From Child Worker to Girl with Big Dreams

Written by Anna Safronova, Fellow at SOS Children’s Villages  

In 2001, Diane* was born to a family of poor farmers in a small town in Burundi—a landlocked nation in East Africa where 81% of the population lives on less than $1.90 per day. The money her parents earned wasn’t enough to provide Diane the stable life she desperately needed as a child. Sadly, when Diane was six, her parents were unable to cover the costs of medical care and ultimately lost their lives to malaria. Without a family, Diane found herself completely alone. Instead of starting primary school, she was forced to work as a domestic worker in order to survive.

I was six years old at the time. I felt alone, confused, rejected, with nowhere to go,” Diane said. “I looked for work as a domestic helper. I moved from family to family looking for a place that could be the home I had lost. I really suffered.

Diane’s story is heartbreaking, but sadly not unique. Her plight of having to work in order to survive is shared by hundreds of thousands of orphaned children in Burundi—a country which is ranked one of the 10 worst countries in the world for child labor. In fact, nearly one in four children in Burundi is a child worker.

Many of these children are forced into domestic servitude either to support their families or even just to support themselves. While at work, they are more likely to become victims of verbal or physical abuse.  Orphaned girls in Burundi like Diane are particularly vulnerable to the worst forms of child labor like sex trafficking, exploitation or domestic work in private households. The toll this can have on these girls’ emotional and mental health is significant.

Child labor also has an especially detrimental effect on girls’ education. Girls often leave school disproportionally earlier than their male peers to undertake domestic work.  Sadly, by forgoing school for work, their chances of becoming self-sufficient, contributing members of society are significantly diminished.

One way to break this cycle is to make sure that girls are given a chance to grow up in stable families. Families that allow them to be children and do what children are supposed to do: learn, play and feel loved. For girls who live with vulnerable families, it’s critical that we help them become stable and strong through family support programs in order to prevent family breakdown and child abandonment. For orphaned, abandoned and other vulnerable children, we need to work tirelessly to make sure they are able to grow up in a stable, loving family environment — like the one Diane is growing up in today.

In 2009, when Diane was eight years old, she was welcomed to live with a family headed by an SOS Mother—a trained caregiver—at the SOS Children’s Village in Cibitoke, Burundi. The village is one of 570 SOS Children’s Villages working around the world to provide loving and stable families for children in need. Growing up in such an environment provides girls like Diane with the building blocks needed to realize their full potential: an education, medical care and a stable family.

My mind is settled now and I am performing well in school,” said Diane, when asked about her life in the SOS Village. “My SOS Mother helped me to feel important and to regain my self-confidence. I now know that the power to become what I want to be in life lies within me. Now that I have a chance to go to school – good school – I know my future depends on the effort I put into my schoolwork.

Diane’s transformation from a child worker to a child full of dreams is a testament to how a stable family can change the course of a girl’s life. Today, Diane, 13, is free of everyday worries of survival and receives the love and support she needs to dream big and pursue her dreams.

As global citizens, we should all work together to empower girls worldwide by providing them with the building blocks needed to realize their full potential: a stable home, education and quality health care.

This summer you can change the course of a girl’s life by supporting SOS Children’s Villages’ Invest in a Girl campaign. Sponsor a girl and receive an ALEX AND ANI Sand Castle Charm Bangle, designed for SOS Children’s Villages. 

*Name changed for privacy reasons

Fistula in Her Words

As storytellers mobilizing support through narratives, we are acutely aware of our responsibility to do so without jeopardizing the privacy or dignity of the people we serve.

Today marks International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, and we’ve been reflecting on an important question: How do we, as fundraisers, clinicians and global health advocates, talk about fistula without imposing our own narrative and excluding women from their own stories?

How do we talk about fistula?

Obstetric fistula is one of the hardest global health topics to discuss. Women living with fistula are some of the most vulnerable in the world. Each has survived a prolonged, obstructed labor, which could have killed them, only to survive with lifelong morbidities.

