The year is about to come to an end, and with it, a flurry of social justice and human rights activity. It kicked off with Universal Children’s Day on Tuesday, moving into 16 Days of Activism, from November 25 (International Day for the Elimination of Women and Children Abuse) to December 10 (International Human Rights Day), and in-between is World Aids Day (December 1).
During these important commemorations, girl children feature prominently. Unfortunately, they’re often left out of the spotlight for the rest of the year.
Across Africa, girl children face many challenges – early marriage, forced labour, teenage pregnancy, illiteracy and gender inequality – which all lead to less education and fewer opportunities in childhood and adulthood. Many inequalities also render girls more vulnerable to poverty, abuse, exploitation and health problems, especially HIV and Aids.
During the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children Campaign, there’s a chance to celebrate girls, their immense potential and initiatives that bring attention to the challenges faced by girl children. Deep-rooted stereotypes take a heavy toll – girls are so undervalued in society they begin to believe they are inferior. On the other hand, programmes that empower, motivate and inspire girls not only enhance self-esteem, but also equip this next generation with skills and confidence to play positive roles in society.
For organisations like the Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative (REPSSI) this means supporting girls to make positive life choices, and encouraging them to carve out their own opportunities. “It’s about developing girls’ belief in themselves, and society’s belief in girls,” says Noreen Huni, REPSSI’s executive director, “not only for their own future, but also the future of our communities and nations”.
REPSSI works in 13 East and Southern African countries to lessen the devastating effects of HIV and Aids, conflict and poverty on children by providing psychosocial support. Working with caregivers, community-based organisations, development practitioners, and teachers, the NGO helps develop skills necessary to provide care, love, and protection for children.
Creative tools, with names like the Journey of Life, Hero Book, Tree of Life and Body Mapping, are helping to get young people, and their caregivers, to see the value in social and emotional support. They are also encouraging girls to look at themselves in a new light.
The Malawi Girl Guides Association (MAGGA) has seen how incorporating emotional and social support has enhanced their work with girls. As a result of REPSSI’s Tree of Life material, director of programmes, Nancy Chidzankufa says: “The girls are able to discover their abilities and they are given that assurance to say they can make it in life despite challenges.”
It’s not only girls changing attitudes. Early marriages still occur in many districts in Malawi, as a perceived way out of poverty for families. Chidzankufa used pictures from Journey of Life to stimulate discussion with community leaders, who recognised their role in resolving issues, and developed community codes of conduct. These have proved very useful in cases of early marriage, sexual abuse and discrimination.
“We had one girl who was 13 years old,” explains Chidzankufa. “She was being forced into marriage by her parents.”
The local traditional authority had participated in the MAGGA workshops, and had set out procedures for such situations. He summoned the parents, and helped them understand the proposed marriage was wrong. The parents subsequently supported the girl to return to school. She is now 15 years old, going to secondary school and unmarried.
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) estimates there are 600 million child marriages in sub-Saharan Africa. The result: tens of thousands of young girls dropping out of the education system annually. Given that girls’ education is recognised as a critical tool in the fight against HIV/Aids, Aids services organisations argue this is a problem from human rights and health perspectives.
Simbarashe Mahaso, of Batani HIV/Aids Services Organisation (BHASO) in Zimbabwe, found that psychosocial support activities changed attitudes to educating girls, previously considered a bad investment as girls would marry and leave the family.
“Our elders used to believe that there was no reason to send girl children to school,” he says. “They have now realised it is important to treat each and every child equally. Now girl-children are having the opportunity to go to school.”
For Precious Kakusa,* this kind of support was life changing. Raped at 13, she contracted HIV. Living in an orphanage after her parents died, the now 15-year-old faced discrimination. After writing her own Hero Book to talk about her experience with stigma, as part of a CARE International Zambia project, the courageous teen took it upon herself to disclose her status to the other girls. She told them that the shame belonged not with her, but with the man who raped and infected her.
“I was almost reaching a point of giving up hope and on life. No sooner did I surrender than I came across the Hero Book, which helped me develop tricks and tactics to counter stigma,” she explains. “I learnt to confront my fears and resentment by speaking openly about my status.”
“I have found the Hero Book a very useful tool in my interacting with peers, especially when requested by parents of other HIV-positive children to counsel them.”
Just over a month ago, the world celebrated the first International Day of the Girl Child. To mark the day, the UN published a statement to remind states of their obligation to promote and protect the rights of girls and prevent harmful practices.
“No girl should be forced to marry. No girl should be committed to servile marriage, domestic servitude and sexual slavery. No girl should suffer from violations to her right to health, education, non-discrimination and freedom from physical, psychological and sexual violence. Not a single one,” the statement stressed.
Like many statements, reality relies on governments, organisations, and communities putting in place support systems. 16 Days is an ideal time to celebrate people like Precious Kakusa, Nancy Chidzankufa, and Simbarashe Mahaso who are making a difference to girls’ lives. Change is possible, sometimes spurred on by the smallest bit of hope.