That Conference about ‘Girl Issues’

 

Armed with lots of papel gigante, a 12 hour flight delay, and a good nights sleep in a fancy hotel room, my counterparts and I were ready to attend the (final) Let Girls Learn Conference. Student Friendly Schools: Combating Gender Based Violence in the Classroom was the official title of the conference, which I presented to my school director back in March, asking if perhaps he would know a female teacher and a pedagogical director that might be interested in the topic. I had my thoughts that the topic would probably not go over well, just as I was walking into my director’s office I heard two professors talking about “how hot the eighth graders are this year.” Rumor had it that some (maybe even most) of the male professors at school have at least three girlfriends per classroom. Some go as far as failing girls when they reject their advances.

The conference lasted three days, filled with hot showers and breakfast buffets, but also interesting conversation topics and coming up with action plans on how to make our schools a safer place for all the students.

Small tips like making sure there are set expectations about mutual respect in the classroom, a no-touching-others rule— no matter whether the other might be your boyfriend or best friend. Changing the seat order to be boy/girl/boy. Explaining the difference between sex and gender. Going over the rights of a child, and the code of conduct for Mozambican professors— both of which repeat multiple times that a student/child has the right to be free from sexual harassment. Using in class examples that go against traditional gender roles – Maria is strong. John washes the dishes.

I came back to Malema hyped and ready to implement whatever small change I could make. I first started by changing the seat order to boy/girl/boy, talking about a safe place, and even had to kick out two boys for pulling on girls’ hair and one for pushing another boy into the door. I was feeling on top of the world, maybe my students were finally going to understand. This afternoon, my counterparts and I were summoned to present our “knowledge about that conference about girl issues to seven male members of the school council only to be told that they already tried having an even number of boy and girl chefes a few years ago, but the girls didn’t work out because girls “don’t command the respect that the boys do.”

Frustrated is a good descriptive adjective for my time here in Mozambique, especially when faced with the issue about gender based violence here at my own school. I have to accept that sex between students and teachers here is a norm, and that one conversation is not going to change that norm. I have to accept that as much as I bring up the topic, the ones in charge at my school have friends and/or sometimes are the ones who, have students as “girlfriends”. The reality I live in here in Malema is both frustrating and infuriating. I can’t just walk into the school and call them perverts and yell at them— that wouldn’t help my integration nor earn me any respect. On the other hand, some girls are proud to get the attention of a professor, recently one of my neighbors was proud to tell me she got knocked up by her teacher when she was 15. As much as I wish I could magically create change in one day, new ideas have to be brought on slowly, and I have to understand that slowly can mean anywhere from a few years to a few generations. I also have to accept the fact that some girls are encouraged by their family to give professors what they want, after all professors have a lot of respect in the community, and being a professors girlfriend might elevate that girls’ family’s social status.

As a tumblr quote once told me “change is hard at first, messy in the middle, and gorgeous at the end.”

To sum up this rant, a song one of the female counterparts taught us at the conference: “Educar uma mulher e educar uma nação, educar um homem e apenas educar uma pessoa,” educating a woman is educating a nation, educating a man is only educating one person. Needless to say, it was very controversial between the men attending the conference, but it is still some food for thought.

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