December 2, 2011 — Caroline Berinyuy, a doctoral student in the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education studying girls' education, has seen the trials and tribulations that young adolescent girls experience both in her native Cameroon and in the United States.
After seeing how the U.Va.'s Young Women Leaders Program helped young girls maintain confidence throughout their preteen and teenage years, she decided to establish a branch back home.
YWLP is an after-school mentoring program for girls, founded at U.Va. in 1997 and sponsored by the Curry School and the U.Va. Women's Center. The program, which matches middle- and high-school girls with college women to help the younger girls with issues of self-esteem, academics and leadership, is now an international effort with several branches from California to Florida and a sister site in Mozambique. Over the past 15 years, more than 1,000 young girls have participated in the program and more than 1,000 women mentors have been trained.
Berinyuy brought YWLP to Cameroon to address the problems girls there are confronted with, such as early marriages, poor familial relationships and a lack of guidance about puberty.
Berinyuy came to U.Va. after working as a teacher in Cameroon for 25 years. "I went through the cycle of witnessing all the issues the girls were facing," she said, "and no one was talking."
She left her home country for the U.S. because she felt as if she had lost her place in the Cameroonian educational system as a teacher. "I thought I could contribute more by becoming a researcher." And, through the YWLP program in Cameroon, she has.
As a teacher in Cameroon, Berinyuy saw female students cope with family pressure to forego education in favor of marriage. Few had anyone to talk with about the physical changes they were experiencing.
Berinyuy wanted to fill that void. First, she tried setting up a forum to allow the high school girls to talk to their teachers. But the girls did not open up to them; they viewed their teachers as they viewed their mothers, who in Cameroon play a lesser role in their children's lives.
YWLP offered a new tack. Instead of the girls talking to adult figures, they instead felt more comfortable speaking to college students not much older than themselves, Berinyuy said.
She first became involved with YWLP as part of her qualitative research class at Curry, where she observed a group from Burley Middle School. Berinyuy was convinced of the program's impact when the school and girls asked for YWLP to continue year after year, and thought it could also be effective in Cameroon.
In 2009, she received start-up funding from the Doris Buffett Fellowship Program, a U.Va. program that supports to U.Va. graduate students in applying their research to help families and children.
YWLP in Cameroon was initiated in Dschang, where Berinyuy led a workshop to assess what types of problems the Cameroonian girls face, what might be done to help them and whether or not the YWLP structure could work. She concluded that YWLP's principles and schedule would work in Cameroon; however, the issues and problems addressed were different than in the U.S.
"I tend to think that younger girls in the U.S., especially in middle school, take a lot of things for granted," she said. "Just being in school in Cameroon is not taken for granted.
"Girls in the U.S. have a lot more freedom and a lot more security, a lot more material comfort and a lot more confidence than the girls in Cameroon," Berinyuy said.
Today, the YWLP program in Cameroon operates in three different towns – Dschang, a University town with a bilingual French and English program; Kumbo; and Burca.
Berinyuy said the YWLP concept has proved most significant for the Islamic school in Kumbo. There, girls were starting to question things both physically and culturally in their world, but lacked the forum to express or ask these questions.
The girls questioned traditional Islamic gender roles, such as the belief that only men should drive, and wondered why the Islamic moral education seemed to be aimed more toward females than males. None of these questions could be addressed through their current education. "YWLP gave them structure to say things they could not say otherwise," Berinyuy said.
Before YWLP, men would loiter outside the Islamic school looking for potential wives. The school teamed with YWLP to create a verbal agreement with the girls' parents that they wouldn't send the men until the girls got older. This helped achieve one of YWLP's main missions in Cameroon – to delay girls' marriage in favor of more education.
Berinyuy said that the girls' parents are beginning to adopt many of YWLP's core beliefs. She recalled a father who was pressured by his community to remove his daughters from school, but refused to give in. He told the YWLP team that he plans to keep his daughters in school, despite what his community might think.
YWLP in Cameeroon's greatest challenge at the moment is technological. Leaders are determined that each girl will be able to use a computer, but the schools have a very limited number for the girls to use. Currently, the Cameroonian girls are writing emails to YWLP pen pals in the U.S.; for some, sending this one email may be their only chance to use a computer.
"We are excited about the global connection and cultural exchange possibilities between the groups of girls in Cameroon and our local girls and women," said YWLP director Edith "Winx" Lawrence, a professor of clinical and school psychology at Curry. "They have much to learn from each other."
A YWLP "Fall Finale" will take place at U.Va. on Dec. 3, from 3 to 4 p.m. The event will honor the YWLP program in Cameroon by sharing a video and song from the Cameroonian girls with Charlottesville-area participants. Local eighth-grade YWLP girls will recognize the program's 15th anniversary.