Mar 9, 2021

Surviving the shadow pandemic in South Sudan


COVID-19 isn't the only threat girls are dealing with right now.

There's another silent, lethal pandemic lurking in the shadows — threatening their dreams, their futures and even their lives. 

It’s the spike in gender-based violence and other harmful practices, like child marriage and trafficking. Decades of progress for girls' equality is at risk.

The economic impacts of COVID-19 are expected to be widespread and devastating, particularly for women and girls. When families are struggling to survive, girls are more likely to be forced to drop out of school, marry at a young age or become victims of human trafficking. And the longer a girl is out of school, the less likely it is that she will return.

Childbirth is the leading cause of death among 15-19-year-old girls worldwide. Increased marriage and pregnancy rates, combined with overburdened health systems, means more girls' lives are on the line.

Gender disparities are greatest in countries dealing with extreme poverty, economic vulnerability and unrest. One of the newest and poorest countries in the world, South Sudan's short history has been plagued by war, floods and food insecurity. Nearly 1.5 million people have been internally displaced, fleeing their homes to escape the violence.

Life was difficult enough for forcibly displaced populations before COVID-19. Now, it's much harder. In overcrowded areas, social distancing is nearly impossible. And access to clean water, soap, sanitation facilities and basic health services is limited.

School closures are even more devastating for refugee and displaced girls, who are already at a disadvantage. But that doesn't mean they're giving up.

Here, three brave young women in South Sudan open up about their struggles, sharing what — and who — inspires them to keep fighting for the future they deserve.

Rachel, 20

“When schools were told to close to prevent the spread of COVID-19, my family stood with me in all that I did. I knew how boring it would be without being busy with school, so I resorted to studying all sorts of books I could find. 

I also started selling small items including charcoal to make some money for my upkeep. This kept me busy and it helped me cope with the impact of the closure of schools. Above all, it helped me stay focused on the bigger things that made sense to me as the girl that I am.

I am a girl of my own principles and have never found pleasure in thinking about pressures from boys. I am glad that the government has decided to let us go back to school.”

Monica, 16

I was depressed for two months following the closure of schools. I did not know what my future would look like. Hours took a long time to pass. Some days, it felt as though darkness would never come and the nights became longer.

I decided to ask my aunt for guidance. She was very supportive and took me through her life story and how she ended up where she is now. I found so much inspiration from her struggles, even though she did not go far with education. I realized that this pandemic is a temporary obstacle which will go someday.

My peers were getting married or falling pregnant and not a month would pass without me hearing this. I stayed strong and resisted all temptations by listening to my aunt and keeping busy with housework and joining my aunt in farming. We spent the day weeding and sometimes gathering crops.

Today, I am back in school. I feel so happy and as if I have pushed a great burden off my back, although I still have three more months before I can take my final exams.”

Ayen, 21

“If I survive the COVID-19 pandemic without falling pregnant or losing hope, it is due to two things: first of all, I am a leader in my school. And secondly, I’m a member of Plan International’s Champions of Change project. So if I need to do anything, I make sure to recall that first.

To me, marriage or settling down with a man is not even in my near thoughts, let alone at this time. I have seen the kind of suffering people go through nowadays. My friends who dropped out of school to get married are finding it difficult to even find anything to eat.

So, really, I feel determined to achieve better things to enable myself to get through the hardship. I am strong and urge every other girl to forget about everything else and concentrate on their books.”

The fight for gender equality cannot take a backseat now.

The inequalities of the most vulnerable are only heightened during emergencies. As the world copes with the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of girls are dealing with a second shadow pandemic. Too many are struggling in silence, alone and invisible.

The determination of young women like Rachel, Monica and Ayen is as inspiring as their circumstances are heartbreaking.  Now, more than ever, we must continue our critical work to advance girls’ rights. The only way forward is together — with no girl left behind.

Jan 15, 2021

Meet the mechanics making breakthroughs for gender

There are two mechanics regarded by their customers as some of the best car technicians in Guinea. The pair are N’Mahawa, age 25, and Teninké, age 28. Both are women.

