I’m Kate – I am the Program Manager at Help Lesotho’s Ottawa office, and I have helped run the Pearls4Girls program for the last few years. I am writing to you from Lesotho, where I am currently spending a month supporting Help Lesotho’s local program staff and getting the chance to meet some of our amazing beneficiaries.
While you were celebrating Thanksgiving, I spent two full days with the ‘Pearl Girls’. It was an amazing experience, and I thought you might like to hear about it (as you will see by the length of this post, I have a lot to say)!
The Pearls4Girls program has supported girls’ leadership programs in Lesotho for eleven years now, and finally in early 2017 we launched a program officially called ‘The Pearl Program’! There are 60 girls in grade 7 enrolled in the year-long program. They come to Help Lesotho for eight weekend-long training sessions designed to help them prepare to transition to high school next year (note – in Lesotho high school begins at grade 8, and the school year starts in late January). They participate in sessions about peer pressure, grief and loss, healthy relationships, HIV/AIDS, teenage pregnancy, child marriage, and becoming leaders in their schools and communities. We also have girls from a previous program who are currently in high school come as mentors so the grade 7 girls can ask questions from someone who has recently gone through the ups and downs of starting high school.
You might be wondering why starting high school in Lesotho is such a big deal for these girls. After all, many students from around the world make this transition smoothly year after year! There are two main reasons:
- These girls come from vulnerable families where they are not able to access the support needed to build self-esteem and know how to make healthy decisions. Many of these girls have experience running a household in terms of the cooking and cleaning required, however they lack the social maturity to be confident, and many of them do not have a parent or guardian who is able to instill basic life skills in them; and
- Gender-based violence is a rampant problem in Lesotho, where 86% of girls and women report being victims to abuse. Once girls start high school, they face constant ‘proposals’ from older boys, teachers, and community members who see them in their school uniforms and deem them old enough for ‘relationships’.
This weekend, the focus of the Pearl Program training was to empower the girls to understand love, how to avoid sugar daddies (older men who exchange small trinkets for sex), what sexual rights and responsibilities are, and what constitutes sexual consent.
These are complex topics, and when I first walked into the training room and saw many girls who were tiny and looked to be no older than 9, I thought “there’s no way these girls need to know this information” – but the sad reality is, they absolutely do. (And even though some of the girls looked young, they are all 12-17 years old.)
It was pouring rain on Saturday morning as the girls arrived. I could see them wearing their pink ‘Pearl Girl’ t-shirts under their jackets, and it was clear that many of them wore all the pink they owned for the occasion! The first order of business was a review from their last training weekend; more than a dozen hands shot into the air as the girls rhymed off ways to resist peer pressure (say ‘no!’, choose good friends, respect yourself, etc.) and what a healthy relationship looks like (no secrets, no abuse, trust, etc.) I was impressed!
Next, we checked the girls’ workbooks. At the beginning of the program, each Pearl Girl received a workbook with reflection exercises related to each training topic. We were not sure whether the girls would like using these books – but I am now 100% certain that they do. The girls proudly pulled the workbooks out of layers of plastic bags (remember – it was raining!) and showed each other and the facilitator what they had done since last week. Some of the girls flipped through their entire books so I could see – every line was filled, and they had taken great care to draw pictures representing their feelings after each session.
I smiled to see one picture with the caption “I am happy to be HIV negative” and so sad to read one girl’s response to the question ‘Are you happy that you were born as a girl?’, “I feel sad because I like to born as a boy not a girl. I say these because girls got many things happened to them but boys do’s not got many things happened to them. I want as a boy because [they] are special to the fathers [but] girls are not.”
I know it is difficult for you to imagine what one of these training weekends looks like, so I’m going to highlight a few things that stood out to me:
- Music plays a huge role. When discussing the topic of ‘Love’, the girls chose different love songs to play on the speaker. My favourite was when they chose ‘Power of Love’ by Celine Dion! Over the lunch break and at the end of the day, the girls also play music and a huge dance party breaks out. It was great to see some of the girls who were more quiet and shy during the training completely let lose and dance their hearts out!
- When a girl wants to share her answer, she raises her hand and loudly snaps her fingers and/or wrist to get the facilitator’s attention. They are used to being in classrooms with more than 100 students and needing to find a way to stand out. The girls also stand to give their answers – another school-related formality.
- The room is never silent – with 60 young girls, there is constant whispering and giggling.
- The girls are very open with one another. They are not afraid to talk about their fears or experiences. It is abundantly evident that they feel that Help Lesotho is a safe place.
- The training is done in a mix of English and Sesotho. The girls learn English at school, and their entire high school education will be delivered in English. My Sesotho ability is nearly non-existent, so I only understood about 20% of the words being spoken (but it was actually pretty easy to follow along since I knew what they were talking about and could interpret a lot from the reaction of the participants/facilitator)!
