Big Belly Bootcamp, Part 2

April 28, 2018

In her community, Peace Corps Liberia Education Volunteer Kayla sees, experiences, and fights against gender inequalities in community, school, and secondary projects. 

By spearheading a Health Activist Initiative (HAI) at the local high school at which she teaches, she formed and trained a group of passionate youth health advocates. She and this group worked together to organize a Big Belly Business Boot Camp to change the conversation about gender roles in health and pregnancy in Liberia (see part 1 of this story for more information on how this camp was planned and prepared).

The crucial aspect of this workshop that set it apart was that the target audience was not only pregnant woman. Kayla and her club members knew that in the Liberian setting, men, specifically fathers, are oftentimes the decision makers of the household. Women are expected to spend their days doing household chores like cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children while men go out and ‘look for money’ to provide for the home.

In addition to these engrained gender roles, it is very common for school-going or young men to refuse to admit that they impregnated a woman for many reasons. First, they might feel fearful of the responsibility of the situation and unprepared to handle it. In addition, they might want to avoid being put out of school or being shamed by the community or by their own family. The luxury of being able to deny a pregnancy belongs only to men, as women are forced to bear the brunt of the community embarrassment as they have the “evidence” on their bodies (despite the paradox that they are oftentimes pressured by society to have children from a young age). The shame these girls experience can take many forms including being shunned by their families, being asked to discontinue their studies by school staff (despite no formal law dictating this) or feeling too embarrassed to go as their peers will taunt them, or even struggling to provide for themselves during their nine-months of pregnancy should the man or their families refuse to support them.

In order to combat these types of commonplace situations, HAI members intentionally asked baby pa’s to accompany their baby ma to the boot camp. They hoped to inspire men to be fully involved in fatherhood and in supporting their ‘big belly’ so as to also be a role model to encourage other men in their communities to follow suit.

Kayla worried about low male participant turnout. She explained that “it can be very difficult to get men to show up, embrace, and care for a pregnancy—especially if they are young. Many Liberian friends shared with me [during the planning process] their doubt that men would express genuine interest or concern in the workshop, more or less attend.”

To the organizers’ delight, each day couples showed up together, sometimes even hand in hand as partners (physical contact in public between couples is not common), and they actively contributed to sessions and activities as a team. To create an inclusive and stimulating environment for all participants, each lesson was designed with a key message for baby ma’s and a key message for baby pa’s. The messages for the big bellies primarily focused on how a specific behavior could affect the woman’s body and growing baby, while messages for baby pa’s highlighted ways in which they could support their partners in committing to positive behavior changes. The messages for men were also framed in a way to emphasize that these behavior changes would also benefit them.

The boot camp aimed to create a safe and open space for critical ideas to be exchanged and discussed—especially ones which are considered unacceptable to talk about in a typical Liberian setting. Sensitive topics such as menstruation, family planning methods, and gender-awareness were presented in a delicate but engaging way that encouraged participants to digest, interact with, and enquire about the information.

Men and women jointly practiced how to use a condom correctly and asked a multitude of questions regarding other, less utilized, family planning methods. Discussions about gender in Liberian culture opened minds to different ways of thinking about gender roles. Myths about mosquito net usage and transmission were dispelled and corrected. Couples learned the importance of saving money for unforeseen or overlooked expenses in pregnancy such as transportation costs for emergency visits to the clinic or supplies for the newborn baby. A mock market setup showcased the most nutritious foods to eat during pregnancy and also highlighted ingredients in typical Liberian cooking that should be eaten sparingly.

To reinforce the information presented, groups performed dramas that compared common false ideas or harmful behaviors with correct or appropriate ones. These performances also addressed how they, as leaders in their communities, could share this knowledge with others.

Including baby pa’s in discussions about gender roles and women’s health and empowerment, conversations in which they are not often involved, emboldened them to see how they too have the duty to contribute to the effort. Their role is particularly important, as prominent members of Liberian society, to enable positive change in order to better support women in their community and improve health outcomes of Liberia as a whole.

Just as the boot camp’s core message emphasized, Big Belly Business is Everybody’s Business!