Thirty-five preteen girls sit in a semi-circle as a grade 12 girl answers their questions on rape. The room goes silent as one girl asks, “Why do men rape?”
The facilitator takes a deep breath and says, “Many men lack sexual health education and women are regarded as weak and subordinate in Lesotho, so men believe they have all the power to make decisions.”
The young girls belong to Girl4ce, a program aimed at empowering and educating vulnerable village girls in rural Lesotho. The program is led by high school aged girls trained by Help Lesotho to be leaders in their communities.
The facilitator follows up by asking, “What does a healthy romantic relationship look like?” The girls offer words like, “trust”, “loving”, “honest”, “compassion”, and “communication”.
Girl4ce was created to empower girls with knowledge to fight for gender equity in Lesotho. The facilitators don’t sugar coat the grim reality faced by many Basotho women and girls; they speak openly about oral sex, condoms, non-consensual sexual relations and how to report rape.
“What is consent?” one facilitator asked the group and a small girl no older than 12 stood up to answer, “An agreement between two people.”
The US Department of State reports that violence against women is common in Lesotho. In 2008, there were 1300 reported cases of rapes and 7700 reported cases of domestic violence. According to UNICEF, in Lesotho 54.2 % of adolescent males believe wife beating is justified, while USAID found that 48% of men find domestic violence toward women acceptable.
Fortunately, the girls leave the program equipped with awareness about the overwhelming gender-based violence in Lesotho. They are encouraged to stand up and speak out about these social injustices. For example, the facilitators urged the girls to speak to someone they trust if they experience sexual violence or report the offense directly to the Child and Gender Protection Unit (CGPU), which can be found in each of Lesotho’s ten districts.
Rape Culture in Lesotho
Cultural attitudes that condone and excuse violence against women are common and accelerate rape culture in Lesotho. The following are widespread attitudes regarding a woman’s status in society:
It is commonly believed that having sex with a virgin cures HIV/AIDS. This belief leads to the rape of young girls and babies.
Another common cultural practice is the village “sugar daddy”. Men offer rides, clothes or cash to impoverished school girls, who often accept the offering willingly. After establishing the relationship, the sugar daddy shames the girl into providing sexual compensation in exchange for his “generosity”.
Young village girls in rural Lesotho, leave their homes in the mountains with the promise of work as maids or childcare givers, but are instead sold into sex trafficking in South Africa.
The Sexual Offenses Act of 2003 prohibits rape, including spousal rape, and mandates a minimum sentence of five years in prison, with no option for a fine. But there is no specific legislation prohibiting domestic violence or sexual harassment. There are provisions under common law and customary law for general assaults.
One Girl at a Time
Gender inequity is deeply rooted in Lesotho. Help Lesotho focuses on changing the lives and attitudes of one person at a time, through education, leadership development and psychosocial support.
Girl4ce prepares young girls for the challenges they will face in high school, such as peer pressure, teen pregnancy, HIV and gender-based violence. “Because of the love we try to show them, they open up and we can give advice and guidance to them. The main objective is to pass much needed life skills to younger girls,” said one of the program facilitators.