Because I am a Girl - Plan International USA

by Plan International USA
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Amina
Amina

Amina, a 16-year-old girl from Egypt is learning through her Girls Club that she has a voice – and her voice matters.

”When I first came to the clubs, I thought there would be no change in Khairallah but I found that many things were changing,” said 16-year-old Amina. “Now, I know the difference between sex and gender. I also learned how to express my opinion and I have rights that I need to gain. I couldn’t imagine that I would be one of the girls that would speak to the government officials and have a role to change anything, even if it is small.”

Amina is participating in Plan International’s Safer Cities for Girls project, which aims to build safe, accountable, and inclusive cities with and for adolescent girls. The project provides the opportunity for girls and boys aged 13 to 18 to join girls’ clubs based in the communities. At the clubs, girls learn about their rights, practice various activities, and participate in community outreach. The project helps to empower girls, allowing them to express their need to feel safe and discuss the barriers and difficulties they face in their daily lives. 

“I learned to respect other people’s opinions,” said 14-year-old Mona. “Before joining the program, I used to be stubborn and listen to no other opinion except mine. Now, I understand that everyone has his or her own opinion and that we should respect that and listen to them.” 

As of now, the project has reached approximately 650 girls and 100 boys. Plan builds girls’ capacities to become active in protecting themselves. The project also creates safe spaces for girls to meet, discuss issues of common interest, and carry out initiatives to increase their participation. At the same time, Plan works with government officials, parents, and the community at large to increase their awareness of girls’ rights to participation, protection, and safe mobility, among others, in addition to promoting an active role in enabling girls to enjoy their rights.

Through the program’s activities, girls are allowed to express their needs and discuss them with government officials. This happens through face-to-face meetings with local and national authorities and has helped increase awareness of girls’ concerns and rights among duty bearers. Many of the youth have learned through the Champions of Change curriculum, which builds the capacity of youth as peer educators by developing a real understanding of the impact of their cultural, social and religious contexts.

Young men get involved with girls' and women's projects in their communities so that they can help to reduce gender-based violence, become caring fathers and connect with other young men to promote gender equality in their families, schools and communities.

At the local authorities’ level, officials have asked girls involved in the project to help in detailing the issues they face and to present them to the protection committee. From there, stakeholders can take further decisions and network to take further action on those issues. 

“It is our responsibility as government officials to support the girls,” said Mr. Shereif, Manager of the Adult Learning Department, Maser El Adima District.

“I was afraid in the beginning to speak in front of any official but my friends made me unafraid to speak out,” said Amal, a 14-year old girl.

Ahlam, another girl in the program, added, “I now realized that my problem will be solved when addressing the responsible government official.” 

Because girls in communities like Ezbet Khairallah are not privileged enough to enjoy playing, Plan also introduced the Sports for Development approach into the program. Activities started with sports days, then soccer trainings for girls and boys. The soccer trainings included reflection times to discuss different issues such as identity, stereotypes, competitions and collaboration, and dominant masculinity vs. gender equality. The five-day trainings ended with a co-ed training for boys and girls playing together as one team. 

The attitudes of both girls and boys towards one another have changed significantly. Previously, many girls were afraid to interact with boys, but now they play together as one team. On the other hand, boys thought that it was strange for girls to play soccer, but when they played together they started to understand that it is the rights of girls to enjoy playing as they do. Many of them said that they would like to have their sisters join the project activities and learn to play soccer.

“Before joining the soccer training, I could not understand why boys liked to play soccer, but now that I have experienced playing soccer, learning the rules and playing in teams, I enjoyed it very much,” said 13-year-old May. “I hope that one day we can have soccer clubs for girls as well so we can play it and attend regular trainings.” 

“After attending the soccer trainings through Safer Cities project, my friend and I formed two teams at school. Each of us led a team of six girls; we taught them the rules of the game and we all played together,” said 14-year-old Shahenda.

The girls also had self-defense trainings, which resulted in much excitement. One of the girls was very happy when telling other girls how she used the techniques they learned in defending herself, when an older boy grabbed her from the back.

She was smiling when she told the group how he ran away after she reacted.

Melissa
Melissa

Orphaned at 15, 17-year-old Melissa lives with her uncle, aunt, and seven cousins in a remote village in Zimbabwe.