Women who survive obstructed labor often lose their baby. The babies that survive can suffer lifelong neurological disease caused by reduced oxygen levels during labor. These babies may suffer paralysis and developmental deficits. In addition to the chronic incontinence that comes when a fistula develops, the women who survive this dangerous labor often experience foot drop, infertility, internal scarring that prevents normal sexual relations, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

When a woman returns home with a fistula she is constantly leaking urine, faeces, or both. As a result, she will often face stigma and rejection from her own family and community. Every day, we see the devastating effects harsh words from misinformed family and community members have had on the women who receive free, comprehensive treatment from our sister organization in Tanzania, CCBRT.

“Some of [my neighbors] said having children caused this, others told me I was being cursed by witchcraft”. ~ Fadhila
“My step father influenced my young siblings by telling them that my condition was contagious and that they should keep away from me. They were always laughing at me.” ~ Mercy

In addition to surgical and physical rehabilitation, CCBRT provides counselling and therapy to address the emotional and psychological scars left by fistula, and conducts national awareness raising campaigns to battle the misconceptions surrounding the condition.

Fistula in her words

We asked twenty women and girls undergoing treatment at CCBRT how they identify themselves and prefer to be identified – they chose words like ‘mama’, ‘businesswoman’, ‘entrepreneur’. Not one person wanted to be thought of as a ‘patient’ or a ‘victim’. The women and girls we serve do not want fistula to define them or their place in their community.  It is imperative that we tell these women and girls’ stories on their terms.

The power of an international platform

Kupona and our partners are in a privileged position, able to raise the voices of women and girls who often struggle to make themselves heard even before they are faced with severe trauma. We are inspired by the strength and resilience of those we meet, and strive to communicate that when we amplify their stories.

“In meeting women and learning the stories of what they do to support their families, and how much they have overcome, I am amazed by their strength. I have met women like Christine. A woman of great self-worth, she built her life with little support, and today she stands tall because she found the care she needed with a skilled surgeon. I will always remember her – not as a victim, but as a strong, empowered woman who is a role model, and my hero.”
~ Kim Keller, Johnson & Johnson

We also try to hear our words as they would sound to women who have lived with fistula. Our goal is never to be sensational or graphic; it is always to elevate the voices of these women and girls, allowing them to share their stories in their own words.

“Women with fistula have suffered so much, so deeply.  Many have been voiceless for too long, hiding their injury in shame. The very least we can do is choose our words carefully when it comes to discussing their condition or sharing their story, to be as respectful as we possibly can.” ~ Kate Grant, CEO, Fistula Foundation

As global storytellers, we are custodians of other people’s stories. We still have so much to learn, not just from these women, but from their families as well.

“While many women with fistula are abandoned by their husbands, in every fistula center you will find many husbands who support their wives, bringing food, clothes and news from home, talking to the nurses and doctors and celebrating the day that their wives are able to make the trip home. These men, whose stories are invisible and whose needs are not understood, are certain to have much to teach us. Imagine the value yet to be tapped if we were to expand our storytelling to include these husbands, from whose resilience and creativity we have much to learn.”
~ Dr. Lauri Romanzi, EngenderHealth

 We want to learn from you too. Join us for the #HerWords Twitter Chat TODAY –Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 10 am ET – and share your thoughts on the power of language.

Kupona Foundation is CCBRT’s sister organization in the United States, mobilizing resources to enable the sustainable growth of their life-changing work in Tanzania. CCBRT’s comprehensive fistula program is one of the largest in the world. In 2016, over 1,000 women received treatment and holistic care for obstetric fistula at CCBRT Disability Hospital in Dar es Salaam, and 6 other partner facilities across Tanzania. Learn more at kuponafoundation.org

International Day for Maternal Health and Rights: A Call for Action

Post written by Serra Sippel and Bergen Cooper.

The International Day for Maternal Health and Rights was launched in 2014 by the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) with other global sexual and reproductive health and rights organizations with support growing every year since.

On behalf of the International Day for Maternal Health and Rights Steering Committee (including the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, Ibis Reproductive Health, Maternal Health Task Force, Pathfinder International, and The White Ribbon Alliance) we are calling on the United Nations to support universal, comprehensive, respectful, and rights-based maternal health by officially recognizing April 11th as International Day for Maternal Health and Rights.

