Plan staff blog on our work with children across the world.
11 July 2014: World Population Day: Imagine a typical family photo. You've got mum and dad there, looking happy and proud. You have the kids with their beaming smiles, all cheerful and mischievous. It's a happy moment, captured in time, everyone in their rightful place, everyone accounted for.
Looking at that family picture, you can clearly see how many of them there are. If you're the one in charge of their wellbeing, you have a good idea of how big their house needs to be, how much food they probably go through in a week, who is going to school and who is going to be looking for a job soon – all from that picture.
But let's imagine one of the family members is suddenly not in the picture. Imagine little Maria vanishes, leaving an empty, unfilled space. She's still somewhere, but she's not in the photo. We think we can see everyone, but someone's missing. Again, if you're the one responsible for looking after that family, how could you make that child count without being able to count her?
Planning for populations
That's the kind of question we need to ask ourselves as we look towards the post-2015 development agenda, beyond the completion of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) next year. But we aren't talking about just one family, we are talking about entire populations. That picture is like the systems countries have in place to monitor major life events like births, deaths and marriages.
These civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) systems give governments the data they need to be able to plan for the present and future needs of everyone living in a country.
Got a lot of school-age children in the north but not enough schools, teachers, books? Time to do something about that. Are a lot of people dying from polio in the south? Could be an outbreak. You'll need to make sure you have enough health centres, doctors and vaccines in order to contain it.
There are huge benefits for everyone if governments can get a firm hold of when, where and how many people are born and die. This information is invaluable as it informs decisions on everything from where you need to build schools to what vaccines are required to where infrastructure should be developed.
You might think that this problem isn't that widespread, yet the stats don't lie: more than 100 developing countries around the world don't have efficient, well-function CRVS systems. This has led to a situation today in which 230 million children under the age of 5 are invisible because they haven’t had their births registered. Their governments don't even know they exist.
Those 230 million children will grow up in a world in which it is becoming increasingly important to be able to prove who and how old you are. If your birth has not been registered, this creates barriers to obtaining the legal identity that can open the door to all manner of services and opportunities.
If you want a job in the formal sector you're going to have to prove who you are. If you're trying to get a passport you're going to need your birth certificate. In some countries, children whose births have been registered can't even go to school.
Of course the reality and context is different from one country to the next, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but what we do know is that unregistered births further marginalise groups of people who are already struggling, such as ethnic minorities or migrant workers.
Birth registration gives individuals documentary evidence to prove their legal identity and family relationships, which can be important for accessing essential services. This also has implications for other ensuing rights and empowering activities, like political participation, recourse to justice, nationality, property ownership, opening a bank account, higher education and inheritance.
7 billion people?
Today, on World Population Day, we have a global population of more about 7 billion people – or do we? We aren't properly counting people so we're not making these people count. As we look beyond 2015 and the end of the MDGs, CRVS systems are crucial for achieving and monitoring development targets, especially those related to maternal and infant mortality.
With a strong emphasis on governance, accountability, health and legal identity, we will be on the right path, but improving CRVS systems cannot wait another moment. We are calling on all – governments and development partners – to ramp up investment, knowledge sharing and awareness so we can ensure all countries have well-functioning, efficient and rights-based CRVS systems.
It's time to get everyone in the picture.
Find out more about Plan’s work on birth registration
It's official - the world will fail to achieve universal primary education by 2015. Governments must step up and deliver on their promises, blogs UN and Plan UK youth representative David Crone.
9 July 2014: Our fears have been confirmed. There is no chance that every child will be in primary education by the end of 2015. The promise that governments made in 2000 will officially be broken.
This harsh reality should not disempower any of us. The global failure of Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 2 is, in many ways, the result of 7 lost years. The last 7 years - in which progress on access was negligible, in which aid to education fell, and in which governments grew lethargic and momentum slowed.
This failure should not snatch away our hope: it should shock and outrage us – it should make our voices louder, and further strengthen our resolve to cure this injustice. Now is not the time for complacency but for urgent and strategic action.
We’re currently wide of our target by about 58 million children, 1 million more than we were last year. The fact that governments cannot now physically get out-of-school numbers to zero does not mean they shouldn’t be trying their absolute best to get as close to it as they possibly can. As advocates, we need to make that happen.
Asia leads the way
Credit must be given where it is due. Amongst all this inertia and stagnation, some developing countries, especially in West and South Asia, have worked hard to keep their promise, translating their verbal commitments into tangible change. 17 countries have reduced their out-of-school populations by more than 90% in total in just over 10 years.
We can and should applaud them for their efforts – but, as they become more prosperous and socially developed nations, their investment will continue to pay dividends for long after our applause has died down.
