Saturday, July 14, 2012

Zen, Gender, and HIV Education

Last May, I attended a week-long conference on gender issues and sexual health on the island of Espiritu Santo. Many friends from the Peace Corps also attended, and most of us brought participants from our respective villages. The Ni-Vanuatu counterparts were quite excited to visit another island, as this is a rare opportunity for most of them. As an optional activity, I volunteered to lead Zen meditation every morning. The program entailed sitting meditation, walking meditation, and readings from the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. I was uncertain how others would react to it, due to the religious fervor and right-wing Christian propaganda that plague the country. However it actually was quite successful, growing in number each day. One day, about thirty people participated. It was a stellar example of the Buddhist teaching that the most profound, valuable gift one can offer is one's authentic presence, to be there in body and spirit. However there were also some revelations that were ultimately disappointing. On an information session on HIV transmission, many Ni-Vanuatus revealed that they believed local and herbal remedies could cure HIV. Considering they came from the more educated echelons of the society, this was quite disturbing. Another disturbing revelation was that the women participants could not name any female leaders in their communities. Knowing how vital female empowerment is for human development, this revealed one of the most significant obstacles to development. We worked with the participants to show them the reasons why these myths need to be refuted and gender equality established. This is the mission of the Peace Corps.

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