Learning about HIV transmission at the REDES Conference

After an amazing week at a northern girls empowerment conference, it’s hard not to be motivated by the energy that comes from having a group of adolescent girls in such an encouraging environment. 28 girls from the northern provinces of Zambezia, Nampula, Niassa, and Cabo Delgado came together for a week of learning about health, future planning, self-esteem building, and meeting new friends from other parts of Mozambique. The REDES (Raparigas Em Desenvolvimento, Educação, E Saúde) conference gave volunteers with groups the opportunity to bring 2 female students and a female counterpart to come together and celebrate what it means to be a woman (and more specifically a young woman in Mozambique) and to talk about the unique challenges they face.
Things are slowly changing in the larger cities, but the reality in most parts of Mozambique is that women are still considered to be weak and inferior. It is far too common to see women beaten for disobeying their husbands, girls as young as 12 years old married off to older men, girls stopping their education after primary school, and being led into lives of transactional sex to be able to feed their families or get basic things that they want/need. During intitation rites, at home, and in the community they are constantly taught that their role in society is to please men in whatever capacity possible. This means that most are urged not to use family planning even if they do not feel ready to have children. Many are encouraged to stop going to school because they are told it is useless if they are going to spend the rest of their lives inside the house and in the fields. They are pushed into early marriages because they are taught that after about 20 or so they should depend on a man to house them and feed them. I’ve even heard men say that they have special vitamins that women cannot survive without, so men are doing us a favor by “keeping us healthy.”
I was talking to an educated man in a large city a few weeks ago and he started off the conversation by saying how he thought the idea of a girls conference was essential for the development of the country and how important it is to teach female youth to be independent. I was so happy to be participating in a conversation with such a positive male presence that I was completely caught off-guard when he then said that despite all that, men should be allowed to have at least a few wives because women have an “expiration date.” His theory was that after having children and struggling with years of housework and working in the fields, women stop trying to be beautiful and therefore men should be allowed to take a younger wife who is not yet spoiled by the hardships of Mozambican life. And when that new younger wife reaches her “expiration date,” he should be allowed to look for a new, even younger one. When I asked if men themselves have this so-called “expiration date” he replied that of course they don’t because men are always trying to impress women so they always look good. But what about the beer bellies? That just means they’re successful and able to enjoy a nice beer after a hard days work. The wrinkles and graying hair? Apparently he thinks women find that attractive. So he’s all for treating women as equals when they are young and beautiful, but trading them in as soon as the years of manual labor bestowed upon them start to show. To him these were two completely separate concepts. One is talking about women’s rights in theory, the other is actually practicing what we preach and treating women as equals instead of as the inferior gender. What about love, companionship, friendship, having someone that you want to spend your life with? Of course men want those things, he said. But they “can’t live without” a beautiful woman.
The way women are treated as objects by men in authority, ridiculed when they try to fend off unwanted advances, and taken advantage of by teachers in the local schools is disheartening, but seeing young girls step up and take action makes me think that there is hope for change. My REDES group consists of about 20 girls ages 13 to 18 from the primary and secondary schools. Last year we met sporadically and talked about HIV/AIDS, played soccer, and did some self-esteem building exercises, but attendance was poor and it was hard to get the group off the ground. But I found an amazing counterpart (21 year old Cristina who is a student and works with Red Cross, Save the Children, IRD, theater groups, is student body president, and a fantastic example for all the girls) who has gotten the group organized and motivated. This year the girls have done palestras (community lectures popular here for communicating important information to the masses) in several of the local schools about the importance of gender equality and speaking about against sexual abuse. They are currently working on a skit about the stigma and discrimination that people living with HIV/AIDS face. Watching these girls stand up in front of hundreds of the peers at school is incredible.
There are REDES groups across the country and many groups still continue independently after the Peace Corps volunteer finishes their 2 years in the community. These groups encourage adolescent girls to dream. Our world is slowly changing, and in Mozambique these girls can be the catalyst for lasting change. One by one they are standing up and showing that girls have the same abilities as boys, that they have the right to go to school and to make their own decisions, and they are showing why REDES and girls empowerment campaigns are so important.