Plan staff blog on our work with children across the world.
As war and conflict continue to make headlines across the world, more and more children are being exposed to distressing scenes through the media. Talking about it can help minimise their stress, blogs Plan International Australia’s Senior Child Rights Specialist, Sophie Shugg.
26 August 2014: How do you talk with your kids when they ask you the tough questions about war and conflict? How can you minimise the stress and the confusion they feel when they see images and scenes they may be too young to understand?
Whether it's Gaza, Syria, Iraq or the Ukraine, young children are witnessing images and scenes that horrify even the most hardened war correspondent. And in the age of rolling news coverage and the internet, they can be potentially exposed to more and more than we ever experienced as children. And just to make these images and scenes all the more distressing and confusing for kids, they all too often feature children tragically caught up in war and conflicts they can never control.
Should you shield kids from the news?
Ultimately, it's your choice as a parent. But consider this: even if you were to throw away your TV, there's every chance your children will see these moments on other TVs, be it at a shopping centre, at their friends’ places or in a relative's home. And even if they don’t, they can still hear about war from their friends, or see photos on the front pages as they walk past the newsagent.
Create an environment in which children can speak freely
Children always need to feel safe, and never more so than when they are talking about events and issues that concern them. So find a time and a place where they feel comfortable and secure, in order to talk to them about their fears and concerns.
Let children guide the conversation
What worries your kids about scenes of war and conflict may surprise you. So let them take the lead in your conversation. This will ensure their concerns are addressed, and not just your assumptions.
Look for non-verbal signs
Children will not always raise their concerns with you directly. So look for the signs that they are feeling distressed. Do they turn away from the television when they fear the news is about to come on? Do they play act scenes of fighting or conflict with their friends? Do they draw pictures that reflect what they are seeing on TV? If so, you may need to bring up the subject and ease their worries.
Be as open as you can
No one expects you to explain the genesis of complex conflicts like a professor of politics, least of all your children. Nor do you need to go into excruciating detail on injury or death. But children are often smarter than you think, and they will gain a sense of comfort if you talk openly. And it’s OK to admit you don’t understand the reasons for war.
Reassure your children
Make sure your children understand that there is no threat of war or conflict where you are. But don’t dismiss their concerns for others – your children are learning empathy and compassion, and that’s to be encouraged.
Do something about it!
Children will often want to do more than just talk about conflict, they may want to take action. Let your children know that they can support communities, whether that’s through raising awareness or fundraising to help organisations responding to conflict.
Children across the world are caught up in conflict. You can help by making a donation to one of Plan's emeregncy appeals.
Download the How to talk to your kids about war guide from Plan International Australia's website.
Consider this - 24 hours from when you are reading this piece, approximately 24,000 more children will have died worldwide from preventable diseases. This is an everyday reality, but these deaths can be stopped with access to clean water, healthcare, immunisation, safety and education.
When I am asked what inspired me to get involved in humanitarian work, I ask myself if there is any choice when faced with this reality.
Our news headlines are currently dominated by humanitarian crises - the Ebola outbreak; the conflict in Iraq; the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel; the lingering war and food crisis in South Sudan that is threatening the lives of over 4 million people.
Brave people, selfless volunteers
The bravest people in the world are not those who climb Mount Everest, Formula 1 drivers or the armed guards protecting presidential palaces. I believe that the bravest people today are the frontline workers, providing life-saving humanitarian assistance.
Take, for instance, the health workers and the undertakers battling the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. They know the huge risk of contracting the deadly disease, which kills up to 90% of its victims. The current outbreak has claimed 1,145 lives, though reports indicate these numbers could be higher.
It's not just the threat of the highly infectious virus they have to battle. Health workers and undertakers have all come under attack. The fact that dead bodies are a source of infection has put a stop to burials in usual places.
More than 160 health workers are reported to have been infected, half of who have died. Yet, there has been an armed attack on the patient unit care in Liberia. The outbreak is taking a heavy toll on the frontline workers - both physically and emotionally.
Getting our priorities right
In a world characterised by violence and human suffering, humanitarian work can only be built on the strong foundations of humanitarian values and principles. We talk in our reports, proposals and budgets of the millions in need, but these are not just statistics - these are real people like you and I, with names, relations and emotions. It is vital to recognise the rights of the people humanitarian agencies serve, as expressed in the Humanitarian Charter*.
