How My Jewish Values Drove Me to Pursue Gender Equality in Togo
During the first three months I spent as a Peace Corps volunteer in a village in Togo, West Africa, I was required to conduct baseline surveys on nutrition, hygiene, sanitation, and gender equality. Every interview was enlightening, but none more than the one with an older gentleman who I was asking about gender norms.
The man sat shirtless under a mango tree to rest during the hours when the West African heat was unbearable. After a few minutes of pleasantries and questions concerning gender equality, he began to warn me of the laziness of Togolese women. As his tirade came to a conclusion, a woman walked past us carrying a baby on her back and a tree trunk – a thick, heavy huge tree trunk – on her head.
This was my introduction to the treatment of women in Togo.
Since then, I have witnessed teachers telling entire classrooms full of students that girls are stupid. I’ve seen boys ridicule girls who want to play soccer, young men laugh when told that women must give sexual consent, and village leaders – all male, of course – deny local women a voice.
I joined Peace Corps for new adventures and cultures but also to fulfill my Jewish obligation of tikkun olam. The curriculum for Saturday school at Community Synagogue of Rye, where I am a member, focused on tikkun olam and social action, so I grew up knowing I had a responsibility to “repair the world.”
In Togo, I found the tiny portion of the world I wanted to help repair.
Six years ago, a group of Peace Corps volunteers decided to create a national conference that would celebrate women and thus founded Togo’s Women’s Wellness and Empowerment Conference (WWEC). WWEC invites enthusiastic women who have shown leadership potential in their respective villages to attend a five-day conference of educational seminars, group discussions, and skill-building sessions. The goal is for participants to return to their villages confident and capable of acting as leaders and agents of change.
The culmination of the conference is a celebration of International Women’s Day, when participants run an activities fair on the topics they discussed during the conference for local primary schools and women’s groups.
Want to see WWEC in action? Watch video from last year’s conference on YouTube.
Even after the conference, WWEC continues to support participants with regional reconnect meetings. It was during these meetings that I was able to truly appreciate the impact WWEC has on its participants. For many of these women, attending WWEC marked the first time they had ever been told that women are strong and worthy of a voice. One participant told me, “This conference changed my life.”
This year, WWEC will be participating in First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative, a government-wide effort to expand successes in global primary school efforts to help adolescent girls complete their educations. WWEC will receive a small portion of funds from Let Girls Learn, but the majority will need to come from individual donors. Tax-deductible donations can be made through the Peace Corps.
Last year, I had the privilege of leading a seminar on nutrition, as well as the morning yoga sessions. It was a transformative experience that cemented my commitment to gender equality work in Togo. After my participation in the conference, I was chosen to be an organizer for the 2016 conference. I hope to bring the idea of tikkun olam to the conference as I encourage each participant to return to their village and repair their world.
Rebecca Walsh is a member of Community Synagogue of Rye in Rye, N.Y. She was also a camper and counselor at JCC Ranch Camp in Colorado for 10 summers.