On October 11, the world celebrated the International Day of the Girl Child, a day that recognizes girls' rights and the unique challenges girls face around the world.
Yesterday the Accra Ladies Who Lunch, a local social group, participated in community outreach efforts in a small town called Tsatee in the South Dayi District of the Volta Region. We were invited by Dr. Belinda Nimako of the Ghana Health Service, to speak to young girls in the community about girlhood — from family to friendships, to relationships and sexuality as well as dreams and career aspirations.
We drove to Volta Region expecting to chat with a small group of girls, but instead we were greeted by the entire community. The whole town assembled in a field adjoining the junior high school. After processing in, we sat to listen to the remarks of various elders in the community. People arrived in their finest attire and the girls and boys of the community performed traditional dances.
The Tsatee community is small with inadequate resources. In the junior high school, the teacher uses one laptop to teach three classes (36 girls and 46 boys). Despite the fact that the school has poor furniture and limited materials for its students, in the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE), 80% of students passed in 2012. The pass rate was 90% and 82% in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
The teenage pregnancy rate in Tsatee is 17%, meaning that nearly 1 in every 6 girls in Tsatee becomes pregnant between the ages of 12 and 19. In her remarks at the welcoming ceremony, Dr. Belinda noted that she would not have gotten to where she is today if she had become pregnant at a young age. Dr. Belinda credited her success to the influence of family and friends who highlighted the need for education and nurtured her love of learning saying, "It's not only about family planning, but it's also the dreams you grow up with and how the community values education and growth of girls." As I looked around the ceremony at young and old faces, I saw clearly that Tsatee is a community that values its girls.
We broke out into small groups to speak to the girls. In our nine member outreach group, we had a diverse and talented array of women — artists, activists, doctors, entrepreneurs, illustrators, writers, policymakers, etc. As nine women of color who have faced the challenges of girlhood, we hoped to both inspire these girls to dream, to give them an outlet to voice their questions and concerns, and just have fun (we had a mini-dance party at the end). In my small group, we talked about the path to various career paths, how to avoid pregnancy, and how to build confidence and resilience.
There are two powerful quotes I shared with the girls that have revolutionized my thinking. The first: "No is a complete sentence" and the second, "the most important relationship in your life is the relationship you have with yourself. Because no matter what happens, you will always have yourself." In my life, I have noticed that women, myself included, often qualify their remarks to avoid seeming rude or being labelled as "bitchy." We engage in linguistic gymnastics to avoid offense, but sometimes you just have to say "no." End of story. Remembering that phrase has served me well when confronted with peer pressure or unwanted advances.
The second quote on relationships helps me remember that my confidence should never be predicated on the opinion of someone else. It also helps me recall that relationships take work, and your relationship with yourself, just like any other relationship is something constantly evolving. Rome wasn't built in a day and neither were the sheroes we often look up to. As Diane von Furstenberg says, "I love the woman I am because I fought to become her." I am a work in progress, but I love the direction I see that lifelong project taking. For girls of color in particular, who are often marginalized, we must devote more efforts to instill confidence. Older women, who are community gatekeepers, can play a critical role in these efforts. My network of mentors and big sisters have been integral in shaping my worldview.
As a woman, I have always been passionate about advocating for women's rights. But more than my gender, my family has shaped my interests. My grandfather, Dr. Samuel Palmer, an obstetrician and gynecologist, founded the Gambia Family Planning Association, served on the board of the International Planned Parenthood Federation and founded the Westfield Clinic in Serrekunda, The Gambia. My grandmother, Mrs. Rachel Palmer, founded the Gambia Nursing School, where she served for many years as principal. She was also the first President of the Gambia chapter of Soroptimist International, an organization that supports girls and women in The Gambia to achieve their individual and collective potentials, realize their aspirations and have an equal voice in creating strong and peaceful communities. My grandmother played a part in The Gambia's independence negotiations as a female representative of Gambian civil society. They raised three fiercely independent daughters, one son, and numerous adopted children. In all my work on women's empowerment, I hope to honor the legacy of my late grandparents whom I deeply love and admire. Yesterday, as I chatted and laughed with the girs of Tsatee, I couldn't help but recall my grandparents and think that they would be happy.