Grad brings women’s ed to Senegal

Marquez Sheree Ramirez, who graduated from Cal Poly in 2007, has been living a drastically different life as a Peace Corps member in Senegal.

Marquel Sheree Ramirez lives in a village of 300 people. She washes her clothes by hand and hangs them on a line to dry, bathes outside every night in a bucket bath and traveling to the closest paved road takes 45 minutes by horse cart. She is living a life drastically different from her American one, but it hasn’t phased her.
“The culture shock wasn’t so bad,” Ramirez said. “We were given a lot of training culture-wise by the Peace Corps to better understand Senegalese. When I go back (to the U.S.), it will be a culture shock. (I) don’t even know what I am going to do … it will be really weird.”

Ramirez, who graduated from Cal Poly in 2007 with a bachelors degree in modern languages and literature, is an environmental education volunteer for the Peace Corps in Senegal and the national coordinator for its program, Senegal Gender and Development (SeneGAD).

Founded in 1963, there are currently 230 volunteers working in agriculture, agro-forestry, health, environmental education, small enterprise development and ecotourism in these communities for SeneGAD, Ramirez said.

Ramirez, who has been in the country since March 2011, said she is working to educate and empower the Senegalese population about gender equality.

SeneGAD holds girls’ leadership training camps and health seminars, as well as early pregnancy and early marriage awareness days. They also hand out the Michele Sylvester Scholarship — named in memory of a Peace Corps volunteer who dedicated her life to educating Senegalese girls — to three middle-school-age Senegalese girls who show academic excellence, but are poor or from families that favor early marriages. The winners receive money to register for classes and school supplies.

One of the finalists this year was a village girl named Arame Loum.

Loum gave a face to the struggle that so many young Senegalese girls experience, Ramirez said. Loum’s dad died when she was young and she has been raised by her mom and a man she doesn’t consider her father. Her family is poor and she must work whenever she isn’t in school. Over the summer, she works to save up enough money to register for classes, a task most girls in the country must do.

“She is this energetic, positive girl and hearing her story and knowing she is so smart, but that the only thing holding her back is money really solidifies the fact that what I am doing is good and this girl is experiencing a life change,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez said she hopes Loum will be able to continue her education on to high school, a feat that is no guarantee for women in Senegal. It is difficult for them to afford an education and they are all required to do house work, which is a full time job in itself, according to Ramirez.

“This has helped me realize what people go through and the disparity between males and females and what people have to sacrifice here,” Ramirez said. “Women are given so many more responsibilities than men: They cook, clean, bathe and take care of kids on top of studying.”

Ramirez has seen a lot during her time in Senegal, but she said she was prepared for all of it due to the training she underwent before being officially named a Peace Corps volunteer.

She underwent two months of training on the Senegalese language and culture during her first two months in the country. After completing training, a huge swearing-in ceremony is held at the ambassador’s house where trainees wear traditional Senegalese clothing and are then given the privilege to travel alone and begin their mission.

Training is crucial, Ramirez said. When you look and speak differently, it is hard to get a community to listen to what you are saying, she said.

“You can’t plop into a school and expect everyone to trust you,” Ramirez said. “I go to the school often so everyone knows my face.”

Though integration is a difficult process, Ramirez said she realized the opportunity she has been given allows her to see the problems first hand and strive to solve them. An Italian organization donated an ambulance to a village, and another donated ducks — two things that these villages didn’t really have use for.

“You have to assess if this village really needs this,” Ramirez said. “Sometimes it is difficult for organizations to see village problems if they are located within a big city. We actually live in the village and we are part of the village community that speaks the village language.”

Though she spends much of her time immersed in the village life, as SeneGAD national coordinator Ramirez said she continues to organize four meetings held throughout the year where more than 200 volunteers working in Senegal get together to discuss updates in each region, share stories and compile information on what everyone is doing.

The environment education sector she belongs to works at schools and helps teach the kids to make a garden, tree nursery or teach about health-related issues like reproductive health, hygiene and malnutrition. They also encourage every other sector of volunteers to teach about the importance of gender and development.

“The teaching we do and action we take, and what we say about American culture and opening up their minds we can’t see it, but hopefully the message we are sending and forging will work,” Ramirez said. “Hopefully, they will keep that information and tell somebody else.”

Ramirez is working to educate women on a global level, but gender issues exist locally, too.

Cal Poly Gender Equity Center Coordinator Christina Kaviani said the center’s primary focus is on positive identity development.

During the year, they talk about stereotypes on masculinity and femininity, how to have healthy relationships and urge students to have a critical eye when watching how the media deals with gender issues. They also put on the “Vagina Monologues” and some proceeds go to building a community called the “City of Joy” in the Congo where doctors help women who have been raped to the point of bodily mutilations.

Kaviani said gender issues on the local and international level are not just a women’s issue, but a human issue and how groups go about educating different communities is crucial.

“(The Senegalese) are coming from such a different playing field, it is hard to offer a community advice,” Kaviani said. “How she goes about educating and opening people’s minds and eyes is a wonderful thing, but it is very important how she goes about it.”

Education should be held to the highest degree, because one can truly benefit from being educated on something, Kaviani said.

“Specifically, in more rural areas, awareness leads to changes and a lot of the time it leads to positive change,” Kaviani said. “I am glad someone is doing that work. For a student from Cal Poly to go and get their hands dirty — not literally — and go into the trenches and see what it is like shows a lot of her character and what she can do.”

Assistant professor of philosophy and women’s and gender studies Rachel Fernflores said what Ramirez is doing is absolutely crucial and is sure her training has provided her with the best plans to make positive change.

“She knows how to go to a different culture and ask them what they need and what would make things better and in a gender-specific way,” Fernflores said. “I don’t think she would have challenges she couldn’t overcome.”

Donating money or necessary goods has immediate gratifications and visible results, but in terms of volunteering and teaching, it is a waiting game that is life, Fernflores said.

“Pretty much any project worth taking on, that’s how it goes,” Fernflores said. “All you can do is make sure you are making decisions and choices you are willing to accept responsibility for and that you really did put your best effort into it, and I’m sure she is.”

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