Last Update: 11/3/2013 2:40 PM
By Kseniya Fenner (Ukraine 2011-2013)
Brianna Russell served in Vanuatu (located in the South Pacific) from 2008-2010 as a Business volunteer on the island of Paama. She worked as an advisor for the local government helping small businesses in the community. As her secondary project she started a women’s soccer team that traveled across the country to play in competitive tournaments. She also was on the GAD committee and participated in a number of Camp G.L.O.W.’s and B.I.L.D.’s.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Yes. I think that women should be given equal choices as men. All people in general should have equality in choices and basic human rights. In my travels abroad and in the U.S., patriarchy is the norm. Women are seen and treated as second class citizens with very limited options. I want to empower women to advocate for themselves and to support each other in creating equality within their own communities.
However, I think its important to define what “feminism” means exactly. The part that gets lost when using general terms like “feminism” is that people tend to think it means ‘anti-man’ or ‘anti-house wife’. But really the point is that women should have the choice if they want to stay at home or have the choice to have a career, or ideally be able to do both. And that men and women should support each other’s decisions in a positive and empowering way so we can all live up to our potential and make the world better. In doing so there should not be systems of oppression or structures of sexism that prevent women from being able to do that.
You spent two years serving in the Peace Corps in Vanuatu. What were the biggest struggles for women that you saw in that country?
Vanuatu is a very indigenous culture so there is a hierarchy of power. There are chiefs, councils, and religious leaders that make majority of the decisions directly affecting the people in the communities. Unfortunately you have to be a man to be a chief or a Priest. So that tells you right there how difficult it is for women to be leaders in their communities. The biggest challenges I saw for women were domestic violence, rape, arranged marriage, and the inability to participate in the community outside of the home as leaders, workers, entrepreneurs, politicians, or athletes.
Did these issues affect your professional or personal life in the country?
In many ways these challenges affected my ability to work with men and women in the community as a PCV. Many of my local friends were dealing with domestic violence and would share their experiences with me. We experienced negative reactions from some of the men in the community when I started creating a women’s soccer team. In extreme cases, some of the women experienced domestic violence because of this. These were women who were my friends, trusted and cared about me, and it was something they wanted to do, and they did it despite the repercussions they knew would happen. Not all of the women had this experience. Some of the men supported the team and women’s equality. Eventually, when we won a regional tournament and brought home $200USD and a huge Wimbledon size Cup, the men came around and congratulated us.
Now that you are the Director of Operations and Programs at ViviendasLeon you have influence on the programs you implement. What are the women's issues you are most passionate about addressing in your work there?
The issues I am most passionate about are getting women involved with sports so they are healthier, more confident, and are able to gain respect from men and their peers through sports. I am also more passionate about working with youth in Nicaragua and helping the girls learn how to be leaders in their community so that they have a place in their community when options are limited for teenagers. College and high school fee’s are increasing which makes it difficult for youth in Nicaragua to find their career path or to continue education. So, my goal is to provide other alternatives for them to explore.
What programs are you currently working in Nicaragua to address these issues?
Right now I am in the process of creating a youth soccer league in the community we work in Nicaragua. This process involves training community members to become coaches and referee’s. Additionally, we run soccer camps every Spring and Summer for the youth of Nicaragua with help from U.S. soccer coaches and players.
We have small business training to give women tools to start their own businesses or cooperatives. Right now we have a thriving Honey Bee Cooperative in the community that is run 90% by women. We also have a women’s sowing cooperative.
Also, this January 13th-20th, 2014 for one week we are doing our first RPCV Camp G.L.O.W. with the girls in the community. We have about six RPCVs signed up to travel to Nicaragua and run this camp. Since I was on the GAD committee for Peace Corps in Vanuatu we will use the same curriculum addressing issues like: reproductive health, HIV/AIDS education, leadership development, healthy lifestyles, nutrition, sports, and career guidance. If other RPCVs are interested in participating in the camp they can email me at Brianna@viviendasleon.org and visit our website at www.viviendasleon.org.