March is Women's History Month and March 8th is International Women's Day! Although IWD was originally started in America in 1909, it is not very popular here in America. However, in much of the rest of the world, including many Peace Corps countries, it is a very important holiday!
The first time I encountered International Women’s Day was during my time in Burkina Faso. I was lucky enough to participate in IWD festivities twice. In Burkina and much of West Africa, IWD is referred to by its date in French, huit-mars (March 8th). In much of West Africa IWD is celebrated with a day of dancing, skits, matching outfits and delicious food, served by the men (though still not prepared by them).
Life in Burkina Faso is extremely difficult and the population faces challenges similar to many other Peace Corps countries, however the challenges facing women and girls are even more serious. Though my work in Burkina Faso was mostly in the realm of Economic Development and Food Security, I considered myself a gender equality advocate and thought of this role as my most important. As many volunteers have encountered, sometimes just having a conversation with someone about gender inequality opens eyes and creates a platform for behavior change.
One of my favorite stories from service is about an IWD event that happened in my village, Moussodougou, in both 2015 and 2016. When IWD arrived in 2015, I had only been in my village for about a month, and I was still learning the lay of the land. My counterpart, Sourabié, invited me to a celebration to hand out some gifts that had been donated by Lutheran World Relief. I accepted and left for an event at which I had no idea what to expect (the actual theme of my service). I listened to traditional music groups and speeches in local languages and then watched as various gifts were handed out to the citizens of Moussodougou. The village elders, government workers and teachers had made lists of the best candidates to receive items like maternal care kits, blankets, backpacks, etc. Unfortunately, when it came time to hand out the backpacks, which were fully stocked with greatly needed school supplies, they were only given to boys. School aged girls received towels (and of course were thrilled because they were grateful to receive anything). However, I went home crushed because I just watched an entire village reinforce the idea that school is for boys and cleaning/housework is for girls. I remember not wanting to say anything because I wasn't yet comfortable enough.
Flash forward to one year later when Sourabié, comes back to invite me to the same event. Now I’m “bien integré” (well integrated-a regular fixture in village) and I tell Sourabié I would be happy to attend and ask if there will be backpacks again this year. He tells me of course, there are tons of backpacks. Great, I say, do you think this year we can give backpacks to girls and boys, because last year I noticed only the boys got backpacks. He gives me a weird look and then says, yes of course, I hadn’t even noticed! He promised to make sure the backpacks were split equally between the girls and the boys and I was thrilled.
So a few days before IWD, the same event took place but this time I watched as little girls and boys lined up to get what was likely their first backpack. Sourbié beamed at me when he saw how happy everyone was.
It’s easy to get distracted and discouraged by the amount of work to be done to make our world a better, more equal place. Remember though, that the simplest conversations can sometimes create a ripple effect, and you should never underestimate people’s capacity to change.