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Update from Uganda: Global Health student works with Ugandan youth at camps for girls and boys

| Academic & Student Affairs, Featured News, Global Health, Intl Programs, Monday Letter, Our World, Students

Global health graduate student and Peace Corps volunteer Aditi Desai spent the latter part of 2012 volunteering at GirlTech, a camp developed to foster interest in math and science among young girls. This placement was followed by a week working at Camp B.U.I.L.D. (Boys in Uganda in Leadership Development), a camp focused on developing leadership skills, extinguishing gender roles, and promoting gender equality among young boys.

Desai is earning a master of public health from the University of South Florida College of Public Health. As a participant in the Peace Corps Master’s International Program, she is currently assigned to Uganda. What follows is a summary of her recent blog posts.

At the camp, I was one of two female counselors. It was a tremendous honor to be chosen as one of the only female counselors because it really gave me a chance to get to know the young campers and really have an impact in a more direct way. Having been staff at previous camps, I understand the limited role one can play as staff, but as a counselor you have a much more direct and personal relationship with your campers because you have to be with them all day. Honestly, I think having female counselors as well as male counselors is a huge step forward and should be taken into consideration for all youth camps. It isn’t to say that youth development camps should focus on which gender is guiding which, but both genders should be given equal opportunity to work in such a capacity. Without gender equality there is not empowerment.

At B.U.I.L.D. I was the counselor for … eight boys ranging from the age of 11 to the age of 17. Each had strong personalities and it was interesting to see how they interacted with one another (especially the change in the interactions as the week progressed)…

During the camp, there were various sessions including water and sanitation, nutrition, alcoholism, volcanoes, income-generating activities, team building skills, goals setting, money management, HIV/AIDS, male/female reproductive health, sexual health, malaria, gender roles, domestic violence, and bottle rockets. Initially I was supposed to teach water and sanitation but given it was to be taught on the first day of the week it was decided I would teach gender roles later on in the week in order to be able to spend more of the beginning of the week with my camper group. Throughout the sessions I could really see the change in the boys, even on the first day, from the beginning to the end, the boys were becoming more and more involved in discussions and more participatory in the sessions. By the end of the week many of the discussions were driven by the boys themselves and many of the counselors and staff merely observed and guided the conversation rather than tried to keep it going. During the free time, counselor groups had a chance to do team building activities which were great…

One boy in my group particularly stood out. He was one of the younger boys in the group and at the beginning of the week was really shy and wandered off quite a bit. I was worried I would lose him and that he wouldn’t get anything out of the camp, but by the end of the week he was our champion. He began to participate more and more with each day and was much more participatory in the sessions. He didn’t automatically sit in the back of the class after the first day and he was really receptive to me when I would reprimand the group for not following the rules (which one happened a couple times, surprisingly).

At the end of the week I was scheduled to teach gender roles, which I thought would be both potentially awesome and potentially dreadful. I thought it had the potential to be awesome because it gave me a chance to break any stereotypes and really illustrate that women can do things men can do. At the same time, I had the feeling it could be dreadful because some of these boys have very strong personalities and I thought it would be difficult to change their minds (and indeed in some cases it was). In the end, I only taught one session and it ended up going smoothly. Most of the boys already had the idea of what a gender role was compared to what genders were physically capable of doing. At the same time, it often seemed like the boys were saying what they knew I wanted to hear but may not have been saying something that they truly agreed with. I figured, if this was the case, at least they had some idea what gender equality should be and that was a step in the right direction. There was one student would was very headstrong about girls not being able to do certain jobs and it became very difficult trying to explain to him that women were physically capable of doing those jobs, they just may not have the skills or knowledge to do them…

In the middle of the week we had a performance group, called Rafiki Theater, come do a drama on tribalism in Uganda. The group showed different situations where individuals were being discriminated based on their tribe. It was interesting to see how the boys reacted to the drama. Many laughed at very inappropriate times, like when one woman was telling her story of how she was raped because she was from a certain tribe. I wasn’t really sure why the boys were laughing and when we asked them they didn’t really give an explanation, simply saying that it was because of something someone said or that they related because the police weren’t helping in that situation. It was also frustrating because some of the boys weren’t taking the drama seriously, even my boys. They didn’t seem to be paying attention and then during the reflection time they were chatting with each other but not about the drama. I had to force my boys to write down things they learned or felt during the drama and we discussed it later on our own. This really helped in the end because when we made our team flag, the design reflected an end to tribalism, promoting one Uganda.

By the end of the week I was completely exhausted but I am very thankful I got to participate in this camp. Not only was I able to make a direct impact on young boys, but I got to know some Ugandan counselors really well as well as some new PCVs. I am glad I got to meet some really influential and impactful Ugandans and to see that they were fighting for the same kind of gender equality I am. They are the epitome of the right example for these boys and I hope they continue to promote these ideals.

In the end, we have to be the change we want to see in this world and by working this camp, by showing these young boys that women are strong, capable, and can be leaders, I feel like I was that change. It may not happen overnight, it may not happen in a year, but the wheels are turning and gender discrimination will end, gender roles will be destroyed, and these boys will be the actors in this process.

For more information about the Peace Corps Master’s International program, contact Stephen Church (schurch1@health.usf.edu) or Barbara Kennedy (bkennedy@health.usf.edu) or visit http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=learn.whyvol.eduben.mastersint.

Photos by Jim Tanton, Peace Corps volunteer