Majoring in anthropology at Saint Mary's College enabled Erin Bowman '04 to understand and respect the culture of Benin during her two years as a Peace Corps and Catholic Relief Services volunteer in the West Africa nation.
"It really teaches you to look at things through a different lens," Bowman told a group of students and faculty members during a visit to campus on Oct. 16.
To illustrate her experience living in the small African nation, Bowman presented a slide show that included children dancing during a Christmas event at an orphanage and villagers dressed in colorful costumes practicing voodoo rituals. Photos also showed the swollen stomachs of children suffering from malnutrition, many of whom lived in mud huts with thatched roofs.
"I was appalled to see people living the way they were living," said Bowman. "Some women didn't even have bowls to wash their children."
Bowman spent her first year in Benin providing medication to villagers and working with mothers to make sure their babies received proper nutrition.
"I really enjoyed it because I love working with kids," she said.
Despite the language barriers, Bowman said Peace Corps volunteers take local customs and resources into consideration when looking for solutions to problems. For instance, Bowman encouraged villagers to eat a native plant high in protein.
"We find culturally relevant ways to help them help themselves," she said.
Her second year in Benin, however, opened her eyes to a deeper problem: child trafficking. Bowman conducted a research project designed to combat the problem under the auspices of Catholic Relief Services. She learned that 50,000 children are trafficked in Benin each year, most often sold into domestic servitude by their poor families. They often fall victim to physical and sexual abuse.
"People are having children they can"t afford to take care of," said Bowman. She added that contraception is rarely used because men in Benin's polygamist culture view large numbers of children as a boost to their status and a means of controlling their wives.
Among the solutions proposed by Bowman's research is to educate people about what happens to children sold into slavery and to increase the perception that children are an investment in a better future.
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