Building the Foundation for a Skilled GirlForce

With nearly 1 billion girls on the planet and 600 million adolescent girls entering the workforce in the next 10 years, enabling girls to be active participants in the global economy is vital – for those girls, their families, and their countries.

Supporting girls in becoming economic agents is important not only because girls should be treated equally and fairly, but also because girls’ participation in the world of work is of structural importance for the global economy.

The theme for this year’s International Day of the Girl, With Her: A Skilled GirlForce, speaks to the importance of a global conversation on this issue.

So how do we prepare girls to be contributing members of the global economy, prepared to join the worldwide workforce? One much discussed answer is by completing primary and secondary education. With 131 million girls currently out of school, we still have a long way to go to accomplish this goal. But there’s another important foundation that can help empower girls financially and economically.

WomenStrong International believes the key to a skilled ‘GirlForce’ is by building girls’ ‘protective assets’, a term coined by the Population Council to describe the most important skills, resources, and knowledge girls need to protect themselves and thrive.

Girls’ ‘protective assets’ include having a trusted adult to turn to in times of crisis, knowing how to access contraception, being skilled at communicating with elders, and understanding how to manage money.

When girls have these essential skills and awareness, they are able to advocate for themselves, express their opinions and desires, seek support and help, and have the self-esteem and confidence needed not only to dream big, but also to follow those dreams. These basic skills are a foundation on which girls can then learn any technical skills they may need to enter the workforce and make the best decisions for their own financial futures.

Without vital life skills, girls may be subject to discrimination or exploitation in the workplace, or may not be allowed to work at all.

For example, if a girl’s father tells her she cannot sell popsicles after school to earn money for school supplies, she can use her conflict management and communication skills to have a respectful discussion with him. Another girl may begin work as a waitress but is sexually harassed by her boss – she knows his behavior is inappropriate because of her understanding of human rights, so she can report this behavior to the appropriate person at the restaurant or managing company. 

An effective approach to teaching these life skills is in safe spaces for girls, such as Girls’ Clubs. WomenStrong consortium members in Ghana, Kenya, India, and Haiti run Girls’ Clubs for more than 9,000 girls. Clubs teach girls about financial literacy, sexual and reproductive health, gender-based violence, communication and relationship-building skills, goal-setting, self-esteem, and much more.

Girls attend a Club sponsored by WomenStrong in Kenya (Credit: WomenStrong)

In early 2019, WomenStrong will release Strong Girls Make Strong Women: A Practical Handbook for Creating and Leading a Girls’ Club. The handbook compiles best practices from our Clubs and other experts, including a 16-chapter curriculum covering the most important topics girls need to know.

Crucially, the sisterhood formed among Club members serves as a valuable protective asset for the girls, because they have a community with whom they can share their successes and challenges, peers to turn to when they need support or are in crisis, and a community of friends who will encourage them to pursue their goals. This social aspect of the Girls’ Club is every bit as important as the skills learned. 

Equipping girls through Girls’ Clubs with soft skills and a social network enhances their economic wellbeing and helps girls avoid or deal effectively with situations that might otherwise derail them from their goals and dreams.

But what do life skills have to do with helping girls transition into the world of work?

Take Nancy, who lives in the peri-urban community of Krobo, outside of Kumasi, Ghana. Nancy became pregnant in the first year of junior high, at age 15. Faced with uncertainty about her pregnancy and her financial future, Nancy dropped out of school. Fortunately, Nancy was a member of a Women’s Health to Wealth (WHW) Girls’ Club, supported by WomenStrong.

Club members and the Club facilitator noticed she was absent from school for several weeks and reached out to her. Learning of her pregnancy, WHW helped Nancy return to school to finish her basic education. Her social safety net, the Girls’ Club, helped her get back on track.

Credit: WomenStrong

Equipped with the skills from the Girls’ Club and from her basic education, Nancy then went on, with WHW’s support, to study jewelry-making and now runs a successful bead-making business that supports her three-year-old child and employs two other teen mothers. Nancy’s life skills education and Girls’ Club membership enabled her to become a thriving member of her local economy, benefiting herself, her family, and other young women in Krobo.

As we, the global community, look ahead to how 600 million adolescent girls can be best prepared to join the world of work, we must remember to build girls’ foundation of life skills.

Empowered with the knowledge of how to manage a budget, advocate for oneself, and respectfully manage conflict and debate (just a few life skills girls need to know), girls are then free to pursue their careers of choice and to be thriving members of the global economy, benefiting themselves and creating ripples of benefits that can improve the lives of those around them.  

Taking Premenstrual Symptoms in Teenagers Seriously

Moody, irritated, short-tempered – these are some of the words my family and friends used to describe me as a teenager. Indeed, that’s how I felt most of the time, especially during ‘that time of the month.’

Like many women – around 90% of them according to the U.S. Department of Health – I’ve experienced symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) such as cramps, irritability, and anxiety. I can still remember the feeling of relief to read in my teen magazines (this was before the smartphone era) that the PMS symptoms significantly affecting my life were not as ‘abnormal’ as I thought, and that I wasn’t the only one experiencing them.