Forced to drop out of school two years ago when it got too expensive, the teenager spends her time at home dreaming of a better life.

“I’m envious when I see the other girls and boys passing our home as they go to school,” she said. “I wish I could still go, too.” 

Melissa isn’t alone in wishing she could return to school. It is common for girls from her village to leave school because they can’t afford it, or because they get married.

“I had four years of school when my mother was alive, but had no money to register for my secondary school exams, so I dropped out,” she said.

At $105 a term, it’s a steep price for Melissa’s extended family, which is having trouble making ends meet.

“I regret leaving and just sitting at home,” she said. “I don’t have my school uniform anymore – just the blouse.” 

It’s clear that having to leave school was painful. Her stepfather used to pay for school. But, since her mother’s death, her stepfather and her brother are nowhere to be found.

Now, she fills her days with household chores, but the time usually drags on. It’s the monotony that gets her down.

“When I wake up, I sweep the yard and do the dishes,” she said. “Then I water the garden. I enjoy cooking sadza [thick porridge]. Then I might speak to my friends for a little while. 

“I liked playing netball when I was at school and I still find time to play it with some of the other girls who also no longer go to school. That’s it though. Chores and a bit of netball. There’s nothing else to do here.”

The issue of “idleness” is dominant among girls in rural parts of Zimbabwe who have left school and lack skills and opportunities to acquire work. In the new Counting the Invisible report from Plan International, girls interviewed say that they are afraid of being ‘”idle,” staying at home with no education or work opportunities to develop their skills and occupy their time in a meaningful way. 

Eighty-one percent of girls interviewed aged between 15-19 years old reported that they had to drop out of school either temporarily or permanently. The overwhelming majority said the reason behind this was economic, while others cited early pregnancy and early marriage as barriers to continuing their education.

 

Once out of school, girls said the risk of early marriage and early pregnancy increased, which they see as an inevitable consequence of having nothing else to do with their lives. Girls also reported feeling pressure from families and guardians to marry in order to relieve the financial burden of the household.

“There are hundreds of girls like Melissa in Zimbabwe’s remote areas that live an unfulfilled life because they have been forced to drop out of school,” said Lennart Reinius, Country Director for Plan International Zimbabwe. “They are invisible to decision-makers because no data on their life circumstances are recorded. They are forgotten about.”

Melissa’s neighbor Nyadzisai, a 35-year-old mother of six, says there’s nothing for girls and boys to do if they are out of work and school. Frequent droughts in recent years have taken a toll on crops and cattle and reduced income for local families selling their produce and milk from cows.

“The situation is just as bad for boys and girls,” she said. “Boys are working in dangerous gold mines for nothing and girls are getting married at 13. We work very hard in the mines but we are not getting paid. There is not much food or water. Only hunger. We will wait for the rains to come so we can go to work again and send our children to school.”

The mother recognizes the power of education as a way out of hardship and promise of a better life.

“We think our children should be in school to learn subjects, but to also be exposed to other world views,” she said.

Nyadzisai is aware of the risks girls face being out of school and alone at home. 

“There’s nothing for girls to do,” she said. “They become easy targets for men and often end up becoming pregnant. When girls go to school they are safe and protected.” 

Unlike a lot of girls her age in similar circumstances, Melissa asserts she is not tempted to get married and have children now. 

“The time for marriage is not yet,” she said. “Marriage is tough. I don’t want that. I see married girls having a hard time. Husbands can be unfaithful. They don’t give their wives money…” 

Melissa laments that although her future seems uncertain right now, she is hopeful that change will come. She currently helps her Aunt with growing vegetables and selling tomatoes. She says that she would even consider having a shop one day. 

However, thoughts about the future get Melissa worried.

“It’s hard to imagine,” she said. “I only see a bleak future. I have no education. I have to change it and go back to school.” Plan is advocating for girls to be treated as equal partners in development and to have their views valued and their voices heard through global advocacy. 

“In Zimbabwe, as in many other countries, young girls who drop out of school and marry disappear from official records and do not figure in official statistics, so service providers are less inclined to act to support them,” said Reinius. “In addition, the invisibility of girls is reinforced by a multitude of other factors too such as poverty, rural isolation and lack of economic opportunity. It’s a tough cycle to break.

