As our first school year as Peace Corps Volunteers is coming to a close, and we can’t help but reflect on all the challenges we have overcome, and the growth we have made during this year. Some of our accomplishments have been small, such as mastering bucket laundry and figuring out how to do our grocery shopping in the village. And some of our accomplishments have been huge, life -changing moments. Our most recent life-changing accomplishment was the 2nd annual Girls Leading the World Conference in Samoa.
Girls Leading Our World or G.L.O.W is a program that Peace Corps Volunteers do all over the world, in a variety of different settings. In 2012 Peace Corps Volunteers hosted the first G.L.O.W conference in Samoa. The first conference was a one day conference and it was only available to students living on Upolu, where the capital is. This year, since most of us volunteers are living on Savaii we wanted to expand the conference to include all schools with a Peace Corps Volunteer on both Savaii and Upolu. However, doing this meant that logistically we had to expand the conference to a 2 day conference, and we had to double the number of girls invited to attend the conference. This meant that our budget had to be triple what it was the first year. Right off the bat we questioned whether we would realistically be able to pull off such an enormous feat.
Usually Samoa receives a new group of volunteers every year, so there is typically an overlap of new volunteers and experienced volunteers. Unfortunately for us there was not a new group of volunteers the year before we came. This meant we did not have the experience of seasoned volunteers to rely on to help us plan our G.L.O.W conference, and we had to start from scratch in many ways. There were many times during the planning process where we were frustrated and were unsure whether G.L.O.W. would actually happen. We faced these challenges right up to the week that G.L.O.W. was scheduled to take place. However, we were determined not to give up, because we strongly believed that the project was something that would really benefit the people of Samoa. Somehow we managed to secure all of the funding we needed, we established a local partnership with the Ministry of Women, Youth and Social Development, and all of the logistics fell into place.
Each volunteer selected four year 7 and year 8 girls from their schools to attend the conference. We left our schools on Monday to travel with our students to Apia, the capital. Some of girls we brought had only ever been to the capital once or twice in their lives. Some girls had never even left the village. Almost all of the girls had never traveled without their families. The girls and the parents alike were extremely nervous about the girls traveling with us.
We rented out a restaurant that we would use for lodging the girls. With approximately 50 girls, the majority of our first night was spent making sure everyone got a shower. Our girls sat in clumps around the restaurant with the girls they knew from their school. I asked my girls why they wouldn’t talk to the other girls. They told me “E le masani,” (they’re not familiar.) They said the same thing about the food. Samoans very rarely meet new people, or try new things.
After sleeping (or attempting to sleep) on the hard floor of the restaurant alongside our students, we got up and prepared for our first day of the conference. The conference took place on the top floor of the 6 story Central Bank of Samoa building. This is one of the tallest buildings in Samoa. The girls were wide-eyed as we walked through downtown Apia. I could sense their nerves as we walked. When we got to the bank I immediately walked straight to the elevator. As soon as we walked inside the elevator, my girls told me they were scared. I realized this was their first time ever riden in an elevator.
Inside the bank approximately 50 girls sat in silence with worried looks on their faces. I broke the ice with a fun warm up song, and the girls relaxed as they had tea. Our conference started with a message from UN Women, who was one of our financial sponsors. We also had a presentation from Samoa Child Protective Unit, who shared with the girls the rights of children and the laws around child abuse. Then we had a career panel of Samoan women who have non-stereotypical jobs. They encouraged the girls to pursue their education, and to follow their dreams. In the afternoon, we watched a dramatic performance by a local theater group. Then, the girls broke into small groups and attended mini-workshops on health, exercise, leadership, and Red-Cross led a workshop on hand washing and hygiene. Following the mini-workshops the girls attended a session on disaster preparedness, which focused on what they could do to be leaders in their community in the event of a disaster. We wrapped up the day with a fun and exhilarating Zumba session.
During the conference we had media coverage from both of the main TV stations in Samoa. That night, back at the restaurant, we had the TV on to watch the news. When G.L.O.W came on the news all the girls and all the volunteers rushed and crowded around the TV to watch. Some of my girls were featured on the broadcast, and they immediately asked if they could use my phone to call their parents to tell them they had been on TV. Their faces were brimming with smiles. Instead of the segregated groups from each school, that night all the girls mixed with girls from other schools as they talked and played games.
The second day of the conference we had very moving presentation from Samoa Victim Support who focused on the message that each girl was important, beautiful, smart and has worth. They spread the message that it’s never ok to hurt kids or women. We also had our very own Peace Corps nurse speak to our girls about the power of words. She encouraged the girls not to believe negative things people say to them, and also encouraged them to use their words to build others up rather than to hurt others. She also reminded them of the message they heard over and over throughout the conference, “Their bodies are temples.” We concluded the conference with a goal setting session where each girl set personal goals for their lives, their health, and their communities. We asked each girl to make a sign that said something good about themselves. They made signs that read, “I am smart.” “I am special,” “I am worthy of everything good,” “I am beautiful,” We took the girls outside the building where we spelled out the word “Glow” with our bodies and the girls held up their signs for a picture.
For both Josh and I this experience was incredibly moving. The message of GLOW is an important message for girls all over the world, but after spending the last year here in Samoa, we recognize how crucial that message is especially for Samoan girls. In Samoa many girls never even finish high school. Many girls never leave the village and it is very common them to start families at very young ages. In addition, girls witness and are victims of violence very often in Samoa. Teachers regularly beat children, and it is not uncommon for parents to beat children or each other. Girls are not encouraged to have dreams, because it jeopardizes the Samoan way of life. Instead girls are expected to make the food, keep the house clean, and look after the younger children in the family. Common phrases these girls hear from their teachers and parents are “You are stupid,” or “You are bad.” For these girls to hear the message that they have a right to pursue their dreams, their body is a temple, and they are important could potentially be life changing for some of these girls. The fact that every one of our speakers was a Samoan made the message especially relevant to our students.
The conference has been life changing for us. My favorite part of the conference was riding back on the crowded bus I was standing next to one of my students. She turned to me and said, “I am so happy! I loved everything about GLOW, but my favorite part of the conference was Victim Support. I want to help other people. I want to work for Victim Support. I am smart. I know I can do it.”
The responses we have gotten from parents about G.L.O.W. have been overwhelming. Josh and I were walking through the village and one of the parents of one of Josh’s students stopped him and said, “I want to thank you for everything you have done for my daughter.” She had tears in her eyes as she told us that she was so proud to hear her daughter talk about her dreams, and the things she learned at G.L.O.W. She also said, “I know you two don’t have kids of your own, but I know you love all of our children as if they are your children.”
They say as a volunteer you get more than you give. Josh and I both are beginning to understand just what that means. We have been so encouraged by these young girls. And we truly believe that the key to changing a community and the world is to empower women. It is our hope that by empowering these young girls we can one day break the cycle of violence that many girls and women face in their everyday lives, and that as they pursue their dreams they can bring financial security and happiness to their families. It is so humbling to be a small part of such an inspiring thing.