Empowering Swazi girls through song, dance and GLOW

By Blythe Terrell
Feb. 4, 2015

Serving in the Peace Corps is an interesting beast. The experience varies from one person to another, from one country to another, from one village to another. You might spend days reading in your hut after heat or rain canceled all your meetings. Or you could be busy from dawn till dusk.

I served as a community health Volunteer in Swaziland from 2012 to 2014, finishing in August. I had my share of long, dull days, and I had a few extremely busy ones. But much of my time went to a girls-empowerment program called Girls Leading Our World.

GLOW brought teen girls together from all over rural Swaziland. Swaziland, if you’re not familiar with it (I wasn’t), is a country about the size of New Jersey that’s bordered on three sides by South Africa and one side by Mozambique. It’s one of two blobs on the map that appear to be floating in South Africa. (Lesotho is the other one, fully surrounded by SA.) About a million people live there.

Here are some sociopolitical things you should know about Swaziland: It has the highest HIV prevalence in the world, it’s the last absolute monarchy in Africa and 63 percent of people live in poverty.

Here are some more important things you should know: The people are largely kind, friendly and welcoming; many smart people are working hard to improve health and address poverty-related issues; and singing and dancing are an integral part of daily life.

This is the context for GLOW.

A Swazi friend and I started a GLOW club for sixth-grade girls in my area. We held biweekly meetings, talking about self-esteem and leadership issues, singing and dancing and discussing reproductive health. This led up to a five-day camp, which three girls from our club attended.

Oh, and let me be clear — dozens of extraordinary Swazi women work hard as GLOW counselors and partners on this project. It's by no means a Peace Corps-only deal.

My friend Ncobile Hlophe described why she thinks it’s important for girls to go to camp: “To be empowered, to be a good leader, to make positive choices, to be a good role model to other girls in the community, to be educated, enlightened and make informed decisions.”

She said the three girls we took, Thandeka, Sicebile and Zinhle (pictured above), came away as skilled public speakers and good role models for other girls.

The camp is uplifting and empowering to the girls. It’s truly incredible. Many girls start off nervous and shy. By the end, they were hugging one another and goofing around. We finished the week with a talent show, where the girls performed skits, sang and danced. The Volunteers and counselors were brought to tears when a shy girl with a physical disability took the stage and sang her heart out. The cheers were deafening.

After we returned home to our community, our GLOW club flourished. The girls gave presentations about what they learned to the other 30-some members of the club. In the weeks after camp, our club grew closer. The girls began to trust one another and, I think, to trust me.

One afternoon we decided it was time. I brought out the poster of the female reproductive system so we could help the girls understand more about their bodies. We discussed puberty, the menstrual cycle and the basics of pregnancy.

After the presentation, I asked whether anyone had questions. A few girls raised their hands and asked me to repeat the names of different body parts. Mostly, though, they were quiet. That’s when I got out the “question box.” This cardboard miracle, covered in paper and stickers, changed everything. I told the girls they could write questions anonymously on the scraps of paper I provided.

There was a mad dash.

Will my period hurt?

How old will I be when I get it?

What do babies eat inside the womb?

What happens if I have sex while I’m still young?

Some teachers, Ncobile, another woman from the community and I answered as best we could. We tried to be honest and nonjudgmental. We answered question after question, and girls kept getting up to write more. As someone who studied sexual and reproductive health issues at public health school, I was elated.

Our club lasted an extra hour that day. I walked home on air.

This year, GLOW is expanding. The Peace Corps Volunteers and the Swazi counselors are putting on two camps, one for older girls and one for younger girls. They’ll continue to work alongside the incredible Swazi women who volunteer as counselors.

And if you want to make connections and learn about another culture in a unique environment, you should check out the Peace Corps. Every person's experience truly is different.

A version of this post first appeared on The Huffington Post

Blythe Terrell