CONTENT WARNING: this article discusses gender-based violence*
16 days. 16 girls. 16 stories.
During 16 days of Activism we’ll be introducing you to 16 girls, each with an important story to tell.
Their stories may surprise and shock you but their experiences are not unique. A common thread connects them all – the insidious presence of gender-based violence.
We often think of violence as a physical act causing physical harm. But for girls around the world, violence has many faces. It can be subtle and not easily recognised but still deeply damaging.
Through these 16 girls, you’ll be exposed to unimaginable resilience, the far reaching impacts of gender-based violence and an opportunity to support girls in ending it once and for all.
Esnart is nine years old. She loves going to school and playing ball games with her friends. Until recently, she and other girls her age were at risk of also becoming child brides, a practice that cuts across races and religions and strips girls of their childhoods and their futures.
Just last year in Malawi, girls as young as 10 could be married, before a successful campaign in 2017 led by young activists saw child marriage outlawed completely. Esnart and her peers can now decide if and when they choose to marry, but conflict, food crises and poverty mean many girls are still vulnerable to the practice. This will only change when we tackle the root causes as well as the laws that allow child marriage to take place.
“Even if nobody listens to you and just carries on, you have to stand firm and maintain the dialogue. Such an engrained custom can only be changed through perseverance.” – Alima, 70, grandmother to six-year-old Awa, Mali
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is still practiced in Awa’s village in Mali, and at just six years old she is nearing the age when most girls are cut. But her grandmother Alima is one of an increasing number of older generation members challenging the harmful practice. Both Alima and Awa’s mother were cut when they were young, but now both have learnt about the complications of the procedure – including infection, reproductive issues and pain during intercourse – through Plan International information sessions and their changing opinions signals a potential turning of the tide when it comes to FGM for Awa and the young girls in the community.
“I was walking on the road when two men kidnapped me. I was 15 years old when I was taken.”
Karina was pulled from the side of the road and trafficked by van to Delhi. The men who kidnapped her beat her and forced her to do things she didn’t want to do. One of them took her to his home to live, “His family members used to ask who I was.” She says. “He used to reply that I was his wife. He said that if I told anyone then he would kill me and throw me into the jungle.” One night neighbours heard Karina crying after being beaten. They questioned her when the man wasn’t home and they helped her escape.
Now back in Nepal, Karina is back in touch with her family and is living in a shelter but she hasn’t forgotten her experience, “There are so many girls who are trapped. We should all help them to get out.”
“I look forward to wearing a uniform one day and attending classes, not spending the whole day working like I do now. I want to learn everything.” – Nyakor, 10, South Sudan
Ten year old Nyakor has never set foot in a school. She lives in a refugee camp for internally displaced people in South Sudan where the food crisis means she spends her days doing housework. It is her job to gather food and cook for her entire family but because of food shortages she, like many other girls, is given the least amount of food and is fed last. “I am always hungry.” She says.
Nyakor dreams of being a student one day. Our Food for Education program increases the chances of children being able to attend school. They receive free meals when the go to class, lessening the financial burden on their parents so that their children – including girls – are more likely to attend school and have access to food.
“Each time I am taken back to his house, I feel scared as he beats me so severely and forces me to do things I do not want to do with him.” – Falmata, 16, Niger
Falmata became a bride at 13 and has tried to run away from her abusive husband multiple times. However, unless she can repay the dowry he bought her with, she is bound to the marriage and forced to return home.
Until that day comes, Falmata is attending a youth club in her area and accessing psychosocial support through Plan International. She reports an improvement in her mental state and she has plans to get herself out of her situation, “With the support that I have received, I feel more confident and I’m hopeful that one day I will overcome this hard situation. I want to set up my own business selling clothes so I can become financially independent and repay the dowry myself.”
“If a girl is on a bus and a man touches her, the bystanders will say that he didn’t do anything, that it must have been a mistake and they’ll start blaming the girl. The community blames girls for anything bad that happens to them.” – Nada, 14, Cairo
In Cairo, harassment is rarely spoken about and when it is, girls are often the ones who face public shaming. 14 year old Nada is taking a stand and building a safer more inclusive environment for girls. With the confidence gained through our Safer Cities program, she now knows her rights and has a platform to speak out about gender-based violence.
“I am always scared about my daughter’s security. They are growing up and people always stare at them. I fear something bad will happen to my daughters in the camp. My worries never end.” Jaheda, 35, Cox’s Bazaar
After being forced to flee their home in Myanmar, Jaheda and her two daughters (pictured) are now living in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar but Jaheda still fears for their safety. The tents fail to meet basic safety standards, the camps are overcrowded and there is no privacy. For girls there is a very real risk of gender-based and sexual violence, so Jaheda’s daughters – like many others — are confined to their small and hot tent all day.
