How Young People Tackle the Climate Crisis Threatening their Pacific Island

Kiribati is one of the least developed countries in the Pacific with few natural resources, limited governance, institutional capacity, and infrastructure. Humanitarian crises are prevalent here, and the occurrence of extreme weather events is likely to increase due to the climate crisis as the sea levels rise and regularly flood coastal homes. 

Safeguarding Communities During Disasters 

Preparedness is key for the local communities. IPPF’s Member Association, the Kiribati Family Health Association (KFHA) has created a Humanitarian Youth Club. They meet regularly to plan rapid responses for their communities during a disaster.  

This initiative is designed to ensure access to essential sexual and reproductive healthcare during crises for women, girls, and vulnerable groups. Theta, 25, is a member of one of the Humanitarian Youth Clubs. She talks about her experiences and hopes for Kiribati. 

Theta and her daughter. Photo: ©IPPF/Hannah Maule-Ffinch/Kiribati 

Facing Challenges on Remote Pacific Islands 

“People here are taught that the withdrawal method or cycle tracking are the only ways to manage family planning. That’s what I was doing when I found myself with an unplanned pregnancy, and I now have a one-year old daughter who I raise alone.  

We face a lot of challenges here, one of them is disasters and the second is unemployment and school drop out with our youth. A lot of people drop out at senior level of high school and start to be influenced by alcohol.

I think parents’ skills are lacking on how to raise the youth. They tell their children they are not good enough or smart enough. I don’t agree with this though, I think everyone has potential.  

Climate change here is affecting jobs, especially those who are fisherman. When there is a high tide and people can’t fish, there will be no money or earnings for that day, or even food for their family. Even the crops, eventually they will die due to too much hot sun.

There was one family in my community, whose livestock such as cabbage and pumpkins were killed by the saltwater. Even my family, we have lost all our pumpkins. My baby daughter should be able to eat vegetables – but now she cannot as they have all died.  

One of my neighbours – who lived in the area most affected by flooding – lost their house and livelihood due to the rising sea levels. They tried to secure the land with sandbags, but they got discouraged when the high tide would come through. They have now migrated away. 

Young People Leading Community Response to Climate Crisis

The youth in my village have been organized as a club since we were younger. We have been very active and now we are leaders. I have helped the Humanitarian Youth Club to apply for financial grants from the Australian High Commission [for $1,000]. I am recognized as the smartest member who can write in English.  

During the Humanitarian Youth Club meetings, we discuss as a group what we can do for the next strong tide.

We discuss where we can gather as a community and what we can do if even the Maneaba [town hall] floods. If the tide and wind is too strong, we need to go to another safer place, such as another community’s town hall.  

We have learned how to design a disaster plan for the community. We share our ideas on sexual reproductive issues such as STIs. The issues were demonstrated in a drama by youth in our community. One of the volunteers from KFHA described to us how it would feel to be a pregnant woman in a disaster. 

For now, I want to enjoy the chance to be in our own beloved country.

I will not move until the majority have already left. I want my daughter to grow up in the same place I grew up in. Isn’t that what most people would want?” 

This post was written by Nerida Williams, IPPF Senior Humanitarian Communications Advisor & Theta Kiraneti, Humanitarian Youth Club member, Kiribati. Share your insights in the comments section below!

Lockdown in Uganda: Solutions in a Time of Crisis

On March 31st, the Ugandan government announced a nationwide lockdown and curfew to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Clare Tusingwire, Girl Up Initiative Uganda’s Programme Director, has continued to support our communities during this difficult period.

Read our interview with Clare to learn about the impact of the lockdown on the lives of women and girls, and what Girl Up Initiative Uganda (GUIU) is doing to help.

1. What is daily life like in your community during the lockdown?

COVID-19 has made the lives of many living in Kampala extremely difficult, particularly in the deprived slum areas where GUIU works. While the government is distributing food to the most vulnerable families, not everyone is receiving the handouts.

