India, Thank You for Re-energizing Me!

In front of me stands a woman in a blue saree. She is sharing her experiences as a female farmer in rural Tamil Nadu, India. We have gathered under a couple of trees to shield ourselves from the broiling sun and while we are talking, the cows standing in the yard are dipping their whole heads while drinking water from a bucket, trying to cool down in the summer heat.

As the woman in the blue saree tells me how old she was when she got married, I can only stare at her in disbelief. Of course I knew that child marriage exists in India, but this is the first time I’ve actually met a woman who got married when she was only thirteen years old. Although it has been prohibited in India since 2006, child marriage is still practiced regularly and India has the highest number of child brides in the world. According to Girls Not Brides, in 2016, 47% of all girls under 18 years old were already married. As I try to regain my composure and wrap my head around the fact that this woman was married when she was only thirteen, she just smiles and carries on talking.

The women I have met during my four months in India are some of the strongest women I have ever come across. Can you imagine being married at thirteen and having three children at the age of eighteen? For me, it is an unimaginable scenario – showing just how privileged I am to have the possibility to choose for myself what my (love)life will look like. However, for many women in India, choice is an impossibility. Furthermore, to speak about sex and reproductive health is still taboo and many girls do not know how their bodies actually work.

My time in India has made me realize, even more than before, how lucky I am to have grown up in a country where sex and reproductive health are relatively easy topics to bring up (even though improvements could still be made). It has also made me more convinced than ever before of how important the feminist struggle has been, and will continue to be for many years to come. It has reminded me that, as a feminist, I need to be responsive and listen in order to be able to choose my battles, without trying to impose my beliefs on others.

Intersectional feminism has taught me to be aware of my privilege, to listen and to understand that there are many different feminist struggles going on side by side. It has also taught me to realize when it is my place to speak and when it is not.

There are already a lot of initiatives in India working towards the abolition of child marriage (and other institutional inequalities), and sometimes the best thing to do is to show support and solidarity. As the world becomes ever more globalized and intertwined this will be important to remember as we go forward with the feminist movement. Because we must go forward!

Being in India has thought me a lot of things but most of all it has made me angrier than I ever was before. How can it be that I get to choose how to live my life when so many women and girls around the world can not choose how to live theirs? Of course, imperialism, colonialism, racism and capitalism can answer that question and explain why the world is so unfair. However, a theoretical answer is not enough. Action is needed. And it is needed now.

So, India, you mesmerizing, colorful, but oh-so-patriarchal country, thank you for all you taught me and all you made me realize about the world. But most of all, India, thank you for re-energizing me!

Involving Men and Boys in Efforts to Achieve a #BetterLife4Girls

One may wonder why men and boys involvement in matters like teenage pregnancies and child marriages is important. Well, it is clearly because behind every teenage pregnancy or child marriage, there is a male involved.

In the wake of the movement to end child marriage and teenage pregnancy, young people, parents, religious, cultural  and community leaders have to be called to action. Because these are issues that affect girls directly, it is of peculiar interest how pivotal the male voice has to be to make sure that the plight of a better life for girls is heard.

The fight for gender equality remains incomplete without male involvement as we stated earlier this year here on Girls Globe and we won’t repeat the statistics.

One part of of our agenda, from our recently concluded community dialogues in the eastern part of Uganda on ending under-age marriages and teenage pregnancies by Reach A Hand, Uganda supported by UNFPA Uganda, was to capture voices of men and boys as a way to continue involving them in anti child marriage and teenage pregnancy advocacy efforts.

Men and boys from the three Eastern region districts of Mayuge, Butaleja and Iganga, where the dialogues were conducted, showed keen interest in the topics, voicing similar concerns when it came to the causes of child marriages and teenage pregnancies. These included parental negligence, poverty, radical religious practices, minimal law enforcement, child labor, peer groups, western influence among others.

Mr. Muyagu Benard, the cultural leaders’ representative in Butaleja district noted that parents have shunned their responsibilities. “Parents do not spare time for their children, while others are too busy talk about sex education with their children,” he said, before condemning some for still believing in gaining riches through marrying them off, even at tender ages.