- The girls receive a morning snack, a hot lunch, and an afternoon snack as they leave. When the snack/lunch is served, the room is very quiet at first as the girls eat quickly and do not leave time between bites to talk. As their bellies fill up and they see that no one is going to take their food away from them, they relax and have some fun. There was a great ‘silly laugh’ competition one day, and I also loved watching some of the girls get up to dance while holding onto chicken bones that they weren’t quite finished with!
The most popular topic of the day was Sugar Daddies, or ‘blessers’ (you can read more about this topic here!) The girls had a lot to say and were conflicted at first about whether they should want a sugar daddy or not.
When I asked the girls if they knew anyone who had a sugar daddy they ALL said yes (but at least none of them said it was themselves).
This is such a huge problem in Lesotho. It is understandable why girls who have so little can be lured by the promise of something as simple as a chocolate bar, but it is heartbreaking when you consider the risks they are exposed to (teenage pregnancy, abuse, HIV transmission, damage to self-esteem).
Many of the Pearl Girls reported that learning about sugar daddies was their favourite session of the weekend, saying: “Now we know how to protect ourselves. We know they are bad” and “I liked learning about sugar daddies because I don’t want to have one”.
There was one little girl who made a particular impression on me. She sat beside me – the only girl brave enough to sit beside the white lady! Her name is Nthabeleng, and she is one of the smallest girls in the group. She was quite a character, often making silly faces even when no one was watching. Her school bag and shoes were in rough shape, and she was clearly one of the more vulnerable girls. The first thing I noted about her was that she was smart and confident. Her workbook was filled to the brim and she was already working ahead. She loved to participate and all but yelled ‘pick me’ every time she wanted to share.
Over lunch, I saw a very different side of Nthabeleng. I asked if she was excited to start high school next year – her eyes immediately filled with tears. I was confused because she had just been showing me a drawing of what she wants to be when she grows up – a doctor, so she can help people.
Tears streamed down her face as she told me that her father does not want her to go to high school because he wants her to stay home to cook and clean.
Nthabeleng has never known her mother, and she lives with her father, older brother, and a young cousin. She explained that her father drinks alcohol and hurts her. I now understood the context of something she had asked me earlier when the group was discussing love. She had asked ‘is it love when someone calls you a name you don’t like?’.
This is all Nthabeleng knows of the people who are supposed to love her. Nthabeleng continued to cry and whispered ‘We are talking about love, but everyone in my life hates me’. My eyes were also filled with tears at this point, and I promised Nthabeleng that we would help her. I cannot tell you the end of this story just yet, but our team here in Lesotho will ensure Nthabeleng gets the support she needs. Later that afternoon, I was yet again surprised by Nthabeleng. I would have expected her to be reserved and shy based on everything going on in her life – and yet, she was the first one to jump up and dance when the music started! It was like she couldn’t stop her little body from moving to the beat! I loved seeing her feel so safe and carefree – like a little girl should.
The second day of the training started with a discussion about what the girls had told their friends and families after Day 1. This is a key element of all Help Lesotho programs – participants are expected to share what they learn with others so the message spreads. Most of the girls had openly told the people in their lives about the Day 1 content, which is exactly what we hope for!
Next up, the girls divided into groups of 6-7 and were matched with a mentor (a girl in high school). Next week the grade 7 girls will be writing their final exams which will determine whether they get accepted to high school next year. The girls are very nervous (this will be the first time they sit for exams), so the mentorship session focused on how to prepare for the exams. The mentors did a great job leading the groups as they clearly love the opportunity to share their experience and be regarded as the ‘experts’!
The major training topic for Day 2 was Sexual Consent. Thank goodness we did this session, because the examples the girls gave for ‘consent’ at the beginning were pretty scary (such as ‘smiling’ and ‘being naked’). The concept that the girls were most shocked to learn was that a girlfriend or wife is allowed to say no to sex with her boyfriend/husband. They did not believe it at first, and I could see them running this scenario in their minds. I think it is going to take some time for them to truly believe that a girlfriend/wife is allowed to say ‘no’, but at least the idea has been planted in their minds.
I loved having the chance to spend the whole weekend with the Pearl Girls. They became comfortable with me and wanted to tell me everything about themselves. As they were leaving, they said ‘Say hello to everyone in Canada for us’! And while this email certainly isn’t going to ‘everyone’ in Canada, it is going to the people who make this program possible.
When we say that your purchase of Pearls4Girls jewellery is supporting girls’ leadership programs in Lesotho, this is what we mean. It is difficult to describe this impact in a way that does these girls justice, but I hope this (very long!) summary makes you feel proud each time you wear our pearls! The Pearl Program is truly changing lives.
PS.We have decided that 10 of the Pearl Girls will be enrolled in Help Lesotho’s Child Sponsorship Program starting in 2018. We will be needing sponsors for each of these girls, so please keep this in mind! Sponsorship covers their school fees, uniforms, textbooks, stationary, and basic toiletries. We ask that sponsors be prepared to support the child with whom they are matched throughout the duration of their high school education (which is five years). You can read more about Help Lesotho’s Child Sponsorship program here.