Last week marked the application deadline for the Gender Youth Development (GYD) girls scholarship. This is an annual project Peace Corps Ghana has been doing for a few years now and its really something spectacular. This is what I shaved my head for! And we raised way more than my asking price. A HUGE thank you to everyone who pledged and donated. All proceeds go to paying the school fees of high school girls all across Ghana – those entering their second and third years. And we are still raising funds! If you can donate any amount, please click here! If not, share the link! PCV J McCarron is part of the GYD committee and organizers of this year’s fundraiser.
Girls are more vulnerable than their male classmates (and brothers) when it comes to going to school. Often times, their education does not matter to their family as much because the perception is they are to be married and have children. Traditional gender roles do not have much wiggle room for girls aspiring to be something other than wives and mothers. It certainly does not encourage dreaming of anything different. That is what Peace Corps Ghana GLOW/BRO and STARS camps aims to change. This scholarship is to take care of the logistics.
We have an application process, which asks the applicants to let us know of any extracurricular activities, tell us about what they aspire to be and why, as well as personal goals. There is also a section for Peace Corps Volunteer nominating the students and I chose to hold interviews with all interested girls because actually, I do not have a close relationship with any of them. My community does not have a High School, but my market town does. I have been working with this High School for almost a year now on a very haphazard basis, holding, when schedules match, girls club meetings. Where, it is more discussion based, talking about current events and any topic that allows us to explore a world beyond Ghana. Most of these girls have never travelled outside of Northern region or further south than Kumasi. But by no means did this put me on a first name basis with the majority of girls – it was that infrequent and not at all regularly attended.
I ended up holding over fifty five interviews over three days and boy was it difficult. I took notes at each interview to help shape my answers, which asked why I was nominating them, how the girls demonstrated financial hardship and what their commitment to education was like. So I asked rather personal questions about family, who else was going to school and what else they could do to help themselves accomplish their goals.
As difficult as it was, it was equally, if not more, educational for me. I noticed various patterns as well as understood a lot more about Ghana schooling, available careers and family life.
Single parent households
Many come from single parent households and more often than not, it was the father who had passed away. In northern Ghana at least, the widow then falls under the care of the husband’s family, particularly of any brothers he had. One can imagine what a struggle this is as the widow and her children essentially become a financial burden on other family members. One can imagine that not all widows get treated equally to the wives of the living brothers. Currently, and especially in villages, women old enough to be mothers with school age children, are usually not educated and therefore have limited job prospects. Traditionally too, women do not own land. What is a widow to do? What are her options? The hardships placed on these women is astronomical. Every kid, regardless of gender, is in need of a financial scholarship.
The application also asked for copies of students’ Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE – which they take at the end of middle school) and High School year one grades. So I got to compare them and I found many with decent BECE results but appalling year one grades. Why?, I wonder. Is it trouble adjusting? Making that leap from middle school to high school? The change in environment; going from living at home to boarding? Or are the BECE results actually not accurate? In conversation with various teachers, they all made reference to how prevalent cheating was. I really have nothing more to add, just a curious trend I noticed. I am not a believer in exams being the primary way in testing anyone’s comprehension or mastery of a subject. Nor do grades say anything accurately of one’s capabilities. I made sure not to simply rule out a student because her grades were not stellar.
The idea of a personal goal was very hard to grasp. Initially the students understood it as goals related to being a student, so most talked about wanting to pass all their exams. Or it was misunderstood to still mean something related to careers or broadly speaking, making money. I would explain giving examples such as “My career goal is to work in agriculture and my personal goal is to learn to speak French.” I would explain a personal goal as something one wants to achieve that is for his or her own development or something they want to do for themselves because they enjoy that thing. The number of blank stares I got was actually heartbreaking because all that said to me was that these girls have never really thought about, or at least allowed themselves to dwell on, doing something that is strictly for their own personal development and enjoyment. When they would come back with edits or additions, it was always something like “to help my mother” or “take care of my brothers and sisters” – all very selfless things. Which highlights the traditional gender role that Ghanaian women are caretakers. Do not get me wrong, this is far from a bad thing. But what this illustrates is what a privilege it is to pursue, much less think about, ‘personal‘ goals for teenage girls in Ghana.
Nurse or Teacher
Probably eighty percent of the girls I interviewed wanted to be either a nurse or a teacher and weighted more towards nursing. When asked why, most said a variation of wanting to help people, which I imagine is why most people, anywhere, want to be nurses. But there are many ways of helping people, so I probed. “Why is it important to help people?” Or “why do you want to help people?” Or being more straight forward and pointing out that they can help people in other ways, so why nursing. And this would stump most. Now, perhaps I was being extra hard – what teenager really knows what they want to do with their lives? I only had a vague idea and twelve years later and I am still figuring it out. But some gave me clarity as to why nurse or teacher. In Ghana, those are government paid jobs. Meaning a salary that allows one to get paid regularly, more or less. To branch out into something different is hard. It is a risk not many can afford to take.
There were a handful of girls that really stood out in the way they carried themselves and were able to talk about themselves. I hope it comes through in the applications and that what I wrote added strength. I will know later this month if any of the girls I nominated got the scholarship. Fingers crossed!