“It’s a story that keeps me up at night.” – Q&A with Chernor Bah

During the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Girls’ Globe attended an event with a particularly passionate speaker, Chernor Bah, from Sierra Leone. Starting work at 15, he travelled throughout his country gathering stories from child soldiers to assess the impact of years of war on children, Bah is now an associate at the Population Council, the youth representative on the UN Secretary General’s Global Education First Initiative and chair of the its Youth Advocacy Group. Bah has also emerged as a champion for women’s rights, advocating for the importance of empowering girls and women.

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ah gave Girls’ Globe a look into his work on the ground, his insight into the reality of battling gender discrimination and-most importantly-his belief in its power to succeed.

Q: Can you give us an example you’ve seen on the field that highlights the plight of women & girls?

This is such a hard question for me, because I know so many. But one of the cases I’m dealing with right now is a very industrious young girl who paid her way through high school – keep in mind only 10% of girls in Sierra Leone even finish high school – this young girl was able to finish high school with the hopes of enrolling in a full university program.

She decided to go to a highly placed official in the Ministry of Education  in Sierra Leone and say, “I need help – I do well in school, I hear you do government scholarships, I need some help.”

What happens is instead of supporting her, the official – allegedly, I should say- asks her for sex in exchange for any support. When she refuses, the official allegedly rapes her.
This became a big story in Sierra Leone. The girl had to suffer indignity and moral judgement. She had to drop out of school, it was untenable for her to continue in university. Nobody wanted to be seen close to her. She took refuge in a safe home run by a local organization.
And of course, because the official is very connected in government, they do a spectacularly poor job of prosecuting the case even though the medical examiner said that there was clear evidence of rape. But the jury still found the official not guilty, and he was acquitted of all charges on some very flaky technical grounds.

So what’s happened with this girl is she wanted to go to university in a country where that is the exception. Now she can’t have that. She thought that at least the court case would be an example to other girls. Now she’s been branded by the court as a liar.

I think this highlights the challenges we face as a society that is so entrenched in terms of patriarchal culture, in terms of power, in terms of lack of opportunity, in terms of how girls cannot push back against the wall.

It’s a story that keeps me up at night. It does highlight for me just the spectrum of the challenges that we face on a personal level and a structural level and community level.

Q: While speaking on the panel, you said, “Who bears the brunt of crisis? Girls.” Can you elaborate on that statement for me?
Absolutely. When a crisis happens, people say that focusing on girls is a luxury. But once you look beyond the periphery, you find that the people who suffer the most are the girls.

In a conflict like famine or Ebola, one of the ways people are affected is isolation. Now, on that measure alone, girls have lower social capital than boys. And when they are isolated, it affects them way more, because girls need the social spaces that they hardly have – they do not have a lot of luxury, a lot of free time, especially poor girls.

And when there’s no food in the house, the primary responsibility falls on the young girls. In Sierra Leone, when there was Ebola, there was no food, there was no movement and family members died, who had the responsibility of bringing food and taking care of the siblings? It’s not the boys. It’s not the men. It’s the young adolescent girl who really becomes the primary caregiver in her home and in her family. She has to cook, she has to go sell in the market.

And what happens when there’s a breakdown of law and order? What typically happens is there’s an increase in lawlessness. And how do men express lawlessness? Without exception, they exact power over women. The rates of sexual violence spiked in Sierra Leone and the rate of brutal rape cases that we hear of, in war to the Ebola crisis, that went up.
And something else that went up: the number of what the government themselves referred to as visibly pregnant girls. In one year, the number of girls who were pregnant was so high that the government had to put in place a new policy which banned pregnant girls from going to school. If they were pregnant, they couldn’t go to school, because there were too many of them.

So you find a situation where because of the crisis, her vulnerability goes up, her isolation, displacement, lack of food and water, all these things go up. And often, the only way she has to provide for her family is an exchange of sex, often unprotected sex, which leads to a disproportionate number of pregnancies.