Mr. Gidudu Emmanuel, Officer in Charge Criminal Intelligence Butaleja district, warned that child marriages and teenage pregnancies lead to fatal damages like obstetric fistula, and in extreme cases, loss of their lives. He explained that these young girls’ bodies have not matured enough to carry the baby, let alone deliver it. This could lead to torn body tissues, a lot of blood loss and the possibility of death. He added that these girls get pregnant when they don’t even have enough food to feed neither themselves nor their babies and some of the children end up dying of hunger. He called upon everyone in the district to fight for change.

The Khadhi (Islamic leader) of Butaleja district, Sheikh Hajji Swaib Hussein Mukama, highlighted the fact that this is an era where girls should be taken to school because they are the mothers and leaders of tomorrow. He urged parents and fathers in particular, to support their children under the umbrella of religion to avoid teenage pregnancies.

The men in Mayuge pledged to stop individualizing children and vowed to make them a community responsibility so that there is joint effort in taking care of the girls and fighting against teenage pregnancies and child marriages.

On the other hand the young men advised their sisters to stay in school, avoid moving alone at night which can lead to being exposed to risks like rape and defilement. They further implored them to abstain, use condoms when old enough to have sex and to stand up for their rights in cases where they are forced into child marriages.

One of the young men, Desmond Ali, the chairperson Uganda National Students Association (UNSA) in Iganga district mentioned how he has already started contributing to bettering girls’ lives, by carrying a pad wherever he goes incase any of his female classmates need assistance. He also pledged to include child marriages and teenage pregnancy as an item agenda during the Annual Iganga UNSA meeting in February yext year.

Men and boys are often untapped-yet critical- resource in the fight against issues affecting society, especially under-age and child marriages. By not engaging them, we are stirring the pot deeper. Placing them at the forefront of this agenda, will transform respect for women and girls.

Featured Image: International Youth Foundation

10-Year-Old Girls are the Future of the World

According to the latest State of World Population by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), girls at the decisive age of 10 are the future of the world. At this age, girls are moving away from the world of childhood towards the world of adolescence and adulthood. In this season of life, it’s essential that girls be presented with opportunities, encouraged to dream big, given tools to pursue those dreams, and have access to education and health care.

For many girls around the world, this phase of life is when they begin to face the reality of limited choices in life compared to boys and when they become more vulnerable to discrimination and gender violence. This reality needs to be changed, not only for the good of these girls, but also for the good of their societies and the world as a whole.

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Here are 4 reasons why investing in 10-year-old girls is good for the world:

1) Access to education is not only a human right, but it’s essential to helping girls achieve their full potential. The more years girls spend in school, the more opportunities they will have to get better jobs and earn higher wages. Several organizations and leaders, such as Michelle Obama, have recognized the positive and long-lasting impacts of providing girls a good education, not just for girls’ own lives, but for their families, communities, and even for the economy of their countries.

 2) Access to sexual and reproductive health allows girls to receive crucial information about their health and sexuality, as well as providing them with important health tools such as vaccinations for HPV. Investing in sexual education for girls is essential as many young women simply lack information about contraceptives, STIs and pregnancy. Information about these very important topics can empower girls to make conscious choices about their lives and bodies. HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death among 10-19 year old girls, so investing on their health around this age means saving lives and preventing more infections in young girls. 

3) No child marriage means that girls can stay in school longer and pursue their life dreams and goals. It means that they can live healthier lives, be less likely to be infected with an STI, and can be free to be kids. It also means that they will have the choice to start their own families when and if they choose to. Child marriage is a human rights violation, therefore eradicating it means opening many doors of possibilities to girls which they wouldn’t have as child brides.

 4) Investing in young girls’ self-esteem helps to keep them encouraged to pursue sports, math, science, politics, or whatever they desire to pursue. The popular “Like a Girl” commercials by Always, have brought to attention how girls’ self-esteem tends to plummet significantly around puberty. Suicide has been found to be “the second-leading cause of death among adolescent girls”, which shows just how serious the issue of a girl’s self-esteem really is. Girls with high self-esteem will be more likely to pursue politics, to start a business, and to overcome the challenges they will inevitably face.

