International Women’s Day is a day when the world acknowledges and reflects upon the social, economic, cultural and political achievements women have made throughout history. There is still work to be done, but we have made great progress in our nation and even within the Peace Corps.
In fact, more women than ever before have joined the Peace Corps. Over the past 50 years, the number of women in the Peace Corps has risen to an all-time high. Fifty years ago, 65% of Peace Corps Volunteers were men and only 35% were women. Today, 66% of Peace Corps Volunteers are women and 34% are men.
We have lots of smart, strong and ambitious women in CCRPCV and we would like to highlight a few of these women’s experiences and perspectives. Meet Kevina Casaletto (Belize 09-11), Shannon Gentry (Tonga 2007-09) and Judy Smith (Niger 10-11, Armenia 11-13).
Talk a little about your experience in the Peace Corps and where you served.
Shannon: I served as an education volunteer in Tonga, South Pacific. I co-taught English at my village’s primary school, oversaw a small library program and did other small side projects in health, environment and youth development.
Kevina: I served in Southern Belize as a Teacher Trainer. I worked in language comprehension in the village school and southern district schools, along with facilitating the completion and coordination of a village library.
Judy: I served in Niger with my husband when we were 68 and 71 years old. We evacuated to Armenia after 3 1/2 months due to terrorist activity. I was a community health volunteer, and as a retired RN from a long career in public health, this was perfect.
What were women’s roles in the country which you served?
Shannon: While women did their own businesses and had leadership roles in health and education. In the villages, most women weaved while men farmed. Women pushed village leaders (mostly males) for action on important issues and organized major events.
Kevina: At 6-years-old, girls helped wash and cook. Secondary education was unheard of for most girls 20 years ago. When I served 10 years ago, about half of the girls that graduated primary school (our grade eight) went to high school. Interestingly, women almost always oversaw the money.
Judy: Women often shared their husband with up to three other women, each living with their children in separate mud huts, close in proximity. Women’s days consisted of pounding millet to make mush cakes and porridge for their families.
Were there any challenges you faced in the country you served because you are a woman?
Shannon: Most people in my village worried about me living alone as a single woman. My neighbor, Lose, always checked on me and yelled at any guys who she thought loitered too close and too long around my house! I’m a very independent person, so not going out alone was an adjustment.
Kevina: It was difficult to work with village leaders without Greg. When the women from the village wanted to take leadership in the library, there was a meeting solely about how the librarian should be a male. Ironically, they’ve only had female librarians since it opened!
Judy: Obtaining water was a problem for me as a woman because I did not have the strength to pull a bucket of water from an 80-foot deep well and my husband could not help because this is considered women’s work in the country.
What do you think the future looks like for women in the Peace Corps?
Shannon: I think the Peace Corps administration is listening to current and RPCVs more than ever when it comes to providing appropriate support, especially to female volunteers.
Kevina: I think there is a desire to push boundaries, forge new paths and do hard things. I believe the future of women in the Peace Corps is women PCVs and host country women empowering each other and building each other up through education and opportunity.
Judy: There are currently more women than men volunteers, plus more and more country directors are women. With more women attending college than men and women taking leadership positions all over the world, women are ruling.
Contributed by Sarah Mass & Isabella Velazquez, UNCW