Girls for the World: Empowering Indigenous Girls in the Peruvian Amazon

¨I am somebody. You are somebody. We are somebody.¨

Perhaps at first the above quote doesn’t seem very profound. But, when 15 Shipibo teenage girls chant this phrase together in a circle, girls who all of their lives have been discriminated against for being indigenous, for being women, and for not having economic resources, it becomes quite powerful. I was lucky enough to be a part of that circle and to be able to watch over 5 days each of those 15 girls go through a beautiful transformation.

The program, Girls for the World, is the brainchild of Karen Hanson, executive director of the US based non-profit, Girls for the World. She normally holds these workshops that focus on empowerment, self-esteem and leadership with young girls in India and in the United States, but thanks to the support of our partner Mershona Parshall at Shipibo Joi, we were lucky enough to have her in Peru this year. The workshop is a 5 day sacred ceremony that in a very simple, yet effective way, teaches girls that they have a voice, that they are somebody, and that they are leaders.

Mural Painting

On the first day, the girls were quiet. They made little eye contact, and blushed when they were asked to speak. On this day, we discussed the role of circles (family, community, school, city, etc) and how our circles influence us and send us messages that don´t necessarily fit us. Karen passed out large, clown sunglasses to each girl to symbolize messages from our circles that don´t fit us. As the girls talked about going to the city of Pucallpa and being called dirty for being indigenous, they had to wear these sunglasses that were hard to see through and hurt their heads. Then, Karen asked them to take off those glasses and see themselves through their own eyes. She taught that the messages we receive about ourselves often are through the lenses of others and about the importance of really paying attention to whether or not the messages we receive fit us as we look at ourselves with the clarity of our own vision. She talked about the necessity to create a circle that provides messages of solidarity, support and love.

On the second day, we all had to share one of our special talents. We went in a circle sharing our talents or gifts and after each girl shared, we had to repeat her talent and all of the talents before. Many of the talents were helping my mother or doing my chores, but we found a way to make each girls´ gift unique and special. They then painted their gifts on a large mural, which became their Girls for the World Mural, a symbol of all of their special talents combined in one united, sacred circle. Throughout the week, we used painting, drawing, bracelet-making, hoola hooping, yoga, and other activities to enforce the ideas that they have a voice, that they are leaders, and that they are somebody.

Our nutritionist, Mariana Orta, came on Wednesday and gave the girls a dynamic presentation on healthy eating. She explained the differences between proteins, carbohydrates, vegetables/fruits, and fats in a simple, easy to follow way. Each girl took turns naming a food and identifying in what category it belonged, and how much of each they should eat. They also learned that they should drink 8 glasses of water a day. This completely shocked them, as many of them drink less than one glass of water a day.

We then talked about health, self care, and hygiene. We were lucky also to be joined by one of the Shipibo mothers who is a nurse and midwife who was able to talk with them in their native language about their sexual health. We then practiced a very powerful exercise, Yes/No. Each of us had a partner, and facing each other quite closely, one partner repeated yes and the other repeated no in various intonations and volumes.

We soon saw that while they were saying No, the girls were not looking at their partner in the eye, but rather over their shoulder or on the floor. We then redid the exercise making sure we were looking our partners in the eye when we said NO. The girls realized that by making eye contact, they felt much more powerful in their resolve to say no.

Each evening when the workshop ended for the day, Karen, Mershona, Mabel and I would leave the maloka to sleep in a neighboring house to allow the girls time together to have a sleepover and bond. Our sleep was flooded with giggles and shrieks, and each morning we would get a report about the Tunche (an evil spirit believed to lurk in the Amazon jungle).


On Thursday, we did an acting exercise in which the girls had to practice different emotions and act out a scene using those emotions. This was when I first truly realized the great change that had taken place in these girls. Had we asked them to do this activity on Monday, they would have turned red and fled the maloka, but on that day they were beautiful little actresses filled with emotion and confidence.

That night, the last night, we stayed with the girls in the maloka until late, having a dance party. First they showed us typical Shipibo dances, and then we showed them how to dance to Abba´s Dancing Queen. Then the party broke out with local cumbia and salsa. Who would have thought that those quiet, timid girls I met on Monday could break it down better than me on the dance floor?

SmilingAfter the dance party, Karen, Mershona, Mabel and I stayed up late pasting mirrors onto the picture frames that the girls had created with Popsicle sticks and paint. On the last day, the girls were given their certificates and those mirrors, and as they gazed at themselves in their new mirrors, Karen told each one of them, ¨We want you to see what we see, a beautiful, strong young woman.¨ That last day was when all of the girls chanted together loudly and proudly the above phrase, ¨I am Sombebody. You are somebody. We are somebody,¨ in a united, empowered circle.

It was an honor to be a part of that circle, and have the chance to get to know those 15 beautiful young women. Alianza Arkana will now begin to work with these girls once a month doing workshops and classes on topics that the girls identify as important to them. We will welcome Karen and Mershona again in July to expand the Girls for the World circle to another community and to do follow-up with the girls from this workshop.

Deborah Rivett, Friday, 08 March 2013