“It’s important that girls like Melissa are counted—that we bring visibility to their realities so girls’ lives can be changed.”

 

Girls in Brazil
Girls in Brazil

It is as widespread as a popular sport – from rural provinces to dense slums and high-wired towns. There are no real winners, only victims.

Violence against girls and women in Brazil pervades private and public landscapes across all social boundaries.

As the Latin American nation proudly wrapped up its stint as host country of the world’s biggest sporting event – the Rio 2016 Olympics – the screams of girls and women demanding game over are only beginning to get louder.

Thousands of women and girls across Brazil suffer violence at the hands of men every year, simply because of their gender. Much of this violence stems from the culture of machismo, which is deeply entrenched in many Brazilian communities. It affects the choices girls make and events that shape their future.

In a country where over 500,000 people are raped every year, yet only 10 percent of cases are reported, Girlene, 30, is a true survivor who’s standing up to the widespread violence against girls and women in Brazil.

“When I was a teenager, my mother went to live with another man,” she said. “I had enrolled in a dance course at school – I loved to dance. When I arrived home after class I went to take a shower. The shower was outside and there was no door – just a shower curtain. As I was showering, my stepfather barged in and put his hands on my mouth and forced himself on me… I was 13.”

Girlene has found hope and strength through dancing and she’s now determined to speak out about violence against women.

“Sexual violence is a serious issue in Brazil due to a lack of public policies and it stems from a lot of other issues,” she said. “In my case, my mother suffered too. She wasn’t sexually abused, but she suffered violence. If these issues are tackled through workshops and lectures, such as those run by Plan International, girls could have a different future. To all the girls and women who have suffered like I have, please, speak up! Don’t let this person get away with it. Let’s show society we don’t have to stay quiet.” 

In São Paulo alone, a woman is assaulted every 15 seconds. In São Luís, in the north east region of Maranhão, the situation is no different. For 17 years, Charlienne witnessed her father assault her mother on a daily basis. It deeply affected her as a child. Now she’s a mother herself and a wife. The 17-year-old is determined to have an equal relationship with her husband.

“If my husband were to beat me, I would go to my mother’s house and report him to the police,” she said. “Violence against women should not be tolerated.” 

Violence for girls and women isn’t confined to households. It takes place in public places, too. Simple acts like going to school fill girls like 18-year-old Larice with fear. The teenager lives in a dangerous community in São Luís, where drugs and violence are rife. She always has to make sure her belongings are safely out of sight.

“Girls are more vulnerable in my community,” she said. “You can’t walk alone or you might get attacked like my sister did.  The only place I feel safe is at school and at home.”

As part of Plan International Brazil’s Girls Leadership Project, a group of girls are following in Girlene and Charlienne’s footsteps and trying to put a stop to gender-based violence. From taking on the local government to questioning the current laws on violence, they are determined to make their voices heard.

“Girls should speak for themselves. When we see girls take on politicians and speak up for their rights, it makes a big difference,” said Luca Sinsei, Plan Brazil’s program director. “Their voice represents their lived realities and it is the first step to ensuring they can grow up in an environment where they can learn, lead, decide, and thrive.” 

Authorities are making moves to combat violence against girls and women. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the Maria de Penha Law – a landmark ruling that was in put in place with the intent of tackling domestic violence.

Kazumi Tanaka is Chief Commissioner of the Special Women’s Police Unit in Maranhão.

“Violence against women is the most common crime we have in Brazil and it’s one that needs to be tackled,” she said. “There are two reasons violence continues to take place. Women not only live in fear, but there is a deep-rooted emotional dependency, where women in Brazil feel they are not worthy without a man.

“The Maria de Penha Law is a legal landmark in the country, which has brought hope to many and provided an opportunity for women to speak out about this type of violence.”

To ensure all women across the region are able to report violence, Kazumi and her team have set up mobile units that visit rural communities across the region so women can visit workshops, learn about their rights, and report crimes. 

These girls from São Luís represent a growing group of young people who are fired up and ready to change the attitudes in Brazilian society and put an end to violence.

