Why I Support Pathways: Joseph's Story
When I tell friends and family that I work with Pathways Togo to promote girls’ education and empowerment in Togo, they assume that it is a natural continuation of my Peace Corps service there from 2009 to 2011. It absolutely is a continuation of that service, but it is also more. As a Peace Corps Volunteer you can affect certain things, and there are many things that you cannot affect. Similarly, now that I am in the United States, there are connections in Togo that are difficult to maintain, but there are other doors that have opened.
I was a Girls’ Education and Empowerment Volunteer in Togo. Formally, I was aligned with the Ministry of Education and I did teach in a CEG/Lycee (middle/high school). I taught an English class as well as Sex Ed. However, my main project was working to reduce sexual harassment in the classroom. That is, sexual harassment from male teachers towards female students.
It can be hard for many of us in the US to conceptualize what this looks like. There absolutely were unwanted comments made by male teachers, but there were also male teachers that had students as “girlfriends”. Now, the details of what that means and how that type of relationship would play out is not something that I am particularly eager to write here. However it is probably as unpleasant and unsettling as you think it is.
So, I had two years to make inroads into this issue and fix what I could. I had a good local counterpart who was the head of the PTA/School Board, the village chief was supportive, and the teacher (all were male) were personable and welcoming. I didn’t advertise my job as being “to stop male teachers from having students as girlfriends”, but instead as “to enable girls to succeed in school.” So, overtime, the teachers and staff of my school held workshops on “how to ensure girls can thrive in schools.” It took some time, but eventually they, as a group were able to identify actions that they had made that had a negative impact on their female students.
I had made a point not to know which male teachers had students as “girlfriends”. All of the teachers benefited from our workshops and knowing which were the most flagrant offenders only would have made my interactions with them more difficult for me. However, near the end of my time in Togo, another PCV and I invited several local teachers to a “heur-heureux”, or happy hour. Towards the end of the evening, two of the teachers that I had worked with for two years pulled me aside and confided in me that they had in fact had student “girlfriends” in the past. They explained that they always knew that it was wrong, even illegal, but they had not taken the time to understand the effect that they had on the girls. They explained to me that they knew their past actions were not only wrong, but harmful. They assured me that they had stopped these actions and pledged to work with other teachers, formally or informally, to reduce similar actions. They had no reason to tell me this and I wouldn’t tell any of their co-workers or supervisors about it. I gave me a great sense of pride that these two men were able to realize the consequences of their actions and pledged to help others understand the effects that their actions have on their students.
Now that I am back in the US, I am not able to slowly draw these types of conclusions out of Togolese teachers. However, there are other obstacles to girls education in Togo that I can continue to work to remove. In my classes in Togo, the first year of middle school class had about 50 boys and 50 girls. The final year of high school class had 42 boys and only 3 girls. In addition to the issues that I worked on in Togo, girls face the challenge of securing funds for school fees, materials, and uniforms. Many suffer from food insecurity. Many more suffer from a lack of academic support. These are issues that I can address from the United States.
Pathways Togo identifies promising students in middle school and commits to their education through university and possibly beyond. We remove as many obstacles as we can so our scholars can devote maximum effort to their studies and to bettering their communities. We provide our scholars with support for fees, uniforms, notebooks, textbooks, tutoring, and mentoring.
I got involved with Pathways not only as an extension of my service, but because it is the best way that I can promote the education of girls in Togo.
(And that photo is me, at a slimmer time, with Elisabeth Andrea, the newborn daughter of my good friend Dodji)