Let’s pretend it is March and I’m still Ethiopia and not FOUR months beyond on telling everyone about the amazing experience that was the AGE Summit. I actually wrote this blog post in April and then, well, you know…ethnic conflict ensued and there was that evacuation and unexpected return to the USA. Blah blah. I am STILL getting questions about it…so I’m going to post what I originally wrote with some updates. I am WARNING you: this is a very long blog post because this was the biggest and BEST thing I did in Peace Corps. I didn’t write it to be beautiful or sound fancy. I wrote it as if I was talking directly to you about it. I get distracted and go on rants about all sorts of fantastic things involved in this project. It is not concise or organized. Deal with it.
A year. That is how long I had actually been dreaming about the Action for Gender Equality Summit and praying it would happen. It takes a lot of work to put together a huge event anywhere, let alone another country in another language where you barely have power or internet access. After getting the approval from Peace Corps, I worked on this project almost everyday for 9 months with the rest of the amazing volunteers in the Gender and Development Committee. It was not easy. But it sure was worth it.
I should preface this by explaining what the hell the AGE Summit was and how it came about. When my group in Ethiopia, G8, had one of our conferences in Addis, it coincided with one of the Great Ethiopian Run’s events. The WomenFirst 5K run. A bunch of us signed up for it not really knowing what we were getting ourselves into. And I think most of us can say it was one of the best things we did in our entire service. It was a 5K race ONLY for women through the streets of Addis. It was created by Haile Gebrselassie, the great Ethiopian runner, to celebrate women’s achievements and contributions in Ethiopia. We were running through the streets of Addis with over 3,000 women while men sat on the sidelines and watched. Some of OUR male volunteers woke up early, made signs and cheered us along the sidelines. And it made other men look at them and think…’what is going on!’ This is a very, very rare sight to see in Ethiopia. Women were celebrating all around us enjoying this rare moment. After the event, we all met up together again and had a celebratory lunch. I remember sitting down with a bunch of the ladies and talking about what it would do for girls all over the country if they could experience this. If they could see the power and strength of these women in the ‘big city’. Luckily, three of us had just been nominated to the Gender and Development Committee. And a promise was made. It would be our One Big Initiative for the Committee that upcoming year.
As you know I am very passionate about working with women and girls. Being a female in this country (Ethiopia) is extremely difficult. Just to give you a little perspective, the World Economic Forum named Ethiopia as the 7th lowest country in terms of Gender Equality out of 135 countries in 2012. That means only 6 countries in the world are worse in terms of gender equality. I have seen and experienced some truly horrifying incidents related to sexual assault, sexual harassment and gender based violence. Looking back, I can say there is not ONE day I can think of when I left my house that I was not harassed or assaulted. These are the facts.
In September I was elected as the National Coordinator for the Gender and Development Committee. And from there on, the AGE Summit was my baby. Ask any of my PCV friends and they will tell you as soon as the idea came about, I was DEDICATED to making it happen. I don’t know if I have ever been so dedicated to my work in my life. I knew it had the potential to be great. To change lives. I just didn’t know if it would all actually come together the way we needed it to. Because, well, lets face it. It is Ethiopia. And I don’t say that to sound like an ass. But it’s the truth. Anything that CAN go wrong in this country, usually does. We decided to press ahead. We thought it would be a small ‘conference’ with some Peace Corps Volunteers and students. It turned out to be something much, much larger than that. That’s partly my doing. And partly due to all of the amazing support we received. My parents use to tell me when I was younger not to do anything half ass. I realize now that I have really taken that expression to heart.
We decided as a Committee that the big initiative would be called the Action for Gender Equality Summit (AGE). And it would not just involve girls. Anyone who knows anything about development, or gender mainstreaming or inequality, can understand that change will not just happen by focusing on one gender alone. In this country where almost every decision is controlled by men, we knew that empowering women would only get the students so far. So, we decided to include young boys in our Summit. If women are to be treated as equal, men have to first see them as equal. We created a competition for the Peace Corps Volunteers to be selected. We wanted it to be open to every volunteer, but logistically and financially, it wasn’t realistic. So we created a mechanism for choosing Volunteers and how those volunteers would choose students. We wanted male PCV’s to bring male youth, and female students to bring female students. Although, we did allow for exceptions in the case of outstanding students of the opposite sex, as long as there were no overnight journeys involved. The Summit was to focus on course gender issues of course, but also what it means to be a leader. We wanted the students to walk away as Ambassadors. So they could return to their small towns, and be a force of change in their communities.
In November, some of my PC friends had dinner with the US Ambassador to Ethiopia and were talking about gender issues. I will tell you now I am very fond of our Ambassador as she has tirelessly fought for gender issues since arriving in Ethiopia (and long before). One of my best friends Sarah told the Ambassador, “my friend Morgan is putting together this awesome event in Addis” and things took off from there. The Ambassador told her to have me contact her for support. We met in Addis and she said to me: “whatever you need for this event, you let me know. I’m behind you 100%.” And she was not kidding. Thanks to her, we had full support from the Embassy, Coca Cola, the Girl Hub and the press.
