Why Malala Yousafzai will always be my hero
Fighting Poverty + Violence Through Volunteering & Educating Women
On April 14, 2014, over 200 school girls were abducted from their dormitory in the Chibok area of Nigeria by the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram. Boko Haram considers western education, particularly of girls, blasphemous. This act of terror brought widespread condemnation from all over the world leading to the social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls. However, cries by families of the abducted school girls and others concerned people have not persuaded the terrorist group to release the girls. The girls have been held in the infamous Sambisa Forest and, a year later, most of the girls are still missing as rescue efforts by the Nigerian military have proven unsuccessful. According to the leader of the terrorist group, some of the abducted girls have been sold into marriage while the remaining girls serve as sex slaves for his men. In a video released, the girls were shown being forced to renounce their faith and it is rumored that some of the girls are being coerced and used as suicide bombers, a development that has only brought more pain to the families of the girls and Nigerians as a whole.
This act of terror drew international attention to the threats girls who seek an education in Nigeria face on a daily basis. The influence of Boko Haram has continued to spread through Northeastern Nigeria, bringing terror to more and more states. It has instilled dread in the minds of young girls and parents, many of whom now opt not to send their girls to school for fear of them being targeted by Boko Haram.
Despite these threats by Boko Haram to discourage all forms of western education in Nigeria, some girls are still determined to acquire an education. They are continuously inspired by the story of the Pakistani teenager, Malala Yousafzai, as am I. Even after being targeted and shot on October 12, 2012, by members of a terrorist group who renounce educating girls, Malala continued to campaign for the universal education of girls. Malala’s story of striving to achieve her dream of an education against all odds has not only inspired another brave young woman in Nigeria, but a whole global movement to educate Muslim girls across Africa and beyond.
On the western shore of Subsaharan Africa lies the country of Senegal, with a long history of democracy and intolerance to corruption, this country has been an example of an African success story within the region for the past century, but this country and Western Africa still has a long way to go. Most infrastructure is nonexistent and the overcrowding of its cities and lack of roads has made travel throughout Senegal extremely difficult. Many villages are connected by one main road whose potholes are so terrible, that most drivers drive on the shoulders of the road taking hours just to go 40km. The poverty is so extreme here that most people do not have access to food, electricity, running (or clean) water, and most importantly, access to education.
Senegal is about 90% Muslim where the culture has always emphasized the boys over the girls to get an education. In many parts of the country, especially in the rural villages, girls have never been given a choice other than staying at home to help with the cleaning, cooking, having babies, and tending to the children. Education has not been an option nor do they have any role models, job opportunities, or women that can teach them that there is a greater world out there available to them….Until now.
In November 2013, The Women’s Global Education Project, founded by a visionary ex-peace corps volunteer , Amy Maglio, was awarded a USAID grant for 4 years to improve literacy training and also to work with school children to improve reading skills. This program will reach over 8,000 children across Senegal and provide life and job skills as well as ways to give back and mentor younger children, and eventually have job opportunities within and outside of the program for these girls. It has been a labor of love for 10 years to get this grant and the funds to build an educational and technology center for these children with access to the internet , computers, and basic school supplies and after school programs, we all take for granted…
But this is just the beginning. The real work starts here and now on the ground and in the trenches of Senegal. My job was to film the behind the scenes of Women’s Global Education Project and the people who are donating their time and money to make this project a reality.
I decided to volunteer my photojournalism services to this great cause because I believe strongly in women's empowerment and education. I have spent a lot of time mentoring young women here in Los Angeles through the Step Up Women's Network, Spark, and Solutions in San Diego and when I heard about this project in Senegal I really wanted to be a part of it. I am presently working on an article about my experience in Senegal and how my "story" of what I came to photograph shifted drastically once I was on the ground.
When I first arrived I knew that I would have intense culture shock and be exposed to one of the poorest countries in the world. What I saw was shocking and overwhelming. The population in most of the country is facing extreme poverty and people are still living in mud huts with no access to running or clean water or electricity. I thought that I was going to be covering a story on the success of this project and how 8,000 girls were going to be embarking on their new lives by going to school and learning how to survive in the workplace. What I actually encountered was far different.
Senegal is mostly Muslim and although they are not a conservative Muslim country, they still do not prize women's education and feel that they are best suited at home doing the cleaning, cooking, and child-rearing. They really only put emphasis on boys' education. Even though we were bringing them schools, a program to enroll their girls in and free money to send them to school, we found that getting girls ENROLLED in the program was our greatest struggle. Who knew? In America, we think we can just throw money at a problem and it gets solved, but this problem is deep rooted socially in this country and in many parts of the world and change needs to happen on THEIR terms.
What ended up happening while I was there in Senegal was a sort of "Village PR campaign" where we went from village to village, offering a feast, a goat, and a day of speeches, sort of a "town hall meeting" where people could express their views about girls' education. What we REALLY were doing was buttering up and convincing the male elders that there are benefits to their village by letting their women get educated. This process took hours and hours and involved sitting and having tea and a meal with the elders, long speeches punctuated by African dance breaks (my favorite part), and finally convincing the elders that our giving their girls a free education was a good thing.
Once this was settled, they would announce to the village that they didn't see anything wrong with the girls getting educated and that nothing in the Koran states that this should not be so and basically, THEY got to be the leader, decision-maker, and hero in the village....then and only then, were we able to get girls from that village to enroll in the program. It was definitely a frustrating, eye-opening experience. It made me realize that we have a lot of work to do and a long ways to go, but change has to start SOMEWHERE.
Please take a look at my video, my labor of love about our work on the ground in Senegal. Groups like the Women’s Global Education Project and fearless volunteers like us are necessary to continue this fight against ignorance and terror. Bringing to light important social issues like this project through my work is one of the many reasons why I love what I do. You CAN make a difference.