Families are improvising every day because they do not have enough savings to sustain them. In the very poorest households, people are eating porridge made of cassava flour mixed with water and salt. For many, this is the cheapest starch available. 

2. Do you have any individual stories to share?

One story that particularly struck me was from a mother I counselled. She told me that she was feeling despondent because she used to be able to work to provide for her children. Now, she is struggling to provide a daily meal for them because her income stream has dried up. She told me that she lets her children rest and read their school books while she completes the heavy household chores. She hopes this will reduce the children’s hunger as they wait for their next meal. When she later received one of our relief packages, she was so excited.

3. What is the specific impact of COVID- 19 on girls and women in Uganda, particularly those living in urban slum communities?

Girls’ education has been significantly disrupted since the closure of schools. This is further exacerbated by increasing incidences of GBV as men are under more mental and economic stress.

As we know from other crises, girls and women are the most vulnerable.

As the incidence of GBV increases, there is a risk that some girls might never get the opportunity to return to school to complete their education. Parents usually save for fees over time, and there is likely to be a shortfall of money since livelihoods have been disrupted due to COVID-19.

4. Can you describe Girl Up Initiative Uganda’s response to COVID-19?

GUIU is reaching out to the girls and the families we support through our Survive & Thrive Fund. Two weeks ago, we started distribution of ‘family relief packages’ for the families of the at-risk girls we work with to enable them to survive. These packages contain food, soap, and sanitary pads to help families stay healthy and fed. We have already served 550 families, and aim to reach a total of 1,500 families.

Distributing the packages has also been critical as it give us the opportunity to check-in on and counsel the girls enrolled in our programmes in person. We are also sharing information about a 24/7 tollfree number (0800200600) where people can report cases of abuse or ask questions about COVID-19.

5. What do you think the long-term effects of the COVID-19 crisis will be on the rights of women and girls?

Due to the COVID-19 crisis, girls and women face the risk of backsliding and regression in terms of achieving gender equality and women’s rights.

The longer the lockdown continues, the more girls and women will lose their freedom to speak out. Girls will be unable to access safe spaces and programmes, such as our Adolescent Girls Programme.

More girls will be at risk of early pregnancy. They will also be more vulnerable to abuse from older men who offer to provide pads, food, and school fees in exchange for sex (‘sugar daddies’).

6. Do you have any advice for those who are currently experiencing lockdown?

We must tirelessly continue to raise awareness of COVID-19 by reminding our programme participants and our own communities to keep safe, keep healthy, and wash your hands.

As my team emphasised in our recent Ray of Hope podcast episode, we must balance our fears of COVID- 19 with positivity. Listening to the news can increase anxieties, so we need to be reminded that life will get better. There will be life after COVID-19.

You can find out more about Girl Up Initiative Uganda through our website and by following us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Finding My Voice & Protecting Girls from FGM/C

Most people who knew me as a child knew me as a very shy and timid little girl. Yet, today I am outspoken: I can argue with you on the subjects I feel strongly about! One of those subjects is gender equality. My passion is protecting girls and young women, in my own community and beyond, from female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).

I work as a community facilitator with Amref Health Africa in Marsabit County, Kenya. The project is called Koota Injena, which means “come, let’s talk”. We work within four communities – the Borana, the Gabra, the Rendile, and the Samburu – to end FGM/C and early and forced marriage, and to redefine the value of girls.

My parents come from different communities. My mother comes from the Gabra community while my father is from the Borana. I have the most amazing parents who taught me the importance of embracing both these cultures and loving them deeply. Among the Borana and the Gabra, FGM/C is a deeply-rooted and culturally significant practice. The prevalence rate is around 98%, which tells you that almost every girl you meet will have suffered the cut.

“It’s only by talking openly that we will change things for good.”

