This story is part of World Pulse’s Girls Transform the World digital action campaign
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Women to Watch: 4 Girls’ Empowerment Champions
Q&A With Nadeen Spence
Nadeen Spence: I grew up in a small rural community called Kilmarnock in the south of Jamaica. When I became pregnant at age 17, I thought my world had come to an end. But it did not, and I am now a woman triumphant. I pride myself on being a social justice advocate who speaks for the most vulnerable girls and young women, someone who helps them to find their voice so that they can speak for themselves.
In 2010, I started the I’m Glad I’m a Girl Summer Camp. In Jamaica girls are vulnerable to rape, human trafficking, and physical abuse. They are initiated into sex at an early age, and are more vulnerable to contracting HIV/AIDS. Girls are invisible in our country, and our music and popular culture undermine their self-worth.
We expose the girls in our camp to empowerment and self-esteem building workshops. We educate them on their rights, and invite experts to make presentations about the reality of rape and gender-based violence in Jamaica. Because most of these girls reside in communities of conflict, we also take them through conflict resolution training. We want them to be committed to success and to have a plan for the future, so we have a career seminar where we invite organizations to come in and help them to begin to think through their options after graduating from high school.
I find that I am strengthened each time a young woman walks away from her situation in triumph.
How did you know this is what you wanted to do with your life?
Even before my emotionally difficult pregnancy, I felt embattled and unsafe as a teenager and a young girl.
Jamaica's secondary school system is stratified and reinforces class, color, and other barriers. Students who pass the Common Entrance Exams are given a space in one of Jamaica's prestigious colonial schools. I did not pass. At 12, making my way to the Black River Secondary School every day was like taking a walk of shame; the experience undermined my confidence and self-esteem severely. Every time I donned the uniform I knew I was second class, I knew I was not bright enough, I knew I did not make the cut.
Going to school also presented me with another challenge; girls were repeatedly preyed on by bus drivers and conductors. Sexual overtures and innuendos were common; a girl had to be strong and aggressive as we attempted to navigate travel to and from secondary school.
In 7th grade, when I started having my period, I discovered that menstruation was utterly painful for me, and I routinely had to be hospitalized. After a while my mother just kept me from school when I was having my period. I lived a half and half life; I stopped playing sports, even though I was a very good netball player. Doctors treated my condition with very little urgency, and I suffered in silence, with no one to talk to about how my life was shrinking around me.
We lived in a culture which did not trust a girl upon her entry to puberty. Somehow my body did not only betray me, it had betrayed all the people who liked me and thought I was cute and well-mannered up until my breasts started to grow.
When I reflect on my own life’s experiences I realize how much I needed an advocate, someone who could help me to understand the difficult times. I want girls to know that they have rights, that they are beautiful and good at every stage of life, that their body is beautiful and that puberty will bring with it exciting new feelings. That it will bring all kinds of attention, some unwanted, but that they will be empowered enough to make informed decisions. I want them to know that they are worthy of trust. I want mothers to know that they have it within them to help their daughter become happy women.
What successes have you witnessed?
At the start of the 2012 Camp I was very shocked to hear the girls say they were not ‘glad to be girls.’ When Rochelle came to the camp the first time at age 15, she was shy and lacked the confidence to engage in conversations. She barely spoke and seemed hesitant to be noticed.
By the end of the camp she was slowly emerging from the cocoon she had built around herself. Today, despite her challenging childhood, she is planning to go to university. A number of the girls report that they have taken up leadership positions at their schools. Even the camp counselors have been empowered by their experiences.
What advice do you have for young future women leaders?
I want them to be brave and bold, and to always speak for themselves. I want young women to be unafraid, to speak their truth and to be unrelenting in their commitment to their own empowerment. I want them to trust their inner voice and to lean in, and to be their own advocate if necessary.
Connect with Nadeen . . .