09/02/2012 02:54 EDT | Updated 11/02/2012 05:12 EDT

Giving Girls in Ghana the Tools to Make a Difference


This summer, I had the amazing opportunity to visit Ghana as youth ambassador with Plan Canada. I was one of two youth who won the "Plan for Change" contest for which I documented all the community and leadership work I did around girls' issues over the past year on the Plan Youth website.

I spent a year running conferences on healthy relationships, talking at different leadership events, organizing several workshops for younger girls, and being an active member in my school's equity council. I've been a passionate youth activist in my community for a long time and by joining different leadership groups and working with many nonprofit organizations like Plan Canada and YWCA I was able to reach more people and educate them about different issues girls face on an everyday basis.

Just because we live in Canada doesn't mean that girls don't face violence and experience other problems like low self-esteem and negative body image. Going to Ghana and seeing those same issues reflected in their community as well only solidifies my conviction that it doesn't matter where you live -- girls' issues are global issues. I would have done all these things anyway, but at the end of the school year I got an email from Plan saying that I won a trip to Africa because of the rewarding volunteer work I did in my community. I did these things simply because it was worth doing.

I had an unforgettable experience during my six days in Ghana. I met so many amazing people in such a short amount of time. On the ground we visited four different vibrant Plan communities that were all a part of the PAGES project, a five-year program funded by the Canadian International Development Agency. PAGES stands for Promoting African Grassroots Economic Security, and it has had a huge impact on all the communities Plan is currently working with across seven African countries.

In one of the communities, we visited a school built by Plan. The differences between the old school building and the new facilities are like night and day. One of the most ingenious aspects of the school is that there is a water pump built inside just for the students. Many girls have to spend hours walking to get water and then bring it home. A school with an easily accessible, built-in water pump would give parents an incentive to send their daughters to school where they can learn, collect the water they need, and then bring home knowledge for their future and a basic necessity for their present.

The students we met at the school were simply remarkable. Some of the kids there were just as passionate about their learning and their community as we are here in Canada. There are so many parallels you can draw between their community in a remote village in Ghana and a huge metropolis like Toronto. The brother and sister relationship is the same no matter where you are -- he'll push and she'll push back.

When we first met the Child Rights group, there were several boys playing around. When we shared a few games with them like switch chairs if...(ex. you are wearing the colour brown) at first they were shy, but after a few rounds we were all laughing and the barriers between us felt like they disappeared. It's incredible how fast youth can connect through games and laughter. We were able to communicate better through actions then through words sometimes. When you're playing a game it doesn't matter who you were or where you come from -- that's one of the great things about kids.

Another community we visited had a VSLA, which stands for Village Savings and Loans Association. The VSLA is formed by a group of young people who all contribute to a shared safe with three locks on it (that three different people keep). They have weekly meetings where they count the total safe balance and contribute a small amount. They use the money to give out interest loans to anyone in the group so that they can start up their own business.

The simple program is amazing because it allows the community to build their own economic potential and each successful business can only boost their community's economy. This type of group banking is like the ultimate accountability because the next person cannot take a loan unless the person before them has paid theirs back. We sat in a few meetings and we were blown away by how organized and smoothly these groups worked. I found the program especially interesting because it could be applied in a classroom setting in Canada as well.

So many students don't have crucial finance skills and if we implemented this type of activity into a math class a lot more kids would benefit from this experience. You can directly apply finance into your everyday life -- it's a bit harder to argue why you need algebra.

Ghana in general is a very beautiful country and the people are very polite! When a lot of people think about Africa, they imagine lions and vast deserts with pockets of people roaming around. There are definitely some parts of Africa where it is like that -- but a majority of the habitable parts can look just like a normal busy town!

Accra, the capital of Ghana, is very developed and is home to millions of people who go to school, go to work, and come home to their families. Before I even got on the plane, I already knew that I was going to experience a lot of new things, but I was amazed by the similarities I found during my trip as well. I feel like the world is a lot smaller after traveling to Ghana and seeing how girls just like me live their life there and how they make an impact in their communities.

We know that young educated girls are vital for the growth of a community, but seeing it firsthand is a whole other kind of understanding. Ghana is no longer that faraway place that you might hear about on TV. It's a country full of youth just like us who can transform their community if they have the right tools to do so.