Then the government adds to that. The only hope she has to get out of this is education, and that’s what they take away from her.
Across every one of these measures in terms of taking care of the home, in terms of health, in terms of law and order, in terms of isolation, in terms of displacement, girls carry the burden. Unfortunately, they’re often the last that any of the relief efforts get to, especially the poor girl. When they’re planning these efforts, they think somehow that if you just give generally, everyone will get a share. But we know that’s never true.

Q: Given your experience, what do you think is the best way to go about changing mindsets about women and girls?
I think the best way of changing mindsets over time is not education, it’s not a PR campaign, it’s not an advocacy campaign. The best way to change mindsets is to show that girls have values and can be great changemakers in their community.

I always give the example of the civil rights movement. You don’t spend finite resources on trying to convince white people that black people are human beings. I think you spend the resources on investing in black people, putting them in school, giving them economic empowerment, making them President, making them become leaders in their society.

When we’ve achieved critical mass, when it’s not the exception anymore for a young girl born in a village somewhere to become a businesswoman, mindsets will change.

I think yes, we have to spend some resources and some time on engaging mindsets, but I think that the best and most important way of shifting the paradigm is direct investment in girls. Let’s change the story of what happens to girls. Let them break the social barrier, and then I don’t think we have to worry about mindsets.

 

Cover photo credit: Celine Kamanda, Flickr Creative Commons

SDG 17: The significance of Gender Equality in strengthening Global Partnerships

Gender equality is central to the achievement of majority of the SDGs, however has to be made a primary principal objective in the implementation of all the global goals, at national levels. Goal 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals calls UN member states to “Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development”. In delivering it’s mandate to catalyze global solidarity for sustainable development, women and girls have to be seen as key partners in development and active economic agents.

SDG 17 is key to the implementation of all the other goals, as it addresses the shortcomings and insufficiently achieved agenda of MDG 8 which was aimed at catalyzing  global solidarity for sustainable development, where after monitoring and evaluations, was found weak in designing and implementing the mobilization of support from wealthier countries to deliver sufficiently on its mandated goal. In 2015 and beyond, Goal 17 thus has to play critical importance to achieving equality and inclusive development in revitalizing global partnerships, with a stronger focus on the role women play to ensure its significant accomplishment by 2030.

Globally, women on average are paid 24% less than men, where in developing regions, up to 95% of women’s employment is informal, in jobs that are unprotected by labour laws and lack social protection. This unequal economic participation is the inclusive cause of opportunity inequalities, power imbalances and income disparities that currently exit all over the world. Therefore, in implementing the finance, technology, capacity building, data and trade targets, UN Member States and national governments who have committed to the goals have to ensure that they back programs which improve access to women and girls’ education and healthcare as well as remove barriers to political participation, access to decent jobs and finance.

Gender segregation is evident in reality and there is a strong need to pay attention to the economic empowerment of women and access to high-quality education for girls. In 2012/2013 only 5% of foreign aid funding had gender equality as one of its primary objectives. Despite the fact that gender-based data is crucial to better define how to achieve gender equality, only about one third of countries have specific departments for gender statistics. In this case, it has to be known that technology is a key element to overcoming gender-specific barriers as it plays a significant role in bridging the knowledge and digital divide gap and thus plays a role as an enabler for women’s economic empowerment. Therefore, moving forward countries have to ensure that access to technology, knowledge and information is improved, that high-quality disaggregated data, monitoring progress methods and evaluation measurement tools are put in place and publicly readily available and accessible. Participation of women and girls is crucial in this process as they have to play an essential role in visibly demanding the accountability of all stakeholders for the full implementation of international norms and standards on gender equality and women’s empowerment, ensuring that national policies are accurately and efficiently implemented, leaving not one child, woman and adolescent behind.

Focusing on women’s economic empowerment is crucial in implementing north-south and south-south cooperation and partnerships, and therefore a commitment to adopt gender-sensitive and equity-responsive policies and agenda is vital to recognizing women’s issues and rights to putting women and girls at the center of the key means of implementation in fostering global partnerships.  To achieve this we need to enhance momentum in the construction and dissemination of disaggregated data, foster mechanisms that will allow women to productively engage in the socioeconomic development of countries, enhance womens’ political participation in all levels of decision making, allow for national policies and implementation strategies to reflect international gender equality standards and making gender mainstreaming the standard strategy in national government policy making.

