Ifetayo initiates in Ghana, West Africa

(WOMENSENEWS)–Female preteens of African descent in the United States face a complex set of pressures, including cultural standards of womanhood and sexually explicit media images pressuring them to be sexually active.

That’s the premise behind a number of rites-of-passage programs for preteens offered by avariety of African American organizations. The programs–designed to offer a safe and female-centered haven–to help female preteens safely navigate the worst shoals of U.S. life,according to participants and directors.

The rites-of-passage programs, according to the community leaders who have set them up, are designed to offset those influences by instilling in female preteens the values of being a friend, sister and daughter.

“We decided we needed to step in and say, ‘It’s okay to be a young girl regardless of the external environment and it’s okay to rely on elders,’ ” says Kwayera Archer-Cunningham, executive director of Ifetayo Cultural Arts Facility in Brooklyn, N.Y., which runs Sister’s in Sisterhood, a rites of passage program for more than 30 girls between the ages of 8 and 19.”We wanted them to know that their mothers have key information and it’s okay to identify with their mothers.”

The programs, she says–in which girls explore spiritual and family traditions and develop a strong sense of sisterhood–draw on the African tradition of developing the individual holistically, through simultaneous attention to the mind, body and spirit.

“We’ve had phenomenal results with our sisters,” says Kwayera Archer-Cunningham.

In the rites programs, girls often learn to perform ritual dances, sew traditional dresses, research their family roots, their ancestry and hereditary customs and gather with other girls in regular meetings where they are guided by older women who serve as mentors and provide them graduation ceremonies. Experts also lead them through workshops on money management, grooming, conflict resolution, career choices, domestic violence, abstinence, AIDS, and meditation. The Ifetayo program also offers the opportunity for international travel to reinforce what the initiates have learned during the year.

Archer-Cunningham says that all the girls who have participated have avoided pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and substance abuse. In addition, she says, many of the girls who were sexually active when they entered the program stopped having sexual relations after they were in the program for a year.

Graduates Become Mentors

Mentors are a key element in all the special ritual programs and many are recruited from the ranks of graduates. One is Stacey Mills, 26, a graduate of law school and the three-year old Ifetayo rites program.

“Learning about our family roots, researching our ancestry and our customs helped me to know myself as a person and have a foundation to build from, as far as my character,” she says. “We learned how to bring the customs into our daily activities and bring them home to our family. Like my mentors did with me, I will pass that information on to others.”

While different in their specifics, the ritual programs all emphasize mentorship and the importance of a female support network for girls coping with adolescence and early womanhood.

Many African Traditions

In 1994, Angela Coleman founded A Journey Toward Womanhood, a program of the Sisterhood Agenda, a North-Carolina based organization that explores healthy relationships, diet and fitness, sexual health and peer pressure.

“Our program is based in the tradition of bringing same-age groups together to be led by an older member of the community,” says Coleman. “There is no ceremony marking the end of one stage or marking the beginning of the other, but we recognize the journey toward womanhood. That is usually an element in traditional rites programs.”

These types of programs are especially important for African American teens, says Archer-Cunningham. In her community, she says, too many young girls were reaching their pre-teens, “looking around, observing grown-woman activities and behaviors” and feeling “they needed to be that” by the time they were 13.

The examples of precociously sexual behavior came from numerous directions, says Archer-Cunningham, including the clothes girls saw in stores to female entertainers in music videos. The troubling consequence, she says, are girls who overlook their own mothers as role models and focus instead on kittenish entertainers who trade primarily on their sexuality. That identification process is immensely destructive, says Archer-Cunningham, discouraging girls from developing a firm sense of their intellectual or communal importance.

Karen Love, the founder of Umoja Dance Company’s Nehanda Rites of Passage program agrees. “There is a major need for support and guidance because of the increased advertisements and promotion of sexuality in the dress and behaviors in the videos they see,” Love said. “Because they are bombarded with these images, it’s hard for girls to distinguish their reality from what they see in the videos.”

Love says activities at the company are culturally-based and stress the importance of the arts. “We’re an arts based people,” Love said. “It dates back to slavery. Arts were an outlet to make it through struggle.”

Love says her rites programs provide instruction on etiquette and work to build self-awareness, stressing appropriate behaviors, attitude and dress, to prepare girls for their teen-age and adult life. “Rites are a way of life in Africa,” she adds.

The programs may also go a long toward providing emotion support. “Some of the girls are from single-mother homes,” says Love, “There is no one outside of their mother or older sister who the girls could really talk to. That’s a big part that the mentor plays.”

Love says the program gives the girls a crucial grounding in the value of being a friend to other women. “They need to get that information now because so many women lose that,” she says. “We thought if we began teaching it at the transformational age when they are trying to figure out what is going on, the value may stay with them.”

Angeli R. Rasbury, a writer and lawyer living in Brooklyn, N.Y., frequently writes about culture of people of African descent.

For more information:

Ifetayo Cultural Arts Facility–
Sister’s in Sisterhood:

Sisterhood Agenda:

Umoja Dance Company–
Nehanda Rites of Passage:

Kentucky Commission on Women Staff Made to Resign

(WOMENSENEWS)–The future of one of the oldest continuously running state-funded groups dedicated solely to representing women’s interests is in upheaval after Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher asked its staff to resign.

Fletcher, a Republican who took office two months ago, early this month asked the three paid staffers of the $270,000-a-year Kentucky Commission on Women to resign. Executive director Betsy Nowland-Curry’s last day was Feb. 13. The other positions are to be eliminated at month’s end.

How the commission will proceed is still uncertain, though the governor’s cabinet secretary, Allyson Handley, told The Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal of Louisville that the commission will continue and likely will focus on women’s gains in education and economic development. The Kentucky First Lady likely will play an active role, and its unpaid 25-member advisory board is expected to remain.

The commission has attracted conservative critics, who said the government agency has promoted pro-abortion politics. State representative Stan Lee, a Republican from Lexington, filed two bills for consideration in the 2004 General Assembly intended to quell the commission’s mention of abortion.

Lee said the commission promoted abortion, a charge the commission’s executive director, Betsy Nowland-Curry, denied. The agency does support the right to abortion as the law of the land, Nowland-Curry, who served as campaign co-chairwoman for Fletcher’s opponent in last year’s gubernatorial election, told Women’s eNews.

Criticism of the agency’s stance on abortion, Handley told The Herald-Leader, had nothing to do with the governor’s decision.

The commission was created in 1964 to improve the status of Kentucky women.

— Karen Shugart