Most days, she rises before the sun. She sweeps, starts a fire, and fetches water while her brothers slumber on. She bathes, eats, and walks to school. Five kilometers is nothing.
This day, however, is different. She packs her belongings and sets off on her own, leaving her family and their customs behind. She is going to a Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) camp for one week, where she’ll be residing in a lodge with forty other girls from her community. She doesn’t know just what to expect but is thankful that her parents have granted her permission.
She is apprehensive upon arrival, observing a bustling room decorated with colorful signs and filled with convivial chatter. She quickly assimilates into her assigned group, aiding in the creation of a team name and cheer. She feels a release from her life in the village as she dives head first into this inclusive, supportive, all-female environment.
On the second day, sessions commence and she begins to bond with her teammates. They jump up and down during breaks, screaming their cheer as loud as possible and banging their palms on the table without reservation. It all feels somewhat taboo, and she senses a distinct aberration from her quiet, submissive nature. She watches the Malawian facilitator with admiration, drinking in her wise words. She inspects her “smart” way of dressing and how easily she communicates with the American counselors. She wonders how this fearless Malawian woman came to be and ruminates about her own future. In the afternoon, she learns about self-esteem, the importance of staying in school, and how to select a reliable role model. A local artist delivers a visual arts lesson, in which he explains how to use art to create powerful social change messages.
At night, she eats an full plate of rice, beans, and greens while imagining what her brothers and sisters might be having at home. Her stomach is full and thankful to have received three large, nutritious meals. She retires to her room. Awaiting her is a real bed dressed with linens, a toilet, and overhead lights run by electricity. She has never stayed in such luxurious conditions and finds it hard to settle down knowing that she gets to live there for an entire week. She chats for awhile with her roommate, then shuts her eyes as a grin spreads across her face.
The following few days are spent learning about female empowerment, the reproductive system, abuse, consent, HIV, and more. She has so many questions, as do her fellow campers. Is it true that if you don’t have sex by the time you’re fifteen, your vagina will close up? Why do men chase after adolescent girls so much? If someone’s uncle is forcing them to have sex with him, and the whole village already knows what is occurring, who can they turn to for help? The counselors seem saddened by their questions but to her, they are normal. Many of the girls in her village have faced difficult predicaments like the one described above, and have also been told noxious myths (usually employed by men to get girls to sleep with them). She is pleased to learn the truth about these fallacies.
Although the girls aren’t accustomed to such scheduled days, they press on. One of her favorite sessions is practicing how to use both a male and a female condom. She giggles with her new friends at the imposing sight of a wooden penis. She also delights in the music lesson, during which a local artist teaches her about the elements of a song including pitch, tone, rhythm, and tune. Her group begins to draft a song about the importance of supporting female education.
On the last day of the camp, each team is allotted time to practice their song and drama, as well as to create additional performances. These dramas, songs, poems, and short stories will be performed on stage in front of the village at the end of the day. She feels timid in the morning, but after practicing and perfecting her pieces, she is eager to perform. She feels greatly supported by her fellow campers and new allies of female empowerment, and also by the counselors who have been supporting and praising her growth throughout the week. When it comes her time to perform, she absolutely shines. She recites a poem urging Malawian society to actually consider women as productive members of society; they are much more than just wives. She watches the other girls put on laughter-inducing comedies, sing beautifully sculpted songs and recite powerful poems. She is proud.
At the end of the night, the campers assemble for a candlelight ceremony. Sitting in a circle in the dark, light spreads from one candle to another as each girl shares her favorite moment from the week and one thing she has learned. Many relay that they have gained self-esteem, some note that they’ve expanded their reproductive health knowledge, while others vow to always prioritize their schooling. She enjoys listening to the girls and celebrating the week’s successes, yet she has an uninvited, disconcerting feeling. How easy will it be to explain to her family what she has learned? Will they be amenable to change or will she be relegated to the same gender-based chores and then subjected to an early marriage? Will her father actually make an effort to support her education? Although she has walked away from the camp filled with new knowledge, inspired by her counselors, and motivated to make change in her community, she is still wary about her return home and the powerless feeling of living under her father’s roof.
Yet, she recalls a comment made by a friend in an earlier discussion. We are capable of making change for the next generation. While her parents’ generation maybe be set in their ways, she can still be a leader and change agent for the future. She can still inspire others, spread what she has learned, and push her female friends to their highest potential. As her candle is lit and the light illuminates her face, she makes a silent promise to become the role model that all girls need.