One of the most persistent narratives in my newsfeed- already inundated with pieces meant to inform and inspire “in these uncertain times”- is about the success of women world leaders against COVID-19. Maybe you’ve seen the dozen or more publications that have noted how countries led by women- New Zealand, Germany, Taiwan, Denmark- are having the greatest success battling COVID-19. What started as a series of pieces pointing out this correlation and lauding women leaders has turned into a tide of critical dissections of the characteristics of women in leadership and picking apart the ways that women heads of state have or have not been uniformly successful in this crisis.
Seeing so much intense focus on leadership at the highest levels and its impact on the pandemic, made me reflect on the stories of leadership that I want to hear about right now. Having been raised, taught, and employed by excellent women leaders my entire life, the discussion of whether women leaders are good at handling a crisis feels beside the point. I want to know more and hear more about the networks of persistent, hardworking, empathetic leaders tackling this crisis at all levels, particularly at the grassroots. So I decided to take that narrative- of recognizing the hard work and successes of women leaders- back down to the grassroots, to shed some light on the women on the front lines of this crisis in Benin: the Batonga Mentors.
As many other organizations have been forced to pause their projects and withdraw staff from communities, Batonga has been fortunate enough to remain in operation- with some key safety adaptations- in our 15 partner communities. Batonga Mentors, women local to the communities where Batonga works, are always a critical part of our program’s success. Now more than ever though, Batonga Mentors have stepped into their role as community leaders. Since mid-March, Batonga Mentors have led their communities in three critical ways: closely accompanying the girls of Batonga’s programs through home visits and adapted club activities, equipping girls and communities with the resources they need to fight this virus, such as soap and handwashing stations, and keeping communities and girls informed with clear, accurate information.
In mid-March, as soon as Benin had its first confirmed case of COVID-19, Batonga Mentors, equipped with informational guides and flyers, lept into action, conducting widespread community information sessions about COVID-19 transmission and prevention, as well as hand washing lessons for all Batonga girls. Because of physical distancing requirements, the SONAFA Clubs that Mentors lead have had to be adapted and reorganized to ensure the safety of all girls. Mentors have been convening new Mini-Clubs with groups of 10 girls or fewer outdoors for 45 minutes a week to facilitate discussions and provide girls with the opportunity to connect and play with friends during a time of relative confinement. Because of the SONAFA Clubs’ new format, Mentors have moved much of their lesson content to the radio. Each week, a new group of Batonga Mentors record an audio lesson to be played on local radio stations in the area surrounding Bohicon and Savalou. Now instead of one weekly in-person lesson of 60-90 minutes, Mentors record rich, informative 45-minute lessons for the radio and meet with their Mini-Clubs to facilitate follow up discussions about each lesson.
To ensure that all girls, even those unable to regularly attend Batonga’s Mini-clubs, are safe, healthy, and happy, Mentors have also been conducting regular home visits to personally check in on girls and their families. Additionally, during each home visit, Batonga Mentors bring with them a free bar of soap to give to girls’ families, to ensure that all households, regardless of their income, have the materials they need to prevent COVID-19 transmission. Mentors conduct brief handwashing lessons for girls and their families during these visits as well. However, understanding that none of these households have access to running water, Batonga installed two foot-pump operated handwashing stations in each of our 15 partner communities since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Batonga Mentors are working daily to keep all the newly installed handwashing stations equipped with soap and water, and have been trained in their maintenance to ensure that they remain fully operational. Following their installation, Mentors led trainings on how to properly use the foot-pump-operated handwashing stations for girls and other community leaders, who were present for the handwashing stations’ installation.
At every step of the process, from the moment that Batonga began to develop its COVID-19 response strategy to today, Batonga Mentors have risen to the occasion with an enthusiasm, bravery, and empathy that is hard for me to imagine, privileged as I am to be working from the comfort and safety of my home. Their role in their communities over the past three years has grown more and more influential and respected as time has passed, and that is clear now more than ever.
In the coming weeks, we’ll be continuing to highlight the leadership of our incredible Mentors by sharing with you a series of interviews with some of them. Through this series you’ll learn firsthand about how COVID-19 is impacting Mentors lives and communities, and how they are staying motivated and safe as they lead their communities through this crisis.
By: Caitlin Hone, Program Officer