There are 51 million displaced people in the world right now. But this does not necessarily mean that public engagement with these issues is higher than before. Last year, the global arms expenditure was US $1.75 trillion (i.e. $1,750 billion). A small portion of this money is sufficient to provide clean water, healthcare, education and shelter for all people on earth, and provide humanitarian assistance in all disasters and conflicts.
Earlier this year, during a visit to a Plan child-friendly space in South Sudan in the peak of the armed conflict, 2 children caught my attention - a case in point demonstrating why humanitarian work is so crucial and the difference it makes.
In a group of 100 children, Madiha, 9, and Lina, 4, stood out. It was not their unusual silence that caught my attention, but the way they frequently hugged each other, seemingly involuntarily.
A few days earlier they both witnessed the execution of their parents in Jonglei before fleeing to relative safety. Madiha's first instinct was to protect Lina. As they made their escape, this 9-year-old child was transformed into a parent to her 4-year-old sister, leaving her childhood behind.
The last few months have been exceptionally busy for the humanitarian aid workers. We were already stretched thin with our ongoing work responding to the conflict and food crisis in South Sudan, violence and displacement in Central African Republic, humanitarian fallout of the crisis in Syria and the unfinished recovery work in the Philippines' typhoon-impacted areas and Darfur.
For every major disaster reported, there are several unreported crises. Add to this the flare-up of Ebola, the fallout of the conflict in Gaza and Israel and the displacement in Iraq - all unfolding simultaneously.
This means, at work, you move from one crisis to the other during the day. In such circumstances a normal day could be 24/7 - especially if you are doing media interviews and coordinating with aid workers on ground.
It also means reserving a good portion of this time to listen to colleagues who are on the frontline - their anxieties, concerns and aspirations.
But humanitarian work often produces instant results - and that makes you get back to work 10 minutes early the next day.
World Humanitarian Day is marked every year on 19 August to recognise those who face danger and adversity in order to help others.
Find out more about Plan's global emergencies work
* Plan is not responsible for the content on external websites
12 August 2014: The current Ebola outbreak, the most severe and complex in history, is now making its impact felt worldwide.
The deadly disease has killed over 960 people so far in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Seven additional West African countries (Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger) are on alert.
Communities in West Africa have witnessed horrific scenes of infected people dying with symptoms of severe bleeding. Suspected case or cases under medical care are now in Africa, Europe and North America.
Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria have declared Ebola as national emergencies. The military has been deployed in an attempt to quarantine people and stop their movements and therefore the spread of the disease. These are not scenes from fictional Hollywood movies such as ‘Outbreak’ or ‘Contagion’ - this disaster is unfolding in real time.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak an international public health emergency demanding an “extraordinary” response.We are in a situation where the deadly outbreak is threatening to kill more people in West Africa and beyond. What is needed now is not a speculative prediction, but collective global action to invent Ebola’s future.
This is a decisive moment in the battle against Ebola. Time is running out fast, millions of lives are at stake and the world needs to act now. Investing in public health systems and disaster preparedness measures is the best way to invent the future trajectory of the Ebola outbreak.
No vaccine or cure
Ebola is one of the world’s most virulent diseases and it spreads through contact with an infected person's bodily fluids. Initial symptoms are the sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat.
Such common symptoms make it hard to detect Ebola easily. There is no vaccine or cure and Ebola kills up to 90% of those infected, making it a ‘doctor’s nightmare’.
Complementary care such as rehydration can help to save lives in some instances. Stopping the spread, through public health promotion and better awareness, is the best way to reduce infection rates and reduce deaths.
Ebola – one-step ahead
The easy movement of people across porous borders between countries; the initial gross under estimates about the ability of the disease to spread; the lack of information; risky burial practices and above all weak public health systems and poverty have all contributed to Ebola’s steady spread.
Over 160 health workers are reported to have been infected, half of whom have died. Rumours are also rife on the ground making an already challenging response even more complicated. In some cases, local mobs have attacked health workers forcing emergency centres to close.
Until now, Ebola has been one-step ahead of the response and unfortunately, it is not showing any immediate signs of slowing down.
