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Rising Up Against the Mistreatment of Girls

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Girls are fighting back against a surge in abuse

A young girl stands defiantly, her hands on her hips, refusing to let her parents send her for female genital mutilation. Her parents, surprised by her insistence, relent and spare her from this cruel practice. It’s a scene playing out in thousands of homes around the world, as girls refuse to be subjected to harmful traditional practices like child marriage, underage pregnancy, and female genital mutilation.

The economic and psychological challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused parents to turn to traditional practices for the certainty and comfort they provide in a time of great instability, despite the harm they are causing to girls, especially in countries in sub-Saharan Africa like Mali and Tanzania.

Girls in these countries face several linked challenges:

School Closures

Parents often wait for girls to be out of school before arranging marriages for them or sending them to be “cut”. That’s because schools are vital community centres pushing back against these illegal practices. With schools closed due to COVID-19, girls are more isolated and vulnerable, cut off from supportive adults and child protection authorities.

Economic Anxiety

The economic disruption of the pandemic means that parents think they are helping their daughters by arranging marriages for them – even when they are underage. The bride-price the husband pays helps off set lost wages for a girl’s family, while making the costs of caring for her his responsibility. In places where few women are in the formal workforce, the idea of a girl being self-sufficient through the employment opportunities that a quality education offers is an unfamiliar, distrusted idea.

False Beliefs and Social Pressure

In many communities, the false belief that female genital mutilation is necessary and proper is backed by its long tradition. Girls who are not “cut” are treated as lacking, and subject to slurs and bullying by their peers. Parents face sharp questions from their neighbours about why they are breaking from tradition. Community centres that host officials who help push back against these beliefs and share true information are closed, leaving parents and girls to confront the social pressure on their own.

These challenges combine with one another to create a surge of child marriage, underage pregnancy, and female genital mutilation. Girls who experience these abuses are more likely to drop out of school, earn less over their lifetimes, have poorer health outcomes including more dangerous pregnancies and reproductive issues, and are more vulnerable to domestic violence.

But we can stop this surge by supporting girls now, when the risk is at its peak.

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Keeping Girls Learning in Mali

In Mali, we are using radio broadcasts, public announcements, and other remote methods to keep girls learning and share vital child protection information with them. Our “Jam Suka” project, operating since 2016 in southern Mali thanks to the support of the Government of Canada, has helped tens of thousands of children resist abuse and exploitation.

As COVID-19 struck Mali, Jam Suka pivoted to provide support for remote learning. The remote lessons draw on Right To Play’s years of experience combining gender equality and child protection in Mali. By keeping girls visibly and actively learning at home, the long disruptions that provide a pretext for their parents to arrange marriages or send them for female genital mutilation are prevented.

Remote lessons also provide an opportunity to share information about the dangers of forcing child marriage or FGM on girls with their entire family, empowering girls to confront their parents and neighbours’ false beliefs.

Since COVID-19 lockdowns began in March, these vital lessons have reached 192,500 children of all ages in Mali through a combination of radio broadcasts, public announcements, and at-home learning packages. 20,000 children in grades 1 to 4 are receiving weekly remote lessons through local radio stations that include child protection and gender equality components.

Aissa is an alumna of Right To Play’s programs in Mali. Now, she teaches gender equality lessons to young girls. Read her story.

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Using Storytelling to Change Hearts in Tanzania

In Tanzania, Right To Play has launched a series of radio dramas written by girls in our programs that use powerful storytelling to challenge the social pressures that limit girls’ futures. More than 4.9 million Tanzanians listen to each episode, broadcast twice weekly in Swahili on local radio stations.

The dramas use fictional stories to illustrate and explain the risks that child marriage, underage pregnancy, and female genital mutilation pose to girls. The stories are sparking discussions about gender equality in families across northern Tanzania, and listeners are calling into the radio stations with questions about characters and ideas for future episodes that the writers incorporate.

Find out more about how we’re using storytelling to inspire, empower, and protect girls.

While the main audience for the dramas is isolated girls who need support, just under half the audience (2.15 million listeners) are adults and other family members who can help advocate for their rights. To further leverage their support, the dramas are supplemented with broadcasts over public announcement systems in village markets that reach busy members of families who are still at work or doing household chores.

The announcements are a trusted source of local updates and information, and broadcasting gender equality information over them helps reinforce the lessons the dramas teach to parents. More than 100,000 children, youth, and adults have received gender equality information through these announcements.

Our work in Tanzania is building on years of local partnership and advocacy against female genital mutilation and other abuses of girls. Prior to COVID-19, rates of female genital mutilation had dropped by one-third in the areas where we worked. But the global pandemic is threatening that progress, and the surge in cutting, underage marriage, and child pregnancy means that unless we act now, hundreds of thousands of girls will have their bright futures put at risk.

Read about Rhobi, a Tanzanian girl who stood up against FGM for the sake of herself and her sister.

Sign up to learn more about how girls are standing up for their rights

The Jam Suka initiative in Mali is generously supported since 2016 by Global Affairs Canada, a division of the Government of Canada.

Girls on Track in Tanzania is generously supported by the Government of the Isle of Man.