Students Use Conversation to Spark Change in Zimbabwe

October 10, 2016 | By Tim Pratt

Santa Fe Adna Arnaout Claire Watts 2016 St Johns.jpg
St. John's College students Adna Arnaout (left) and Claire Watts (right) completed a Projects for Peace program in Zimbabwe.

While many St. John’s College students spent their summers working, traveling or preparing for the school year, two Johnnies were attempting to bring change to Zimbabwe.

Sophomores Adna Arnaout and Claire Watts launched the Supergirls of Zimbabwe project, a pair of weeklong workshops on gender issues and sexuality in the country’s two largest cities: Bulawayo and Harare.

The project was the result of a $10,000 award for Projects for Peace, given out to 100 grassroots projects proposed by college students all over the United States. The Johnnies’ project provided young Zimbabwean women an opportunity to talk about issues related to reproductive health, sexuality and the social effects of gender inequality. Participants—more than three dozen between the two sessions—were encouraged to take the information they learned back to the communities from which they came.

“Part of it was passing on the knowledge, but most of it was empowering them,” says Arnaout, a native of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Zimbabwe has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in sub-Saharan Africa among people ages 15 to 49 at approximately 15 percent, according to a 2014 United Nations report. Many young Zimbabwean women and men don’t have comprehensive knowledge about HIV, the UNAIDS Gap Report stated. In addition, 22 percent of women in Zimbabwe report their first sexual intercourse was against their will, according to the report.

Arnaout and Watts had experience in human rights and activism, from LGBTQ and feminist causes to issues dealing with mental health, before they met last year as freshmen at the St. John’s Santa Fe campus. The pair became friends and heard about the Projects for Peace program. As they learned more about Zimbabwe, they decided to submit a plan for a project there.

Arnaout, who has since transferred to the St. John’s Annapolis campus, says the goal was to create workshop-style settings where participants could freely converse. Group work would be a major component, along with guest speakers.

In the spring, the Johnnies found out they received the Projects for Peace Award. They raised more than $5,300 on their own to pay for additional expenses, and set to work finalizing plans. The students used experts and activists in Zimbabwe to help them secure locations for the workshops and enhance connections with the communities there. They made arrangements for travel and lodgings, and took care of a host of other details, including logos and T-shirts.

Supergirls of Zimbabwe
The Supergirls of Zimbabwe pose for a photo with St. John's students Claire Watts (front row, left) and Adna Arnaout (back row, fifth from left) in August.

Then, over two weeks in August, the program took place, first in Bulawayo, then in Harare. Eighteen teenagers and young women participated in the first workshop, while 21 participated in the second. Some of the participants were activists, while others were high school students.

Arnaout documented the event thoroughly. At the end, she asked the participants about the experience. They used words like “empowerment,” “knowledge,” and expressed joy at being able to join in discussions that aren’t very common in their communities. The importance of conversation, something Arnaout says was reinforced by her time at St. John’s, inspired her and Watts when planning the project.

“It’s a human trait to want to converse,” she says. “Creating something like this in a place where it’s not present is special. To me, this was an incredible and life-changing experience.”

In the end, more than $1,000 was left over from the funds raised by Aranout, Watts and others who helped plan the project. The leftover funds were donated to a leadership institute in Harare that will conduct an additional week of training and empowerment for the Supergirls later in the year, as a follow-up to the workshops Arnaout and Watts held in August.