The WHO declaration is expected to bring much needed public health specialists and financial resources to fight the crisis in the impacted countries. The current outbreak is an unprecedented crisis with global dimensions - it is both the longest and largest outbreak in terms of deaths, infected cases and the number of countries affected.
In addition to precious lives, psychological and economic impacts can be catastrophic. The World Bank estimates that the outbreak will reduce economic growth in Guinea, where the outbreak originated, from 4.5% to 3.5% this year.
Local health workers and aid agencies such as Plan International, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and International Medical Corps have been on the frontline, fighting a battle with limited resources and increasing challenges.
Turning the tide of this deadly disease is now the collective responsibility of the world. Better and humane care for those that are infected as well as building strong public health systems are fundamental - not only to deal with this outbreak, but also to respond to future shocks.
The next phase
Dr. Thomas Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testified before the US government’s senate committee last week. He warned that it will be a ‘long and hard fight’.
He described a worrying picture which he called a best case scenario: it will take at least 3 to 6 months to end the outbreak. “If you leave behind even a single burning ember, it’s like a forest fire,” he said. “It flares back up.”
To invent the future of this outbreak, rather than just to make a prediction, here are the first steps that need to be taken.
- Intensify care and support (including emotional care) for infected people, their families, health workers and caregivers through additional isolation care and support units across the impacted countries.
- Reach out to the most vulnerable people, such as children and women, who are often in far-flung remote pockets. This step must be complemented by reassurances to save lives of those who come forward to such healthcare units, preferably through appeals by heads of nations and local leaders. There are distressing reports of infected people being left in the streets to die for fear of contamination.
- While the 4 West African countries with confirmed cases should be the first priority, it is time to shift gears and step up surveillance and public health promotion in the other 7 countries that are on alert.
- The outbreak has exposed the underbelly of weak health infrastructure in the impacted countries on alert. Most of them are at the bottom of the human development index and have some of the weakest public health systems in the world. Conflict destroyed most of the healthcare facilities in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Both countries have approximately 1 doctor per 35,000 to 40,000 people. WHO recommends 1 doctor for every 10,000 people.
- Rich nations and emerging economies need to be generous and deploy all possible resources to intensify the battle against Ebola. Despite the recent injection of funds by the WHO, the World Bank and European Commission, the response has been massively underfunded. It is in the best interest of the world to intensify the battle against Ebola and stop its spread.
- Neglected tropical diseases continue to cause significant death and health complications in the developing world. Yet, only a tiny portion of the total funds for research globally is spend for diseases such as Tuberculosis, Malaria and HIV. In 2012, an estimated 627,000 malaria deaths was recorded worldwide - 90% occurred in sub-Saharan Africa and 77% in children under 5 years of age. Investments are needed for research and to develop cures.
The outbreak is a wake-up call to build strong public health systems, including disease surveillance measures; early warning systems and improved epidemic preparedness measures.
Well prepared health workers can fight not just the Ebola outbreak, but other epidemics and disasters too. Investing in public health systems and disaster preparedness measures is the best way to invent the future trajectory of the Ebola outbreak.
Support Plan's Ebola emergency appeal
A super group of 8 young people is ensuring that youth have their say in Plan’s work worldwide – and the benefits will be incredible, blogs Plan youth engagement officer, Jo Dempster.
12 August 2014, International Youth Day:
It’s 7am in El Salvador
Jacinto was up at 6 to take the bus 3 miles to reach his local Plan office. He logs on and begins the call using Google Translate while he waits for his supporting staff member. “Hola!” “Hola!” replies the group.
It’s 9am in the USA
Sara is skyping in on her mobile on her way to school.
Every other Tuesday the Global Youth Advisory Panel meet via Skype to discuss all matters relating to the roll out of Plan’s global strategy on engaging young people in internal decision-making.
Despite the different time zones, dodgy internet connections, language barriers and travel difficulties, this inspirational group of 8 young people come together every 2 weeks to support each other, share learning from their countries, help to develop organisational tools and guidance, and hold me to account.
It’s 1pm in Sierra Leone
After several failed attempts to connect on Skype we call Kamanda in on his cell phone.
“Sorry, the internet’s down and I’m in the middle of a workshop. The Port Loko youth advisory panel are devising a play about the dangers of Ebola; we’re taking it out to schools and communities next week,” he says.
It’s 2pm in the UK
Simone is on her gap year and takes her lunch break from the sandwich shop she works in, timing it so she can join the call.
