Empowerment – learning to love yourself

Mwapoleni mukwai bonse! Mwacibuka shani? Ishina lyandi nine David Kapya, ndi kaipeela mu peace corps. Ndi kafundisha Pafya ubumi uusuma, imilile iisuma, na ukucingilila abalwele. Ndafwilisha abantu mu Mishi pa ubuyantanshi.

Whew that’s a mouth full isn’t it? That’s my basic one breath introduction speech. It’s how I start every meeting. We’re always in an informal setting, and I welcome my peers, ask them how they’ve woken, then introduce myself, my job, and then we talk about why I’m there. Often we’re seated outside, or under a tree.

Today I heard a very interesting retort from a young man as I talked about gender roles, women’s rights and women in development. As I was touching on talking points about empowering women and men equally to empower a community, one of the group members, a young man sitting with his friends said, “But isn’t this feminism? Why should we teach women to abandon their duties and hate men?”

Two young men seated at one of my trainings

1. He asked in English, which is rather rare, so I was surprised. 2. How do you roll out an answer to such a loaded, ignorant question in a respectful attitude-changing way?

Well, I took an internal step back, grabbed a mental breath of air, processed and then fired back, “Feminism isn’t about hating men or abandoning an equal share of household labor. Feminism is about respect. Showing respect for women as equals, not children or lessers. It’s about a woman learning to love herself and feel comfortable in her skin….not about abandoning her responsibilities or duties in the family structure.” The conversation continued and I hope I made some impact. We talked about labor division and we talked about stereotypical roles and how they affected and colored our thoughts. I touched back again and again on that question and spoke to how those attitudes needed to be changed.

I tossed in a few jokes – asking the married participants what made a happy home. The older ones knew. A happy wife made a happy home. It was a lively and fun-filled exercise.

But back to the epiphany that led to this blog. What is empowerment? Self confidence and maturity isn’t about rebellion, hate, anger, or bullying. It’s not about abandoning culture and responsibilities. Empowerment and confidence is about learning to love yourself for who you are. It’s about learning to take care of yourself, look after your responsibilities and work within a unit to accomplish an equal share. Whether that unit be a family, business, team, or village, it’s often a difficult and arduous process. One that takes deep introspection, thousands of mistakes, handfuls of amazing successes, and time.

You can’t just walk up to someone, and say, “Gosh, you’re a beautiful fantastic person. I hope you value yourself, because ….” That’s not how empowerment works. That’s not how people work. It takes time, followup, personal experience and an individual willingness to recognize and affect a change. That’s a lot of factors that have to be in sync and there are so many more as well. It’s no wonder that we talk about behavior change in terms of years, decades and even generations. When I think about my work, I have feel-good immediate projects, building a solar drier or protecting a well, and I have the meaty super meaningful but totally intangible projects. They’re intangible because 1) it’s a very slow process and 2) how do you quantify the effect on family structure from gender empowerment workshops? You know it’s changing but, it could take 5-10 or even 20 years for there to be lasting change. Rough.

Or because the topics aren’t generally socially acceptable. You can’t walk up to a 16 year-old mother and demand that she tell her husband to use a condom. It won’t happen. Nor can you ask her blatantly about how often they have sex and if their relationship has changed after your seminars. I know you understand what I’m talking about. I’m sure some of you felt uncomfortable just reading that passage. I did writing it, but those are conversations I have at my clinic everyday. It’s a struggle to remain culturally and politically correct while expressing the importance of behaviors and inculcating empowering beliefs through casual conversations. It’s a trip.

But the biggest impact I can have, and the one I value most, is imparting this ideal about loving yourself in youth, the disadvantaged, and women. It’s about looking out for your own best interests while remaining a productive healthy member of your society. About learning that your body, mind, heart, and soul are beautiful, and that you deserve respect and to be given the same opportunities as anyone else. That’s my end-day goal, and for empowerment, that’s my end-service goal.

I’d like to leave you with a powerful Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) song. Often a group of young women will join hands in a circle and chant together, “We are women. We are strong. We help each other carry on.” It’s powerfully moving.

I’ve also seen it used to help instill positive behaviors through role-play. One of the girls acts as a sugar-daddy or other negative influence (maybe peer pressure to have sex/drugs) and selects girls from the circle one by one offering them this or that in exchange for sexual favors etc. etc. The girl pushes them away and starts the chant to be joined by the rest of the circle. They all form up and chant it again before they repeat the process with each girl in the circle for each influence. It’s a lot of repetition but it stays with you. And that’s the point. They are women. They are strong and confident and love themselves. They help and respect each other to carry on. To survive and to grow.

I’ll leave you with that uplifting chant and a picture I feel embodies the goal of Peace Corps Empowerment – Lifting people up towards a brighter future:

“We are women. We are strong.
We help each other carry on.”
Camp GLOW 2011

Lifting up a neighbor while doing a program on youth play and fitness with some One World Futbols


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