Plan staff blog on our work with children across the world.
24 April 2014: South Sudan is currently facing its most severe crisis since its birth 2 years ago. In fact, what we are seeing now is a crisis within a crisis. UN agencies have recently warned that almost 4 million people are facing severe food shortages, with the possibility of famine occurring in the coming months now looking increasingly likely.
In response to this, Plan International is currently scaling up its response to provide food assistance to the most vulnerable and treat the significant rise in severe malnutrition in children aged under 5.
Half of population food insecure
While South Sudan experiences cyclical food insecurity, with many each year relying on food aid to survive the lean months, this year a combination of deadly violence, displacement and disruption of trade have left over half the country’s population food insecure.
Indeed, the current cycle of violence has not abated and despite attempts to broker peace deals, children and their families are still fleeing their homes in large numbers.
Too late for crops
The many thousands who were displaced from their land and farms as a result of the violence in 2013 and the beginning of this year, are yet to return to their homes and are still living in makeshift camps. While those who survived the violence and made it to the relative safety of camps have been receiving food aid, their chance to plant crops for their families has all but been lost.
As the rainy season approaches, those who normally would have planted in time for this important season are displaced, a figure which has been put currently at 800,000 people.
Indeed, it would likely be that these displaced and those communities left behind, would not only need aid in the form of seeds, but also tools and assistance with rehabilitating the already fragile agricultural land. Their livelihoods have been destroyed and it will take more than food aid to assist in rebuilding and strengthening their lives.
Race to provide food aid
For humanitarian agencies such as Plan International in South Sudan, the race is now on to provide food aid and assistance to displaced and conflict-affected communities before the start of the rainy season.
South Sudan is one of the logistically most difficult to access terrains in the Horn of Africa, with little in the way of tarmac roads or indeed landing strips for planes laden with aid.
We know already the damage the recent violence has done to families and in particular the trauma visited on children. The international community needs to act now to ensure aid reaches those in need, in addition to promoting peace and dialogue, in order to prevent this crisis turning into a disaster for these hundreds of thousands of families.
Support Plan’s South Sudan crisis appeal
Find out more about Plan’s work in South Sudan
Learn about Plan's global food and nutrition work
April 2014: Two groups and one-minded soldiers and rebels may start a war, but it is ordinary people, often children, who fight it.
In a group of 100 children, singing, playing and some crying, 2 girls stand out. Their names are Madiha*, 9, and Lina*, 4. It is not their unusual silence that catches my attention, but the way they frequently hug each other, often involuntarily.
Lina tightly grips her blue bunny rabbit, her eyes never leaving sight of it. Madiha hugs her tiny sister, keeping an eye on everyone and anything with a sense of alertness.
I meet Madiha and Lina at a child-friendly space, run by Plan International, in Awerial in the Lakes state of South Sudan. A child-friendly space is a lifeline for children in disasters and for those displaced and separated from friends and family, relief often comes in the form of a white canvas tent and a friendly blue logo of a child and sun - as long as the tent follows **.
Yet, the more I peer through the viewfinder of my camera, the more difficult the expression of affection between these 2 tiny children is to ignore.
To me, their silence is their story.
An “attempted” ‘coup d'état’ in December 2013, and an armed conflict in South Sudan have resulted in human suffering in catastrophic proportions. Media has reported “thousands of deaths”. The **, with some 190,000 fleeing to neighbouring countries.
Thousands of children and women are trapped in the crossfire; displaced and separated from family and friends, victims are living an unending nightmare.
With fear in her eyes, Madiha recounts her tale. She saw armed men attacking everything, killing everyone in sight. Their hometown in Bor, Jonglei state, was fast turning into a flashpoint in the battle between government soldiers and armed rebels. The violence that started in mid December was spiralling out of control. While the media reported “thousands dead”, a mass exodus was under way.
Shot at close range
On 28 December, armed men seized Madiha’s mum and dad. Later that day, they were shot dead at close range. The young girl witnessed it all.
