BY KRISTEN JOHNSTON, CANADIAN FEED THE CHILDREN
Millions of girls worldwide are at risk because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Girls and women are bearing the brunt of household work and caring for family members at this time (UN). This is exacerbated by school closures in many countries globally.
All children face risks to their education and mental health from being out of school. However, young girls are in the most danger. As we’ve previously mentioned, schools provide a safe place for girls to learn. But most importantly, they create a much-needed support system for those experiencing sexual & gender-based violence (SGBV), the pressures of early marriage, or the threat of trafficking in their own homes. COVID-19 and its related restrictions have increased these risks for millions of girls.
“There are cases of domestic violence in the students’ homes,” explains Grace, an educator in Uganda. “Some girls have been married. Some girls are not coming back to school ever as they’ve gotten pregnant because of trafficking.” This is the reality for many young and adolescent girls, which is only exacerbated by the pandemic.
Early marriage, trafficking, and SGBV are often deeply embedded societal norms that are aggravated by poverty, which has risen sharply in the past year. Educating communities is imperative to shift societies away from harmful norms and ensure gender equality. Conversations around the normalization of gender equality, and the dangers of early marriage and SGBV, assist in this shift.
A PEERS LED APPROACH
Canadian Feed The Children, with support from Grand Challenges Canada, recently created a program called PEERS (Prevention, Education, Empowerment & Recovery from Sexual/gender-based violence). This program run in Uganda tackles some of these difficult conversations head-on.
Through the PEERS program, trained counsellors and medical professionals lead sessions for young girls and women on the warning signs of SGBV. Workshops include education on menstruation hygiene, sexually transmitted infections, and family planning. The program aims to break down stigmas around sexual health, and raise awareness of available medical services. As well, the program finds legal help for those facing the threats of SGBV, trafficking or early marriage.
The PEERS project also leverages technology to help drive decision making on a local and regional level, including a pilot app that helps health workers and authorities track data about sexual violence and enforce existing protective laws in a timely manner.
“It is very important for us to know how our bodies work"
We connected with Zahara who is one of the councilors in the PEERS program. She speaks with girls about their reproductive systems, sexually transmitted infections, and the warning signs of domestic violence.
“Yes, there is a huge stigma in the communities regarding sexual reproductive health, especially if a girl reveals that she has a sexually transmitted infection. The girls are expected to be abstaining but many times these infections come from sexual assault or trafficking,” Zahara told us.
Girls often feel ashamed to speak with a health worker about facing violence at home. Having sympathetic mentors at the health clinic is crucial to ensure that girls feel supported.
Adults in the community participate in workshops on the importance of sharing experiences to facilitate an open, safe dialogue. In addition, parents learn about the dangers of early marriage and trafficking, boosting gender equality in their homes, defusing violent situations, and challenges girls will face if they are forced to drop out of school. Girls drop out of school commonly because of pregnancy, child marriage, or parents’ favouritism towards their sons.
“Sometimes parents will pay for their boy child to go to school and not their girls. They think boys have a future and are favoured. Girls in a family are denied their rights and suffer from many challenges,” Zahara explained.
This is just one of many notions challenged in the PEERS groups.
“I would give all girls a chance to be in school”
Daphin is a participant in the PEERS program in her community. At just 16-years-old, she learned to de-stigmatize her own preconceived notions of gender equality and sexual & reproductive health and rights (SRHR).
“People are willing to discuss SRHR issues at the safe space if well explained to them. The biggest challenge is openly sharing with others especially when they are in a gathering,” she told us. This is why it’s crucial for the spaces to operate with empathy so girls feel they can be vulnerable.
“Learning the training makes me want to be a role model for the community. I can educate other youth in the community so they know about SRHR. Knowledge is power for youth,” Daphin said.
“The situation is slowly changing, but communities are appreciative”
Postnatal and antenatal care, immunization, health and nutrition counseling, family planning, and STI screenings are just some of the tasks that nurse Christine conducts at her health clinic. She sees first hand the importance of having SRHR education taught to communities through the PEERS program.
Christine told us, “The biggest challenge we have in this community is lack of knowledge. People fear to speak up. Some women are willing to access these health rights and services, but the men in their lives don’t understand the scope of family planning and prevent them from coming. Women have to seek our services in secret sometimes, which unfortunately can result in acts of violence.”
The negative stigma surrounding SRHR is one that is prevalent worldwide. From cultural taboos to inadequate education, it seems like an uphill battle in challenging stereotypes and misinformation. But slowly, values are shifting.
“At the beginning, the community was very difficult because of the stigma and negative attitude towards accepting SRHR, but the situation is slowly changing and many are beginning to appreciate the work we do,” Christine told us. She hopes that through more education, the community will become healthy, resilient, and have difficult conversations freely.
“Every young person needs SRHR training”
Training women and girls on SRHR is critical, but it’s just as important to ensure men and boys in these communities are part of the conversation. Gender equality cannot be achieved until everyone is on the same page.
Joshua, 15-years-old, participates in his school’s SRHR club. At the club he learns the importance of girls’ rights, the dangers of gender-based violence, and societal benefits of gender equality. “Every young person needs this training because it shapes the way we think, it informs us about many important things that might put our lives in danger just because we have no knowledge about them,” he explained.
The students at his school discuss the intrinsic link between poverty and domestic violence, and how that accelerates dangerous situations for girls. They learn the warning signs of SGBV and how to help. “With the interactive skills I learned, I can now confidently talk to others on SRHR matters, and I can guide others because of the self esteem training that I received. I know where to go or refer a friend for any SRHR related services in my community.”
A GENDER EQUALITY LENS IS CRUCIAL FOR A JUST RECOVERY
The COVID-19 pandemic is deepening gender inequality worldwide, but we have the ability to stem the tide as a global community. While progress towards gender equality is being rolled back in many dimensions, and will continue to do so until the pandemic is over, we can react more quickly than we have in the past, building on decades of tireless work by practitioners like Christine and Zahara.
Communities continue to need education and awareness of the importance of women’s economic agency, the necessity of girls’ education, how increasing a women’s access to savings and credit can boost local economies, and the critical role of sexual-reproductive health and rights in accomplishing all of the above. Programs like PEERS, led by local communities, help move this critical work forward, and build a just recovery for all.