That was in NOVEMBER. And from that day, my Peace Corps service was all about this event. I am not exaggerating. I can’t even tell you what I was doing the whole time, but I sure was busy until March.
Before I knew it, March arrived. And it was time. It turned out that the Ambassador, who was so set on coming to the event, was called to DC for some fancy shmancy event and couldn’t attend. She was genuinely upset. It was, however, HER idea for me to come to the Embassy and interview her for the students to watch during the weekend. And the Chargé d’affaires would also come in her place to speak to the students. The Ambassador made sure to connect me to the last few people who she assured me would support our cause. I spent the last week working with Coca-Cola designing t-shirts, arranging delivery of the product, and give aways for the students. I worked with the truly wonderful Girl Hub to arrange a guest speaker for the event. I was speaking with Peace Corps about travel arrangements. And making sure the schedule was corrected for all of the different parties.
And then it was Wednesday before the event, and the time finally came for me to head to Addis to get things ready for everyone’s arrival on Friday. I was busy running around working with Peace Corps on logistics, financial issues, lodging and vehicles. I met with The Girl Hub to talk about their presentation with Selome Taddesse (will speak more about her later). I had to run to Coca Cola’s East African Bottling Factory to pick up 10 cases of soda, 100 tshirts, 100 baseball hats, pens and key chains. On Wednesday I went to the Embassy to tape the speech with Ambassador. She was so gracious and willing to take time out of her extremely busy schedule to help us with the event. I met with Katherine, the most amazing Information and Press Affairs Officer. She told me she had 10 confirmed press coming to the event.
So, yes, a little bigger than we had imagined.
Thank goodness for my main girls Kirsten and Breanne. I would have LOVED to be more involved in the nitty gritty of really planning the sessions, but most of my time was taken by planning logistics and working with the Embassy, Peace Corps and other organizations. The event never would have happened without those two (and the other GAD members clearly). Especially putting up with my 100 phone calls a day. Sorry girls. Thursday was all about the supplies shopping. Getting materials and posters ready. We did our best trying to find 40 buttons to make RUMPS (reusable menstrual pads)-it was not easy. It’s not like there is a Michaels you can just hop on over to. Nor was it easy finding 55 ponytail holders. Kirsten, Breanne and I were running around all day! I also had to go to the Red Cross Training Center where we were holding our event to make sure they had everything ready for the following day. They did not. They of course had overbooked. The manager told us it was because we in fact had booked TOO early. OHHH of course. Moving on. It worked out. Kind of.
And then before I knew it, it was Friday. Let’s just say some things had not gone according to plan, which was expected, but still extremely stressful nonetheless. Friday morning the GAD committee headed over to Red Cross to start getting everything set up. 17 Peace Corps Volunteers and 39 students were on their way to Addis. They would start arriving around 2 pm or so. We had activities for them to stay busy until everyone arrived. Friday night was a little hectic and everyone was so tired. People settled into their rooms, ate dinner and then came together for a fun game to learn everyone’s names. After dinner we went over the rules and talked about the weekend.
I won’t go into every detail of the weekend, because it was long and exhausting. But I do want to cover some of the highlights. On Saturday, the chargé d’affaires, Ms. Phee, arrived to open the Summit. She was absolutely fantastic. She spoke to the students about what it means to be a leader, the relationship between Ethiopia and the U.S., and why gender equality is so important. We watched the video from the Ambassador, and of course, the students were very impressed that the US Ambassador to Ethiopia was talking to THEM.
There were some really fantastic activities on Saturday like ‘Walk a Kilometer in Her Shoes’. It’s an activity where the boy participants have to carry out activities that are typically done by women in Ethiopia, like chopping vegetables, retrieving water,all while carrying a baby, etc. It went over very well. We also had the fantastic ‘Strong Women Pinatas’. These can be done in many different ways, but we decided to do them as ‘We Are Strong Pinatas’. We had all of the students write on the different pinatas statements that stand in the way of gender equality. Then the students went outside and one by one read their own statements as to why they are strong or how they support gender equality. It was really amazing. Thanks to the one and only Amanda.
I think the highlight of the day, possibly the weekend, was the guest speaker arranged by Girl Hub. Girl Hub is an organization that is part of the Girl Effect Network and is a collaboration of DFID and Nike. To say they are a genius project would be an understatement. They offered to arrange a guest speaker for the event. Her name is Selome Tadesse. I of course had not heard of her, but before I knew it my email was blowing up with emails from the Embassy and Peace Corps telling me that if she was willing, we should secure her to speak. There was actually one emailed that said “she’s even been mentioned as a future possible president”. Welllllll OF COURSE she is. Fantastic. So, I did the only logically thing I could think of. I emailed her. Asking her to take part in our event.