Madiha’s first instinct was to protect Lina. She grabbed Lina’s hands - her only possession left in life - and ran. As they made their escape, this 9-year-old child was transformed into a mother and father to her 4-year-old sister, leaving her childhood behind.
The sisters joined the wave of people heading to the River Nile - many of them wounded and bleeding from the violence and gun battle. The same night, Madiha and Lina managed to find a place in a boat ferrying conflict-affected people across the Nile. The pair landed in Awerial the next day, as Madiha recalls, “There were lot of people in the boat.”
Since then, they have been seeking refuge in Awerial.
As I look around the child-friendly space, there are over 100 children here who perhaps have a similar story - real moments when logic and reasoning are abandoned and the only instinct is survival.
New country, not so new problems
On 9 July, 2011, the world witnessed the birth of South Sudan, as over 99% of South Sudanese voted for independence in a historic referendum. The North-South civil war in Sudan killed more than 2.5 million people and displaced more than 5 million people. One country was the collective hope of all of its citizens.
I was in South Sudan shortly after the referendum to support Plan’s humanitarian work. I remember listening to a group of youngsters in a makeshift football ground in Juba, capital of the then ‘new-born’ country. Their optimism was infectious.
Fast forward to December, 2013, a political struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former Vice President Riek Machar became a full-blown crisis resulting in widespread violence, death and displacement. Today, it is having a catastrophic impact on this ‘new-born’ nation.
Act now, save lives
In mid February, the UN elevated the crisis in South Sudan to a Level 3 emergency, the highest in the UN system, and on par with the situation in Syria. Despite a peace agreement signed in late January, clashes and insecurity continue to constrain the humanitarian response.
Limited funding, lack of media attention and a looming food crisis make the situation a race against time for the 3.7 million people are in need of the life-sustaining support aid agencies provide.
Half of the affected people have not received any assistance until now. In addition to the need for food, water and shelter, children like Madiha and Lina need emotional care and support. If left unattended, it can leave lasting marks on the mind, which are often irreversible.
Crisis cries for attention
Aid agencies and the UN desperately need resources to provide life-supporting services. Funding gaps are limiting the ability of organisations to respond to humanitarian needs and thus forcing them to make difficult decisions about how to use limited aid money.
The ** for a period of 6 months. So far, donors have committed just 21%. Relief efforts cost money, while relief settings demand treating victims with dignity and ensuring standards, such as the Sphere Humanitarian Standards**.
Lack of media attention is one factor limiting fund mobilisation. Perhaps celebrities such as Hollywood star George Clooney, a ‘friend’ of South Sudan, may be able to provide a helping hand to push the plight of the people such as Madiha and Lina on to prime-time news. In disasters, better media attention is key to mobilising resources.
Peace and education
Refugees and humanitarian crises are not new for South Sudan and children such as Madiha and Lina are the ones who suffer the most. After all, children below the age of 18 account for over 53% of the people in South Sudan, so their need for education, protection and psychosocial care, must be central to relief and recovery efforts.
Yet, peace is a pre-condition for any relief and development work and education is a driver for peace. So what should happen first: peace or education? Both must happen simultaneously. I ask Madiha and Lina what they want to be when they grow up. Madiha says a doctor - is it a sign life will continue? Lina wants to be a teacher - perhaps a reminder education is a catalyst for lasting peace.
In conflict zones, time travels in just one direction. It takes humankind back, where lives and landscapes are altered forever, but nothing can diminish the hopes of these 2 children.
Support Plan's South Sudan crisis appeal
* Names have been changed
** Plan is not responsible for the content on external websites
15 April 2014: The internet and information technology can widen access to learning, enhance the quality of education and empower men and women, girls and boys, with new skills and opportunities. But this does not happen by itself – it requires leadership, planning and action.
Fast, affordable broadband is increasingly becoming a basic need for a modern world, and it is our job to ensure that the world’s children have access to this important tool while also being informed about its dangers.
