Girls Speak Up
16 Days of Activism began on the 25th November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, with the global theme, Orange the world: End violence against women now! Now more than ever it is essential that we support girls to speak up and have a voice in this effort. The COVID-19 pandemic has further decreased girls access to decision-making spaces and although almost every country in the world has committed to girls right to engage in decision-making, there are still limited spaces for them to raise their voices safely and meaningfully.[i]
Save the Children has been working closely with girls impacted by inequality and discrimination across the Middle East and North Africa region, supporting them to engage in decision-making and public campaigns. Art has been a key tool to support them to speak-up, to communicate with local leaders and national ministries, as well as with the public [ii].Supporting children to have a meaningful voice, means ensuring they can engage in the planning, implementation and follow-up processes of any activity. It means, ensuring that children have a clear idea of the topics they are discussing, address what they would like to voice, that their voices are meaningfully recognised, and that they can do so in a safe and child-friendly format.
Five Girls’ Voices
Neama, Nehmedo and Nabila from Egypt, and Sidra and Rawan from Lebanon, each with their own powerful story and voice, were able to speak up to a high-level panel at the World Expo in Dubai on the International Day of the Girl, on November 20th, 2021. They gave their own view and experience on topics such as violence against girls, child marriage, and girls’ education, together with raising the importance of including girls in decision-making. And, they did so in unique ways, using poetry, puppetry and art.
When we first spoke to the five girls two months prior the event, we could sense their excitement and eagerness to share their personal experiences about school dropout or the experience of many in their community of being married at the age of 15 or 16.
“I know many girls who were forced into marriage by their fathers for economic purposes” Nehmedo, 15 from Assiut said. “When the household’s breadwinner is no longer able to provide for his entire family, he forces his daughters out of school for the sake of their brothers, because he believes that sooner or later the girls will get married and find someone to lift the economic burden off of him".
Although it’s illegal to get married under the age of 18, in Egypt, families in our village still commit this crime against girls without any documentation. If in any case the married girl asks for her rights or the rights of her undocumented children, no one will support her because there is no proof of her marriage. I’ve seen awful things happen around me.”, Nehmedo.
It is estimated that in the Middle East and North Africa region, nearly 40 million married girls or women actually married when they were still children - around 1 in 5 were married before the age of 18 and 1 in 25 before the age of 15[iii]. Child marriage interrupts girls’ education, affecting the level of agency girls are meant to enjoy [iv], also increasing the likeliness of intra-marital gender-based violence, both physical and psychological[v]. However, we know that violence towards women and girls can happen in many situations across the globe and Nabila from Egypt, highlighted this during her intervention to the panel.
“Neglect, hitting, discrimination and harassment, all because I was born a girl?” Nabila, 15, recited a poem to highlight the problems girls within her community face. On our first call with her, Nabila asked us: “Why, despite the fact that women are mothers, daughters, sisters and wives are they still being subjected to this amount of violence?” Her question remained at the centre of our discussions and Nabila posed this question directly to the panel.
Rawan and Sidra, both 13, from Lebanon, expressed their concerns and dreams for girls through artwork. An online artivism (art + activism) workshop was attended by the girls from both countries and by the end of it, they had agreed on recommendations for guaranteeing the rights and protection of girls in the region and around the world.
“Every girl has the right to pursue her dreams and express her opinions” Sidra.
“Harassment is against principles, morals and cultures”, Rawan.
The value of girl-driven participation
Together with the examples provided, the girls presented a number of further recommendations, actions the panel committed to, promising to continue the conversation with the girls in the coming year. These include the following:
- To launch awareness campaigns about the roles of women in society and their importance, because we are unable to raise our voices high enough to be heard. We want everyone, especially men, to understand the significant role we play as girls and women.
- We want an end to FGM. It harm us physically and emotionally, yet men are still deciding upon us (girls) to have us undergo this surgery. No one should be allowed to decide for us and this won’t happen unless strict laws and punishments are applied.
- Through awareness campaigns, we want the traditions and customs that out parents and grandparent grew up with to change.
- School curriculums should be updated with content on violence, especially GBV, and boys and girls at schools need to understand and be able to discuss the ways of preventing it.
- We want the committee to ensure as much as possible that laws guaranteeing our rights are being applied correctly, and that those who do not abide are punished according to the law.
- We want self-defence classes to be added to our programmes and classes at school, to help all girls defend themselves against violence
- Application of strict law prohibiting child marriage
- Economic support for girls to pursue their education through programmes and scholarships
- Protect girls from sexual harassment and provide girls with safe space and transportation
- Support girls to continue their education by providing girls with access to safe, quality education and supporting parents to keep girls in school
- Support girls to seek help if they are already married and support girls who want to divorce or are divorced.
“I can’t believe that our voices have actually been heard. It feels amazing,” Nabila, 18 from Egypt. It was very rewarding to give these girls a platform through which they could share their thoughts and dreams.
Participation in decision-making isn’t only about engagement in the initial phases, but by encouraging young girls’ engagement throughout the decision-making processes too. Hence why, Save the Children is working across countries to blend programming that promotes child and girls’ rights, with critical advocacy, enabling girls to speak up for their own rights to governments across the world.
Save the Children will continue to support girls to speak up across contexts, and encourage you to listen to girls’ voices and support their actions to make a positive change for their future.
i Save the Children International, Global Girlhood Report 2021 Girls’ Rights in Crisis; 2021: Available from: https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/pdf/sc_globalgirlhoodreport2021-1.pdf/
ii To read more about this campaign work, please visit the Dreams Between My Eyes webpage, watch the campaign video, and read the children’s story book We Can! Inspired by the children’s dreams for the future for girls. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ja343g5isZo
iii UNICEF, 2018 In: Married by Exception: Child marriage policies in the Middle East and North Africa, Save the Children, 2021. Available from: https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/document/married-exception-child-marriage-policies-middle-east-and-north-africa/
iv McCleary-Sills, J., Hanmer, L., Parsons, J. et al, 2015 In: Married by Exception: Child marriage policies in the Middle East and North Africa, Save the Children, 2021. Available from: https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/document/married-exception-child-marriage-policies-middle-east-and-north-africa/
v Girls Not Brides In: Married by Exception: Child marriage policies in the Middle East and North Africa, Save the Children, 2021. Available from: https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/document/married-exception-child-marriage-policies-middle-east-and-north-africa/