Peace Corps in the Gambia: Applying Lessons Learned from Women’s Studies
By Lucia Cruz, Health and Community Development Volunteer in the US Peace Corps, the Gambia, West Africa; and former staff member, Program on the Status and Education of Women, AAC&U
US Peace Corps representatives like to say that serving as a Peace Corps volunteer is the “toughest job you will ever love.” They are not joking. As a Health and Community Development volunteer currently stationed in the Gambia, West Africa, my work has taken me to remote villages to teach seventh graders about HIV prevention; to a community center where I lead a weekly class for girls on confidence building, communication, and relationship skills; and to an HIV support group of sixty women who are developing organizational management and project implementation strategies. I have also encountered corruption, sexual harassment, and the challenge of learning a language that I never knew existed. When I need something to credit with preparing me for these experiences (or to blame for my lack of preparation), I know where to turn: my women’s studies degree.
A few years before beginning my Peace Corps service, I was just another young feminist devouring the works of Gloria Anzaldúa, Catharine MacKinnon, and Angela Davis. I dreamed of making the world a better, more feminist-friendly place. As an undergraduate women’s studies student, I discovered theories of gender, politics, transnational migration, and grassroots activism. I learned the importance of taking local women’s views into consideration when doing community work, how gender is socially constructed, and how gender roles vary in different societies. These lessons were extremely helpful to me as I transitioned to work after college, particularly when I moved to the Gambia. At the same time, I wish my degree program had placed more emphasis on a few things: the importance of men as partners in feminist work, the idea that women’s rights are human rights, and the practical ways to empower women in their daily lives.
The lessons I learned in women’s studies have been particularly useful in my current work with an HIV support group. The majority of support group members are women, primarily as a result of the way testing is done in the Gambia. For men, HIV testing is voluntary. Women, however, are tested for HIV when they visit their local clinic for a pregnancy checkup (which happens often, as fertility rates are high, with an average of nearly five children born per woman) (Central Intelligence Agency 2010). If a woman is found to be HIV positive, she receives counseling at the clinic and is urged to join a support group to help her through the challenges of living with HIV. Support groups are a crucial resource for many women. Misconceptions about HIV abound in the Gambia, echoing myths that used to proliferate in the United States: that one can contract HIV through casual contact, that only prostitutes can get it, that people who have it deserve it. In sum, although infection rates in the Gambia are low (only about 2 percent), there is a high level of stigma attached to HIV and discrimination against people living with it (UNAIDS 2009).
During my first few months as a volunteer, a woman in the support society experienced this discrimination firsthand when she was kicked out of her house by her husband and shunned by her community (a situation that is far too common). When she came to the group for assistance, my first inclination was to help her establish a new life in another city far from the village that had shunned her. But I applied a valuable lesson from my women’s studies courses. I remembered that too often, Western feminists visit developing countries and impose their values (and “solutions”) with the best intentions, only to have their plans explode. I knew the importance of finding a way to help that is comfortable for both parties, and I recognized that I was still learning about Gambian culture. So I listened to the woman and to others who had been through the same ordeal. What she wanted was simple: the group’s physical presence and moral support. She didn’t want to start a new life—she wanted to go home to her four children. So the support group visited her village, talked to the chief, and, over a period of three months, sensitized her community to HIV/AIDS. In the end, the community accepted her. She now lives with her family and is open about her HIV status.
In addition, knowing how gender roles vary in different societies prepared me to reconsider my views of oppression. In the Gambia, women are responsible for all household labor—such as collecting water, laundry, cooking, and cleaning—while men perform tasks like collecting firewood, building fences, and controlling finances. When I first arrived, I was upset at this distribution of work. It seemed like the women were always doing chores while the men brewed ataaya (a local tea) and talked under a mango tree. Then a fellow volunteer pointed out that if I asked the women, I would find that they take pride in being strong, bearing many children, and maintaining a clean, well-run household. If I viewed housework solely as a form of oppression, I wouldn’t be able to get past my anger and use housework as a way to connect with Gambian women. With this in mind, I chatted with my host mother as I helped her pick leaves for cooking. She commented that she liked how I kept my house clean and cooked satisfying food. How else could I respond? I took her comment as the compliment she intended. My host mother is now one of my closest friends and some of my best times are spent chatting with her while cooking.
Room for Improvement
Despite the many benefits I derived from my women’s studies background, at times I feel frustrated by what I didn’t learn in college. For example, when I entered the Peace Corps, I did not feel adequately prepared to view men as partners in gender equity work. If I have learned one thing over the years (and especially in the Gambia), it is that men’s involvement is critical when trying to create change. This is particularly true in patriarchal societies like the Gambia, as was evident when a friend of mine was helping a women’s group start a garden to sell produce and feed its members’ families. The women had a plot of land and were ready to start planting, but they needed men in the community to build a fence to protect their crops from wandering animals. Since the men did not see how the garden would benefit them, they refused. The women could have built the fence themselves, of course. But they didn’t want to publicly challenge the men, whom they knew were opposed to the project. Thus, without the men’s support, the garden was never started and the project failed.
The outcome might have been different if the men had seen that empowering women would benefit everyone in the village, and that women’s rights are human rights. Too often, I have encountered men who are bitter because they see international development work as focused on women at the exclusion of men. It can be difficult to engage these men as partners in development work. This is not to say that men in the Gambia are opposed to women’s rights and gender equality in theory. But resistance arises when they think about what equality would mean in their daily lives. Several Gambian men have told me that women should be allowed to work outside of the home. But when I ask if they will help their wives with chores to give them time to do so, the answer is usually “no”—that chores are a woman’s duty to her husband and family. It’s frustrating, to say the least.
Despite these challenges, I have learned many practical ways to empower others during my Peace Corps service that I unfortunately didn’t learn as an undergraduate. In the classroom, I would often wonder how to put theory into practice, but I rarely found answers. A capstone project that allowed me to do grassroots development in the local community might have helped me foster these skills. Washington and Lee University’s Shepherd Program, for example, gives students the opportunity to do community-based internships while taking capstone courses where they explore the social issues they encounter as interns. When I volunteered at a local camp for children with cancer, I would have loved to explore issues like health insurance access in an academic setting so I could find ways to more fully support the families I encountered. Coursework connected to this real-life experience would have added an important educational component to my undergraduate career.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, I have discovered the potential of microcredit loans to vastly improve a family’s livelihood, experienced the satisfaction of teaching a host sibling to read, and learned that social justice sometimes starts with providing moral support and building individual relationships. I may not have learned these exact lessons in my women’s studies classes, but I have hope that curricular improvements since I graduated are benefitting the next generation of women’s studies students. And among its many other lessons, women’s studies opened my mind to seeing small successes as part of positive social change. Sometimes, that’s all I need to keep placing one foot in front of the other to make the world a better, more feminist-friendly place.
Central Intelligence Agency. 2010. “Country Comparisons: Total Fertility Rate.” World Factbook. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2127rank.html.
UNAIDS. 2009. “Gambia.” http://www.unaids.org/en/regionscountries/countries/gambia/.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the official position of the US Peace Corps.