Children’s reality increasingly takes place online, which means opportunities but also risks - an issue up for discussion at the Global Child Forum 2014*. The possibilities to accelerate quality education, learning, health, play and development through Information and Communication Technology (ICT) are enormous. The online information flow and new services increases the need to strengthen children’s life skills, such as critical thinking, assessing information and protection against abuse.
Online gender gap
On average across the developing world, nearly 25% fewer women and girls are online than men and boys, and this gender gap climbs to above 40% in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa. Why?
Discrimination, numbers, confidence, language, time, all contribute. If no action is taken, the internet gender gap will increase from 200 million women today who are not online, to 350 million in the next 3 years.
But rights and needs must be balanced and children, particularly girls, must also be protected from exploitation and harm via the internet.
79% don’t feel safe
In China in 2010, for example, 44% of children said they had been approached online by strangers. 79% of girls said they did not feel safe online and only about a third of the girls knew how to report a danger or feeling threatened or bad about something they had seen.
Every sector of society needs to be innovative and open-minded and urgently develop and scale up solutions and models that can advance children’s rights but also ensure that children are protected.
As more women and girls get online and discover new technology, they are at their most vulnerable. The responsibility lies with everyone, from governments to schools to non-governmental organisations, to inform them of the dangers and of ways to safeguard themselves against abuse and exploitation.
Bullying, violence and grooming
Technology is never free from societal influences – online platforms can be places of great opportunity, for children and young people to network, make new friends worldwide, learn and develop – but they can also replicate the risks where bullying, threats of violence, grooming and predatory behaviour become real.
So, should access to ICT be a basic human right? We at Plan believe it should, but this should go hand in hand with awareness of the dangers to children online, and efforts to minimise harm and create positive change.
Keeping children safe
All parties must confront, challenge and address the threats that children and teenagers face in our fast-changing world. Investment, both public and private, is so important in order to build children’s, particularly girls’ capabilities and assets so that they can better protect themselves.
Laws that are meant to protect young people must be enforced. Innovative solutions must be developed to protect young people.
New technology also places responsibility on businesses, care takers and the education system to respond and adapt to the reality children face online, and make sure we safeguard them from exploitation and harm as they benefit from and develop within the online world.
Read Plan’s Because I am a Girl: Digital and Urban Frontiers report, which looks at the prospects and perils girls face as ICT and city populations boom
Learn about Plan’s child protection work
* Plan is not responsible for the content on external websites
Early this morning I read the ‘Do-It’ section of the advocacy toolkit produced by Plan in partnership with the UN Global Education First Initiative Youth Advocacy Group and A World At School to support young people in their efforts to advocate for education. It was a great way to start the day! I was extremely impressed by the content and the youth-friendly manner in which it was presented.
When I started advocating for education I was a 15-year-old and had very little resources at my disposal. Consequently, my friends and I experienced tremendous challenges when we were planning to mobilise orphans in Burundi. Had we had this advocacy toolkit, I am sure it would have been much easier to achieve the impact we did!
Standing up for orphans’ education
Despite the numerous challenges we faced, we knew we had to help decrease the difficulties orphans faced in accessing education. My friends and I had a common understanding that education was the only way out of the poverty for us and thousands of children like us. We began to see a trend in orphans being expelled from schools as they could not pay their school fees.
After surviving the unspeakable issues of the civil war that prematurely orphaned us, the last thing we expected was to be forced out of school - our only hope for a better future, by those whose job was to help guarantee a better future for us.
The remote locations of many orphans’ schools exacerbated the unacceptable treatment we received since few of the local residents, let alone the students and teachers, were willing to challenge their headmasters or hold them accountable for their actions.
“Stubborn little kids”
Eventually, my friends and I figured we could not let the people in power write off our future. We decided to organise our fellow orphans to challenge our school and local authorities to guarantee our fundamental right to education.
