FALMOUTH — Jake Winn says his mother taught him the value of community service.
While that may be a quality many mothers hope their sons will exhibit, Winn has taken the commitment to another level.
After graduating from Falmouth High School in 2006, Winn went to McGill University in Montreal to study economically underdeveloped countries and political science. After graduation, he joined the Peace Corps and was sent to the country of Azerbaijan, in the former Soviet Union, near Russia and Georgia.
While he was preparing to leave, he said, he was warned there was severe gender discrimination in the country. But when he arrived and tried to pay the father of his host family for his room and board, the man told him to give the money to his wife.
“I was surprised. I thought, well, maybe it isn’t as bad here as people said,” Winn recalled in a recent telephone interview from Azerbaijan.
But what he came to realize was that women were in charge of everything within the home, including the finances, but that they had little power once they stepped outside of their houses.
Girls did not have the same opportunities in school, were not encouraged to travel abroad like their male counterparts, and were often expected to live the same lives their mothers do: marrying young and caring for the home.
It wasn’t long before Winn noticed girls weren’t able to participate in some of the after-school clubs he organized, and he began to see the marginalization.
So he did something about it.
“My primary counterpart here is a women’s rights organization,” Winn said.
He has been working closely with the group, World of Women Social Union, based in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Members of the group traveled to the remote village where he is staying and gave a presentation to a large group of teenage boys about women’s rights.
“You wouldn’t think a group of teenage boys would be interested, but they captured the minds of the kids,” Winn said.
Because the group speaks the language and understands the culture, it has been easier to keep up the dialog about gender equality, Winn said.
But to continue to bring the speakers to these small villages around the country, and to develop a resource for the other Peace Corps volunteers in the area, Winn needs help.
He has started a Peace Corps version of a Kickstarter campaign, attempting to raise $1,600 to fund his project. People can donate any amount toward his goal from anywhere in the world by going to peacecorps.org, clicking Donate to Volunteer Projects, and typing Winn’s project number, 314-089, into the search field. He’s also available by email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
While things are difficult for women in the country, Winn said he sees reason for hope. Recently, he was having a conversation with a cab driver who also happened to be the father of one of his best female students, a ninth-grader who had just won a national English writing competition.
“I asked him about letting her travel abroad to study, and he said, ‘I didn’t even finish school. She has the best grades in her school. She has the opportunity to do more,'” Winn said.
It gave him hope that, although there are many obstacles to overcome, this generation’s access to global information online is having an affect on their ability to redefine women’s roles in their country.
“I’m definitely seeing a change,” he said. “A majority of (young) girls believe they have just as much of a right to opportunities as the boys.”
Falmouth High School Class of 2006 graduate Jake Winn stands with a group of his students in the remote former Soviet country of Azerbaijan, after the group finished a used clothing drive for refugees at a nearby orphanage. Winn has organized a new program to educate children about women’s rights throughout the region.