 “Violence against girls and women needs to stop,” said Maria Fernanda, 18, from São Luís. “Every day we face prejudice and we are excluded from society. It’s about time we had our turn and our voices were heard.” 

Rosemary
Rosemary

If only she’d known more about her own body and had help from a health teacher, like the one who has been working at her school for the past few months through a Plan International program. Then, life could have been completely different forRosemary.

Now, she is stuck in an incredibly difficult situation. She has dropped out school and is six months pregnant with the child of a stranger.

“School was always a challenge for me,” said Rosemary. “We do not have much money at home, so buying textbooks or a uniform was difficult. Still, I managed to follow a few lessons with the help of others. Until I had my first period.”

Rosemary used old rags to prevent blood from leaking out while she was at school.

“But that didn’t work very well and I got blood on my dress,” she said. “I was ashamed and when I had my period I stayed home from school. I did not feel so good.”

One day a stranger approached Rosemary.

“He told me that I could buy sanitary pads and that they would protect me against the blood,” she said. “He was happy to give me money. I bought the pads and was very happy until the man visited our house a few days later. He said he wanted the money back, but I didn’t have the money. We went to the man’s home and to pay the debt I had to have sex with him.”

Rosemary did not know you could get pregnant from having sex.

“Nobody had ever told me this,” she said. “My old classmates have told me that they now have a special teacher at school who tells them about things like this. This lady also gives self-made emergency pads to the girls who need them. They make the emergency pads at the Health Club after school. I wish I had known all that.”

Many children in Uganda – both boys and girls – have little knowledge about their own bodies. Girls do not know what is happening to them when they get their period. The first time it happens, many think they are ill or even dying. They do not know how to protect themselves.

To increase the knowledge children have about such things, Plan set up a health education program in Uganda. In addition, after school, children get together at health clubs to learn more about the subject and talk about their experiences.

Sadly, Rosemary saw no other solution than to quit school. She and her mother are devastated.

“I wish my daughter could finish school,” her mother said. “It is important. Then she would have had a better chance in life than I got. Now that is impossible.”

Rosemary’s mother hopes her daughter can go back to school after the birth, but it won’t be easy.

“My daughter is too ashamed,” she said.

Anabelita and her 3-year-old daughter Joaninha
Anabelita and her 3-year-old daughter Joaninha

Anabelita carries her 3-year-old daughter Joaninha carefully in her arms as she makes her way to an early childhood education center run by Plan International.

“I’m happy, because I can help my daughter to prepare for the future,” Anabelita said.

She is Anabelita’s only surviving child. 

At the beginning of April, streams will dry out, the leaves of trees will turn brown, and the earth in the fields will crack. Children will have to dig deeper and deeper to find water from muddy holes, and the water will become dirtier. 

It was contaminated water that led to the death of Anabelita’s first daughter. 

“My daughter got diarrhea when she was nine months old,” she said. “I noticed that she was sick. I tried to nurse her and carried her everywhere in my arms.” 

After five days of illness, her daughter suddenly went limp in Anabelita’s arms. She called an ambulance, but it was too late. Her daughter died on the way to the hospital. 

“I was shocked and distressed,” she said. “It was very difficult.” 

Mothers in the community rallied round to support and console Anabelita. They understood her sorrow, because many of them had also lost their young children due to diarrhea or other preventable childhood diseases. 

When Plan’s early childhood education center opened in her village, she was able to take part in educational meetings for parents. There she learned that she should have taken her sick daughter to hospital as soon as she fell ill. She also learned that just boiling drinking water is not enough. It is also necessary to wash hands frequently, boil all water for household use, and build toilets farther away from houses. 

“At the early childhood education center, community volunteers explain to the parents that they should not wait too long with a sick child before going to the hospital,” said Maria Beatriz Samento, who is in charge of the early childhood education center. “Often, parents wait for several days before taking the child to the clinic, and by then it can be too late.” 

Anabelita is now determined that Joaninha will not experience the same fate as her first daughter. She now knows how to safeguard her daughter’s life and provide her a safer future.

 

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Plan International USA

Location: Warwick, RI - USA
Website: https:/​/​www.planusa.org
Project Leader:
Judithe Registre
Warwick, RI United States
$16,281 raised of $70,000 goal
 
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