In a culture where youth are considered too immature to make good judgment, our challenges ranged from lack of family support in some cases to discouraging actions from displeased authorities.
For example, one day a headmaster we urged to recall the orphans back to classes asked us to “stop behaving like stubborn little kids who failed to understand the realities of the world”. However, we refused to budge since it is these “realities” we were challenging!
President heeds our wish
Eventually, we mobilised orphans from the whole country and sought recognition from the Ministry of Interior. After long negotiations with members of the government of Burundi, the President heeded our wish and signed a decree allowing all orphans to go to school for free! I am proud that this, my story, is included in the new toolkit, so other young people can learn from my experience.
Having experienced severe challenges in my advocacy experience, it is encouraging to see organisations work together to support and strengthen young people’s advocacy work.
As a member of the UN GEFI YAG, I have outstanding support from Plan International who, for example, organised lobby meetings with the Burundian Embassies in both DC and New York, where I got to directly lobby people who can make decisions which put more children into school and learning.
When I read the ‘Do-It’ section of the advocacy toolkit, I liked the way it breaks down the strategies young people may follow to lead impactful advocacy campaigns. For example, it informs young people on how to influence policy and decision-makers. Ultimately, decision makers are the ones in position to effect change. Equipping youth with state-of-the-art knowledge on how to work with and influence them is key if we are to achieve outstanding results in youth-led advocacy campaigns.
To get the 57 million children across the world who are missing out on primary education into school and learning, more investment in advocacy tools will need to be made.
Furthermore, more support for grassroots campaigners will be needed from organisations and all individuals around the world. I hope others follow Plan’s leadership in empowering young people to change their lives and communities through education.
Read about and download Plan’s youth advocacy toolkit
Join Plan's global Because I am a Girl campaign for girls' education
"It is such an excellent tool to further our advocacy and strengthen the movement of young people pushing for education!"
This is a reaction from Sumaya in India, a talented youth advocate, to our new youth advocacy toolkit.
At Plan, we are committed to working both with and for young people and children around the world. This means children and young people are central to our programme design, development and implementation.
This commitment goes across all of our work, including our advocacy and campaigning. And with current rates showing that the poorest girls in sub-Saharan Africa will only achieve access to universal primary education in 2086, there is a lot of campaigning to be done.
Last year our support of “youth led” advocacy was visible through our support of the youth takeover of the UN on Malala Day and the many in-country activities we also ran on the same day around the world.
Youth advocate success
One of these was supporting a group of young people in the development and presentation of a youth manifesto on girls’ education in Pakistan, calling for more and better investment in this area.
The recent announcement of a financial package for education in Pakistan*, no doubt, comes partially due to young people, who have been advocating for urgent improvements ever since the shooting of Malala Yousafzai in October 2012. This is just one example of youth advocacy for education which can be found in our new toolkit: The Education We Want.
We have developed A World At School* and the Youth Advocacy Group of the Global Education First Initiative*, with support from UNICEF and UNGEI. We are proud to have supported the Youth Advocacy Group since their original formation and continue to welcome this commitment by the UN Secretary General to ensuring young people are part of the conversations about their futures.over the last 6 months in partnership with
Incredible stories and ideas
The Youth Advocacy Group led on the content of this toolkit and their personal incredible stories and advocacy success is evident throughout the resource. The toolkit has been developed for young people, by young people. It is full of ideas and examples which, we hope, young people will be able to fit to their context in order to be able effectively advocate for their right to an education.
Rather than putting words into the mouths of young people I will let them voice their reactions to the final toolkit:
Anna, from Moldova: "I will take it with me when I am travelling around schools...soon our government will not have a single way to avoid doing what young people are saying!"
David, from the UK: "A great tool to help mobilize young people, excellent features of great advocacy...and something with genuine usability!"
Critical opportunity this summer
With 65 million girls out of school and a global funding gap of $26 billion for basic education, there is an urgent need for action to get all children into school, and learning.
