May 16, 2012 — Caroline Berinyuy, a graduate student in the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education who will receive her Ph.D. Sunday, has spent a significant amount of her time in Charlottesville helping young girls in her home country of Cameroon.
Berinyuy saw the plight of young Cameroonian women as a 25-year teaching veteran there, and as a teacher of pedagogy for two years in the Peace Corps. According to Berinyuy, Cameroonian girls must struggle to overcome family pressures to marry at a young age, poor familial relations and a lack of female health education.
"I went through the cycle of witnessing all the issues the girls were facing," she said, "and no one was talking."
As a teacher, Berinyuy wanted to help her students with these issues, but the girls saw her as too much of a maternal figure – and girls in Cameroon rarely have open relationships with their mothers.
After coming to U.Va. and witnessing the success of the Young Women Leaders Program in Charlottesville, Berinyuy thought it could be duplicated in Cameroon. YWLP pairs middle-school girls with college-aged mentors to help the young girls cope with issues of self-esteem, academics and leadership.
Now an international program with branches from California to Florida to Mozambique, YWLP celebrated its 15th anniversary earlier this month. More than 1,000 young girls and 1,000 mentors have participated in the program.
Berinyuy believed Cameroonian girls would be more comfortable speaking about their problems with students less than 10 years older than with their teachers.
In 2009, Berinyuy received funding from the Doris Buffett Fellowship program, a U.Va. funding program for graduate students who want to apply their research to help families and children, to start YWLP in Cameroon. Three years later, the organization operates in three towns – Dschang, Kumbo and Burca.
The Kumbo program has been the most effective, Berinyuy said; there, YWLP helps girls in an Islamic school. Those students are pushing the boundaries of traditional Islamic and African gender roles. Until YWLP, the students lacked a way to discuss these issues. "YWLP gave them structure to say things they could not say otherwise," Berinyuy said.
Berinyuy explained that YWLP in Cameroon has changed the viewpoints of many Cameroonian parents. She told the story of a father who felt pressured by his community to take his daughters out of school to marry; because of the YWLP, the father decided to buck traditional Cameroonian ideology and keep his daughters enrolled.
Following graduation, Berinyuy will return to Cameroon to lead the YWLP in Africa for the next two years. After that, Berinyuy hopes one of the program's pioneer "big sisters," who is currently in school studying psychology, will take over the program so that Berinyuy will be able to explore different opportunities. Ultimately, she hopes to set up a research institute about social inquiry in sub-Saharan Africa.
Berinyuy said the relationships she has forged with professors and faculty at U.Va. have impacted her the most.
"U.Va. has been really good to me," she said. "I've grown beyond my wildest expectations both professionally and personally."
– by Lisa Littman