The #MeToo movement, which took the world by storm last year gave women a platform to discuss the abuse or injustices that they have experienced in their lives. For many young women and girls it has been an opportunity to speak out and demand change. But which voices are still silent and who do we still need to listen to?
In rural areas of Zambia, where there is no internet and poor phone connection, linkages to wider social media debates are not possible. These are the areas where girls walk for hours to reach school every day and where periods of both droughts and heavy rains impede on mobility and access to resources.
In Zambia, 27% of females in rural areas have no education compared to 18% of males. A girl is more likely to get married and have a child by the age of 18 than to complete secondary schooling. In fact 86% of pregnancies among school going girls in Zambia occur in rural areas among grade 1-9 girls.
So who is listening to what they have to say?
As adults, parents, policy-makers, managers of NGOs, teachers and defenders of girls’ rights, we often forget or don’t take the time to listen to the young girls around us. The conception that young people are unable express themselves fluently and have opinions about their lives is simply not true. But sometimes we need to ask other questions and be creative in the methods we use to listen actively.
At Impact Network, we work hard to ensure that children in rural communities have their voices heard and are actively involved in improving school life. Through our work across the Eastern Province in Zambia, with 44 community and government schools, the aim is to ensure that boys and girls alike have access to quality education. We believe that it is through learning and active participation that young people will improve their prospects in life and contribute meaningfully to society.
Through one of our many initiatives to do so, we involve learners in age-appropriate and child-friendly activities in a ‘Student Council’ to participate in decision making. We take the time to truly listen to what girls and boys have to say. In a recent student council meeting, children in grades 1-4 were asked to speak what makes them the most happy in school and to draw accompanying pictures. Many drew pictures of their classrooms, using technology, getting school lunch and interacting with peers. One girl was too shy to speak about her experiences in school but when asked to draw, her pictures spoke for themselves. She drew herself playing football with her friends.
In rural Zambia, it is rare to see girls playing football as it is often perceived as a boy’s activity and girls are often found on the sidelines. We need more girls to speak up about their passions and we need to listen to them, to ensure that everyone is given the space and opportunity to explore their interests – regardless of their gender.
At Impact Network, we can create safe spaces for girls and boys to discuss issues that matter to them. Through our Life Skills and Sexuality Program, content on growing up, peer pressure, reproductive health and safety are discussed in mixed groups of boys and girls as well as in gender-peer groups, facilitated by a trusted adult. Through the program, young girls and boys are given a forum to openly discuss issues that they face, share experiences and advice, as well as learn new skills that will help them in life.
“We are educating children, especially the girl child. With the help of the Life Skills and Sexuality education as part of the curriculum in our schools, we want to help our girls to handle themselves in difficult situations and to get boys to support their peers in different stages of life. Boys should know that they are important in solving the problems. For girls to be free from abuse, we need support from the community,” says Caroline Chibale, a 20-year-old facilitator for the Life Skills and Sexuality program in nine Impact Network schools.
For girls to complete school, there are many other challenges that need addressing. The financial barrier is a very real struggle for many large families in rural communities, and often boys are prioritised by parents to go to school. At Impact Network, schooling is completely free and all associated costs covered. Removing the financial barrier is one less challenge that girls need to overcome.
“I was able to complete my secondary school, as I had support from my parents. But there are families who cannot afford to send their girls to school. So many girls drop out because they do not have the financial support from their parents. But the financial status should not prevent girls from becoming who they want to be in life. I want to be a good role model, and I want girls to look up to people to know that they can become whatever they want to be,” says Chibale.
International Women’s Day is all about celebrating how far the movement for women has come and to acknowledge all of the important work that Impact Network and other organisations are doing for girls. Yet it is also very important to highlight the many challenges that billions of women still face around the world and how much still needs to be done.
At Impact Network we are adamant about listening to what young girls have to say, sharing their stories and more importantly taking action to ensure that girls are not only safe but thriving in school and beyond.