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

Balancing Passion for Education with Family Responsibilities

Education empowers girls with confidence and independence.  It provides girls with a path out of poverty, and it gives girls hope for a better life. Education is a silver bullet for empowering girls.  Education is the ANSWER.

But girls need access to education.  The primary barriers preventing girls’ access to education are lack of schools, distance to schools, conflict, hunger and poor nutrition, school fees, disabilities, and being the ‘wrong’ gender.

Even when girls have access, they are pulled out of school to help care for their families. They may be passionate about achieving an education, but they must balance that passion with family responsibilities.

Photo credit: Educational Empowerment

Ja Seng Mai understands this balancing act. Ja Seng Mai, 19 years old, is the eldest of five children, living in Myitkyina, Kachin State, Myanmar.

Even though I want to study and learn different subjects and attend the trainings like my other friends, my mom cannot afford to support all of us. Sometimes I feel angry and complain about my life and think why I can’t be like other people.”

Ja Seng Mai wants to be a good daughter and help her mom and siblings. So she works as a sales girl at the local Padonmar Store. In the evenings and weekends, she studies university courses online. She is now in her third year towards a zoology degree. However, these distance learning programs do not provide sufficient qualifications to obtain professional careers.

Recently, Ja Seng Mai was accepted into an exciting new program – Tech Age Girls (TAG). TAG is being implemented in Myanmar by IREX in partnership with Myanmar Book Aid and Preservation Foundation. Ja Seng Mai is one of 5 girls, ages 16-20, in Myitkyina to be selected to learn digital skills and leadership skills. During this time Ja Seng Mai will continue her sales job during the weekdays to help support her family.

The program runs for one year. During the first phase of 6 months, girls learn coding and data security skills. At that point, 3 of the girls are selected to move on to Phase 2 to learn online content skills and connect with female mentors. Finally, one girl is selected to advance to Phase 3 to attend basic ICT (information and communication technology) skills training. This finalist then conducts a community project using her newly developed skills.

By 2020, 85-90% of new jobs in Myanmar will require digital skills. Ja Seng Mai is obtaining valuable marketable skills to enable her to obtain a professional job. Her dedication to a pursuit of education is paying off for her.

Ja Seng Mai says, “I feel happy that I can help my mom to earn money.” At the same time, Ja Seng Mai is VERY happy to learn digital skills through the TAG program. She works hard to balance these two important priorities in her life.

ALL girls deserve access to education.

If you want to empower girls to achieve their right to education:

  • join Girls Globe conversations on Twitter @GirlsGlobe
  • become a champion for girls’ and women’s rights
  • donate to Educational Empowerment, and
  • let your voice be heard for girls worldwide!

EE empowers women and girls in SE Asia through education and equal opportunity, with a vision of improving socio-economic opportunity and creating gender parity. Please visit us at www.educationalempowerment.org and follow us on Facebook, Twitter @EEmpower, and on Instagram.

The Girl Child Platform is going to CSW

For the second year in a row the Girl Child Platform is going to the UN:s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York. The 61st session of CSW begins on March 13th and continues for two weeks. Representatives from UN member states, UN agencies and nonprofit organizations from all over the world will participate in the sessions.

The theme of this year’s session is “Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work”. Today the labour market is in many ways unequal. Women often have lower salaries and inferior benefits than men. Men are also more often in power positions than women. However, this year’s theme is also important for young girls and not only adult women. Reports by The Adolescent Girls Advocacy and Leadership Initiative indicate that teenage girls represent the most economically vulnerable group in the world. Above all the problem remains that women and girls do a lot more unpaid work, like taking care of the household and the family. In many cases this workload leads to girls having to leave school, which contributes to the fact that women in many cases can only find unqualified occupations because of their lack of education. Other issues that girls face are labour and sexual exploitation, child marriage and trafficking.

Girls who are given the opportunity to become economically independent increase their chances of becoming independent in other aspects of life as well, such as increased control over one’s own decisions, body and life choices. To make girls aware of the meaning of independence and economic empowerment in early ages enables equality in older ages. Real change in women’s economic empowerment can be achieved only when girls are empowered.

It is therefore vital that the girl perspective is included and represented in discussions on economic empowerment during CSW. We need to create change both for girls in the present and in the future. It is important to listen to girls themselves and not only have adults speak for them. This is a message that the Girl Child Plattform wants to spread during the upcoming session, as girls are experts on issues that concern girls. To do this we will bring with us 17 people from our member organizations who work with the girl-perspective, and spread the material we have collected from our campaign GirlSmart (Tjejkunnig in Swedish), where girls have sent in their thoughts on what needs to change in society for girls. Girls are experts on girls and their voices need to be heard.

Encouraging Girls to Take on the World through Education Centres in India

Offering girls basic education is one sure way of giving them much greater power – of enabling them to make genuine choices over the kinds of lives they wish to lead.

This is not a luxury. The Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women establish it as a basic human right. So why is it that despite proving to be a blessing to society the girl child is – in the worst case scenario – killed in the womb, or otherwise allowed to breathe but only the air of negligence, discrimination and deprivation?

Today, we’re not only proud of great women of science like Sunita Williams, or women who’ve acted as agents of change like Sarojini Naidu, or  women who’ve taught us what it means to be human like Mother Teresa, but we also encourage such people to come forward and reform our world. Why is it that even though we claim to be the biggest democracy in the world we simply cannot destroy the deep-rooted stereotypes against women, and particularly women’s education?

Azad India Foundation was formed by an idea and the will to make lives of underprivileged girls better. We have set up our organisation in one of the least literate districts in Bihar -with a literacy rate of only 46% – to provide the people of this area with equal opportunities as the rest of the country. Through our work we’ve tried to touch the lives of as many girls as we can and to enable them to take on the world by themselves. We want them to be independent, able to break the constraints of society, and be themselves.

Through Azad India Foundation we spread a message of love, equality and empowerment. We realise that even today, little girls are denied an education, potential members of the female workforce are denied a job and employed women are denied recognition.

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Photo Credit: Azad India Foundation 

We seek to bring about change through our Girl Child Learning Centres. This program was started in 2010 with the support of IIMPACT Gurgaon under the guidance of Mrs Yuman Hussain. The focus of the program is to bring back non-schoolgoing girls and dropouts aged between 6-14 from the most remote villages in the district to the folds of education and it’s aim is to act as a bridge between nonformal educaton and government schooling.

We are currently working in over 35 villages in Kishanganj district with about 1050 girls. We provide primary education and health and hygiene classes to these girls and then we mainstream them to the formal schools. Our teaching is done through play-way methods and teachers use visual aids and teaching learning materials including bamboo sticks, small pebbles, cards, chart papers and pictures. The students also contribute to making the teaching learning materials and other crafts in the classroom.

We conduct regular competency level tests at our Learning Centers where the knowledge levels of the students are assessed through written and oral tests. This helps in assessing the weak students and giving them remedial classes.

The teachers are women from the same communities as the girls themselves. We decided to hire these women because only they can understand the hardships many of the girls they teach are going through. The teachers are given regular training sessions and are made to attend workshops at regular intervals for their own development. We now have a team of excellent teachers who are determined to provide quality education to these girls. After seeing the determination of the girls to learn we decided to open around 20 libraries with age appropriate books to provide them with more reading material. We want nothing to hold them back and have done everything in our capacity to bring a smile to their faces.

The force which drives us to make efforts to improve the lives of these girls? It is the happiness we see on their faces. Their success make us feel proud of being associated with them.