On March 1st, 32 RISE Gambia students boarded buses from Kotu and St. Theresa’s schools bound for the Peace Corps the Gambia office. While many students snapped selfies in the leather seats and enjoyed the air-conditioning, others jotted down questions they wanted to ask the American Peace Corps volunteers hosting the event.

When Ascend staff and students first heard about the women’s day event, their first thought was that it would focus on the challenges: early marriage, female genital mutilation, etc. But Haddy Sowe and the Peace Corps volunteers had something else in mind: let’s focus on the successes.

Peace Corps volunteers led sessions focusing on famous women in African history who have led armies and mobilized activist movements. Women who have held power as Queens and more recently as Presidents and high-ranking military officials. Students were given a tour of Africa’s heroines from the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, to Wangari Maathai, the renowned Kenyan environmental activist and Africa’s first female Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Not to be forgotten was Gambia’s own Fatou Bensouda, the Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, and one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for her role as “a leading voice pressing governments to support the quest for justice.” The message to the young students: gender is only as much a barrier as you allow it to be.

After the morning presentations, Ascend students split into groups of three and rotated between 10 Peace Corps volunteers who each led different small-group discussions. Some were light-hearted - celebrating the importance of laundry-folding skills; while others addressed the cultural challenges that face young people in The Gambia. But all the sessions succeeded in being an opportunity for young women and men from the United States and The Gambia to discuss gender issues in their respective cultures and to learn about gender in the other’s culture.

Bintu Dambally, a grade nine student from St. Theresa’s Upper Basic School, said her favorite part of the event was hearing about the role of African women throughout history. Isatou M. Jallow, a grade 10 student from Kotu, and an emerging gender activist, said she enjoyed hearing about the progress in gender equality in America. And Binta Janneh, also a grade 10 student from Kotu, said she liked seeing the changes in women’s fashion in Africa over time.

We thank Peace Corps The Gambia and their volunteers for bringing their energy and expertise to our students. Each new piece of knowledge these students gain brings them one step closer to realizing their potential as outstanding citizens and leaders of the future.