The Global Partnership for Education replenishment summit, on 26 June, offers a unique mobilisation opportunity for the global community to come together and put pressure on all governments to invest more in education.
The next few months are a critical time to advocate and campaign to see a reduction in the funding gap and get more children into school. This opportunity will be lost if children and young people are not at the centre of calling for their right to education.
This toolkit is here to equip and skill young people to be able to do this and as we launch this toolkit, we ask young people to use it to advocate right now and we ask organisations to support them in any way possible.
Want to take action now?
- Follow the launch of the toolkit using #youthtoolkit on 10 April
- Share the toolkit!
- Sign a global petition to help make sure all children have access to basic education
- Join us on 16 June, Day of the African Child, in running an event or activity (find ideas in the toolkit!) to put pressure on governments to invest more in education
Want to know more? Join our Because I am a Girl campaign to give girls the education and skills they need to move themselves from poverty to opportunity.
*Plan is not responsible for the content on external websites.
7 April 2014: Twenty years ago, 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in just 100 days in what came to be known as the Rwanda genocide. I was 8 years old at the time – my family members and friends were killed, and my life as I knew it changed. Twenty years seems a long time, but the scars are still visible.
Rwanda has a very young population – almost half is under 18. We are a generation that grew up with a genocide legacy, but it is now our duty to take advantage of our youth to initiate lasting change.
United in one goal
In my role at Plan Rwanda, I’m part of a team that is doing that. I’m the Front Desk Secretary and sometimes I help in the communications department. I love children and, even though my work is primarily administrative, I am adding value to work that changes children’s lives.
When you see the laughing, smiling faces of the children we support, you realise you are not just part of an organisation; you are united with your colleagues, striving to achieve one goal – to put a smile on a child’s face.
Plan Rwanda now has more than 12,000 sponsored children and the testimonies about the lives we have changed are incredible.
Our entire country has undergone huge change and achieved so much. I am impressed and inspired by the leaps we’ve made in governance, security, economic growth and youth empowerment. When you leave Kigali International Airport, you see a town full of construction sites – ideas literally rising out of the ground, people going forward and embracing life.
Although we must move on, we must not forget the past. For me, the commemoration is a renewal of the commitments we made to those we have lost, to honour them and to live for them. It is also a thanksgiving time – the gift of life was given to us.
The commemorations will be bigger than ever this year, and I’m starring in a film to coincide with the 20th anniversary year. It’s called Birds are singing in Kigali, and it’s about a Polish ornithologist who saves the daughter of her Rwandan friend. She helps her escape to Poland, where they both learn to live again despite the trauma they’ve experienced. I’m playing the part of the Rwandan girl, and filming will start this summer.
For me, this represents more than just a movie – it represents the journey that we’ve made, overcoming sorrow and trauma, rebuilding our lives and our country, forgiving one another, allowing the birds to live and sing again. As human beings, our choices define us – we now live in peace because we have chosen to forgive.
Find out more about Plan's work in Rwanda
40% of unemployed people in the Americas are youths - and the implications are dramatic, blogs Plan's Deputy CEO Tjipke Bergsma from the World Economic Forum on Latin America.
2 April 2014: Last year I met Sonja in El Salvador, a young woman of 17. She had just become a mother. As an unemployed young woman, she thought it was the best thing to do. But, as with so many of these cases, her boyfriend couldn’t pay the bills and left her.
Youth is a time that should be filled with promise and hope for the future. For Sonia and many others in the region, the reality is different.
There are about 108 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 in Latin America and the Caribbean. According to a new report by the International Labour Organization*, economic growth in the region has not been strong enough to improve the outlook for young people trapped by the lack of employment.
Of all the unemployed people in the region, 40% are young. Joblessness is highest among young women and the poorest members of the population. Many of those who are working are in jobs with earnings of less than $1 a day, and there is little opportunity to progress. Finally, 1 in 5 young people are not even looking for work because they are discouraged and have given up. So what can they do?