Maternal rights violations continue to persist and the United Nations’ recognition of this day would bring much-needed attention and funding to address health and rights challenges so many women face.

Approximately 303,000 women die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth each year, and most of these deaths are preventable. Over the past decade the evidence for how women too often experience disrespect and abuse during childbirth has grown. Women’s experiences in pregnancy and childbirth are complex. Where they live, their provider experience, local laws and customs are all factors in what makes up each woman’s unique experience. These factors can negatively affect women and we must stand with them and their right to respectful care.

Supporting maternal health and rights not only empowers women but their children and communities too. The Zika virus, to take just one example, is a threat to women, children, and families around the world. It threatens women during pregnancy, childbirth, and post-partum. However, the World Health Organization no longer classifies it as a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” There is good cause for concern that Zika will soon be ignored, leaving women without critical information and care. Official recognition of the International Day for Maternal Health and Rights would help alleviate this problem.

A new threat to maternal health and rights is President Trump’s global gag rule, also known as the Mexico City Policy. The new policy prohibits foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive U.S. global health assistance from using non-U.S. funds to counsel, refer or provide women with information or services related to abortion. Studies of past global gag rules have shown that the policy is associated with increased unsafe abortion and decreased access to contraceptives. With the new global gag rule expanding across all global health assistance, we anticipate that the health impact on women trying to space pregnancies safely and those who are pregnant could be dire.

The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and other countries have already stepped up to help fill the funding gap that Trump’s global gag rule has left when it comes to life-saving reproductive health services. By recognizing April 11th as International Maternal Health and Rights Day, the United Nations would signal to the world that it also intends to increase its attention to the health and rights of women globally.

The United Nations has the power to amplify the voices of women worldwide. This year, as we commemorate the fourth annual International Day for Maternal Health and Rights, we look to you for timely, necessary, and permanent official recognition.

Break Barriers to Maternal Health and Rights from CHANGE on Vimeo.

Cover photo credit: Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE)

5 Reasons to Opt for Reusable Sanitary Towels

Post written by Helen Patricia Amutuhaire, Content Developer, Reach A Hand, Uganda

I have finally found a solution to my menstrual challenges and it took me a total of 15 minutes. It happened at the Science Cafe hosted by the Health Journalists Network in Uganda (HEJNU) and supported by Reach A Hand, Uganda and UNFPA Uganda.

Since 2015, I have been suffering from burns every month due to the use of disposable sanitary pads (towels). Perhaps it’s because my flow has reduced recently or because I am older now (23), or perhaps it’s a reaction to the gel used in the pads.

Whatever the reason, the burns put me through hell because the pain is unbearable. The option of tampons is uncomfortable for me, but I still needed to use something. I am still young…these periods are here for a while!

The solution became clear as we discussed menstrual hygiene at the Science Cafe. I have been hearing about reusable pads for years now but like a lot of my girlfriends, I was convinced that they are not my kind of thing.  When AFRIpads explained how they actually work, I put aside the myths and hearsay and gave them a go.

Let me tell you the about magic of these pads and why you should try them out too:

  • Comfy and tender on the skin

When it comes to being cozy, the reusable pad has got it all. They are velvet-soft and smooth and the only sanitary towel with 100% certainty of not burning no matter how heavy the blood flow or how long the pad is worn. This is because they are made of cloth and not synthetic gels.

  • Easy on the pocket

Let’s do the math. A pack of 8 sanitary pads costs UGX 3500, an equivalent of $1. Normally a woman uses one and a half or two packs a month which is UGX 7000 – roughly $2. For those whose preference is tampons, a regular pack of 8 will set you back UGX 7000 ($2) or UGX 16000 ($5) for a maxi pack. Annually, that makes UGX 72,000 ($21) for sanitary pads, 84,000($24) for regular tampons or 192,000 ($54) for maxi packs of tampons. Now imagine a household with a mother and three daughters…you get the idea. On the flip side, a pack of 3 reusable sanitary pads is UGX 7000. That’s $2 for an entire year!