The focus of Koota Injena, as the name suggests, is dialogue. In my community, like most African communities, it’s taboo for a young person to discuss cultural issues with clan elders. This is especially true for women and girls. Yet, I won’t give up. It’s only by talking openly with each other that we will change things for good.

No one can tell my story the way I can tell my story. That’s why I started speaking out. I decided, why not inspire people? Why not inspire young girls from villages deep in Marsabit County and make sure that they know the importance of education and that they know their rights.

Listening and Learning

All kinds of people cut their daughters, even political leaders, professors, and doctors. In Marsabit, we have women traveling from other countries (the UK, the Netherlands, the USA) to have their daughters cut, before returning home. Many of these people are highly educated. Yet they continue to believe that FGM/C is the right thing to do for their daughters.

That’s why I always say that it’s not just a question of education. It’s important to change mindsets and attitudes, too. I really believe that the work of changing culture can best be done by people from that culture. You have to meet people where they are. There is no one approach that works for all the different countries and communities where FGM/C is practised. We must listen and learn. And we need to make space for different perspectives and different voices.

Safe Spaces

In late 2019, I came to London for the first time and met local activists working to end FGM/C in the UK. I attended a workshop facilitated by Sarian Karim-Kamara, founder of the Keep the Drums, Lose the Knife collective, which brought together women from Sierra Leone, Kenya, and Guinea. Some were survivors of FGM/C, while some had been affected in other ways. They had friends or family members who had suffered the consequences of the cut or daughters they were trying to protect.

It was amazing to see these women, who didn’t know each other, speak so openly. They spoke not just about FGM/C, but about gender-based violence, relationships, family planning, reproductive health, and sex and pleasure. It was very emotional.

This is the same kind of safe space that we try to create in Marsabit. We have mother-daughter forums where women can talk about whatever affects them in their day-to-day lives. This is actually the most impactful part of the project: it’s the part people always ask for more of.

“You cannot force change.”

Meeting with these women reinforced to me the importance of understanding and respecting a culture before we try to change it. We all need to recognise that there are aspects of our cultures that are harmful to girls – but you cannot force change. 

Changing culture takes a lot of time. And people are not very receptive: first you’ll be insulted, you’ll be called names, and people won’t even come to your meetings. But as you keep talking with them, people will slowly come to you and they will want to speak out and tell their own stories.

If we are going to end FGM/C, we all need to take responsibility: start from your home and make sure you protect your daughters, nieces and sisters from this harmful act. We need more people to join us on the journey. Together, let’s end FGM/C!

Diram Duba is a survivor of FGM/C who works as a community facilitator with Amref Health Africa in Marsabit County, Kenya.

Equal Education is a Right, not a Privilege

I don’t know where you are as you are reading this.

I want you to think about your workplace, wherever that may be. At an office, a school, university, college, at home. You strive to do your best every day, you work hard, you try to have good grades/performance/stats/work ethic. You go to work (or school, university etc) every day.

Now I want you to imagine having to work under the following circumstances and really think whether you would be able to give a successful performance every day. Would you be able to reach your full potential under any, or all, of these scenarios?

  1. You have no access to electricity
  2. You have no toilets, you have to go in the field/parking lot/wherever you can
  3. You have toilets, but they are pit toilets
  4. You have no access to water

Would you be able to give your best under these circumstances? Do any of these four points make you a bit uncomfortable, or maybe even disgusted? Can you imagine having to work under these circumstances? Many people (including myself) are privileged enough not to have to worry these issues in our workplaces.

Now imagine your children having to go to school under these circumstances. Would you accept it? Would you complain? Would you want to change things?

According to Equal Education, of the 5000 schools in the Eastern Cape in South Africa, 245 have no electricity. 53 schools have no toilets at all, 2127 have pit toilets only, and 197 have no access to water. Read those numbers again.

In South Africa, we are quick to insult the percentage of ‘failed learners’ in poorer communities. But how can we expect young people to work at their best if their basic needs are not being fulfilled? I, for one, would not be able to do my best under any of those circumstances.