(Photo by Kate Holt)
“My uncle was not happy and continued to threaten that he would come and take me by force and marry me off anyway.” – Monica, 18, South Sudan
At 15, Monica was almost sold into marriage to repay the debt of cows used to buy her mother, but the head teacher at Monica’s school stepped in and put a stop to it. Monica dreams of becoming a judge so she can fight for the rights of girls. School is her happy place. “I feel safest in the school because nobody can get me here.” She says.
Child, early and forced marriage is still common in order to change it we need to tackle the root causes as well asw the laws that allow it to happen.
“For the first time we have our period we cannot talk to men. If a male relative comes to visit, the family tells him I am not home and I have to hide.” – Nur Nahar, 15, Bangladesh
A lack of sanitary products isn’t the only issue faced by Rohingyan girls when they have their period – they are excluded from attending school and other activities and forbidden to leave their tents. Education is vital in breaking the poverty cycle and girls like Nur Nahar are being denied the opportunity to have a say in their futures, simply because they are a girl.
Plan International has distributed 10,000 menstrual hygiene kits to girls in refugee camps, so they feel more confident and less self-conscious during their period, but the exclusion they face is a form of gender-based violence.
“I was on the train coming home from school one afternoon and there was an old man sitting near my friends and I, who was staring at us. [My friend] saw he was exposing himself and masturbating. We called the guard and he was quite helpful, but the man just got off and ran away – they couldn’t really do anything about it.” – Lauren, 17, Sydney
Cities are brimming with opportunities but for girls and young women, they are also rife with harassment and gender-based violence. 17 year old Lauren wants to create a safer more inclusive environment so that girls, women, minority groups and the wider community can live freely, safely and happily. “We need to change the mindset of the people who are sharing these spaces because everyone has an equal right to access public spaces.” She says. “That’s why it’s called public.”
“During the day I do not go outside for anything except to use the latrine very early in the morning when there are not as many men around. I don’t like all of the men because they are strangers,” – Jahida, 17 Bangladesh
Jahida has had a hard time adapting to her new life as a Rohingyan refugee. Her father was killed as the family fled Myanmar and now the 17 year old lives with her mother and brother in a makeshift tent in the camp. Girls face a very real risk of violence and assault in the camps and Jahida is confined to the tent while her brother is allowed to leave to gather food. The loneliness and isolation is overwhelming.
“Before joining Safer Cities, if my father had told me not to go to school, I would have given in and said ‘okay’. Not now.”– Soaad, 14, Cairo
Just being seen talking to a boy is enough for some parents in Cairo to keep their daughters from going to school, so great is the shame cast upon victims of harassment. Now, 14 year old Soaad is confident in challenging the victim-blaming and defending her right to learn. “Since joining Safer Cities two years ago, I’ve become aware of my rights. I have the right to an education. I shouldn’t give up on my right because of the dangers I face.”
“My life has never been the same since I got married. I cannot go out with my friends for visits or social gatherings since I have to do housework from morning till sunset. Because I came at such a high price, more is expected from me.”Lezia, 18, South Sudan
Lezia bares scars on her stomach from cuts, marking her as the property of her husband. She was forced to marry at 17 and sold for 100 cows, but her father began advertising her for marriage when she was just 13.
The food crisis was a huge factor in Lezia’s fathers decision to marry off his daughter, which is why our Food for Education program was introduced, to provide kids with school meals and rations to share with their families, ensuring they have access to food, making sure they attend school and easing the financial burden on parents to support their children.
“I don’t want to see other girls suffer the way I had to. I don’t want other girls to drop out of school because of FGM, early pregnancy and child marriage. I don’t want other girls to live a miserable life.”
As a 13 year old, Beatrice was forced to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM), now 19 and a single mother Beatrice is using her own experiences to help others like her. She has taken part in Plan International training around girls’ rights and she is passing on her new knowledge to her family and community and has already prevented her niece from being subjected to FGM.
“My brother used to be very violent and wouldn’t listen to me.” She shares. “He looked at girls as a source of income. But since I managed to raise awareness with my family about girls’ rights he has now changed. I am really happy I was able to protect my niece.”
A girl’s first period is a significant event in her life, but for Rohingya girls living in refugee camps, it also signals the end of their schooling.
Due to the stigma around menstruation in their culture, girls like 15 year old Nurankis are forbidden to leave their tent when it’s that time of the month. They miss out on school and many drop out because they’ve fallen behind. Education is vital in breaking the poverty cycle and girls like Nur Nahar are being denied a say in their futures, simply because they are a girl.
Girls are disappearing in remote areas of Northern Vietnam. Dinh was 15 when she and her friend Lia accepted a ride home from the market and though the girls quickly realised they were being driven in the wrong direction, it was too late. Dinh and Lia were separated, Dinh was taken to China where she was locked in a house at gunpoint and told she was to be sold as a bride. She was held captive for 8 months and after many attempts, she finally managed to escape and return home, but her friend Lia hasn’t been seen since.
Human trafficking for domestic labour, forced marriage and prostitution effects girls around the world. It disrupts and damages and changes the course of girls’ lives and it must be stopped.