By abolishing school fees, working meticulously on teacher training and education quality, designing relevant and inclusive curricula and investing in opportunities for the most marginalised – and especially girls – they’ve come a long way. They have shown it can be done.
The most practical and meaningful thing that other developing countries can do now – and especially the ones in sub-Saharan Africa where the largest out-of-school populations reside – is to learn the valuable lessons from the experiences of those countries that have been at the forefront of progress.
They must work to replicate their successes and use their proven strategies in their own countries and amidst their own unique, national contexts. They need to recognise the progress that has been made as evidence that with political will, financial commitment and the right techniques, great gains can be made and our goals can be met.
Plan is committed to helping them do that. In addition to spending €402 million on education programmes over the next 4 years, we will be working with developing country governments to help strengthen their education systems – making them more inclusive, gender-sensitive, accountable and effective.
Through partnership of non-governmental organisations, international organisations and governments, we can strengthen developing country capacity to respond to the learning crisis and make progress at a faster pace and on a larger scale.
As a child-centred organisation, Plan is passionate about youth leadership. Another way that Plan, alongside the United Nations Secretary-General’s Education First Initiative Youth Advocacy Group, of which I am a part, is working to ignite real change is by providing young people around the world with the tools they need to apply pressure to their government and to hold them accountable for their commitments.
The youth advocacy toolkit has been designed by and for young people, drawing upon our experiences advocating from the grassroots to the international stage. We are working to support youth all over the globe to tell their governments that the painfully slow pace of progress we’ve seen for the last 7 years is simply not acceptable – to show them that, as the key stakeholders in the classroom, they deserve to be listened to, and as the citizens of tomorrow, their ambitions must be realised.
Translating words into actions
On 26 June, at the replenishment conference for the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), developing countries committed to mobilise $26 billion of their own, domestic resources, allocating it to the education of their people. This is unprecedented: a massive 25% increase on the last conference, and an excellent start of the next chapter of our journey to getting every child into school.
But actions speak louder than words. For the girl whose once vibrant ambitions have been shattered by the realities of child marriage, words mean little. For the boy locked out of the classroom by the need to work and support his family, promises have come and gone. For the children whose fees are unaffordable or whose teacher hasn’t been properly trained – for the children who have been trapped in a cycle of poverty by the global community’s failure – yet another promise, made at the GPE replenishment or within the post-2015 agenda – will provide little comfort and invoke little faith.
Time to get down to business
If the Global Partnership for Education had a dollar for every time the words ‘access’, ‘quality’ and ‘equity’ were mentioned at a conference or summit, it would have enough money today to meet its replenishment target.
Practically every minister seated around the table on 26 June uttered these words in their remarks. Developing countries have shown they are really willing to step up, but now it’s time to get down to business.
Now it’s time for action, for governments to follow through: to spend funds wisely and effectively, prioritise what we know works to boost access and improve quality, and put equity and inclusivity at the heart of their education systems.
If they don’t, I fear that in 2030 I will find myself writing a very similar blog post.
Take action - join Plan’s Because I am a Girl campaign for girls’ education
Young people are at the heart of Plan’s work – including how it governs itself. For Kamanda from Sierra Leone, taking part in Plan’s Members’ Assembly – the organisation’s highest decision-making body – has boosted his confidence to become a leader.
1 July 2014: My name is Kamanda and I am from Port Loko, Sierra Leone. I am part of the Global Youth Advisory Panel for Plan and recently participated in the June 2014 meeting with the Members' Assembly (MA), along with my USA colleague Sara.
I'm very impressed with the way Plan enables young people to take part in its internal decision making, especially since I am the first youth delegate from a country office to meet with the MA – the highest decision-making body of Plan.
Plan leads the way
To me, Plan is the first international non-governmental organisation to involve us – the young people – in this way. These decisions affect our lives, so Plan is really showing that they work with and for young people, and that our voices are valued.
As Plan’s Deputy Country Director for Sierra Leone, Farai Zisengwe, said: "To me, young people are the customers – tell us what we can deliver to you. Instead of the young people waiting for the bread in the shop, we are saying 'come join us in the bakery'."
The Members' Assembly
The MA is such an interesting platform, discussing and taking decisions that affect the whole federation. I have learnt a lot about how the federation works in terms of governance and management, in terms of Plan’s international headquarters, national organisations, regional and country offices. And I think it's really important having us as youth observers intervening there like adults do.
Before the meeting, I worked with the Global Youth Advisory Panel to develop ideas about the issues we would like to intervene on. We then discussed these with Tjipke (Deputy CEO) and Ellen (Chair of the MA), who helped us form the questions.
