"Weak, defenseless, sensitive, innocent, little." These are the words five teens in Mexico used to tell me what the word "girl" meant to them. And when I asked about the word "boy?" "Strong and big."
This didn't come as a surprise to me. Children in our sponsored populations often live in patriarchal societies. Most women are homemakers and are discouraged from finding work outside the home.
Through our youth programs, we're hoping to change the way our sponsored children think about what it means to be a girl or boy (https://www.children.org/how-change-happens). We teach them to recognize the value and worth of one another, as well as to support equal rights and access. We show girls they have choices, opportunities and a say over how they choose to live their lives.
And, we're making progress. When I spoke to the teens during a visit to Mexico (https://www.children.org/fight-child-poverty-mexico) last fall, we discussed how CI programs have changed their views on gender equality and the inequalities that still exist.
Through leadership workshops, they're learning how to recognize and combat the stereotypes that persist in their daily lives. For instance, 14-year-old Deina told me she bravely challenged the perception that only boys should play soccer by joining an all-male team. Noemí, 13, said she convinced her dad that she was capable of leaving the house without having to be accompanied by her younger brother. And María Guadalupe, 17, questioned her parents about their roles in the home. "I asked my dad why mom didn't work and he couldn't really answer me," she explained. "Now, my dad, mom and I all work."
Participants are also learning that males often face different, but equally challenging, barriers. For example, young men are expected to be the strong backbones of a family, to be tough, not show weakness or their feelings, and not bother with domestic chores. But thanks to training through CI, girls are helping to change people's perspectives on these issues as well. For example, María Guadalupe fought for her brother to have his own quinceañero – a party traditionally only celebrated when a girl turns 15 – while Deina helped her uncle prove he was just as capable of cleaning the dishes as her aunt.From left to right: Angélica, Deina, María Trinidad, María Guadalupe and Noemí.
In addition to empowering adolescent boys and girls to fight the gender stereotypes that might otherwise hold them back, our youth programs teach life skills that improve self-image, build confidence and boost communication. These important lessons will help them be more successful in the workforce and ultimately improve their community's overall health and development. It is all about creating a more socially just world for the future generations. And to see them fighting for equality now – for themselves and for others – is so inspiring to me. I have faith that these five courageous girls will do great things.
"I see this helping our community in the way that we all share knowledge," said 13-year-old María Trinidad. "Now we can let everybody know women can do what men do, and vice versa."