Young men can join a gang; young women can get pregnant and join the legion of teenage single mothers – or end up spending their time on household tasks rather than looking for work.
The implications for current and future generations of young people are dramatic. Observers suggest that if the trends are not reversed, there is a danger of creating a “lost generation”. This has huge consequences for society, such as reduced levels of security and increased conflict, which in turn will create a destabilised economic, social and political context. The news from Venezuela dominates the front pages* and it takes little to imagine what would happen if Latin America were to follow the course of the Middle East.
Plan believes that every young person has the right to fulfil their potential and receive support for their transition into work that affords them dignity, security and a path out of poverty.
With this in mind, Plan El Salvador developed a Youth Economic Empowerment (YEE) programme for disadvantaged youth, especially girls. It operates in rural communities and works in close coordination with national and local governments. It offers life skills and pre-employment screening, combined with training and job placement.
Plan works with the corporate sector to ensure that vocational training is linked to market demand. To support more entrepreneurial youth, a local organisation provides business training and support for enterprise development and local finance institutions offer access to financial services. And finally, we follow up, with youth and employers, to ensure that young people stay in their jobs and that our interventions continuously improve.
While the El Salvador project is generating promising results, challenges remain. Innovative solutions are needed that will break the cycle of youth unemployment and poverty.
The problem is too large and complex for any one organisation to fix. This is why Plan has started to explore how to bring together a variety of actors from governments, private sector and civil society to determine what works and which solutions can be scaled to purpose.
Together we'll go further
As we all know, alone you go faster but together you get further.
Meanwhile, Plan is encouraging governments to make commitments at the national level to:
- Make quality education accessible for all and ensure that core competencies and life skills are included.
- Ensure that state-supported vocational job training is linked with the private sector and based on labour-market demand, as this improves job placement.
- Create a supportive environment for business development and promote business initiatives that create jobs for young people – in particular, young women.
- Listen to young people; strengthen social dialogue mechanisms to ensure that they have input on decisions that affect their lives.
We must not fail Sonja and her friends, the current generation of young people in Latin America.
Government agencies, private-sector companies and civil-society organisations such as Plan International can and must work together to find new solutions and harness the creativity and innovation of the younger generation.
The World Economic Forum on Latin America* runs from 1-3 April 2014 in Panama
Learn about Plan's work in the Americas
*Plan is not responsible for the content on external websites.
Plan is fighting the Ebola outbreak in Guinea by spreading health messages to affected villages. Radio and mobile phones are key tools in the battle, blogs Plan's Head of Disaster Preparedness and Response, Unni Krishnan.
25 March 2014: A 1995 Hollywood blockbuster movie, Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman imagined the outbreak of a fictional Ebola-like virus (called ‘Motaba’) in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) and its spreading to a small town in the United States. The film raised various "what-if" scenarios- that, although highly dramatised and fictional, have basis in reality.
The current Ebola outbreak in Guinea risks spreading to neighbouring countries. If it happens, it could have devastating consequences in this West African country of 10 million people and for its neighbours such as Liberia and Sierra Leone. Communities, in the border areas between Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are particularly vulnerable – Sierra Leone imports many of its goods from Guinea and the Guinea capital, Conakry, is a key trading hub.
A combination of public health, health education and communication is necessary to stop the spread of the deadly virus. Thankfully, today, the world should be well positioned to stop its spread.
Once contracted, the Ebola virus (the type associated with haemorrhagic fever) attacks the body and overwhelms the immune system - it attacks every organ and tissue of the human body except the bones and skeletal muscles. Bleeding then occurs from body orifices and gaps in the skin. Huge loss of blood, renal failure, or shock leads to death - all these can happen between 2 to 21 days. The battle against Ebola is a battle against time.
Fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, head ache and sore throat are some of the symptoms. In a ‘hot zone’ with confirmed Ebola cases, these symptoms must be taken seriously and reported to health authorities immediately - any delay can lead to further spread.