Sara and I made several interventions on agenda items, including the budget, gifts in kind policy, and the brand. I felt our interventions were well received and sparked discussion, and I sincerely hope that the MA felt our presence and participation was useful.
What I have learnt
To me, the MA is an avenue for basic training on leadership. I found it really inspiring, and it has given me the confidence to speak with and discuss issues with high profile people.
In my country, colleagues and other community people have come to respect me because they see the way I interact with high profile people. In fact, some say "Kamanda, you are born a leader".
I have gained so much experience and confidence that I think I can participate very well in forums in my country where important decisions are made (the House of Parliament, for example).
I really enjoy working with Plan, and I would always like to continue working with and for young people – even when I achieve my dream of becoming an accountant. As well as my general experience of Plan's governance and management, attending the MA has given me a basic knowledge of preparing and managing global accounts. Cheers to Plan!
I hope that other young people also get involved in Plan's work. If we all speak up, we can make a difference. Let's come together as a force and speak with one voice. With our voice, we can transform the world!
Read Plan USA Youth Advisory Board member Sara's post on the Plan USA blog
Learn more about Plan’s child participation work
26 June 2014: Today in Brussels ministers of education and finance from developing countries, donors and international organisations will decide the fate of the world's 57 million out-of-school children.
Hosted by the European Commission, governments from around the world will make their financial pledge to the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) - a pooled fund at arms length of the World Bank that directs much needed investment into developing public education provision in the world’s poorest countries.
Since 2003, the GPE has disbursed over US$3.7 billion in grants to 59 countries such as Niger, Pakistan and Malawi to strengthen and extend education opportunities to the world’s poorest and most marginalised children.
Demand outstripping funds
Yet, with close to US$1.3 billion in grant requests from country partners to support the implementation of their education sector plans in 2013 alone, the GPE is facing higher than expected demand that is far outstripping its supply of funds.
Former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, current chair of the GPE, has said the fund needs to secure at least US$3.5 billion of pledges for the period 2015 to 2018 in order to deliver on the increased ambition of many countries and the growing demand for education.
US$3.5 billion would be a good start, but still modest, compared to the current financing gap in education estimated by UNESCO to be around US$36 billion. Civil society is calling on donors to contribute a minimum of US$4 billion to the GPE.
Education financing crisis
Global leaders must take the opportunity this replenishment round provides to halt this education financing crisis. All delegations should display their commitment to education - not with more words - but with investment.
Developing country governments need to examine State resources in order to move to spending upwards of 20% of national budgets on education, with at least 50% of this for basic education and improving all aspects of the quality of education.
To get there, governments should review budgeting practices and choices, ensuring appropriate policies to deter corruption and wasteful spending, strengthen domestic tax bases, and capture wealth from natural resources for investment in vital public services like education and health.
On the donor side, governments must increase the aid they spend on education, reversing the 10% decline between 2010 and 2012. Donor governments must also provide better aid, spending less for example on scholarships to study in their own countries.
The GPE and the World Bank should do more to ensure education becomes a beneficiary of innovative financing for development, which amounted to over US$50 billion between 2000 and 2008. The private sector should embrace the benefits of a global pooled fund for education that supports national education sector plans and significantly increase funding to public education systems.
For all, the case for investing in education is clear. Research shows that the estimated economic gain from achieving universal primary education exceeds the estimated increase in public spending required to achieve it.
The research found that a country such as The Gambia loses about 10% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a result of having a high number of out-of-school children. In Mali and Nigeria, the projected cost of out of school children is over 2 years of average GDP growth.
Every country’s future is linked to its children
Every country’s future is inextricably linked to the future of its children. Every child’s future is inextricably linked to the education they receive. However figures from UNESCO show that at current rates, universal completion of primary education will only be achieved by poor rural girls in sub-Saharan Africa by the year 2086.
This situation is unjust and a huge waste of potential. Supporting education is one of the best investments that can be made to help end poverty. This current crisis in education will only improve if the world - governments, donors, private sector and international organisations - start to take the situation seriously, and invest.
What happens this week in Brussels will be an important signal from global leaders about their commitment to key development and human rights issues and their resolve to work together. The life chances of 57 million children out of school weigh in the balance.
Read about Plan’s 10 days of global action for education and join us as we tweet live from the GPE pledging conference in Brussels.
19 June 2014: The sun is going down and the light in the dank meeting room is fading, but the horror stories keep coming – the darkness seems to fall with the weight of what I am hearing.
I’m in a small town in western Sierra Leone, making a documentary with Shona Hamilton for Plan International looking at why 85% of girls here drop out of secondary school.
