Africa: Lack of Empathy for Girls Fuels Tension Between Reconciling Families vs Enforcing Laws on GBV

(file photo).
4 December 2023
guest column

On the Day of a Girl Child, 11th October, I received a message from Girls Not Brides, inquiring if I am available to speak during the visit of Michelle Obama, Melinda French Gates and Amal Clooney in Cape Town, South Africa. I confirmed availability, and started the long of preparations, and back and forth meetings with the staff of the four organizations (Girls Opportunity Alliance, Girls Not Brides, Gates Foundation and Clooney Foundation for Justice).

Fast forward, the day arrived, we were in a room full of formidable women and young women across Africa to reflect on the issue of ending child marriages. Building from the best practices in SADC countries, like the presence of SADC Model Law on Eradicating Child Marriages, engagement of traditional leaders in countries like Malawi, presence of strong in country infrastructures like community leaders, national networks which mobilize collective support and provide both prevention education to communities, and response support to survivors of child marriage violence.

During the Ending Child Marriage conversation, I was asked to share our experience in using the power of the law to address child marriages, also how do we reconcile the tension between girls who sometimes don't want to take punitive measures towards their communities, and the need for gender-sensitive rule of law.

First of all, it is important to remind ourselves that child marriage is a human rights violation and is both a cause and effect of exclusion from education. It sustains elevated rates of teenage pregnancy, HIV and GBV with long-lasting and devastating consequences for the girls and their children later in life.

The legal framework is critical in setting standard for what is allowed and what is not, to define the crime and provide legal remedies and redress for victims of child marriages.

However, that alone is not enough, it has to be coupled with pedagogical pursuit for it to be effective and bring lasting change.

But, it is also a proven fact, where a law banning child marriages is not available, that access to justice for survivors is a nightmare and encourages disempowering narratives.

On the second part of the question, personally, I feel the term reconciliation is used to deny girls justice many times.

Girls shouldn't bear the burden of reconciling communities which have failed them in the first place.

The tension between the need to reconcile families and enforcing laws on gender-based violence exists because of lack of empathy for girls' issues, and victim blaming, which many times fuel non-reporting of child marriages cases instead of ending the practice.

Many times people who ask that question do so, not because they feel empathetic about issues girls and women face daily - the exclusion, violence, marginalization etc - rather they do so expecting girls to continue to be obedient to the system even when their rights are violated.

So, what can we do to enhance understanding and supporting girls to continue standing up and speaking out for their rights against violence?

Work with girls and communities using a gender transformative approach to understand power relations, socialization and interests and how they disadvantage girls. It is important for the community to understand how to treat girls' issues with empathy, and then focus the blame on perpetrators instead of blaming and shaming survivors of violence.

Msichana Initiative works with communities in Tanzania so they can champion actions in defending girls' rights, as a result perpetrators are held accountable by the communities and it becomes a safe space for girls.

Investing in survivor-centered access to justice supports the re-integration of girls to the community so that girls do not feel guilty and ashamed for standing up and defending their rights. By not supporting survivor-centered responses, we become complicit with the system which perpetuates violence for girls - and girls will continue to be blamed and shamed for seeking justice, e.g. through the organisation I am leading, we support girls to go back to school and engage in income-generating activities so they feel the power of standing against violations of their rights.

The We Support Girls-led group where girls learn together how to turn their vulnerability into leadership. The groups create a support system and community of change, which in turn encourages girls to stand up and speak out for their rights without fear of isolation. We have curated 20 groups out of school platforms, reaching more than 500 girls in Kongwa, Nzega, Bagamoyo and 5 districts in Dar es Salaam. We also co-ordinate safe spaces for girls in school, called One Girl+, which engages with more than 1,000 girls a year.

It is crucial to remember, rights are things we fight for, repoliticing the violence girls and women face is critical if we are to end it, and here I would like to quote the late Prof. Wangari Mathai: "Human rights are not things that are put on the table for people to enjoy. These are things you fight for and then you protect."

Like the famous Nelson Mandela's quote, where he said: "Courage is not the absence of fear, but triumph over it."

The transformation we seek needs every one of us to be courageous and consistently demand better for girls in our communities. Our hope is in every one of us proximate to the problem and relentlessly agitating for the solutions.

Previously published in Medium by Rebeca Gyumi, Founder & Executive Director at Msichana Initiative, a Tanzanian NGO which aims to empower girls through education, and address key challenges which limit girl's right to education.

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