Tuesday, July 17, 2012

It starts with the drummer

Posted by Tessie San Martin - Plan International USA CEO/President

Some weeks ago I blogged about a conference I had attended where there were several current and former female heads of state, including Joyce Banda (President of Malawi), Atifete Jahjaga (President of Kosovo), Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (newly re-elected President of Liberia), Helen Clark (former Prime Minister of New Zealand and today Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP) and Mary Robinson (former President of Ireland). A remarkable collection of female leadership. Though much remains to be done in terms of women's rights, it is useful to remind ourselves how much has been accomplished and the initiatives and activities that have enabled these changes.

My recent trip to Ecuador is both a reminder of what remains on the "to-do" list in terms of girls' empowerment, and an illustration of modest actions Plan instigates that can and do enable big changes further on. Despite that country's growing prosperity, gender-based violence continues to grow as a major problem. And discrimination against women, including girls, is more the norm than the exception, despite a relatively new constitution that enshrines equal rights.

Maria keeps the rhythm in the band Migas.
Violence against women and girls, and discrimination, is very difficult to address. It emerges from deeply held social, cultural and religious norms and beliefs.  Changing discriminatory and violent behavior against women and girls requires dialogue between children, parents, teachers, administrators, police, judges, and the vast web of stakeholders that help determine and reinforce attitudes and behaviors about what is acceptable. It means getting each of these stakeholders to see themselves, and the others, differently. It requires women and girls to see themselves as strong and empowered, rather than weak and invisible. It requires that parents see the potential in all their children, not just their sons. It also requires nurturing environments (at home, at school, in the community) that provide not just the access to new opportunities, but the encouragement needed to allow each of these stakeholders to take risks and dare to think and do differently. It also requires role models.

And this is where Maria* comes in. She is one of several drummers in the rock band Migas, in Nueva Prosperina (a squatter settlement of Guayaquil where Plan has been working for several years. Migas ( which means "crumbs" in Spanish) is born from a number of after school activities sponsored by the Nueva Prosperina community and Plan Ecuador. The activities are designed to keep teens out of drugs and street gang violence. It is also designed to build self-confidence and self-esteem in teens who have, in too many cases, grown up being told how much of a problem they are. Many of the band members are former gang members, drug addicts or dealers. In Migas, they have found both a passion and a nurturing community.  Each of the youth questioned talks about his or her love for music, and their joy in the discovery of their talent. The band gives them an opportunity to express themselves in ways they thought would never be possible, and to forge friendship and trust bonds that they thought were beyond their reach. They feel special, welcomed, and energized.

This is the community that has given Maria a new perspective on what is possible with her life. She is a rock drummer. Few girls, certainly in Ecuador, but generally anywhere in the world, are drummers in a rock band. I watch Maria play and she is brimming with self-confidence. And why not? She is excellent and in her attitude and self-confidence reminds me of Gina Schock in the Go-Go's (yes, I am dating myself!). It is a joy to watch her at the drums, leading the tempo.

Will playing the drums be all that transforms Maria and her peers? Obviously not.  But it helps start a new narrative for her, her peers, her family, her teachers.  Many of Plan's programs, in Ecuador and elsewhere, seek to help women and girls break out from cultural and social straightjackets that would otherwise rob them, their communities and their countries from their talent, their energy, their imagination and innovation. What Plan does expands well beyond supporting cultural and musical activities such as Migas. But there is no question that even these relatively small initiatives, can have big pay-offs.

This is how we get women presidents, prime ministers and chief executives.

*Names have been changed

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