  • Eco-friendly

Anything that is environmental friendly has got my support. To handle my period and still be able to help preserve the environment is reason enough to entice me to use this innovation. Yes – use the reusable pads and be the hero who preserves her environment.

  • Effective

We have all experienced the dreaded nights when you have to wake up to change a pad because your flow is heavy. Did you know that Afripads reusable pads come with a night pad which is designed to last longer while you sleep? No more losing sleep over changing a pad in the middle of the night.

  • Secure

These pads have a liquid proof line on the back side which prevents the blood from leaking. The pads able to literally take away all of a girl’s menstrual worries one by one (except the cramps…that would be too good to be true). These pads have wings with toggles to secure them on your underwear so there’s no worry of the pad slipping off. If I’m at work and I need to change my pad, it comes with a clever pouch specifically designed to keep the used pad until I get home to wash it.

Cover photo credit: Reach A Hand, Uganda

How Music and Theatre are Educating Young People in Uganda

Last Wednesday (March 8) marked International Women’s Day. The energy and effort within the women’s rights movement has clearly not slowed down from 2016. Events like the Women’s March on Washington (and the ripple effect that that has caused worldwide) as well as the consequent A Day Without a Woman campaign have showcased the creativity and inspiration that emerges when women come together to express their views on what they believe to be right and just.

Girl Up Initiative Uganda (GUIU) has been working to set the stage in Uganda for spreading messages on sexual and reproductive rights and health (SRHR) and gender-based violence (GBV) through creative means – music, dance, and drama. The initiative proves that the performing arts are an effective medium of ‘edutainment’ – challenging gender norms and creating spaces to discuss sensitive topics.

As a community-centered organization, it made sense for GUIU to partner with Plan International Uganda for a youth-focused program called Ni-Yetu (translating to It Is Ours in Swahili) – operating in five districts of Uganda. In Kampala, Ni-Yetu has introduced two activities to spread messages on SRHR and GBV- music campaigns and drama group performances.

Performing arts are a lighthearted but powerful way of conveying information with serious undertones that sticks with people; they are more appealing to the younger generation than traditional health marketing and are more easily digestible and interactive. These types of events also bring together the community in one place at one time to amplify issues.

Music is very popular among young people, and plays a key role in their socialization, learning, and behaviour adaptation. GUIU sought out lyrically talented young people to participate in an awareness campaign in Kampala, named “Positive Talent! Music Talent Against Child Marriages and Teenage Pregnancy”. The intention was to unearth local talents and promote positive behavior change messages based on the theme. 

GUIU held the music campaign, together with Plan International Uganda, Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), and the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Community Development in November 2016. 76 young people attended the orientation to compete in the competition, of which 30 returned with music demos. A panel of judges selected the best 10 songs, and later gave the artists the opportunity to produce their song to be performed in the grand finale. The grand finale was a huge success, with a venue packed with over 800 youth excited to hear the songs and vote on the winner. It was evident that these young people truly love music, and that this is one of the most effective ways of delivering messages on SRHR and GBV.

Beyond the edutainment of the Ni-Yetu Project, GUIU has also produced our own songs on the rights of adolescent girls so that we can reach a larger audience with our messages on gender equality. These songs can be found on our Soundcloud station and on local radio stations. We’ve been working with upcoming artists to increase awareness, support young people’s talent, and provide a platform for young people to advocate for youth-friendly services. This year we will be hosting a Charity Concert with PJ Powers aka “Thandeka”, one of South Africa’s most famous recording artists.

Another approach being used by Ni-Yetu Program is to reach out with information and skills on SRHR and GBV through forum/community theatre conducted by youth drama groups. Forum theatre is a type of drama which encourages interaction between the audience and the actors. GUIU, together with Straight Talk Foundation, trained and supported two youth drama groups to conduct forum theatre performances in communities and schools.

Interactive drama performances allow youth to critically explore their life experiences and better understand  why they behave and act in certain ways. It attracts a diversity of community members who share their knowledge and practice decision-making skills. This approach is a unique way of making information and knowledge accessible by acting out relatable real life situations. This triggers reflections and generates discussions that has the potential to transform traditionally-held societal and cultural beliefs around SRHR and GBV.