In essence, women and girls constitute of the largest population in the world living in poverty, with higher barriers to accessing reproductive services and rights, education  and information, employment and finance opportunities, than their male counterparts. Thus, in the implementation of Goal 17 governments will have to address the unequal access to productive resources, the restriction of access to community managed service and prevalent provision of poor quality – to ensure that they make far-reaching contributions to create enabling environments to address the underlying structures of inequality which are crucial to consider within the mandate and objective to strengthen and revitalize global partnerships.

Illustrations for the SDG campaign have been made for Girls’ Globe by artist Elina Tuomi.

SDG 16: Promoting Peace for All

The penultimate Goal of the new Sustainable Development Goals focuses on peace and justice, calling for the global community to “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”.

Targets that sit under the goal include significantly reducing all forms of violence and related death rates, ending exploitation and trafficking, promoting the rule of law at national and international levels and ensuring equal access to justice for all. There are also targets to reduce illicit arms flows, combat organised crime, and reduce corruption and bribery.

In the wake of recent global events, a world at peace may feel further from our reach than ever before. At the same time, striving for such a world has never felt so urgent. This month, a coordinated massacre unfolded throughout Paris and deadly bombs struck the streets of Beirut. This week,  Brussels remains on high alert due to a ‘serious and imminent’ terrorist threat. Today, more than 43 million people worldwide woke up forcibly displaced as a result of conflict, and civil war continues to tear through Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Somali and Yemeni, amongst many others. Violence appears to saturate our world, and so how can a more peaceful world by 2030 possibly become a reality?

It almost goes without saying that high levels of violence and insecurity have a catastrophic impact on a country’s development, affecting everything from economic growth to personal relationships between communities. Sexual violence, crime, exploitation and torture are all more prevalent where there is conflict or no rule of law, and economic and social structures quickly crumble under the weight of bribery and corruption. For the SDGs to succeed by 2030, global institutions, governments, NGOs and communities must work collaboratively to create long-term solutions to conflict and violence. The path to these solutions starts with strengthening the rule of law, providing access to justice for all and promoting universal human rights.

Unsurprisingly, this is easier said than done. Persisting gender inequalities mean in today’s world, women are often less able to access justice than men, putting the progress of Goal 16 in immediate jeopardy. At a recent international conference, Snežana Samardžić-Marković, Director General of Democracy for the Council of Europe, said: “Access to justice is not only a fundamental right in itself, but it is also a right that is instrumental to achieving other – equally fundamental – rights”. Until gender inequality is addressed, our judiciary systems will remain too weak at their very core to adequately support citizens within the peaceful and inclusive societies that SDG 16 aims to promote.

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On Global Open Day for Women and Peace in Kabul, Afghan women peace activists voiced their concern about women’s security and access to justice. (Photo: UNIFEM)

Women’s access to justice needs to be increased from local to international levels. We need greater participation of women in the justice sector, and greater representation of women in court rooms. Informal justice systems should be analysed and reformed alongside institutional ones, and a more responsive system equipped to advance women’s equal rights and opportunities needs to be fostered.

In conflict zones in particular, there must be comprehensive justice and criminal accountability for sexual violence and crimes – women and girls are often systematically targeted in conflict and post-conflict countries through mass rape and mass sexual violence. The combination of violence and weakened societal protection structures is a devastating one, and  reparation for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence is critical for countries undergoing transition from a conflict zone.

The task of promoting peace and justice in a world so seemingly full of violence sounds at first like an incomprehensible one. The focus of the global community needs to hone in on practical steps that can be taken to make our societies more peaceful, more inclusive, and more just. Ensuring that women and girls have equal access to systems and processes to allow this to happen has to be a priority from the outset.

Illustrations for the SDG campaign have been made for Girls’ Globe by artist Elina Tuomi.

 

 

SDG 14: Healthy Oceans, Healthy Women

Our vast, global ocean is a constant reminder of humankind’s fragility and impermanence. A moment at the mercy of a crashing wave demands respect for nature’s strength. A glimpse of a 40-foot humpback whale makes us feel impossibly small on our big, blue planet. And an encounter with a white shark takes us to another time, long before humans began to upset the Earth’s natural processes.

