Saturday, April 25, 2015

Change You Can See- Women's Empowerment in Panama

One of my favorite ladies in my community, Diana, is an outgoing mother of three girls.  Her daughters consistently rank at the top of their classes, and she serves as Treasurer of our community agricultural society.  She's smart, adventurous, and a proven family and community leader, so I chose her to attend a project management seminar early last year.  In a group of nearly 30 counterparts, she was one of only two women in attendance.  When another volunteer asked her what inspired to be a woman leader, she responded, "In high school [approximately 15 years ago] I went to GAD camp."

Gender and Development, GAD for short, is a worldwide Peace Corps initiative that is working to promote gender equality and understanding and has made incredible progress here in Panama.  For the past year I've worked as the National GAD Treasurer and I've really loved working in our gender and youth development programs.  Change is slow, especially in international development, but the transformation I've seen in participants of our week-long Health and Leadership seminars is incredible.  We host yearly seminars for youth (like Diana), women, and men.  In each week, they receive targeted sessions that teach them how to set goals, have healthy relationships and lifestyles, understand basic finance, and become leaders in their communities.  

Attending a GAD Youth Camp was one of my favorite experiences as a first year Peace Corps volunteer, and this year I was able to participate in another of our awesome events- The Healthy Women's Artisan Seminar.  

During the week, selected artisans from all over Panama traveled to the conference to hear the basic GAD sessions, learn new artisan techniques that they can use to earn an additional income, and break down some serious cultural stereotypes.  

For many women, this was the first time they had ever left their province, traveled alone, or interacted with women from outside of their close-knit communities.  At the beginning of the week most women, especially the indigenous Ngäbes who tend to be looked down upon by their fellow Panamanians, were quiet and reserved.  We did our best to make the seminar a safe and comfortable opportunity for the women to relax and get to know each other as people, and sure enough, it worked.  
By the end of the week, the ladies were spending hours at a time teaching each other artisan techniques, sharing their cultures, and talking about the lives and families they had back home.  The impact was immediately visible, and that's something you almost never get to see as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  

On the last night some of the women requested to say a few words about what the experience had meant to them and one of my favorites, a shy indigenous woman from a very reserved community, proudly and emotionally told us how much the experience had meant to her.  She said she was excited to share what she learned with her community, thanked us as volunteers for giving the women this incredibly unique opportunity, and ended just as she was about to get teary eyed.  

Moments like that are the reason that I'm here.  They don't happen often, but each one will be replayed in my mind over and over again, reminding me why we do what we do.  

On another uplifting and girl-power note If you have a moment (and some Spanish) you should watch the video below about three Panamanian indigenous women who traveled to India to spend 6 months learning about solar technology that can be used in their communities.  As an extra fun fact, these ladies live only a few hours away from me and are friends with some of the GAD seminar participants!

"Feminism isn't about making women strong. Women are already strong. It's about changing the way the world perceives that strength." —G.D. Anderson