So here we are sitting around a table with 9 teenage girls. Each girl recounts her story. Each girl has faced ruthless beatings. Each girl has been forced to have sex. Each girl has been cut (as in female genital cutting). Each girl just wants to go to school.
I’ve been a journalist/film-maker for 20 years and have covered stories in war-ravaged countries like Colombia, Pakistan and Liberia. But I am still overwhelmed by the relentless violence these girls have had to endure in their short lives.
I listen to Plan’s local child protection officer, Esther Eliot, who translates for me and wonder how she can bear repeating their stories to me.
Wadia*, a 15-year-old waif of a girl, who has a scabies-looking skin problem, reveals she is pregnant. As Wadia gets up to leave and the next girl sits down to talk, Esther cannot continue. Her mind can’t leave Wadia, and she needs a break to quickly follow up and check how Wadia can get medical attention.
I am relieved – the girls are given drinks and snacks as we break, but no one says anything. My mind is spinning as I look around at their young faces. All are in uniforms. Some are wearing cute royal blue berets. Their outfits give no clue to their struggle just to go to school.
Child marriage, teenage pregnancy, discrimination, violence – the reasons for dropping out are multiple. But at their root lies poverty. When girls reach the age of 12 or 13 their families feel they should start contributing to the family income. School fees ($15 - $30 per year) are an added expense that many can’t afford.
Girls are so desperate to go to school, they will sell anything: Christiana* sold her mobile phone to pay for shoes and books; Selina* saved for 16 months selling potatoes in the market; Augusta* sells peanuts and butterscotch at break time in school to save up for her final term of school this year.
Some girls even sell their bodies, not as sex workers, but in “transactional sex”, where a man pays for a girl’s schooling, food and often support the whole family, in exchange for sex. As soon as the girl gets pregnant, the man leaves.
Mothers aged 14
Six of the 9 girls I spoke to had given birth at 14 or 15 years old. Too young to understand, girls are duped into believing these are real relationships that could lead to marriage.
“Since I was small, I didn’t have the experience to know whether he really meant what he said. I thought he was going to marry me. I was 15 when I gave birth,” explained Selina.
As we leave that night, I am reeling from their stories of loss, rape and violence, as well as a sense that this is just the tip of the ice-berg – talk to any girl and she will have a similar story to tell. But I am also astounded at the determination of each of these girls to go to school no matter what is thrown at them.
Girl Power – we have no limits!
The next day we’re greeted by a very different scene as 25 girls from the local ‘Girl Power’ group come singing into the room: “We can be doctors, we can be a lawyers, we can be teachers, we have no limits! Women of the nation - we can do what men can do!”
A project set up by Plan, Girl Power sounds like a marketing dream. But it’s more than that – it helps girls become financially independent, and also offers support to girls who have dropped out. Much of this work is done by the girls themselves.
Seventeen-year-old Christiana is president of this group and is one of the girls we interviewed the previous night. Until secondary school, she came top of her class. But her family couldn’t afford to pay for her school fees and married her off to a much older, violent man, who forced her to have sex with him. After 5 months, she managed to escape, and now lives, along with 2 other girls, with a female teacher.
When I ask her where she gets her strength and determination she says softly:
“Sometimes when I am at school, I remember my story and cry. My friends come and ask me why I’m crying but I don’t tell them. But If I see another girl going through the same as me, I tell her not to despair. No situation is permanent, it will come to an end.”
Hear from Christiana and some of the other girls - watch the film ‘Girls Interrupted’
See Christiana in action at the youth takeover of the African Union, calling for increased investment in education
As young people across the world lead 10 days of global action for education, Liberia’s President and Plan 'Because I am a Girl' campaign champion, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, speaks out on the importance of girls’ education for Africa's future.
This article was first published on CNN
What factor has the power to transform individual lives, communities, nations and the world?
The answer to this complex question is a simple one: education. While it is widely accepted that there is no one solution to lift the millions across our globe out of poverty, it is also equally accepted that a key cornerstone of addressing some of the world’s most pressing challenges is through providing a quality education to all children, especially girls.
Despite increasing numbers attending school in recent years, 126 million children remain out of primary school and lower secondary school around the world. Some 65 million of these children are girls. The highest rate of girls not in school is across the African continent, where in sub-Saharan Africa nearly 4 out of 5 poor rural girls are not completing primary school. There are an estimated 250 million children worldwide of primary school age who can’t read, write or do basic maths - more than half of whom have completed 4 years of schooling.
It is unacceptable that in 2014 - less than a year away from the deadline the international community agreed to get all children into school - that 30 million girls in Africa are denied their basic human right to a quality education. Ensuring that every child goes to school, stays in school and learns something of value while there will require firm commitments and action by governments to invest in education and prioritise the education of its girls.
