Mogadore native, St. V-M grad inspires gender equality in Ethiopia

After a year on the ground in Africa, St. Vincent-St. Mary graduate Samantha Stacks was chosen by the Peace Corps to lead a five-day training seminar on gender development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

She was one of 25 volunteers tapped to lead the training in a country mired in the abuse of women’s rights.

A native of Mogadore, Stacks, 23, plans to spend a second year in Ethiopia before studying global health in graduate school. She intends to focus on gender inequality, “an issue I am hugely passionate about,” she said in a recent correspondence by email.

The Beacon Journal asked Stacks about her life and work in Debre Tabor, a city in northern Ethiopia, where she volunteers to train nurses, educates youth girls on health issues and inspires women to form and join girls clubs that meet weekly and have “become a safe-haven for” often-mistreated women.

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Q: What inspired you to work with the Peace Corps?

A: I first thought about joining the Peace Corps in high school, but didn’t seriously consider it until my final semesters of college. I was getting my nursing degree and had been working as a nursing assistant and completing my clinical hours. Though I loved the work, I couldn’t help but think that there were people who didn’t even have access to basic health care or the knowledge of how properly to take care of themselves. I wanted to help those who could not help themselves.

Q: Why Ethiopia, and why gender inequality?

A: I did not choose Ethiopia. Peace Corps asked me to serve there in the Community Health/HIV Prevention Sector. I accepted and left in February 2014. Once I got here, I went through a three-month intensive training [program on] language, cultural sensitivity and health. [In Debre Tabor], I sort of fell into gender work. I have found that children and teens are the most receptive to trainings, and so I ended up working a lot in the schools. Females are especially in need of support and encouragement, and so starting gender clubs and doing gender and development activities seemed a natural step.

Q: How has the experience touched your life?

A: This experience has definitely been life-changing. I’ve learned so much about Ethiopian culture as well as myself. Peace Corps volunteers say to come in with no expectations of what your service will be, and so that’s what I have tried to do. Work can sometimes be slow going and difficult to get started. The relationships I’ve formed here have made my service so meaningful. My best friends are a group of eight 13- to 17-year-old girls. Watching them grow over the past few months into confident leaders has definitely been the highlight of my experience. They attended a Peace Corps-run Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) last August and have since started their own gender club and become mentors to others in the community. Helping them, and directing my own Camp GLOW in Debre Tabor for 30 girls, is my attempt at reaching more girls in the community and ensuring their access to knowledge, life skills and friendships they desperately need.

Q: Gender inequality in America often is associated with pay gaps between men and women. What should Americans know about how gender inequality issues might differ for Ethiopian women?

A: Gender equality issues here are so different than in America. The gaps are much more pronounced and right in your face. Physical and sexual violence against women is unbelievably common. Many girls are subjected to female genital mutilation at the age of 5 for cultural “cleanliness” and to rid girls of sexual desire. They are raised as second-class citizens, always serving the men and doing all housework and child care. Many have to stay home from school when menstruating (which is considered unclean) because they cannot afford sanitary pads. Harassment is an everyday occurrence. And while child marriage is illegal, it still happens.

Q: How can people help?

A: They can always go to the Peace Corps website (www.peacecorps.gov) and … the grants page to donate to the amazing projects Peace Corps volunteers are doing worldwide. Also, just spreading the word about gender inequalities in the third world and that we still have a long way to go. Before I moved to Ethiopia, I had no idea some of the things women were facing; it has been so eye-opening.

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 ordlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.

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