However, my experience with those symptoms turned out not to be so ‘normal’ after all. I’ve experienced symptoms of anxiety disorders since I was a child and getting my period only made things worse.

It was only when I reached age 24 – 16 years after the onset of my anxiety disorders and 12 years after my first period – that I sought out professional help to deal with my symptoms. I was eventually diagnosed with panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, and I had symptoms of borderline personality disorder and PME (premenstrual exacerbation of underlying disorders), too. I began taking medication and going to therapy.

Thankfully, despite all the struggles – including missing classes at school and outings with friends due to severe cramps and debilitating anxiety – I somehow managed my symptoms throughout my teenage years. However, I am far from alone in having struggled with menstrual and mental health during adolescence.

Recent data shows a worrying picture of teenage girls’ mental health. World Health Organization data published in UNFPA’s 2016 The State of World Population report indicates that suicide is the leading cause of death among teenage girls between the ages of 15 and 19 worldwide.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States in 2015, suicide rates of teenage girls aged 15 to 19 were the highest for that group in 40 years – the rates had doubled from 2007 to 2015. Research has also indicated that at least 20% of teenage girls experience moderate to severe premenstrual symptoms that impact their functioning, and that premenstrual disorders such as PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) often onset during adolescence.

Empowering teenage girls with knowledge about menstrual and mental health, including relevant information about PMS, PME, and PMDD could be a significant step towards changing those worrisome statistics.

The Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Women’s Mental Health provides a handy guide about PMS and PMDD to assist teenage girls in identifying possible symptoms – which can show up around ten days before the beginning of a menstrual cycle – through phrases such as:

“I feel sad and depressed – life is just not as fun.”

“My parents and I get into a lot more fights, and I just want to scream at everyone.”

“Getting my homework done takes so much more energy.”

“Sometimes I can’t fall asleep before my period, other times I sleep all day long.”

The truth is, whether PMS, PME, or PMDD (which is a recognized disorder by both the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization), teenage girls’ experiences of their menstrual and mental health should be taken seriously – it’s their well-being, health, and lives at stake.

If I could say something to my teenage self, it would be this:

No, you’re not ‘abnormal’ for experiencing these symptoms, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taken seriously, and that you have to live the rest of life miserably because of them. One day you’ll find the strength to advocate for yourself, and you’ll find people who will show you that it’s possible to live a better life, even with your mental health conditions. The road will still be hard, and very dark times will come; but girl, you’re a warrior, and you’re going to make it through.

More resources about PMS and PMMD for teenage girls can be found at the Center for Young Women’s Health, and Gia Allemand Foundation/International Association for Premenstrual Disorders which also offers a self-screen for PMDD and PME.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help immediately. In the United States, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For a list of international suicide hotlines, visit www.buddy-project.org/hotlines.

Where are the Adolescent Girls?

Amid the recent outcry over the separation of children and their families at the US border, the Trump administration has released photo after photo of detained adolescent boys. At first, however, there were no images released of adolescent girls.

After reporters, elected officials and the public began asking #wherearethegirls, the administration released a few carefully cropped images of detained girls. Wishing to avoid further outcry, they selected photos of girls who appear healthy and well. First Lady Melania Trump might even describe them as “very happy”, as she described the detained children she visited last week.    

Despite the pretty pictures and First Lady’s eyewitness account, I do not believe that all, or even most, of the detained adolescent girls are healthy and well. I’ve worked in enough humanitarian emergencies to know that adolescent girls – especially those who are separated from their families – are at risk of sexual abuse, trafficking and other forms of gender-based violence. Although we would like to pretend otherwise, the humanitarian crisis on the US-Mexico border is no different. All of the same risks are thrown into the cauldron, and adolescent girls feel the heat more acutely than anyone else.   

As in every humanitarian emergency, in this border crisis girls between the ages of 10 and 17 seemed to have vanished under our nation’s radar. The US Government lost track of nearly 1,500 immigrant children last year, so it is not a huge jump to worry that the few pictures and scant information on the girls that have been released might be all of the information that exists.

The Department of Health and Human Services revealed that some girls have been sent to shelters with boys in Homestead, Florida and Bristow, Virginia. Other reports indicate that some are being sent to foster care in New York City. Those places seem random to me, but perhaps they are selected precisely because they are random. They are a long, long way from the border and a long, long way from where their parents are detained – if these girls even are in Florida, Virginia and New York.  

At the risk of being accused of focusing on the extreme, I worry about trafficking. Each year, over 300,000 children are trafficked in the US. Although these children come from different backgrounds and include boys, I’ve never seen a refugee crisis in which girl children weren’t trafficked.

In the US, the networks and demand to enable trafficking already exist, and here we have a population of girls taken from their parents and placed in a system that criminalizes their existence. The Trump administration has also created a narrative that these asylum seekers are subhuman, which heightens their risk of abuse and exploitation.  

We call out the unjust and inhumane treatment of babies and toddlers, using what we know about early childhood development to understand the trauma being inflicted upon these young children. But we stop short of using what we know about gender-based violence to understand what’s going on with the absent girls. We ask the questions, but stop short of stating the obvious: many of these girls are being assaulted, abused and exploited. We recently learned that a facility in Houston is accused of medicating children, and yet there is no outcry about what that means for girls. Men, drugs and power have never resulted in anything positive for women and girls.