Africa’s economy has grown at more than 5% annually over the past decade - some of the highest economic growth in the world - leading many to use the phrase of ‘Africa Rising’ when describing its countries. However, a country’s economic growth does not always lead to development or improvement for its poorest citizens. To truly rise as a nation by building an equitable, sustainable and peaceful society, governments must ensure that spending on education is prioritised and used well.
According to recent research, the estimated economic gain from achieving universal primary education exceeds the estimated increase in public spending required to achieve it.
One extra year of schooling can increase an individual’s earnings by 10%. Girls who complete a primary education are likely to increase their earnings by 5 to 15% over their lifetimes. Each additional year of schooling could raise average annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth by 0.37%.
Girls’ quality education key
If all women had a primary education, child marriages and child mortality could fall by a sixth, and maternal deaths by two-thirds. Investing in girls’ education could boost sub-Saharan Africa's agricultural output by up to 25%. Some countries lose more than $1 billion a year by failing to educate girls to the same level as boys. Without education, how can a country’s future citizens take part in growing their economy and reap benefits? Without education how can a country grow?
It is however, not good enough to only increase the number of children receiving education. Children and young people must learn basic knowledge, skills and competencies, such as reading, writing, critical thinking, problem solving and maths, that are needed to live healthy, safe and productive lives.
In Liberia, across the African continent and, indeed, around the world, it is becoming increasingly apparent that going to school is not the same as learning. This is of grave concern given that many of the social and economic returns from an education are found to come from learning outcomes rather than number of years in school.
To accomplish this, more financial resources that are better spent are needed to build a strong education system capable of improving both access and learning for all. But making informed decisions about those resources requires good data.
Information on teachers, how to best support them to do their jobs, and information on how students are learning are crucial for knowing what policies and programmes will be effective. By using our resources more effectively and focusing them on those children that are currently left behind, we can have some of the best educated citizens in the world - citizens who will be responsible for building a peaceful and prosperous future.
At current rates, the poorest girls in sub-Saharan Africa will only achieve universal primary completion in 2086. To not invest in and prioritise girls’ education, we as African leaders are telling our women that we do not care about you and your child’s future. As one of those women, I will not accept this and I urge all our leaders to invest in our children’s future. Investing in girl’s education is not only a moral imperative, it is a smart investment.
African Union youth takeover
On 16 June, the Day of the African Child, young people from across Africa stood at the African Union Headquarters in Addis Abba, Ethiopia, and across Africa, to call on their governments to dedicate more resources - the recommended 20% of national budgets - to education and develop strong and transparent monitoring systems to track effectiveness and impact. Better information on learning outcomes and public spending is key to achieving our goals.
These young people want a brighter reality and they demand that their governments stand up to meet their responsibilities and commitments, in order to build a future for their children, a future for their country.
When nearly 60 developing countries come together in Brussels at the end of June, as part of the Global Partnership for Education, they will be asked to commit to increase education spending. If they do, we will know if they have listened to these young people, and then the phrase, ‘Africa Rising’, can be used in all truthfulness.
Take action now - join Plan's 10 days of global action for girls’ education
Learn about Plan’s Because I am a Girl campaign for girls' education
On 16 June,1976, around 200 children were shot and killed in the streets of Soweto because they dared to suggest they had the right to an education.
On 16 June, 2014, the fate of 276 girls, who dared to try and go to school in Nigeria, still lies in the hand of their abductors.
It has been 38 years since the tragedy of that day in June 1976, which led to the African Union creating an annual Day of the African Child. Thirty eight years and yet it seems so little has changed. Poverty, violence and discrimination against children across the continent, and around the world, are still preventing millions of girls, and boys, from accessing their right to an education.
Girls continue to be the most affected, with 65 million adolescent girls out of school around the world, and as many as 4 out of 5 girls not even completing primary school in some sub-Saharan African countries. Why? Because governments are still not investing enough money in education and when they are, they are not investing well enough.
More funding needed for basic education
The education community has set an international benchmark for all governments to spend a total of 20% of their national budget on education, with at least half of that to be spent on basic education. Despite increases, such as an average rise of 6% annually since 2000 in sub-Saharan Africa, investment is far from keeping up with the demand for public education.
Official Development Assistance (ODA) allocated to education has fallen 10% between 2010 and 2012. We are in an education financing crisis, with some estimates putting the financing gap at some $26 million each year.
The money that is available needs to be spent in a way that provides sustainable, quality education for all children, including the most marginalised and hard to reach. This is why we are calling on all governments to undertake a gender review of their Education Sector Plans and fund the results, to ensure measures are taken to specifically target girls. At present rates, poor rural girls in sub-Saharan Africa will not all have access to primary education until 2086!