11 minutes later, (yes, I actually know the timing) I got an email from her. Saying THANK YOU to me and that she would LOVE to take part in our event. Wait, what?! I worked with the Embassy and Girl Hub to figure out who should take the lead on this. It turns out she actually works for/with Girl Hub and they were more than happy to create a special presentation for our event with her. They also offered some great gift bags/takeaways for the students. I made it clear that we didn’t want to give the students ‘free stuff’. They agreed and instead developed some materials that would help the students with the goals we were leaving with them in terms of leadership.
So. Selome arrived Saturday morning, and after helping with the pinatas, was ready for her presentation. She knocked it out of the park. This woman. She has such a way of speaking and captivating an audience. The students went from being so serious and shocked to laughing hysterically. It was absolutely perfect. And Girl Hub had arranged to play two music videos by the sensational girl group Yegna for the students to watch. It really couldn’t have been better.
To learn more about Selome-read here:
To see more about Yegna and listen to their music, click here:
The rest of the weekend’s sessions included: Gender basics (gender vs. sex,etc), leadership sessions, a tour of Addis Ababa University and discussions about higher education, condom demonstrations/Olympics, girls/boys club and safe spaces for discussion, a fantastic family planning board game, RUMPS, lessons on brushing teeth, hygiene, and of course a Girl Rising showing.
And then it was time. The closing event. Time for Sunday. Really the best part. The whole reason behind the madness of this event is that it was on International Women’s Day. And it also happened that the WomenFirst 5K would also be on that Sunday. Ooohlala! The girls would run in the event while the boys…did what? They would stand on the sidelines and CHEER the girls on while they ran to the finish line of course. Saturday night, all of the male students and male PCVs got together and made signs for the girls. They were working SO hard on them and kept asking for extra paper when they messed up. But we didn’t see them until Sunday.
We were all ready to go Sunday morning for the race. The boys knew what their job was, and the girls knew that although it was a ‘race’, it wasn’t about who finished first. The point was to celebrate and enjoy together. So we walked through the streets of Addis screaming at the tops of our longs. Some of my FAVORITE PCVs, Amanda, Hailey, Lauren, etc helped me with some fantastic cheers and we really got the girls excited as we were marching. We had seen the boys at a few stops along the way, but it was a tough route to really pick out a spot to stop and cheer us on. There were a lot of points where I saw them and we cheered back at them and it really was fantastic…BUT… it still didn’t feel…right.
And then it happened. And the tears started to flow before I even had a minute to think. I mean, waterworks over here. We had turned a corner around an overpass, and on a ledge to our left were all of our ‘guys’. Standing with signs that said things like “RESPECT”, “YOU are the chosen One”, “Don’t Wait for Men, JUST DO IT”, and “Rise Together”. Before I knew it, a dance party had broken out in front of the boys and everyone was celebrating together. But there was a little confusion. There was SO many girls/women I didn’t recognize. And I got really worried. I realized that women from the race just wanted to come say thank you to the boys for supporting them. Women starting running over and shaking their hands and dancing. And then the CRAZIEST thing of all happened. Ethiopian men, who had NOTHING to do with the event…started to join in. They joined the sidelines and started CLAPPING. FOR WOMEN. That was the moment I knew my PC service was complete. It.does.not.get.better.than.that.
The rest of the race was full of moments like this. After that it was just a party the rest of the time. We caught up with most of the Embassy staff who was running in the race to support us (amazing right?!), including our Country Director’s wonderful wife. So.many.dance.parties.
We finished the race and stayed for a while soaking in the wonder. Just celebrating. Celebrating the fact that women and girls are absolutely amazing. Most of our girls had NEVER LEFT THEIR TOWNS BEFORE THIS. We were told there were over 5,000 women at the race.
We had a wonderful after party with cake and delicious food. More FUN and engaging lessons for the students. And the following morning, the students left for their towns.
We had a lot, A LOT, of issues. A lot of things that went wrong. But it was also so much better than I ever imagined. And I know that every year it will only get better. Because it will now be an annual event :)
There has been a lot of talk lately about Peace Corps and the future. Is Peace Corps still relevant? I am very honest about my opinions regarding Peace Corps. Boy it was not easy. But NO ONE ever said it would be. The one thing I will always say is that it was the best thing that I have ever done, or probably will ever do, in my life. Is Peace Corps still relevant? We were only able to bring 39 students to Addis for that weekend. But when you hear that over half of those students have already shared what they learned with their fellow students…that’s how many more students? And how many students will they then tell? And so it goes on and on. And in a world where schools are being bombed and planes are being shot from the sky, personally, I believe that an organization sending volunteers to all corners of the world on their own, to promote the message of world peace and friendship, is absolute relevant, and necessary.
Take a look at the pictures and decide for yourself…