This administration has consistently undermined and dehumanized women and girls, and women and girls of color and migrant women and girls have taken the worst of it. Although I often feel helpless amidst the tides of violations carried out by this administration, I know helplessness gives space for continued human rights abuses.

Ultimately, it is our right to be seen and heard regardless of our race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status or ability, and this applies to girls as well as to those who care about what’s happening to them. ‘We the people’ includes all of us, and I believe that ‘we the people’ includes those girls who are out there, somewhere, depending on other people’s voices until they are in a space to raise their own.

As much as we are able, we should support organizations working specifically with women and girls, like the Women’s Refugee Committee and the Tahirih Justice Center.

Continue to follow Girls’ Globe for more coverage on this and other issues pertaining to the rights of women and girls globally.  

In Her Hands: Normalizing Menstruation in Nepal

In Nepal, approximately 290,000 women and girls menstruate every day. However, 82% of those living in rural Nepal use unhygienic and potentially dangerous menstrual hygiene management methods. A study from UNICEF revealed that 1 out of 3 girls in South Asia knew nothing about menstruation prior to getting their first period.

Based on societal ignominy, menstruation’s direct barrier to girls’ health and education remains a hushed conversation. As a result, both household dialogue and policy making discussions often leave menstrual hygiene management (MHM) off the table.

Menstruation signals a girl’s entry into womanhood and reproduction. It is a crucial time for adolescent girls to learn about their bodies and their health. Silence and stigma surrounding menstruation impinge on girls’ lives, as the inability to manage menstrual hygiene affects education, physical health, psychological and emotional well-being, as well as overall quality of life.

Old taboos surrounding menstruation die hard in rural Nepal. One extreme example is the customary practice of ostracizing women and girls from their own homes during their periods, known as ‘Chhaupadi pratha’. Chhaupadi – which is based upon the belief that menstruating women are impure – prohibits menstruating women and girls from inhabiting any public space and socializing with others.

The effects of Chhaupadi are extremely dehumanizing and psychologically stressful, with young girls being told that they will bring bad luck on their families if they enter their own homes during menstruation. In addition to being emotionally degrading, Chhaupadi places women and girls at risk of rape, abduction, snakebites, animal attacks, and malnourishment. Forced to sleep in rickety huts without adequate insulation or ventilation, women and girls face illness exacerbated by the cold and unhygienic conditions or in extreme cases, even death due to asphyxiation from improperly ventilated heat sources.

Despite being outlawed by the Nepalese Supreme Court in 2017, Chhaupadi retains a foothold in the country’s western region and continues to put constraints on the potential, action and participation of women. Even in regions where Chhaupadi is not practiced, taboos surrounding menstruation still severely affect Nepalese women and girls. Many modern households in Kathmandu still prohibit menstruating women from entering kitchens or temples, eating with the family or sleeping on their own beds.

Managing menstruation in resource-poor settings is often challenging. Buying a sanitary napkin is a luxury most rural women can’t afford, and so many end up using cloths, rags and – in extreme cases – straw, sand or even ash as menstrual absorbents. Such challenges are further increased by societal taboos, ignorance and embarrassment around menstruation.

The plight of women in Nepal deeply motivated me to break the silence around menstruation by starting a dialogue, and so I founded a Project called ‘In Her Hands’. It aims to destigmatize menstruation and encourage conversation through…

  • Advocacy campaigns on menstrual hygiene management
  • Focus group discussions
  • Facilitating access to sanitary materials and physical infrastructures like female friendly toilets and safe water sources
  • Capacity building activities for adolescent girls

The goal of our initiative is to start a dialogue around menstrual hygiene and liberate girls and women from silent suffering. We are working towards ensuring that girls have a voice in their communities so that their menstrual hygiene needs are taken into account. We also want to make sure that they have full control over their bodies, and that they are part of a world in which every woman and girl can manage her menstruation in privacy, safety and dignity.

The pilot project was conducted in the village of Ramdaiya Bhawadi in Janakpur, Nepal. Since beginning in early 2017, our work has benefitted more than 500 women and we are looking forward to expanding to other areas of need in the near future. The initiative has sparked conversation about a topic that many people previously felt uncomfortable talking about. It has also helped facilitate policy change at the local level while catalyzing action and commitment towards securing the basic human rights of girls and women.

Despite increasing evidence for taking urgent action, menstruation remains a neglected public health, social and educational issue that requires prioritization, investment and concentrated effort at national and local level. I believe that girls and their individual stories should be at the forefront of development and if menstrual hygiene management is included as a part of the conversation surrounding policy changes, we will be able to spark change.

Project ‘In her hands’ has recently been awarded the ‘Student Project for Health Competition 2018’ by Foundation for Advancement of International Medical Education and  Research (FAIMER). It was also recognized as one of the Top 12 finalist projects in the Opportunity Desk Impact Challenge 2017 by the Opportunity Desk.