The bad news is there are no medicines and vaccines to cure. Ebola kills between 25% and 90% of its victims. In the outbreak in Guinea, a total of 87 suspected cases of viral haemorrhagic fever have been recorded. Of those, 61 people died.
Prevention is better
The disease is transmitted by direct contact with blood, faeces or sweat, or by sexual contact or unprotected handling of contaminated corpses. Avoiding contact with those who are infected with Ebola is the best way to contain the spread.
Sadly, practises such as touching or hugging bodies of Ebola victims during their funeral (common in parts of West Africa) are often direct sources of more infection. Media have reported that Sierra Leone authorities are investigating the case of a 14-year-old boy who died in the town of Buedu, eastern Kailahun District. The boy had travelled to Guinea to attend the funeral of one of the outbreak's earlier victims.
Raising awareness of infection risks and the measures individuals should take are vital. Public health messages should focus on:
- Reducing wildlife-to-human transmission; cooking all animal food by-products thoroughly.
- Avoiding close physical contact with Ebola patients - particularly bodily fluids.
- Regular hand washing and using gloves and personal protective equipment when taking care of patients, handling animals and samples.
- Prompt and appropriate burial of those who have died from Ebola.
- Disinfection of farms; immediate quarantine of those infected; restricting/banning livestock movement.
Battling over airwaves and SMS
When Ebola was first detected in the 1970s, health workers armed with mega phones and loud speakers used to visit villages to spread public health messages, often putting their own lives at risk. I recollect a similar experience while involved in coordinating a response to a ‘Plague’ (relatively less lethal compared with Ebola) outbreak in India in 1994.
Fast forward to 2014 - today, thanks to the penetration of mobile phone technology and radio waves into remote villages in Guinea, there are safer and better opportunities to get the health messages across without getting into contact with ‘hot zones’.
Ebola is a doctor’s nightmare and no child’s play. The flip-side of developments in transportation and aviation mean that people are much more transient and there are more flights and movements in and out of countries - potentially moving the disease further afield.
Media and mobile phone technology are useful tools to fight this disease. Guinea has many mobile phone users. According to the International Telecommunication Union, UN specialised agency for information and telecommunication technologies, Guinea had some 4.7 million mobile phone subscribers in 2012. Each one of them - young and old - can be a soldier in the battle that needs to be fought using airwaves and text messages.
Public health - a shock absorber
Prevention is better than cure - this maxim applies for all disasters, including public health crisis such as an Ebola outbreak. Better awareness, strong preparedness measures, targeted work with vulnerable groups and spots (such as border towns), and active involvement of communities and general public to spread messages of prevention and public health are the essential ingredients.
This is better done through a robust public health system - perhaps the only shock absorber in such crises. The country spends approximately 1.6% of its GDP on public health - in comparison France spends 8.9%. The crisis should serve as a catalyst to invest better in public health measures and improve disaster preparedness measures.
Share our Ebola infographic on Facebook
Read about Plan's work in Guinea
Last week I had the opportunity to be part of the panel for a live web chat* organised by the Guardian newspaper's Global Health Innovation Hub. The subject was sustainable sanitation. This was one of a host of activities that gear up at this time of year as we look forward to World Water Day* on 22nd March. For a WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) programme person in Plan, this is a busy time.
The surprise for me during the web chat was not the degree of consensus around common challenges in the WASH sector. Familiar issues like policy impasses; lack of effective, rooted advocacy; institutional coordination; technology fixation; and perverse outcomes arising from financial subsidy were all discussed. The surprise was the relatively underwhelming response to the question posed to the panel about sustainability.
A reoccurring issue
This may be because we know this to be an old problem that has the habit of redefining itself. While it's not exclusive to the WASH sector, sustainability remains a constant question for a WASH adviser. Our sector has transited in recent years from approaches that prioritised hardware and supply of technology to ones in which we now seek to trigger the community in developing and sustaining demand for their own sanitation systems and solutions.
