A few months ago when a dental group came to visit, one of the Espwa students enrolled in university, brought a few of his friends to get checkups. We were pleasantly surprised when six confident, beautiful women walked in the gate behind him. As they waited in their chairs to be seen by the dentist a thought occurred to me.
How wonderful would it be if these university women could talk to our girls about their education, their ambitions and their future?
I asked them if they would be willing to come by sometime to speak with our girls and they all agreed. A few months later, an open day presented itself and we scheduled a meeting.
I asked them to talk about their experiences in university, what they were studying and what they hoped to do. I asked if they could talk about being educated as a woman in Haiti and what kind of jobs are available for women and to encourage the girls to find creative ways to fundraise for their own university education. They listened intently and spent the next three hours preparing their talk, dividing it amongst themselves and practicing what they would say.
At 2:00, twenty Espwa girls arrived between the ages of 12 and 16 with one house mother to supervise. They piled into the chapel and patiently waited for the talk to begin.
Each of the university girls introduced themselves. They explained what they studied at college and all of things that people could study: medicine, agronomy, secretarial or administrative studies, business, nursing. They emphasized the value of hard work and the importance of education. And then they began to engage the girls.
The girls at Espwa often come across as shy and visitors have called them ‘apathetic.’ They are far from confident outside of their village and look down or cover their mouths when they speak. Their hunched position doesn’t help to hear them any, because they speak in near whispers. I have seen them command attention in the village. They are clearly comfortable there and feel valued in that setting. But once they step outside of it, they seem to retreat into their shells. I think it is a mistake when visitors take them at this face value. When people say that the girls don’t care about anything and they especially don’t care about their education. I believe that is nowhere near the truth. I think these young women are withdrawn because they don’t have the support or encouragement many of us take for granted (of parents, of female role models, of teachers). I think they act this way because society has told them it is the appropriate, desired way for women to act and that boys are the ones who should speak up in school and go on to university. Many of the older women they know have not gone on to higher education and probably didn’t have the option. And in an orphanage where funding is scarce, why should they dream of university anyway? Better not to draw attention, to sit back and to let the boys talk.
As the university women continued their lecture they picked up on this body language. They told the girls to lift their heads up, to uncover their mouths and to speak loudly. And with every comment the girls gave, the university women congratulated them and thanked them for their thoughtful answers. They were affirming them in a way that encouraged the girls to say more and by the end of the day they got every girl to speak. I wonder how often those girls feel that confidence to stand up and share what they are thinking.
They stressed to the girls that they should be thankful for the education they already have here. They should recognize their role models at Espwa and make sure they thank them every day. And they discussed being a woman in Haitian society. They told the girls it can be hard for women, that none of their mothers went to college and that they didn’t work outside of the home.
Then I heard the word “revolution.”
“It’s not ok, if you tell me I have to do those things you expect of me. It is not ok to humiliate me or to minimize me because I am a girl,” they said.
“Pa dako,” they had the girls repeat.
I was blown away. These confident, articulate, Haitian women were calling for systemic change and telling the girls not to give in to what society has always expected of them.
“Can you cook?” they asked. “Sure, maybe you can, but that’s not all you can do. You can work hard and study and save up money and you can be whatever you want. Don’t get distracted. Stay focused and don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do because you’re a girl.”
After almost nine months here sometimes I feel like the future for Haiti is hopeless. I feel discouraged by the way women are treated. And I feel discouraged by the small number of opportunities open to such a large population. But today, their talk reminded me that there is hope growing here. There are Haitian women our girls look up to and there is hope for their continued education and their future after Espwa.