competing against able-bodied swimmers, she won the gold in the 800m freestyle at the All-Africa games and the silver in the 800m freestyle and the bronze in the 400m freestyle at the Afro-Asian games, just 2 years after her accident. She made sporting history when she qualified for the 800 m able-bodied freestyle final, making it the first time an athlete with a disability qualified for the final of an able-bodied event. She is most famed for the two gold medals she won at both the 2004 Paralympic games and the Commonwealth Games.

At the 2006 Commonwealth Games she again won two gold medals and then went on to win another six gold medals at the 4th IPC World Swimming Championships, where she also placed in 3rd overall in a race that included 36 males and 20 females. She became the first amputee ever to qualify for the Olympics, and placed 16th in the 10k marathon swim. She was one of the two Paralympians who competed at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. In the 2008 summer Paralypmics she cleaned house winning five gold medals. The South Africa Olympic Committee chose Du Toit to carry their flag at the 2008 Olympic opening ceremony, making her the first athlete to carry a flag in both the Olympic and Paralympics in the same year.

Choosing four female African athletes to highlight was difficult, as there is plenty of talent to choose from. These women stand out because of their determination, perseverance, ability to overcome obstacles and the sheer number of records and glass ceilings they have broken. They are role models in their exemplary demonstration of what a focused mind and hard work can accomplish.

Village loan organizations give women monetary empowerment

By Jocelyn Brousseau

Women are frequently heads of the household; sometimes in charge of finances, and always rearing children and cooking. At the same time, they are not given the respect they deserve and are constantly belittled.

Volunteer (PST 26) Ellen Mork works with VSLAs-village saving and loan associations in Barienou in the Donga region. Basically, VSLAs are a group of up to 40 women and/or men, who meet to save and loan money. They usually meet the day after market, so once or twice a week. During their first meetings together, they set rules and regulations such as amount for a late fee, price of each “share” or part, etc. Every meeting, they put in their allotted savings, whether it be one or five shares, 100 or 1,000 franc a share- they pay what they can. They also pay “solidarity” which is money collected and given out if a member needs a short loan that doesn’t fall under the categories of a regular loan. A member could borrow from the solidarity if their child is sick and needs to go to the health center.  Once the savings have beencollected, people can take out a loan after describing what it is for and how they’ll be able to pay it back in three months. Each month, they pay an a interest rate of 10%, which seems high but these loans are much easier to receive than at the bank. At the end of the year, each member receives their savings and solidarity back, plus a profit made up of late fees and interest. If members are saving and loaning large amounts of money, a they can receive a large profit.

Ellen’s role is to attend their meetings, answer questions and guide them if the women are having issues. She has helped them in a variety of ways: from demonstrating different, more efficient ways of calculating totals, to new ways to write information. She is also working on holding formations on a wide variety of topics, ranging from how to save money in a family setting and malaria prevention to essential health actions. Working with groups like VSLAs is usually easier than working with other groups in a village. They are already a motivated group, and they are willing to make some changes to better their lives. It’s simple to plan a formation, go to their meeting and talk to them for a half an hour on a variety of topics.

The goal of a VSLA is to allow members to earn money and have money available for their needs. Thus, starting an income generating activity (IGA) is prudent. Many members have current businesses and use loans to buy more products, construct new buildings, or expand their business in other ways. Still others use a loan to start an IGA, or buy a bike for their child to go to school. VSLAs offer many ways for a family member to better their life and the life of their family by increasing the amount of money they can earn. If a family member is earning enough through the VSLA, they could send their child to school, who maybe wouldn’t have been able to go before, either because there wasn’t enough money or the child had to work to support the family.

Ellen comments that, “there’s an overall show of support for these groups with women, particularly after a husband sees how much money is earned.  Of course, one always runs into issues relating to the power a husband wields. A husband may see it as empowerment of women and thus a decrease in power he already holds, making him less important in the family. He may also see it as an unnecessary activity for the wife, when she has plenty to do at home: cooking, cleaning, taking care of children, and working in the field. I find this to be the biggest complaint from the husbands.”

VSLAs can have a large effect if they are run properly and supported by the community. It’s rewarding to see a woman receive so much money at the end of the year and know how much it will help her family.

Six African women chosen as Vlisco ambassadors

As part of its second annual celebration of Women’s Month, Dutch textile brand Vlisco announced its new team of ambassadors from west and central Africa last weekend. Popular and highly respected in the area, the company has been known to include themes and symbols of gender empowerment in their prints.

Each winner was selected by public vote from amongst three or four candidates from her respective country.

Cote d’Ivoire: Adonis Koffi

A professor of pediatrics, Koffi established the first specialized renal failure unit in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ghana: Eugenia Mawuena Adjoa Tachie-Menson

With her charity, the Young Educators Foundation, Tachie-Menson runs educational programs for children, which includes having brought the Scripps Spelling Bee to Ghana.

Nigeria: Adesuwa Onyenokwe

Onyenokwe is the publisher of TW magazine and was previously a broadcaster for the Nigerian Television Authority.

Democratic Republic of the Congo: Patience Barandenge

Barandenge runs a group of women entrepreneurs and dreams that every young girl should have the right to be an independent entrepreneur.

Benin: Monique Kotchofa Faihun

As a bailiff, Faihun has fought her way through the traditionally male-dominated world of the justice system.

Togo: Aimee Abra Tenu

As the director of the nonprofit Sainte Therese De L’enfant, Tenu works to provide access to education and clean drinking water. Recently, she launched a campaign to promote the recycling of plastic waste.

During the past month, nominees spent time giving inspirational talks, taking part in charity events and touring around their countries. The ambassadors will spend the next year as the face of Vlisco’s Women’s Month campaign. The previous ambassador was Nollywood actress Stephanie Okereke-Linus.