Friday 18 October 2019

'Being a mother makes you a lot more empathetic towards other mothers and children' - Marissa Carter on a life-changing trip to Guinea-Bissau

Marissa Carter and Alla in Guinea Bissau. Photo: Instagram
Marissa Carter and Alla in Guinea Bissau. Photo: Instagram

Marissa Carter

I don’t think you can prepare yourself really for seeing poverty of this scale.

If you’re born a girl in a developing country, you’re more likely to be married off as a child, to not go to school, to live in poverty, to suffer violence or abuse simply because you’re a girl.

I consider myself to be a feminist and I’m a mum as well.

One of the most shocking things on my recent visit to Guinea Bissau was hearing a father tell me that his 14-year-old daughter was married off to a 30-year-old man.

There’s no running water and no electricity in homes outside the capital. We visited one village with 6,000 people. There was one well to serve the entire village. That water is to be used for everything from cleaning to cooking to consuming.

We met with a number of families. One family explained how the households are run. For young girls, it’s not safe for them to travel to go to secondary school. The school could be miles and miles away. If families want to send their girl to school she has to leave home and live beside the school. From a safety point of view, it’s just not safe.

A really shocking thing I couldn’t wrap my head around was that quite a number of the secondary school teachers are males, and male teachers raping their students is a big problem. You read these things but to hear it anecdotally that this is a problem was shocking.

We visited a school that Plan International had built and were working with and there were over one thousand students attending this secondary school. Just over 50pc of the secondary school students were girls. This gave me so much heart to see that it could be done - that a girl could go to school and feel safe.

There was a very good ratio of male/female teachers too. Plan are providing teacher training in this school and also providing a youth group facility, which gives students a voice in their education and the opportunity to give their suggestions in how the school should be run.

It was incredible to sit with the youth group and listen to what was important to them and hear the young girls say they had ambitions of going to college. The ‘prime minister’ of the group said she wanted to be a nurse. It was incredible to see the difference that Plan are making in this school.

In that same village we visited the governor of the town and we sat down and spoke to him and it was wonderful to hear how important he thought that Plan was to the community and that gender equality was a priority for him as well.

One additional year of school for a young girl equates to a 20pc increase in income in later life for that girl. That was fantastic to hear.

We also visited a village where Plan had built a kindergarten. We met the head teacher who had been trained by Plan and who had five teachers under her who had been trained too. They had 90 kindergarteners in the school and there was a good mix of boys and girls. There was one teacher per 15 students and they were singing songs, playing games… it was incredible.

It was also hard to get my head around polygamy. In most of the villages we visited, the men had a number of wives. That was a little bit shocking.

It was a culture shock.

Plan also have a Village Saving and Loan Associations (VSLA) scheme. We visited a village where the scheme, which is almost like a credit union, was implemented. The women have to get their husband’s permission to join, but the access to finance for these women – it’s impossible for them to get a loan from a bank - it gives them so much opportunity.

I met a lady called Sona who was in her early 30s and worked three jobs. She’s a kindergarten teacher, has her own crops on a small piece of land and also runs her own shop from her house. She’s using the VSLA to borrow money to bulk-buy stock for her shop so she can get a discount.

I sat down with Sona after the group discussion and I asked her what was the best part about running her own business, and she said it meant that she never had to ask her husband for money. That was so powerful. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that conversation. The independence and the freedom and the empowerment that the VSLA gave Sona is incredible. It’s life-changing.

I asked her if she had a role model, another woman that she looked up to or inspired her. She told me that when she moved from the city to that village and married her husband, there was another older lady in the village who owned her own shop, who took Sona in and showed her how to run a business.

Sona has two daughters and one son, and I asked her if she considers herself to be a role model. She got really embarrassed because she was so humble, and shyly admitted that she hopes that she will inspire young girls who want to run their own business.  It was wonderful to hear that she sees herself as a role model. I do think it’s important that little girls have women they can look up to and see what’s possible. Plan International is helping create role models in the community.

Some people are using the VSLA for consumption, if they got sick, to pay for medication, but most are using it for business. That was just incredible.

I don’t think I was prepared for just how sick the people that I would meet would be, and their families. We sat down in one village with the chief of the village, who I’d imagine is the most prosperous. I asked him if anyone in his family had malaria or cholera at the moment and he said that there’s always two or three people in his family that have malaria or cholera at any one time. 

The average life expectancy in Guinea Bissau is 55 years of age. I can’t imagine my life expectancy being so low that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy my grandchildren. When you become a mother it makes you a lot more emphatic towards other mothers and children.

I met one of the head kindergarten teachers, Alla. I also met her mother and her husband’s other wife and her children and Alla’s children. I met her little boy, who was around the same age as my little girl. She also had a little baby girl.

Her mum told me how proud she was of Alla being a teacher in her community and I found it very emotional. What struck me was that regardless of who we are or where we are in the world, human emotions are the same.

We feel the same hunger, pride and humility. We feel the same things. We all want the same things for our children.

Alla wants her child to be safe, warm, fed and to have opportunities.  Alla’s mum was so proud of her and what she had achieved and Alla wanted the same opportunities for her children, which is why she’s working and teaching young children.

Over 5,000 people in Ireland sponsor people around the world through Plan International. Almost 2,000 children in Guinea Bissau are being sponsored by people in Ireland.

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