Gender neutrality in any country is not where it should or could be. Even the most progressive of nations suffer with wage gaps, patriarchal job customs, or expected domesticity. So often in the modern, western world a rigid wall is used to defend against sexism by alleviating differences and promoting ideals of "the same". "Were all the same on the inside", or "we're all human beings" will be used in casual debate without recognition of the negatives of "all being the same". I beg the question however: Why can't our differences be celebrated to help encourage equality. It seems this step is already being taken in the rural, eastern villages of South Africa.
I chose to volunteer in a small city on the eastern side of South Africa, given the name St. Lucia. It seems fitting that the small town filled with bizarre places and the friendliest of people would be named after the patron saint of the blind and a female martyr. African Impact was one of the first organizations I looked into that had a significant interest in support groups, specifically mother's support groups. The St. Lucia projects all deal, in some way, with the severe HIV epidemic. The support groups were designed to allow ladies to explore any topic HIV-involved or not to combat the extreme lack of knowledge of important issues, diseases, and subjects for women within Kwazulu-Natal, the province which unfortunately holds the highest concentration of HIV/AIDS in the world. I'm a firm believer in sex education, and a fervent advocate for all things women, so I knew the community project in St. Lucia was well suited for my passions. After 24 hours of travel through air, over sea, and on land I arrived at a volunteer house filled with larger than life individuals and a passionate staff.
After scheduling I learned I would be attending DukuDuku Mother's Support Group in my first week on project. I was excited, nervous, and completely unaware of what to expect. We prepared and waited as the ladies of DukuDuku strolled in one by one. Their natural grace and rough beauty carried in behind them like an ornate train on a wedding gown. Each lady had stories embedded in the wrinkles on her face, and the hardy laughs filled the room with pure, raw joy. I knew I made a good decision when one of the ladies began to laugh as a fellow volunteer tried to teach me to knit and saw the progress was less than pleasant.
The ladies of this support group play extreme roles within their communities. They are gogo's, mothers, wives, daughters, and most importantly a support network for the best and worst of times. Many of these women have seen their daughters move from HIV to AIDS, they've had to take in orphaned children of no relation, and some have even seen their own support group members fall victim to old age. The ladies in support groups do not need to be told that they can be strong, they must be informed on how their strength empowers them. This is where I, as a volunteer, see myself and other volunteers creating a difference. Lessons in support group range from ectopic pregnancies to happiness and self confidence; these "lessons" inevitably turn into a rapid fire questionnaire between the ladies and topic leaders. The discussion is the most significant key to empowering the women. The ladies come from a patriarchal society. Zulu men are allowed to wear what they please, marry however many women they please, and most take advantage of the cultures unequal dispersion of power.
Allowing the women to vent in support group about the stress of money, kids, and life all the while providing knowledge creates more of a balance in the culture. If the women find out that eating more vegetables reduces the risk of certain health issues they are susceptible to-- they attempt to change their diet. In turn, when these mothers cook healthier food for themselves, they are providing a healthier lifestyle for the next generation, and the other members of their household. The lack of medical knowledge in the villages falls to the responsibility of volunteers to find information for these women. By teaching women how things work, it allows them to explore what they can actually do.
At 17, I've discovered a new theory for gender equality: Instead of denouncing differences, celebrate them. There is power in a mothers touch, a sisterly bond, and the long flowing hair of womanhood.