Nadeen Spence, 47, has given her granddaughter Kay-Leigh a mantra to repeat each morning: I am brave. She can tell from the quiver in Kay-Leigh’s three-year-old voice that she doesn’t quite believe it yet, but she says it anyway. For Spence, that’s the important part.
“She reminds me that even though there are times when you’re a little bit scared, you still have to go on,” says Ms. Spence. “Even if I’m tired and disheartened and unmotivated, she tells me I have to continue.”
It’s a message she takes into her work at Mary Seacole Hall, the only all-female hall of residence for students at the University of West Indies (UWI), Mona campus in Kingston. As Student Services and Development Manager, she takes care of more than 250 young women on campus. But her impact extends far beyond the university halls. She is also Executive Director of I'm Glad I'm A Girl Foundation, which empowers adolescent girls to take charge of their sexual and reproductive health, education and career by providing them with access to mentoring.
I’m Glad I’m A Girl was founded 10 years ago and was initially funded by Ms. Spence’s own credit card. The debt was crippling, but she heard stories of physical and sexual abuse nearly every day at UWI and felt she had to act. In Jamaica, one in four women experiences intimate partner violence.
“If I ask any one of the women in Mary Seacole Hall to tell me about their girlhood, they’d tell me a story of trauma – and that trauma is usually sexual trauma,” she says. “If a student comes to me and she’s failed or she’s not doing well and we start to have a conversation, that conversation is not just about what is happening at UWI, it’s also about something that happened to her when she was 10 or 12.”
Today, I’m Glad I’m A Girl Foundation runs annual, week-long camps at Mary Seacole Hall for up to 50 girls and visits schools throughout the academic year. Mary Seacole Hall students help to organize and oversee the camps, becoming friends and mentors to the younger girls. Ms. Spence says the process is just as beneficial to the older girls as the younger ones.
“I recognize that part of the women at Mary Seacole Hall reclaiming their power is engaging girls in a way that says, ‘I’m going to protect you in a way that I wasn’t protected,’” she says.
Many I'm Glad I'm A Girl students graduate top of their class and go on to become lawyers, teachers, doctors, nurses and leaders at NGOs.
“The women I encounter here can, if they want, become ministers of government. They’re going on to positions of power for the most part,” says Ms. Spence.
She hopes that they move into their careers with a strong sense of their own power – but also how to use it.
“When I see them in 10 years’ time as a doctor in a hospital, I hope that they are delivering care that is empathetic and empowering. That when they are practicing law, they don’t just do it for the money but because there are some people they need to advocate for,” she says.
Together, she hopes they will build a more gender-equitable world for the next generation.
“I do [this work] because of the past and the future. For my mother, who never had my chances in life and didn’t get to live her best dreams of herself and my granddaughter, who has all these hopes and dreams. When women come up to me and say, ‘I Was in I’m Glad I’m A Girl and this is what I’m doing now’ – that feels like the work is happening.”
Spotlight Initiative is helping activists like Nadeen Spence provide support to women and girls experiencing violence. We are #WithHer. Are you?