We are quick to judge. We are less quick to question how we can help or raise awareness. Again, I include myself.

For those of us who are privileged enough to be unable to even imagine these four scenarios being applicable to our own education, we are too comfortable. We live in accidental, and sometimes intentional, oblivion. We turn a blind eye to things when they don’t affect us.

It’s time we start opening our eyes, South Africa. It’s time we see that what affects one South African affects all of us. There are significant inequalities in our education system.

Many of us cannot afford to help financially – I realise that. But we can all speak up and bring the inequalities in our schools to the attention of those who CAN help financially. We can all make a difference – you can start by sharing the campaigns and publications of movements such as Equal Education.

Let’s start standing up for those who are not seen. Let’s start using our platforms, however small, to bring those who need a platform up there with us. Let us make space for them to speak up, let us help them to be noticed.

Let us no longer be silent on issues that don’t necessarily touch us directly.

Let us use our voices and really live out the Ubuntu philosophy – ‘I am because you are’. We need each other, every South African of every race, culture, religion, gender and beliefs.

If we speak up, I believe we will see change.

We are quick to say that things are unacceptable, that things need to change. Let’s be just as quick to help where we can, to build others up, so we can stand together.

South Africa, together we can make sure that education is equal. 

My Menstruation is not a Sin!

Throughout the world, menstruation shares a common universal feature; women have historically been shamed because of it.

Although female sexual and reproductive health has started to become more important as a topic of study and discussion in the last few decades, many women to this day experience an overwhelming level of stigma around menstruation.

In many low-middle income countries, access to sanitary products such as pads and tampons is extremely restricted, forcing young girls and women to use inappropriate products, such as a piece of old cloth or banana leaves. A dire consequence of using unsanitary products is the development of genital and urinary tract infections that can, if unimpeded, cause severe complications.

While this is a truly worrying situation, it is not highlighted enough as a public health issue – primarily due to the stigma and shame surrounding menstruation.

The lack of proper sanitary products and/or facilities often forces girls and young women to miss school. This in turn affects women’s long-term economic development. This is not only seen in low-middle income countries; in the UK for example, girls and women often cannot afford the sanitary products they need – a problem known as ‘period poverty’.

In many countries across the globe, menstruation is considered dirty and repulsive. In some cultures, it’s even seen as a sign of ‘loss of virginity’ – insinuating moral and ethical depravity. In many countries, women and girls are ordered to leave their homes for the duration of their menses to prevent ‘desecration’ of their homes. In all these scenarios, girls and women find themselves ostracized, humiliated and expected to accept this without question or debate.

Even in parts of the world where the situation may not be so extreme, some degree of stigma remains around menstruation – large enough to prevent girls and women from seeking medical care because they feel too ’embarrassed’. Within the bounds of such societies, menstruators may not seek medical help and may not be able to recognize important health-related problems should they arise.

In the UK, almost 80% of adolescent girls have experienced a distressing symptom relating to their menstrual cycle but have not approached a medical professional for advice.

A large contributor to these misbeliefs is the lack of education and awareness on menstruation. This leads to an inundation of false conceptions and misrepresentations. Due to the restrictive social norms in many parts of the world, it is a topic rarely discussed within the family structure.

Not only does this mean an uneducated society when it comes to female sexual and reproductive health, but it also means that many young girls have no or very limited knowledge on what to expect and how to react when their menses start. Instead, they become more confused, isolated and unable to manage their menstruation in a safe, clean and dignified manner.

Many countries have addressed several of these demanding issues. In Kenya for example, free sanitary products are available and in neighbouring Ethiopia, menstrual hygiene clubs have been established in many schools.

How we are trying to help

The Swedish Organization for Global Health (SOGH) – in association with Uganda Development and Health Associates (UDHA) – has launched a project titled Ekibadha: Our Periods Matter, in recognition of this extremely important matter.