Governments must also listen to the people who know the most about their education experience, children and young people themselves. They must be part of the solution.
Let’s stand up for the children of Africa
This year’s Day of the African Child theme is quality education for all children. The day provides us with an opportunity to stand up and say this is not acceptable, to say it is time for governments to show they care about the education of their children; the future of their countries.
This is why at Plan International we have organised a children’s takeover of the African Union on 16 June. We are supporting children from across the continent to call on their leaders to step up and invest more in education.
We are working on the day with our partners at A World At School, UNICEF, Women Thrive International and many more to support children and young people to run events in over 70 countries around the world to make the same call. This includes calling on donor governments to increase their support for global education. And we are calling on them to act now and to show their investments when they have the opportunity in 10 days’ time.
On 26 June, the Global Partnership for Education hosts its replenishment conference for 2015-2018. There has never been a more urgent need for action.
10 days of action – join us now!
This is why we are starting our 10 Days To Act campaign on 16 June. If you join us we can make sure governments are increasing their investment in education and providing all children with the safe, quality education they deserve.
Here are 10 simple ways to show your support over the next 10 days. We must make sure that in another 40 years there are no further tragedies occurring simply because children dared to go to school.
6 June 2014: It's a still hot afternoon as Blessing and I walk up the hill in Bomi County, Liberia.
”During the war I saw a man use a machete to slice a pregnant woman's belly open, see whether it was a boy or a girl.” Blessing stares ahead, chin lifted, a nerve in her cheek working. When she turns to look at me, her eyes are aflame. ”So yeah, I blame the war. No wonder things are like they are.”
Blessing* is 27, one of hundreds of young women and teenage girls from Bomi County who work as hopojos, or sex workers, to make a living. I'm here to make a film about them, but the minute we meet I know it's going to be one of those; the stories that get to you; the ones that leave you changed in a way that's inexplicable to anyone who wasn't there.
Orphaned and raped
Blessing and the other women were children or teenagers during the war. Most were orphaned; most were raped or gang-raped; all of them missed out on school and have no education or skills to speak of.
The generation of men who should be their husbands are so traumatised by what happened during those terrible years between 1999 and 2003, and so disempowered by the subsequent unemployment afflicting Liberia, that they no longer want responsibility, marriage or relationships. Instead they search for no-strings sex and leave the women to struggle along as single mothers.
Rape is so common that billboards line the highway out to Bomi, Rape is Not a Family Matter, and people have taken to wearing wristbands with the same slogan. The word that constantly comes to mind is broken, society, at least for these women, is broken.
In post-war Liberia, suffering is of a less tangible kind than the atrocities that happened during the conflict. Having to sleep with strangers for money every night after being raped or gang-raped when you were a girl is a singularly horrific form of torture. Yet the older women are strong and articulate about their predicament and understand not only the reasons for where they are today, but how this could be resolved for their daughters - education, they say, and trade. Teach them skills and they could leave the street and start businesses. Their biggest fear is that their daughters will be like them.
On the first day of filming we gather in a zinc roofed hut, all 23 of us in a circle around the room. It's hot and close and beads of sweat break out on our foreheads. The women sit in silence, watching me anxiously as Marc (my colleague and co-director) sets up the camera. They range from teenagers of 14 to young women of 30, and for a split second I'm not sure where to start. I'm surprised at how many of them have come. But when I ask a question, the silence breaks.
Their names are Kassa and Blessing, Carmen and Silver, Mary, Anna, Temba and Mamawa*. They tell me about the rapists, street customers or absent boyfriends who got them pregnant and the reasons why they work as sex workers to feed and try to send their children to school. They say that during the night, while they're with the men, they think of their children at home and the fact that if they don't get money, they won't eat. There's a palpable sense of emotion as the stories spill out and I get the impression that the women are desperate to confide what is happening. They are desperate for help.
We are broken
”We are broken,” says Kassa, ”and we have no pride as women.” When I ask them whether love exists between men and women they murmur collectively and shake their heads. ”Love?” says Blessing. ”What is love now? You try to get into it and then it hurts you. Just leave it alone.”
The women make around 75 Liberian dollars (one US dollar) per customer, meaning they have to sleep with several men to pay for food and rent the next day. Kassa began sex work when she was 10. After the war, when she used to hide in derelict buildings to avoid being raped, she would go to school in the day and on the street at night.
Now Mary, 15, does the same thing because her mother, another of this war generation, can't afford to provide for her. ”When I go into a room to sleep with a man, it makes me scared,” she trembles. ”I see myself as a child.” Only Blessing seems to throw a positive spin on what is happening. "One thing I like about myself, yes, I'm doing it, but then my children are in school," she shrugs.
