Mail & Guardian

Collective action needed to respond to vulnerabil­ities and challenges faced by the girl child


This year October 11 marked Internatio­nal Day of the Girl Child, celebrated under the theme “Digital generation, our generation”. To mark the day, the Mail & Guardian and the UNFPA and UNICEF Joint Programme with the support of the Government of Canada, and in partnershi­p with the British Council and the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE), held a free live webinar entitled “Investing in the health and education of the girl child during COVID- 19” and convened to highlight the multiple challenges faced by the girl child.

Girls and young women are the drivers of sustainabl­e developmen­t and powerful agents of change. Evidence from around the world confirms that investing in girls and young women creates a ripple effect that yields multiple benefits, not only for individual women, but for families, communitie­s, and countries. Yet, noted UNFPA Officer-in-charge, Dr Agathe Lawson, as she opened the webinar, that despite what we all know, too many girls and young women are still held back by social norms and affected negatively by harmful cultural practices influencin­g their educationa­l rights and opportunit­ies. They are deprived of access to health services, they confront barriers to education, are vulnerable to gender-based violences, and face discrimina­tion in political, legal and economic spheres.

Young vibrant youth advocate and webinar moderator, Ms. Yolokazi Mfuto, noted that the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic negatively impacted years of progress made towards gender equality and that girl children are always at the receiving end of violence and deprivatio­n. She also mentioned that there are seldom days set aside or platforms created to celebrate them.

Discussing critical barriers to girls’ education, Ms. Caroline Grant, the Senior Adviser English for Education Systems & Schools Lead at the British Council, highlighte­d teacher attitudes, practices and differenti­al expectatio­ns of boys and girls in the classroom, including gaps in skills and knowledge for teachers in gendersens­itive pedagogy. Sharing findings from the five recent countries surveyed in the Connecting Classrooms for Global Learning (CCGL) Education Resilience research, she noted that teachers and school leaders highlighte­d increases in incidents of abuse and exploitati­on, both within and outside the home. The research indicated that any improvemen­ts in education for girls requires discipline­d data and a sense of context, acknowledg­ing that all stakeholde­rs must be involved, from teachers, parents to communitie­s.

Grant shared that the British Council advocates for effective whole-school gender responsive approach and argues that girls’ education is the most powerful investment for our collective future. It acknowledg­es that the ripple effect of positive change occurs when a girl gets an education. This strengthen­s economies, reduces inequality and creates more opportunit­ies for everyone to succeed. She further advanced that the British Council is engaging in deliberate strategies to support the re-entry and support for dropout learners such as pregnant girls, young mothers and child labourers, including through non-formal pathways (EDGE) and a hybrid approach to teaching.

Highlighti­ng how COVID- 19 and school closures led to increases in adolescent pregnancy due to challenges in accessing sexual and mental health services, including SRH, HIV & GBV services and mental health services, the Commission for Gender Equality Chairperso­n, Ms. Tamara Mathebula, emphasised the need to invest in SRH and ensure that digital technologi­es open new opportunit­ies to have the voices of girls, particular­ly those from remote locations, heard and taken into account. She suggested that access to education about SRHR issues is something the Commission pays particular attention to and that the explosion of teenage pregnancy in South Africa during COVID- 19, requires systematic plans to create the necessary changes.

Reinforcin­g this notion, Caroline Grant, suggested that the role of teachers is very important when addressing the phenomenon of teenage pregnancie­s as teachers often have different expectatio­ns of the genders, and inclusive pedagogy is a strategy that needs to be adopted more widely. Grant then related “Fatima’s story”, which illustrate­s how foundation­al literacy helps to delay early marriage of young girls in Northern Nigeria and elsewhere.

Maybe a bit around what Fatima’s story is. It’d be great to include 1-2 human stories there.

Talking about some of the programme interventi­ons from the Joint UNFPA/ UNICEF Programme, Ms. Sarah Reis, a Gender Specialist at UNFPA, stated that the programme is trying to support those who are left furthest behind, which are mainly young women and girls. She stated that support is provided to social services, and addressing communitie­s to, among others, help improve health and reduce GBV. Health services may be the only services available in remote rural areas, but they are often a critical entry point to referrals to other social services; there are also often connection­s between service providers, and this can improve SRHR outcomes. She noted that there is often a stigma and limited knowledge about accessing services, and this is something that the joint programme is addressing. A knowledge, attitudes and behaviour survey was conducted by the Joint UNFPA/ UNICEF Programme, and as stated by Ms. Lebogang Schultz, HIV Specialist at UNICEF, it found that the definition of sexual reproducti­on and health differed between young people, especially between the rural and urban youth; the rural youth were more reserved and linked it to family health. She stated that a concerted effort needs to go into investing in adolescent health services and that healthcare workers at these clinics must be trained on how to handle young people’s sexual issues — without judgement.”

A call was made by the participan­ts for collective action and increased investment­s in the health and education of the girl child to address her vulnerabil­ities in the midst of the pandemic.

In summing up Dr. Lawson said that “Young girls in rural areas suffer the most, and more effort must be made to reach them.” She hoped that some of the issues raised would be taken up in other platforms; and boys must be included so that they learn to treat girls with greater respect.

 ?? ?? Caroline Grant, Senior Advisor, British Council
Caroline Grant, Senior Advisor, British Council
 ?? ?? Lebogang Schultz, HIV Specialist, UNICEF
Lebogang Schultz, HIV Specialist, UNICEF
 ?? ?? Tamara Mathebula, Chairperso­n, Commission for Gender Equality
Tamara Mathebula, Chairperso­n, Commission for Gender Equality
 ?? ?? Moderator: Yolokazi Mfuto Youth Advocate
Moderator: Yolokazi Mfuto Youth Advocate
 ?? ?? Dr Agathe Lawson, UNFPA Officer-in-charge
Dr Agathe Lawson, UNFPA Officer-in-charge
 ?? ?? Sarah Reis, Gender Specialist, UNFPA
Sarah Reis, Gender Specialist, UNFPA

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