As most of you know, I spent the month of July in Togo with our team reviewing our program, making samples for our upcoming projects, planning for the next year and building the culture of our organization. And I have to say, this was the most inspiring, meaningful and encouraging time I’ve spent in Togo. You’ll see more of the meaningful moments in my upcoming blogs, but first, I want to talk about why S H E matters. I’ve spent the last two years comfortably behind the scenes, partly because we only have a couple of years under our belt and partly because I’m afraid that putting myself in the middle of the conversation about S H E is self-serving. But after seeing all of the progress we’ve made over the last year and the incredible program our Togolese team has built, I’m ready to set my fears aside and do whatever it takes to fiercely support this movement – because S H E is making a difference. So bear with me as I say again and again how much I believe in S H E.
Being in Togo feels like being on a giant swing that changes direction without notice. I find myself in constant movement between the most inspiring moments and meaningful conversations only to be quickly flung into the harsh realities girls and women face on a daily basis. It’s tough to communicate a lot of the realities I observe because maintaining the dignity and value of our students is our greatest concern. Because trust me, amazing does not even begin to describe these young women.
But I also know it’s part of my job to share what we’re learning about the realities of girls and women in Togo with you. We serve a diverse group of students. We have girls from neighboring countries, different religious backgrounds and different tribal affiliations. For many of our students and their families, finances are the biggest barrier to education. Our parents want nothing but the best for their daughters so they come regularly to recommend their daughters, to involve themselves in their future plans, and to learn how they can keep supporting their daughters.
But for some of our students, and all-too-many girls in our village, they don’t have the support of their family or they have been orphaned from a young age and have little influence over their own life path. One special student of ours is especially close to my heart. For me, Sekka’s story shows how much girls in Togo need more than school supplies each year – they need a supportive and safe space to explore their potential and be reminded of their value.
Sekka* is one of the ambassadors of our program. She received the sisterhood award at last year’s graduation ceremony after she walked several kilometers in the night to ask Madam Manou to help a friend of hers who had been shunned from her community after surviving a sexual assault. She’s gone above and beyond for other girls in our program throughout her time as an ambassador, but after learning she had missed a large number of meetings over the last month, we reached out to her.
This year, Sekka came to S H E for more help regarding her own home life. Though our students all come from extremely low-income households, Sekka is one of our students facing more barriers at home. Her father does not support her desire to go to school. If he finds her doing homework, he’ll send her to the farm to work. He regularly pulls his children out of school to send them to the farm, and they know that if they disobey him and go to school they will not be allowed to return home.
Because of this, she has missed several meetings over the last month, but she still managed to pass her classes and the national exam at school (an amazing accomplishment for someone not facing barriers at home).
Madam Manou, our program director, has negotiated with Sekka’s father to allow her to attend some of our meetings, but she knows that by choosing to continue going to school she’s placing herself at greater risk of being pushed out of her home. When I asked our program directors what her housing options are, Madam Manou explained that if she finds herself homeless, there’s no guarantee that a local orphanage can take her in.
We spent our entire meeting with Sekka exploring her options going forward and reminding her that even if she’s not able to attend every meeting in the meantime, S H E is always thinking of her and she always has a safe space where she will be fully supported. She didn’t look up once, and I was worried we weren’t getting through to her.
It wasn’t until the next week when we hosted our graduation ceremony that I realized she heard us. I actually had to ask our program directors three times to make sure I was not mistaking her for someone else at the graduation ceremony. She looked like she was standing a foot taller and she did not stop smiling.
Yes, we’re still working on a long-term solution for Sekka. There’s no way we could ask her to endure all of this stress and pressure alone, but I tell this story for two reasons:
Girls in Togo are facing an uphill battle every day to receive something they should never be denied. And this is just one example of the daily struggle many girls in Togo endure to receive a basic education.
Every girl in the S H E program is heard, and her story is known and cared for. Our team does so much more than give girls in Togo the materials they need to go to school. We give the support they need to understand that they are valuable and important in a society that tries to tell them the opposite.
So here is just one of a million reasons why S H E matters, because she matters, Sekka and every girl in our program have a story and a future that matters.
*Sekka’s name has been changed to respect her privacy.