“A world of hope for adolescent girls” – Olive’s story

This is the fourth and final blog in a series sharing personal family planning stories from around the world – presented by CARE and Girls’ Globe in the lead up to the 2018 International Conference on Family Planning. Catch up on the whole series with stories from HawaParmila, and Oun Srey Leak.

Rwanda has made significant strides in empowering women and girls and ensuring they have access to affordable healthcare, including access to family planning.

Access to contraception has steadily increased from 17% in 2005 to 53% in 2015.

The government has decentralized and subsidized healthcare to ensure the most remote areas are reached and the most vulnerable communities can access services. However, the biggest unmet need for family planning is predominantly among young and unmarried women. In 2016 alone, 17,000 girls reportedly became pregnant before turning 18!

In 2016, the Government of Rwanda began providing comprehensive sexuality education in schools, however there is still a long way to go to ensure teachers are equipped with the skills and information needed to engage in age-appropriate, open and honest conversations with students.

I work for CARE in Rwanda, where I advocate for increased access to age-appropriate, integrated sexual and reproductive health services, rights, and education for in-school and out-of-school adolescent girls. Although the country has made notable progress in promoting women’s and girls’ rights in recent years, teenage pregnancies have continued to rise, leading to dire socio-economic and health consequences for Rwandan girls.

A few weeks ago, I attended an information session for young women in Kigali where a medical doctor explained available methods of contraception. I realised then that there is a lot young people do not know. But it made me wonder…

If the youth of Kigali don’t know how to prevent pregnancy or to take care of their sexual and reproductive health, what about women and girls who reside in rural areas where access to information and services is still a challenge – even a luxury?

In my time at CARE, I have seen the tremendous work the organisation is doing around the world to increase demand for sexual and reproductive health information and services, including contraception. Much of our work focuses on addressing underlying causes of poverty and vulnerability and helping communities to challenge harmful and negative socio-cultural norms that hinder women and girls from enjoying their rights and reaching their development potential.

Two weeks ago, I met a group of adolescent girls in Karongi District, Western Rwanda, where CARE is implementing the Better Environment for Education (BEE) project to increase chances of girls staying in school. During my visit, the girls talked to me about the various problems that they faced, including unwanted and early pregnancy. As I listened to their stories, I wondered whether we are doing enough to address these issues.

One particular 17-year-old stood out to me. As she narrated her story with teary eyes, she recalled the difficult time she went through when she found out she was pregnant, and described how she was abandoned by her family. She felt she had failed them and failed herself. At some point she was forced to quit school to raise her infant. But when the BEE project began, she decided to join one of the clubs and suddenly found hope. According to her, the clubs have provided a space and a voice for girls to talk and to get accurate and comprehensive sexuality education.

Although the local health centre is just a few metres away from the school and provides condoms and other contraceptive methods, young people in Karongi told me they feel judged and shamed when they go there to seek services that they are entitled to. The BEE project aims to address this as well by giving adolescent girls a platform to dialogue with the school administration and local leaders to express their needs.

Studies have shown adolescents are increasingly becoming sexually active before they turn 18 and this is a reality we should not ignore. Too often, in countries like Rwanda, adolescent girls do not have information regarding their changing bodies or sexuality in general.

Adolescent pregnancy undermines a girl’s ability to exercise her rights to education, health, and autonomy. It’s not only a health issue, but a human rights and development one too. 

I believe that CARE’s integrated approach to empowering adolescent girls, including economic empowerment through savings clubs, sexuality education, addressing gender-based violence and engaging power holders such as parents, boys, school administration officers, and local leaders is powerful in ensuring the problem is addressed from all sides. I have no doubt that this will bring about transformation in the lives of girls and their communities.

We have no more time to lose.

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.  

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.

My Voice is my Purpose, What’s Yours? – #YoungWomenSay

This blog post was originally published by The Torchlight Collective and Say It Forward as part of the #YoungWomenSay campaign.

I believe in introspection, where one digs deep in their heart to search for who they really are and what their purpose is. This introspection isn’t just for personal gain, but to meaningfully improve the lives of those around them. This process led me to realize that girls and young women often suffer in silence. This has motivated me to speak louder and begin my journey of elevating the voices of the voiceless.

I am eager to affect change that will make my community a better place for girls and women.

Menstruation is a natural phenomenon to girls and women; it has no shame. Yet, even today, girls and young women in my community are still using cow dung, leaves, and unhygienic pieces of cloth during their menstruation. Every month, girls miss school because they feel shy to walk the 15 kilometers to school with cow dung or leaves stuck between their legs.

The situation is only worsened during the day because some schools don’t have the facilities the girls need to wash themselves. Teachers are often forced to send these girls home until their periods are over. This is a major blow to a girl’s education because missing a few days of school every month makes it hard for her to keep up with her coursework. The lack of sanitary products is not only striping girls of their right to education, but also of their human dignity.

Many girls in my community never finish high school. This is caused by society’s negligence to award both girls and boys equal educational opportunities. It is this negligence that has created social imbalance where most girls and women are not able to read or write coherently, while boys and men do both with ease.

Gender inequality limits girls’ options, and it is a malicious way of making sure girls and women remain incapacitated.

Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, a Nigerian novelist and my role model, once said, “culture doesn’t make people, but people make culture.” This is a powerful reminder for me that my community can change. The girls in my community need knowledge. Knowledge will give them the power to fight gender inequality perpetuated by a culture that gives more value to boys than to girls.

This is why I believe that we need a new way of looking into the future, while learning lessons from the past. The past makes the present coherent, and the past will remain horrible for as long as we fail to assess it fairly.

Equipping girls and women with knowledge will serve as a stepping stone and an antidote to gender inequality.

I believe that one day, girls and young women will not be trapped the same way our mothers and grandmothers were. My dream is to encourage girls and young women to live the lives they desire, dream about the life they want, and break the silence!

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