Investing in 10-year-old girls means investing in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which include good health and well-being, quality education, and gender equality. In 2030, when these goals are hoped to be achieved, today’s 10-year-old girls will be in their mid-20s. The lives they’ll live then and what impact they’ll be able have in society depends on the opportunities they are given today. The main reason why investing in girls is so important is quite simple: when girls thrive, so does the rest of the world.

For more information, check out the UNFPA State of World Population 2016, and consider ways of investing in girls, such as donating to organizations like UNFPA and Girls’ Globe, and sharing information about the importance of investing in girls on social media.

Featured Image by: Jessica Lea/Department for International Development
Additional Image by: UNFPA/Matthias Mugisha

Safe and Sound: Building Emotional Resilience in Refugee Girls

The photos of Syrian families fleeing war to the safety of refugee camps in Jordan are gut wrenching, but their distress is only worsened by family separation, physical danger, trauma, overcrowding, and lack of information about family, food, and relocation. And, being a refugee girl creates a “double endangerment” due to age and gender, according to Goleen Samari, a fellow with the international education non-profit Humanity in Action.

In Syria, this health vulnerability all too often often takes the form of rape, child marriage, and sex work by girls who then experience deep and lasting emotional distress. In fact, 2015 statistics show that girls under 18 make up 25% of all Syrian refugee marriages in Jordan. While parents say they arrange young marriages to prevent rape in camps, these marriages bring their own psychological consequences and risk for abuse of child wives. Additional risk factors include lack minimal access to education and menstrual products, adding to girls’ disempowerment, stress, and shame.

These circumstances all point to the interplay of mental health and sexual health, with extreme stressors that precipitate conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse, according to the WHO’s Assessment of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Needs of Displaced Syrians in Jordan. Compounding the issue, a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reveals limited training of aid workers to address prevention of these additional risks for women.

The WHO states that physical safety and meeting basic needs for food and supplies are at the core of protecting girls from psychological distress. By receiving access to the basics from aid organizations, girls and women will not need to turn to sex work to survive and may experience reduced stress and stigma that lead to depression, isolation, and anxiety.

Attending to girls’ emotional and educational support is also key, in terms of basic schooling and taking care of their mental and reproductive health. For example, the Another Kind of Girl Collective, WomenOne, and Save the Children International brought an innovative initiative to girls in the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan. The program provided training and equipment for girls to create documentary films about their lives, so that they could “articulate the unspeakable,” support each other, and connect to the outside world. The films are viewable on the Another Kind of Girl website, receiving accolades from around the world.

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Photo: Another Kind of Girl Collective, Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan.

“We strive to rise above our limitations and work toward our dreams. I feel it’s my responsibility not just to tell the world that truth, but to let people see it for themselves.”

-Khaldiya, filmmaker living in the Za’atari camp, in an Op-Doc appearing in the New York Times

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Photo: Another Kind of Girl Collective, Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan.

Storytelling in this form helps to reduce the more than 40% of refugees in the Za’atari camp who report no method for coping with their trauma and stress. Syria Bright Future, led by a psychiatrist who was himself a refugee, delivers therapy to refugee children and provides education in the Za’atari Camp, teaching adolescents about gendered violence and underage marriage in an effort to prevent these conditions. More aid workers must include trained professionals in trauma, depression, and mental health. These workers should be particularly using culturally sensitive screening tools while destigmatizing mental illness. This is critical to the success of attempts to help girls cope.

When it comes to the refugee crisis, we can all do something. There are some simple ways you can act to make a difference in the emotional health of girls in refugee settings:

  1. Sign a petition, or start your own, to protect girls from sexual violence, which you can do by signing this petition to the president of South Sudan or the International Medical Corps petition demanding access to basic medical and mental health needs for refugee families.

2. Donate to WomenOne’s filmmaking program for refugee girls in Jordan or its project to provide essential education and basic needs, such as food and school supplies.

3. Choose a organization involved in sustainable development that speaks to you, such as Circle of Health International or Mercy Corps. You can contribute supplies, volunteer any amount of time you have, or organize your own fundraiser to organize your community in making a larger contribution.

Featured Photo: Colombe Verges / Flickr.