Sex education is kind of important… okay, it’s really important, especially in places with a high rate of STI’s and teenage pregnancy. As a Peace Corps Volunteer working in education or health, I’d say there is a high probability that you might end up doing some kind of work with sex ed. In conservative cultures (even in parts of the U.S.) this can be pretty tricky. I once tried to launch an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign. One of our drives was to get the local police to deliver condoms from the clinic several kilometers away to the taverns and shops around the village. I’d gotten most of the stakeholders on board and went to the main village meeting to announce the campaign. Little did I know, I was stepping on a land mine. “What’s this about condoms?” was the first question I got, and a 2 hour heated debate ensued. To my pleasant surprise, I didn’t have to say much as other young adults in the community stepped up to defend condoms and sex education. One of my favorite gems:

“We shouldn’t be teaching children how to have sex!”

“Umm…They don’t seem to have much trouble figuring it out…So why not have them understand the consequences and what choices are available to them?”

Unfortunately, that campaign didn’t get too far, but I did use the platforms available to me to try and have real conversations with the high school kids I worked with. During school holidays, I often held youth camps, focusing on skills and sports. When I got a chance to work with older kids, I’d try to have at least one day devoted to life skills and HIV/AIDS awareness. In general, I felt things went pretty well during these sections of mixed genders. During the last camp I held, I was presented with a new challenge.

A student works on a poster about ways to protect yourself from HIV at one of my youth camps

I was putting on a week long camp that revolved around life skills and using the new community library as a resource. My friend Nick, a PCV from Ecuador, was visiting and had plenty of experience with youth development. We had great materials and activities and were psyched for a great week. Morning sessions were for younger kids while afternoon sessions focused on the high school kids. Our first morning session was a blast, with over 30 excited boys and girls. In the afternoon, we had ten girls show up. I’d always had more guys than girls show up among the older crowd, but many of the guys were away at the traditional initiation schools. When 14 girls showed up the next day, I began to get concerned. We had a day devoted to HIV/AIDS information and sex education towards the end of the week, and the elders would probably give me hell if two guys were talking to a bunch of teenage girls about sex. Fortunately, I had a knight in shining armor come to my rescue, Peace Corps Volunteer extraordinaire, Erin Gannon.

Let me tell you about Erin. Hailing from the fair land of Ohio, she is a force unto herself. She lives her life thoughtfully and thoroughly. She is a truth speaker and was not afraid to speak up to Peace Corps staff or other officials when they were off the mark. Her first site was far from ideal. She was in a peri-urban setting with a high crime rate where she had to live daily with the threat of violence. To be clear, in South Africa, violent crime is extremely real. Sexual assault, rape, and murder in the urban and peri-urban areas are far too common. Being a PCV does not make you immune to these threats. But where a lot of other volunteers would have packed up and gone home, Erin stuck it out and even found ways to thrive in her school until Peace Corps realized the danger she was in and moved her to a new site. Having to relocate as a volunteer is no easy task. You have to rebuild your network, reintegrate, and restart everything. Once again, Erin stuck it out and flourished in her new setting. I was happy because her new site was much closer to mine and it was much easier to call on her assistance.

Needless to say, when she arrived after the second day of the camp, Nick and I were quite relieved. Erin was more than happy to take the lead on the discussion and did an incredible job. She got the girls to open up and be real. One of my favorite moments was when Erin was laying out alternatives to sex:

Erin: “You don’t even need a guy to make yourself feel good. Who here knows what masturbation is?”

Girl in the back: (raises an eyebrow and puts up a finger)

Erin: “Yes, exactly.”

Erin to the rescue!

Later that night, we discussed some of the real limitations to cross-gender empowerment. Are there certain topics that just cannot be effectively broached? To what extent does the leadership of feminism need to be female? These are issues that I’m still not sure about. I definitely know I would not have been able to get away with discussing alternatives to sex with a bunch of teenage girls, neither in rural South Africa or back home in the U.S.

So here’s my question to you the readers: drawing on your own experiences in the U.S. or abroad, what are the limits of cross-gender empowerment?

PS: One final shout out to Erin. In the last few months of our service, as most of us were thinking of home, Erin decided to go even further, and signed up to do an extension-transfer to serve an additional year in China. The Peace Corps has been ridiculously fortunate to have her service for the past three years. Also, Happy Birthday Erin!