Our shared ocean also provides countless services that we each enjoy every day. It captures massive amounts of carbon. It offers a much-needed source of protein, especially in coastal developing countries. And in some cases, it even ensures access to clean and consistent drinking water.

But the marine environment as we know it is changing. The ocean is getting warmer and more acidic. Our seas are rising. Coral reefs are dying and other important habitats have been destroyed. Our ocean is filled with plastic and some areas are too polluted for wildlife to thrive. The big fish are gone and we’re now working harder to fish the small ones.

In many ways, the ocean is nature’s great equalizer across nations; we all feel humbled in its presence, we all benefit from its health and we all contribute to its demise. Which is why U.N. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 sets a shared global goal to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development,” calling for us to work together to chart a new path forward.

But while the power of the ocean is undeniably one of our planet’s profound unifiers—regardless of geography, race or class—the effects of our transforming ocean are not always felt equally. Women and girls are uniquely impacted by these changes in significant ways.

As water quality impacts cascade up the food chain, toxins such as mercury become more concentrated in larger fish, including tilefish, swordfish and tuna. Women of childbearing age need to think about fish consumption in a way men don’t, since these toxins are particularly damaging to developing fetuses and can linger in the human body.

As populations of wild ocean fish continue to dwindle as a result of overfishing, illegal fishing and loss of habitat, we lose a critical source of nutrient-rich protein, which is especially important in coastal developing countries. Since women and girls make up 43% of the agricultural labor force worldwide and up to 90% in some African countries, more weight falls on them to find other ways—additional grains, legumes or vegetables, for example—to make up for this nutritional shortfall in providing for their families. This is particularly difficult in places already impacted by climate change, drought and flooding.

Shrinking fish populations create yet another distinct challenge for pregnant women worldwide, where Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—an essential omega-3 fatty acid that is critical to fetal brain and retina development—is primarily derived from seafood and algae.

And although half the world’s population lives within 60 km of the coast, sea level rise stands to disproportionately impact coastal developing countries, where projections forecast larger changes at lower latitudes. This is especially true since many of these communities lack the resources or infrastructure to plan for resiliency. Coastal flooding means women and girls must face additional farming challenges and travel greater distances to collect potable water and biomass fuels. Worse, they may be forced to migrate further inland with their families.

In many ways, women and girls stand to gain the most from a clean, thriving ocean and smart coastal adaptation strategies. Stricter air and water quality standards and alternatives to pesticides mean cleaner coastal waters. And that translates to fish that are safer for women and their families to eat. Marine protected areas and comprehensive fisheries management that prioritizes local, artisanal fishing can ensure access to wild fish–a critical protein for women–now and into the future. And proactive planning for our rising sea levels will protect local communities, including their homes, food and water supply, from coastal inundation.

With all these benefits to be gained, it stands to reason that women and girls can and should pioneer the marine conservation movement. And in some places, they already are: the United States is home to inspirational ocean champions like Julie Packard, Dr. Jane Lubchenco and “Her Deepness,” Dr. Sylvia Earle, who have already mentored generations of emerging women leaders.

Globally, there is every reason for women and girls to spearhead this movement, as well. As specialists in agriculture, water and forestry systems, women are well equipped to translate that knowledge to complex coastal ecosystems. Women and girls are also natural communicators who routinely hold together the fabric of families, communities and societies. With these skills, they’re especially suited to bring together diverse stakeholders, scientists and decision-makers to achieve forward-thinking and collaborative solutions for the challenges we face in the ocean. I’ve personally participated in countless ocean conservation meetings, symposia and conferences and felt the empowering strength of tens, even hundreds of women looking back at me as we tackle the most pressing marine issues together. And it’s extraordinary.

Samantha Murray is the Water Program Director at Oregon Environmental Council. Prior to that, she was the Pacific Program Director with Ocean Conservancy, where she spent nearly a decade working to protect some of the ocean’s most special places.


Illustrations for the SDG campaign have been made for Girls’ Globe by artist Elina Tuomi.