Randburg — The year is about to come to an abrupt end, and with it, a flurry of social justice and human rights activity. Kicking off with Universal Children’s Day on 20 November, then moving into 16 Days of Activism, running from 25 November (International Day for the Elimination of Women and Children Abuse to 10 December (International Human Rights Day), and in between, December 1, World AIDS Day.
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 less opportunities in childhood and as they grow into young adults. Many inequalities also render girls more vulnerable to poverty, abuse, exploitation, and health problems, especially HIV and AIDS.
During 16 Days of Activism, 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 – simply put, girls are so undervalued in society they begin to believe it themselves. 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 productive and positive roles in society.
For organisations like 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 all 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 care-givers, 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 materials, 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 proven 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 is 600 million child marriages, and an average range of 143 per 1000 pregnancy rate 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 both human rights and health perspectives.
Simbarashe Mahaso, with 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 is 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 the age of 13, she contracted the HIV virus. Living in an orphanage after her parents died, the now 15-year old faced discrimination and stigma. 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 that the shame belongs not with her, but with the man who raped her 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, the book which helped me develop tricks and tactics to counter stigma,” she explains. “I learned to confront my fears and resentment with speaking openly about my status.”
Kakusa also explains that “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. The Hero Book has never failed me.”
Just over a month ago, the world celebrated the first International Day of the Girl Child. To mark the day, United Nations published a statement to remind States of their obligation to promote and protect the rights of girls and prevent harmful practices, such as early and forced marriage.
“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 their 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. Sixteen Days is an ideal time to celebrate people like Precious Kakusa, Nancy Chidzankufa, and Simbarashe Mahaso who are making a difference to girls’ lives. Yet, these everyday heroes work tirelessly all year round. Change is possible, sometimes spurred on by the smallest bit of hope.
*Not her real name