By Teresa Henry and Tate Lowrey
After five months of weekly GEM (Girl’s Empowerment and Mentoring) club meetings, all the girls along with their mentors and a few lucky guests held a large fet (party) to showcase and celebrate what they had learned and how they had grown.
What is a GEM club? It is a group of similarly aged girls that come together weekly at St. Paul’s School and the national high school in Petit Trou to learn and support each other. Research shows that girls tend to receive the maximum benefit when the programs they participate in are girl-only. The girls feel able to open up, express themselves, ask any questions and take on leadership roles that they might not otherwise. Due to girls’ social isolation, simply creating a space where a group of girls, around the same age and from the same community, can meet regularly, build relationships and begin to trust and share with each other, is critical. These social networks are crucial because girls with stronger social networks are less likely to be victims of sexual harassment and violence.
The GEM club also serves as an opportunity to practice key leadership skills they have been developing with the mentors. It is a place where the girls first learn, openly ask questions and then apply what they have been learning in a safe space with other girls. The main curriculum utilized in these clubs is the Asset Building Framework. It teaches all the different assets, such as social, human, physical and financial, that a girl needs in order to make a healthy transition into adulthood. Activities to build these various assets could range from life skills training to basic financial planning lessons or workshops about girls and women’s rights.
Celebrating these vibrant souls was a local necessity. The party was done in a traditional Haitian style which means everyone of importance at the event spoke and shared their feelings about the program. The speeches by the mentors were words of encouragement and reinforcement of what the girls had learned through the program. However, what was unexpected was after the formal speeches the girls took over the program. The event became all about them, demonstrating the girls’ blossoming leadership.
The most memorable part of the party was the presentations by the girls. One of the young women, Shelov Nickola, spoke with incredible confidence; you could feel the power of her convictions. She did not just give a speech though; she reached out to the girls sitting in the audience and engaged with them about the year’s lessons. The conversation that ensued between Shelov and her classmates spoke of finding their “capital”, their resources in health, in social situations and financial security. Shelov talked of how they should not lower their expectations and should grow their opportunities. It was a discussion of true empowerment and it was amazing to see the young girls on the brink of womanhood delighting in this.
The festival ended with a brilliant play put on by 5th to 9th grade girls. Plays are one of the most impactful tools for teaching in Haiti. It began because of the lack of formal written native language and a lack of literacy in the rural communities. Today, theater on any scale is a beloved art form and one of the best ways to reinforce learning.
This play while filled with hilarity was about the serious subject of Restovek. A restovek is a young child, often a girl, who is given into slavery. The reasons behind each case is different but the root cause is a family and a community who can not take care of this child.
The girls depicted the antagonist as an evil godmother who promised a better life for her goddaughter and then made her a virtual slave. The protagonist was a young girl whose father had died and whose mother was overwhelmed with children. Each act was an overblown scene of the young girl’s journey with her evil godmother. There were many funny moments and the girls in the audience obviously loved seeing their classmates act out the story. But the message of restrovek was clear and well delivered.
After the Fet Tifi, we had a chance to interview one of the mentors, Nadaj, and the supervisor Darline.
Nadaj spoke of how the girls had been learning in the GEM clubs how to “catch their power and autonomy.” She explained further how she is teaching the young women to focus on their self-respect and how thinking for themselves is important in their society. Both Darline and Nadaj mentioned the importance of having a space for the mentors to talk to the girls about what is important to the girls and help them grow. They discuss pressing social issues like like HIV, not getting pregnant too early, and defending themselves against sexual violence. They also described how they talked about family life with the girls and why what their moms do is so important. Darline recounted how she educates the girls on the various roles the girls can have in their families like helping out with the family’s small businesses. Most rural Haitians are diverse entrepreneurs with several little business to help cover all their expenses like health care costs and education fees. Resale businesses of local products is common.
They all expressed enthusiasm to continue the program which we are thrilled to hear. These adolescent girls have brought this program to life in unexpected and vibrant ways, the Fet Tifi a small example of that. Their dedication to improving their lives, and the lives of those around them, is what inspires this work!