GDST girls around the world- Talya Sher

Talya Sher (South Hampstead)- The Oakley Award

“I spent the month of July Volunteering in Quepos, Costa Rica. I arrived in San Jose to be greeted by the typical weather of any tropical country in July, an unrelenting down pour of rain. However, the lush greenery and deep valley that cover Costa Rica more than made up for it.

Quepos is a small costal town 15 minutes from Manuel Antonio, a built-up tourist town known for its beautiful beaches and great surf. I was working in an illegal settlement just off the edge of Quepos called Cocal. The high flood risk meant that Cocal was deemed an unsafe place to live and it was illegal to build properties and live there. However, this largely immigrant community, from Honduras and Nicuagura, had created a home here.

In Quepos/ Cocal I was working on a women’s empowerment program. When I arrived, the program was in early development stages which was great as I got to be a part of the initial set up and implication of this project. I was looking at the problems facing the community and how they could be improved. Surveys had been conducted by previous volunteers to see what the locals felt Cocal needed in order to improve. The main thing where safety and infullstructure, as the main road was dirt and would often get flooded when it rained. We conducted a workshop getting the women and men of the community to see what they needed in order to achieve their aims for a better community. For example, in order to get a road built they needed to work together and listen to each other, instead of bickering. We therefore had a focus on team building and team work as the people in Cocal are similar to those in London, most don’t know their neighbours and many believe their opinions are too different to ever see eye to eye.

In Cocal there are a lot of children and women, but very few men. They tend to work as fishermen but become drug addicts and drunks. As a result the older women tend to have a few kids by them but be in relationships with younger men. While information about STI and birth control is available stigma around being seen as a prostitute means women do not go and buy them (or get if for free form the clinic), as they believe they will be shamed, and men don’t want to wear condoms. As a result there is a high level of HIV and Chylamidia in Cocal. I wanted to combat this through workshops that educated young people especially about birth control and  STI in a way that empowered women to require the guy to wear one and also put them in control. I implemented bonding sessions as part of the workshops to build up trust and support between the women of Cocal.

The other workshop I worked on was providing information on careers and jobs. A lot of girls have little self-belief and don’t think they have the skills to persue any career. There are a few successful women in the community, including Enyeda who made the food for GVI volunteers at her house everyday, but they were the exception.  These workshops included getting the young women and men to think practically about the future and be provided with real information and steps on how to get a certain job. A lot of them would say they wanted to be a mechanic, but have no idea how to achieve that. I also looked at how to improve the self confidence in the young girls attending GVI’s childcare project. The girls were often much quieter than the boys, more studious and attentive, but got shouted down by the boys. I wrote a list of suggestions for GVI volunteers on how to subtly instil a sense of worth in the girls and not make they feel shut down by the loud boys. This included calling on them more often and praising them in a way that encouraged them to participate more.

This experience gave me so much. It was one of the hardest but best things I have ever done. I lived with complete strangers in a house. Shared a dorm with 4 girls, cooked for myself and others, budgeted, persevered and found out I have skills I always assumed I never had.

I am already missing the friendly people of Costa Rica, the women and students, the house dog Padme. But I know this will not be my last volunteering trip, I am already saving for the next one”.