Plan Australia's recent, excellent study on Open Defecation Free Sustainability* highlighted the factors that enabled or constrained communities staying faeces-free, or reverting to earlier practices. It's an illuminating and at times difficult read, especially in what it tells us about effectiveness. But one of the aspects of working for Plan that I like most is the organisation's willingness to invest in evaluation and learn from what research tells us, so as to sharpen our practice.
The biggest thing I've taken from this and similar studies is that, while our sanitation approaches are getting us to widespread community behaviour change in relatively short periods of time, we've yet to break through into changing social norms in those communities. This seems to be the next frontier and key to sustaining those changed behaviours over the longer term.
Unless we crack that nut, we'll continue with our on-off aversion with reversion, and – as friend and colleague Eddy Perez from the World Bank said during last week's web chat, – '… we will fail to eliminate world poverty, because we will have failed to fix sanitation'.
* Plan is not responsible for content on external sites
Find out more about Plan's water and sanitation work
4 February 2014: In Guinea-Bissau, one of the countries in West Africa where Plan works, almost 50% of girls continue to be victims of genital mutilation. It is estimated that more than 140 million girls and women alive today have undergone genital mutilation or cutting. Of these, over 100 million are believed to be in Africa alone.
If this were happening in any other continent like Europe or North America, the world would be in uproar at the painful and damaging procedure performed on a continent’s youth.
The prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM) varies between regions of Guinea-Bissau, depending on the distribution of different ethnic groups who consider the practice part of their ethnic identity, traditional and religious beliefs. And this is the crux of the issue.
FGM is so bound up with the culture of many groups that it becomes hard, and controversial, to tackle it without seeming to undermine the very foundations of that historic culture.
Forced upon girls
It requires sensitive handling if we are to persuade communities that FGM is not a necessary part of a girl’s education and coming of age ritual. We need to get across the message that these girls are children, and as such they are not in a position to make a choice as to whether or not to participate in FGM.
The process is forced upon them with a tragic inevitability, and rather than helping them grow up, it maps their future forever before they have even started living as adults. I believe this must stop.
Some groups opposed to FGM have argued that Plan should withdraw from communities where FGM takes place. That would be a self-defeating strategy as the influence we have in those communities would vanish overnight.
Instead, Plan needs to work with community leaders and FGM operators to help address the problem at its core. One such individual whom I find inspiring is Sawandim Sawo, 68, who practised FGM for 18 years before joining Plan’s FGM project to fight against the harmful practice. She now takes part in raising awareness projects in Sawocunda, Guinea-Bissau.
She explains: “In our tradition, all FGM practitioners have a special status in the community and they are seen as professors or doctors of the community. I was very proud to be an FGM practitioner and didn’t know of the serious health problems it caused to girls and women.”
Now Sawandim says she would never perform another cutting again. “I hope everybody understands the dangers it poses to our health,” she says.
Children’s powerful message
It just shows that by getting community leaders and influencers on board and comfortable with the new message about the dangers of FGM is the key.
Plan also uses a "child to child" and "child to parent" approach, which allows girls to raise awareness and promote their rights among themselves and with their parents using methods that are creative and do not offend people’s sensitivities. They use acting, drawing, poetry and songs to get the powerful message across.
Saving girls from pain
In 2012, Guinea-Bissau’s national parliament passed a law banning FGM, a significant step towards its elimination in the country. Madina Bocoum Daff, FGM project manager for Plan in Mali, another inspiring woman who works for Plan, says it is a step in the right direction.
“A woman like me who has undergone excision knows the trauma and life-long impact it brings on one’s mind and body. The pain and suffering I have endured and the childhood I lost cannot be reversed. But, with determination and concerted action we can save hundreds of thousands of children from this inhuman practice,” she concludes.
International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation** is marked on 6 February each year.
Learn more about Plan’s work to stop female genital mutilation
* Facts from WHO
**Plan is not responsible for the content on external websites