When I get back to the hotel that night, I can't stop thinking about the women. The following day, I interview all the women one by one, not because we need all their stories, but because they are stories that need telling.
Silver, 30, wears a t-shirt that says 'Don't Hurt Me' in gold letters. She was gang-raped in the war by 4 men who tied her up and left her pregnant. Her face is impassive when I ask how it makes her feel to go on the street and sleep with strangers. ”It doesn't make me feel fine, but what to do?”
Girl Power Project
The worst thing is that at the end of the week we have to leave the women behind and go back to our lives. A kindly man called Alexander at Plan International has since brought the women together, to form a programme that combines skills training with a small business loan and group savings scheme. It will be part of Plan's overall Girl Power Project, which helps teenage girls and young women gain vocational skills so they can leave the streets and start businesses.
Showing their film, and it is their film, at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict** in London, chaired by William Hague and Angelina Jolie, is an important way to give them a voice, and show the world that just because a war ends, suffering doesn't.
I hope with all my heart that Ms Jolie and Mr Hague will listen hard to the women's stories, and that they will act upon what they hear.
The film will be screened at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict from 10-13 June. #TimeToAct #DaughtersOfWar
Read the full version of Jane’s blog on the Huffington Post**
Learn more about Plan’s work in Liberia
* All the women's names have been changed for their protection
** Plan is not responsible for the content on external websites
May 2014: As Kumari Ghadei, 48, recalls her experience of Cyclone Phailin - the strongest storm to rip across India’s east coast in 14 years - tears flow down her face.
Listening to her story takes me straight back to that fateful night last October, when I was deployed the night before Cyclone Phailin made landfall to monitor its movement and impact.
Now, I am back in the affected areas as Plan International’s Cash Transfer in Emergencies Specialist, part of the global food and nutrition unit, to monitor the impact that our work is having on the community.
I get goosebumps as Kumari tells me about her family’s harrowing experience of when the cyclone hit the Ganjam District of Odisha (formerly known as Orissa).
They lost everything - their house, their food and their belongings. The 7-strong family was trapped in between the cyclonic wind and the floods, which led to the nearby Dhanei Dam overflowing. As a result, Kumari and her family had to take shelter in the nearby school for 4 days.
With Kumari’s husband unfit to work, she and her son had been the main sources of income - earning their living weaving bamboo baskets. With the bamboo all but destroyed, their income was gone and it would take time to weave more baskets. Where would they live? What would they eat? How would they survive?
I clearly remember the impact the cyclone had on the community, as I conducted my rapid-needs assessments immediately after the disaster. Wherever I turned, there was devastation. Adults and children were sombre and pale, as if they’d forgotten how to smile.
Given the impact of Cyclone Phailin, it was understandable.
The cyclone packed wind speeds of up to 220km per hour. Winds were followed by heavy rainfall, which caused flooding, displacing over 171,000 people, according to the government of Odisha.
According to Sphere India, 44 people lost their lives, while over 13 million people in over 18,000 villages were affected.
In the aftermath, the government was lauded due to its decision to evacuate over 1 million people who were at risk of the cyclone, a prime example of disaster preparedness.
The forgotten ones
The Dalits, or the untouchables as they were once known, were hit hard by the cyclone, with approximately 20% of the population in the affected areas impacted. Dalits are known to work as manual scavengers or daily-wage labourers and many do not own titles to their land, which means they are particularly vulnerable in disasters – yet often sidelined.
According to the International Dalit Solidarity Network, Dalits did not receive adequate assistance during the 2004 tsunami, the 2008 Kosi floods in India and Nepal or the 2010 floods in Pakistan, and despite affirmative government measures in South Asia, widespread violations of the fundamental rights of Dalits remain common.
At Plan International, our priority in disaster situations is to ensure children, women and vulnerable communities receive the aid they need and our response always aims to be inclusive.
Dalits are vulnerable, as most live in the peripheral areas and are exposed to natural disasters. Often, they do not even have appropriate access to information, meaning they can miss out on early warning signals in an impending disaster situation.
For Kumari, a Dalit, she and her family received mixed early warning information. She was aware of the risks of the cyclone, but not of the floods.
Emergency cash transfers
Building from previous experience of working with disaster-affected communities, Plan decided to distribute emergency cash transfers following Cyclone Phailin. According to Plan’s assessments, Kumari and her family were in desperate need and received an Unconditional Cash Transfer (UCT) of INR 7,500 (€100) via bank transfer.
“This was a timely support otherwise we would have struggled for our survival since we had lost everything including all our belongings, from utensils to the roof over our head,” says Kumari.