We all have a role to play in promoting gender equality, so let’s consider new approaches of spreading awareness and knowledge in our communities through the performing arts. We live in a visual and auditory age, where music, dance and performance are effective mediums for knowledge transfer. At Girl Up Initiative Uganda, we look forward to further exploring the power and impact of various forms of ‘edutainment’ as a behavior change strategy to reach youth throughout Uganda.

Cover photo credit: Girl Up Initiative Uganda 

Musings of a Global Feminist

Different kinds of oppression exist around the world, but for this post I will focus on gender oppression in sub-Saharan Africa and the US. Being a woman often times leaves one at a disadvantage, no matter where one lives in both these places. The US happens to be a place where people are quickly placed into categories — through stereotypes and generalizations– and I have come to learn that being a woman of color adds a layer of complexity which exposes one to additional forms and degrees of discrimination. That said, women and girls have more freedom and opportunities in the US as compared to many , countries worldwide.  Exposure to these opportunities is part of what motivated me to join a team of global feminists based in Uganda and around the world, working tirelessly to fight for girls who do not have the kinds of opportunities they need and deserve in order flourish in life.

Coming to the US from Zimbabwe opened my eyes in a lot of ways. In my opinion, the liberties women and girls have in the US is partly due to the lack of ‘cultural justifications’ that can be used to stifle their progress. In addition, being a nation that prides itself on democracy and freedom, it would be contradictory to be seen internationally as oppressing half its population. There remain, however, prevalent inequalities rooted in gender discrimination, such as unequal pay, low representation in roles of leadership and decision-making, and unfair policies regarding pregnancy and maternity leave. In other societies and cultures, this can be intensified by socio-cultural norms as well as the eco-political climate– something some Western feminists have been said to overlook, and feminists working on a global scale have to continually research, analyze, and address.

When I was thinking about this post, I realized that I must first clarify the question: what is feminism? According to Webster dictionary, feminism is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities’ or in action, ‘organized activity in support of women’s rights and interests’.

Girl Up Initiative Uganda (GUIU) works with a feminist lens to counter the implications that come with being a girl in the slums of Kampala. GUIU believes one’s gender should not relegate them to second-class citizen status:

“…Girls are as intelligent, they are as good, they are as brilliant, so girls have to be up. It’s not true that girls just have to take the second place in society, so we are saying girls have to be up, because the men, they are already up…” Monica Nyiraguhabwa, Executive Director, GUIU

Growing up in Zimbabwe, it took me coming to the US to comprehend some of the injustices that existed around me, from the recent stripping of a young woman for being dressed ‘inappropriately’ (something street harassment laws protects women in the US from), to challenges girls face revolving around early sex, teen pregnancy and child marriage.

Author as a child. Photo Credit: GUIU
Author as a child.
Photo Credit: GUIU

When one looks at the issues holistically, it becomes obvious that a lot of the gender discrimination in the global south is related to poverty and economic hardship, the lack of political will to protect them, and institutionalized patriarchy which is backed by socio-cultural beliefs. I was fortunate to have grown up in a quasi-middle class family, and so some the local traditions did not affect me as much. Still, I was constantly reminded that I was a girl, and even today, that I am a woman, who should ‘know my place in society’. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the value of certain traditions and cultural expectations, especially for a nation state with a colonial legacy, trying to hang onto what remains of their own history. But, at the same time, I refuse to allow some of them that have become harmful and outdated to marginalize me based on gender. Unfortunately, not everyone has the freedom to think or act this way, and this is where organizations like GUIU can step in.

GUIU teaches girls through its curriculum to know their rights and explore their potential so they can attain their life goals, and working with GUIU has been my way of channeling that energy and instinct I have had from a young age.

I am by definition shamelessly, a global feminist; and GUIU as an organization I work with, champions feminism’s underlying ideology — the belief in equal opportunities for all girls and women.

Maxine Chikumbo is currently based in Washington D.C. and works remotely for GUIU as the Content Creation and Social Media Intern