Being a girl in a lower-income country like Guinea means a lesser chance of completing your education, and a higher chance of becoming a child bride. For girls who are able to finish school, the opportunities in the job market are slim. And for those young women who do land a job, they end up getting paid less than their male counterparts.

None of that has stopped Teninké and N’Mahawa in pursuing their career goals.

N’Mahawa’s choice to enter the male-dominated field of mechanics was made after her father tried to force her to become a bride.

“After taking my school exams twice without success, my father decided to give me in marriage,” she says. “I told him that marriage was not a solution to my problem. I decided to leave home and join my uncle in Conakry.”

While in Conakry, N’Mahawa saw a training center for mechanics, supported by Plan International, operating to help uplift young people economically — especially women. She approached the building, and that’s when she saw Teninké.

N’Mahawa was taken with Teninké’s passion for both the study of mechanics, and her fervent belief in gender equality. Their friendship blossomed into a business partnership.

“To say that it is impossible for a woman to compare herself to a man is a complete fallacy,” Teninké says. “My dream is to surpass men and I think I am in this dynamic.”

Teninké and N’Mahawa’s skills learned at the vocational center have made them stand out from other male-run businesses. The two are not only showing young girls that they can follow their dreams, but also changing the minds of men in their community.

“Through them, I have come to understand that women, if given the opportunity, can do better than men,” says Mohamed, one Teninké and N’Mahawa’s male customers. “I am even convinced that giving women the right to choose their life in complete autonomy, everywhere in the world, is one of the keys to meeting the challenges of this century.”

Plan continues to work in Guinea to reduce inequalities within workplaces, households and society. But this requires action on several fronts, including help from people like you. Many of Plan’s vocational training participants are sponsored children; you can help make it possible for a girl to access opportunities like Teninké and N’Mahawa’s by becoming a child sponsor today.

“I invite my female colleagues to have confidence in herself — to become autonomous — because a dependent woman is an enslaved woman subjected to the dictates of men,” Teninké says. “We should not accept that. We should not have to wait another 10 years for gender equality. Let’s act now.”

Nov 10, 2020

My main weapons: My smartphone and my voice

This is Khadyja’s story.

Khadyja is 23 years old and lives in a suburb of Dakar, Senegal. 

Her community is on lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stuck at home, Khadyja decided to log on to Plan International’s Girls Out Loud online forum, which provides a safe virtual space for girls and young women to discuss the challenges they’re facing.

The topic on everybody’s mind: COVID-19.

Girls and young women are always disproportionately impacted by health emergencies. That fact quickly became clear to Khadyja. She also realized that there was a serious lack of awareness on how to prevent the spread of disease. Many of her own neighbors even denied the existence of COVID-19 and weren’t taking proper precautions. If things didn’t change, and the number of cases continued to rise, what would happen to girls like her?

Khadyja decided something had to be done. And she wasn’t going to wait for anyone else to do it.

That’s the day she became an activist.

Khadyja started dedicating her time to raising awareness about COVID-19 on social media. Through images and videos, Khadyja is explaining the essential protection measures needed to keep everybody safe and healthy.

“My main weapons: my smartphone and my voice,” Khadyja says. “It is important for me that my voice and actions encourage people to implement individual and collective prevention measures."

Khadyja is also advocating for the importance of protecting girls from all forms of violence during the pandemic. “Girls should not be impacted by the health situation we are experiencing in Senegal. We can help our communities stop the spread of this virus! We can do it! We have the tools! We have the will!"

Khadyja’s passionate activism has made her a respected voice in her community. And now the powers that be are listening, too. She was invited by her district administration to join a COVID-19 action committee so that youth voices are represented and girls’ needs are prioritized.

Khadyja is an example of what happens when a girl is armed with education, confidence and a platform to use her voice. She’s powerful, and she’s lifting up those around her.

It’s important to remember that while millions of girls are facing unfair challenges and inequality, and in some places, suffering unbearable injustices, that’s not their whole story. Girls are not just victims. They’re fighters, changemakers, activists and leaders.

There are girls like Khadyja all over the world — maybe even in your own community. It’s time we all look for them, listen to them and amplify their voices. Because when they are heard, they can move mountains.

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