As her tears fade into a hopeful smile, Kumari says: “The cash transfer gave me the choice and flexibility on spending the money I received. I used it to purchase food materials worth INR 3,000, bamboo for INR 1,500 and I repaid debt amounting to INR 3,000.”
By purchasing enough food to survive the aftermath of the disaster, Kumari and her son were able to work hard and produce bamboo baskets to sell. Now they earn INR 6,000 per month, a sufficient amount for their family’s needs.
The cash transfer also allowed Kumari to start rebuilding her house and she hopes to receive support from the government-supported shelter scheme ‘Indira Awas Yojana’, facilitated by Plan and its partner CYSD (Centre for Youth and Social Development).
Kumari is very grateful for the bank transfer and now her future looks much brighter, while the conditions stipulated have also helped her community.
“The soft condition of ‘no one should utilise this money for drinking liquor. If this happens, the money will be taken back’ is good, and it means the men have stopped drinking since the cash transfer to ensure food security,” says Kumari. “We women are extremely happy about it and are leading a peaceful life.”
Plan has also provided UCT to 21 other women in the village and they have used their money wisely.
Having revisited the affected communities, I can see a positive change. There are still needs unmet, but these cash transfers have provided a lifeline for many people.
For me, I cannot stop saying, “Our small bit of work has transformed sombre faces into smiles”.
This project is funded by the Humanitarian Aid Department of European Commission with Action Aid as consortia lead and Plan International in India as consortia partner, in addition to ADRA, Christian Aid and Oxfam.
Visit Plan India’s website
28 May 2014: According to the World Food Programme* (WFP), there are 842 million undernourished people in the world today and malnutrition is the biggest risk to health worldwide — greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. That means 1 in 8 people do not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life.
The good news is that hunger and malnutrition can be stopped. There is enough food in the world to feed everyone and no scientific breakthroughs are needed. Today’s knowledge, tools and policies, combined with political will, can solve the problem.
As we pose to reflect this World Hunger Day*, my colleagues in Plan’s Food Assistance and Nutrition Unit (FANU) are driven by the Zero Hunger Challenge* and awake to the fact that “eliminating hunger is a moral imperative that the world cannot afford to ignore and that it’s not just the right thing to do, but that it is also the smart thing to do”, as stated by Ertharin Cousin, WFP Executive Director.
Plan International has made significant contributions on the frontline, helping thousands of individuals and families tackle hunger in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe since 2005.
During 2011 and 2012 food emergencies in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel region Plan supported children and communities with food resources.
Right now Plan is providing food assistance and nutrition interventions across all Plan regions, including countries such as the Philippines, South Sudan, Laos, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mali, Niger, India and Ethiopia.
In South Sudan, 5 months of fighting has seriously undermined food security. Aid agencies are warning of risks of a possible famine in 2014 if urgent supplies do not get through.
We set up Plan’s Food Assistance and Nutrition Unit almost 1 year ago to improve the quality, reliability and profile of our food assistance portfolio. The unit brings together expertise on food distributions, nutrition and cash programming. The team, supported by specialist consultants, has been able to provide specialist support to the countries that need it while building Plan’s profile with the UN and donors.
FANU strengthens Plan’s ability to manage malnutrition and food crisis prior to disaster, in emergency response and during recovery phase.
What does this mean in practice? Key activities FANU works on include cash and vouchers programming, therapeutic and supplementary feeding, general food distributions, food for assets and school feeding. All different ways of providing food assistance.
A busy year
The FANU team has had a busy year supporting Plan’s programmes across the globe, including food assistance projects in Zimbabwe, South Sudan and Mali. With team members being based in India, Kenya, USA and UK, the first face-to-face team meeting occurred when all were deployed for the Typhoon Haiyan response.
As we work with others as members of the global Food Security Cluster and also at the global Nutrition Cluster, Plan is today well placed to address the causes, consequences and dynamics of food crisis and malnutrition.
Together we are saving lives and building resilience amongst children and communities.
In pictures: How Plan tackles hunger
Cambodia: Students are trained on nutrition and how to develop vegetable gardens
Niger: A boy waters crops in the school garden funded by Plan
Burkina Faso: Children receive lunch at school
Senegal: A malnourished child being fed at a Plan-supported maternity centre
Philippines: Lina and her friends take part in Plan's cash-for-work scheme, which provides food assistance
South Sudan: Children wait to receive their ration cards and food during a distribution
Philippines: Mother feeds her son with food received from Plan during distribution in Eastern Samar
Find out more about Plan’s Food and Nutrition work.
Support the South Sudan crisis appeal.
*Plan is not responsible for the content on external websites