The UDHA Dignity Project

The project aims to understand and highlight the difficulties women and girls in rural Uganda are facing regarding their cycles. The project is in its first stages, but our goal is to develop a community-based initiative that involves the entire community which will be sustainable – economically and environmentally.

“Men should be more involved” said one of the women we interviewed last summer in one of the rural villages in Muyage District. We agree! Men need to be part of the conversation, this is not just a ‘women’s issue’.

To learn more about the project, please visit www.sogh.se/ekibadha-our-periods-matter/

How you can help

You can help us take this project forward. We are currently raising funds to support preliminary data collection, which is fundamental to shaping and guiding the project. Data will also give us the basics to apply for institutional funds. Click here and help us out, every penny is worth it! https://www.gofundme.com/MHproject-Uganda

Interview with a woman in Muyage District about menstrual health by SOGH and UDHA.

For any further information or to get personally involved please email us at MHproject@sogh.se. You can also help by spreading the word, sharing this article on social media.

#OurPeriodsMatter #BloodyIssues

Turning the Tide in the Caribbean to Educate Adolescent Mothers

The Caribbean, known for its white sandy beaches, clear waters and vibrant culture is also home to the second highest adolescent pregnancy rates in the world – second to Sub-Saharan Africa. The highest rates of adolescent pregnancy within the Caribbean are found in the Dominican Republic and Guyana.

When a girl becomes pregnant she faces many challenges, such as being kicked out of school, ostracism from family and friends, lack of support from the father of the child(ren), and lack of access to continuing her education. 

These challenges lead to a cycle of intergenerational poverty, unemployment and gender based violence.

Despite a societal culture that does not encourage adolescent mothers returning to school, strides have been made to ensure that they have the opportunity to continue and complete their education. Specifically, in Jamaica, multi-sectoral approaches have led to the establishment and implementation of the Policy for the Reintegration of School Aged Mothers into the Formal School System, which mandates that adolescent mothers be allowed to return to school after having their child.

To date, approximately 2,850 adolescent mothers have been reintegrated into the formal school system. Jamaica is the first Caribbean island to have such a policy, while the implementation of Guyana’s reintegration policy is currently underway.

There have also been advances in supporting adolescent mothers through programming. Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and St. Kitts and Nevis are a few of the Caribbean countries that have programs or organizations dedicated to advancing the health and rights of adolescent mothers.

In Jamaica, the Women’s Centre Jamaica Foundation is promoting a new approach to problems associated with teenage pregnancy, especially in the area of interrupted education. Women Across Differences in Guyana implements the Empowerment Programme to provide a safe and friendly learning environment for mothers to acquire sexual & reproductive health information and services , as well as life skills to create a better life for themselves and their children.

The Adolescent Mothers Programme (Trinidad and Tobago) and Project Viola (St. Kitts and Nevis) are programs established through collaborative efforts of ministries and community-based organizations. Both provide a wide range of support such as counseling, career development, parenting courses and skills training.

As a native of Jamaica and the founder of Pearls of Potential – an organization providing support and services to adolescent mothers in the developing world – I am proud of the work that has been done in the Caribbean in supporting adolescent mothers.

Caribbean leaders must understand the importance of educating adolescent mothers. They must also establish and strengthen resources and policies that will support the completion of their education.

It is important for governing bodies such as the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States to create agendas that include goals in support of adolescent mothers and ensure that these goals align with the Sustainable Development Goals. The continued tangible support of international non-governmental organizations such as UNFPA, UNICEF and UNESCO is also paramount to the sustainability of current programs.

On this International Day of Girl, with the theme With Her: A Skilled GirlForce, we must make a commitment to ensure that adolescent mothers have the opportunity to continue and complete their education, which will give them a chance to gain skills for employment, provide for their child(ren) and contribute to a growing society.

We must remember that when we invest in our girls, we invest in our future.