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When Adna Arnaout traveled roughly 5,888 miles from Zenica, Bosnia to meet her roommate Claire Watts – who traveled about a fifth of that distance from her home in Whitefish, Montana – neither of them expected that their St. John’s College cohabitation would lead to the creation of a powerful and perhaps world-changing project.
Both young women, who just finished their freshman year at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, teamed up with their friend Lily Weissgold to establish the Supergirls of Zimbabwe project. It aims to educate young Zimbabwean women about their reproductive rights, and facilitate a safe environment for conversations about reproductive health, human rights, and the social effects of gender inequality.
The Birth of the Project
Both Arnaout and Watts had an interest in gender and feminism prior to any thoughts about putting their feelings into action. St. John’s College, a private liberal arts institution that uses a Great Books program to instruct students and give them tools for more precise critical thinking, facilitates active discussion about global issues because of its discussion-based curriculum.
Arnaout, in an interview with RYSE, sited their educational experience at St. John’s College as a strong motivating factor, “What St. John’s College has given us in terms of perspective towards moral and ethical virtues is irreplaceable, and it has also exposed us to the power of conversation and ideas mattering in a community. Projects for Peace introduced an opportunity to practically apply some things that always mattered to me: gender, sex positivity and reproductive health into a project that motivates me personally.”
Arnaout became interested in gender activism through her experiences in LGBTQ+ Council of Europe workshops, and trainings she attended on feminist and queer activism, hosted by the Planet Design Inc. organization.
Being students at St. John’s offered the young women diversity they had never known. Arnaout expressed her conversations with a classmate from Zimbabwe really prompted the pair into action,
The Hard Facts
“Zimbabwe has the fifth highest rate of HIV/AIDS prevalence in sub-Saharan Africa at 15%. Only half of young Zimbabweans have comprehensive knowledge about HIV/AIDS. A shocking 22% of women report that their first sexual encounter happened against their will (2014 UNAIDS Gap Report). Though the Zimbabwean government has attempted to address this problem by implementing overarching sexual education classes, they fail because they do not promote a shift in the country’s prevailing sexual paradigm.
“In Zimbabwe, sex is heavily stigmatized. The Projects for Peace grant challenges it’s applicant’s to “bring about a mindset of preparing for peace.” We believe in the power of peer-to-peer discussion to bring about this mindset and create a community that is able to advocate for sexual health and reproductive health rights.
What it’s All About
The pair and their team will set off for Zimbabwe from August 5th to August 20th to host two week-long training workshops. The workshops will take place between the cities of Bulawayo and Harare. They are geared toward local women in the 16-20 age range. The workshops aim to provide these young women with basic reproductive health education; promote both the acceptance and understanding of sexuality and safe sex; and, perhaps most importantly, give the women who attend the skills required to have safe community conversations about sex.
Watts went on to describe the workshops further: “We’ll kick off the workshops with a clear message of acceptance by giving participants care packages of donated contraception and menstrual health products. Next we will lead interactive lessons on the topics of sexual health and sexual health advocacy. We will host exciting guest speakers–local leaders in the fields of reproductive rights and sexual health. And most importantly, we will lead peer-to-peer conversations which will give the Supergirls the opportunity to think about sexual health in terms of their own lives and their own communities.”
Watts and Arnaout hope to give the Supergirls the skills and tools to start similar initiatives themselves. After the workshops, Arnaout said the participants will “return to their communities with confidence—to engage in community dialogue, spearhead sexual health initiatives, and enact lasting change.”
Davis Projects for Peace
Having a strong sense of passion about their project is not the only thing that helped these young women get their project off the ground. As Watts shared, “The project became feasible once we received a $10,000 Projects for Peace grant from the Davis foundation. This grant kick started our project and there’s no way we could do it if we hadn’t been selected for the grant award.
Soon afterwards, we started connecting our project with Sally Dura who runs “Sally Women’s Institute” in Zimbabwe. She has been invaluable in helping us plan logistics and connecting us to participants, guest speakers, and local women who want to help.” The duo was also fortunate to receive a donation of one thousand condoms. The team plans to create care packages for their participants. That effort will be aided by an agreement with an Etsy seller who has donated handmade condom carrying cases.
A Few Bumps along the Way
The project has been slightly difficult due to the different geographical locations of the team members. Weissgold was in Thailand while Watts and Arnaout were in Santa Fe as they planned their project out. Now, Weissgold is in Vermont, Arnaout in her home in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Watts is in Montana. Thank goodness for internet technology! Arnaout confessed that “It took a while, but we finally settled into a routine of weekly skype sessions and it’s a lot easier to keep everybody up to speed now.”
Neither Watts nor Weissgold or Arnaout has ever taken on such a huge endeavor as S.O.Z. Their challenges weren’t made any easier by the difficulties of their first year at college. Watts expressed a depth of gratitude to her father, stating that he’s “been very helpful in creating a task map and helping us break down this huge project into manageable pieces. We have all been able to define our goal from the beginning which was really important. It has been a huge, special learning curve and now we all have a greater understanding of the work that goes into these projects.”
The girls have also been fortunate to receive help from companies like Lunapads. After purchasing thirty reusable pad starter kits, they received seven free! On their Facebook page it says, “Periods are important. These kits will help Supergirls be in charge of their menstrual hygiene management.”
Women on the RYSE
Watts feels certain that the learning curve they started on will continue. The benefits will be reaped both by the Zimbabwean women involved and for the S.O.Z team. As Arnaout enthusiastically expressed, “It’s almost like magic when you actually get a chance to put your heart into something you firmly believe in. Reproductive health and sexual health rights, along with having a safe environment to talk about sexuality and feminine healthcare is something every woman and girl in the world deserves.
“The thought of making even a minute impact in the global scope of things is mind-boggling. Activism makes my heart beat faster!”
Without a doubt, these young women are inspiring exemplars. They embodythe fruits of hard labor and dedication to a worthy cause. Though they are still grateful for financial donations, they are just as appreciative of social media sharing. They also appreciate thoughtful messages from like-minded individuals. Besides their blog, the Supergirls of Zimbabwe team can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.