This incredibly motivated and committed group of young people have played a central role in the development of Plan’s youth engagement in decision-making strategy and continue to provide unique insights on the development of ‘how to’ guidance.
The group discuss everything from how many hours a week is realistic for young people to volunteer for Plan to what tools Plan’s country management teams need in order to open up their decision-making spaces.
Plan has to lead by example. In our post-Millennium Development Goal positioning we are pushing for greater youth participation in the new development framework. We recognise that whilst 43% of the world’s population is under the age of 25, their thoughts and concerns have often gone unheard by national and global leaders.
We believe that young people have the right to be heard in development debates and that they have bright, creative ideas about how to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges.
Internally, Plan makes decisions on a daily basis that directly affect the lives of millions of young people and we are slowly opening up these decision-making spaces to ensure we support their right to participate. Equally importantly, we believe that their opinions will help us to make better decisions about how we spend our resources.
This is about organisational transformation. So while we know it will take time and it will take resources, the benefits for the organisation and for the young people will be incredible.
It’s 3pm in Sweden and Norway
“So, what do you guys think about the list I sent for the youth trustee pack?” says Tova. “Can we include something about training the adults on speaking in accessible language?” says Frida. Both Tova and Frida are trustees of Plan.
It’s 4pm in Uganda
Frank has cycled 2 miles to Plan’s programme unit in Kamuli to join the call. There seems to be a chicken having a party in the background.
Like so many of the young people Plan works with, Frank had a challenging upbringing, leaving school at 14 to support his brothers and sisters after his parents died. Frank is back in school and so proud to be representing Plan’s East and Southern Africa region on the Global Youth Advisory Panel. He was selected by his peers and, like his global peers, he brings that raw perspective founded in real-life experience.
The Global Youth Advisory Panel is part of a youth engagement movement inspiring change across the organisation. There are now 24 national panels directly engaging in Plan's governance, and we are working towards the ambitious target of all offices having a panel by 2020.
The impact of youth engagement can be felt from the very grassroots level of the organisation right up to Plan's highest decision-making body, the Members' Assembly, where we now have 2 seats for youth observers.
I feel very privileged to call the members of the global panel my colleagues – they are the reason I joined Plan. We're showing that we're an organisation that believes in putting children and young people at the heart of what we do; that we're ready to be challenged by the young people we aim to serve.
It’s nearly 10pm in Indonesia
Having enthused the group about the fantastic progress being made with Plan Indonesia’s new national youth advisory panel; Agung is struggling to keep his eyes open and I am mindful of time.
So, until next time...adios, and Happy International Youth Day!
International Youth Day is celebrated across the world every 12 August.
Find out more about Plan's Global Youth Advisory Panel
8 August 2014: The Philippines is known for its more than 7,000 tropical islands inhabited by different groups of Filipinos speaking about 170 native languages. From the tourism department’s point of view, this magnificent geography and cultural diversity, buoyed by the people’s fun-loving spirit, comprises the country’s unique selling point. It is more fun in the Philippines*, after all.
While this diversity is indeed worth celebrating, it continues to pose a huge challenge for the government to make sure that everyone in the population, which hit 100 million on 27 July* is counted and has their birth registered.
It’s a similar story in other countries across Asia and the rest of the world where some 350 million indigenous peoples live, often on the fringes of society, both literally and figuratively.
The theme for this year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on 9 August is “Bridging the gap: Implementing the rights of indigenous peoples.”
In a country like the Philippines, where indigenous groups continue to be among the most disadvantaged in the population, to “bridge the gap” means, firstly, making sure everyone is counted and visible.
To date there is no official figure on the number of indigenous peoples in the Philippines. Estimates range somewhere between 14 to 17 million people* or between 10 to 20%* of the total population. What we do know, though, is that wherever indigenous peoples live, they are among the poorest and least educated.
Although the situation greatly varies from the north to the south, most indigenous peoples in the Philippines continue to face exclusion from political processes and economic and social development. They occupy some of the most remote areas in the country, far from the reach of government services.
As in other parts of the indigenous world, such exclusion is intimately related to the loss of ancestral lands and traditional ways of living, displacement due to armed conflicts and disasters, and confrontations with pressures to conform to the dominant culture.
In terms of birth registration, most provinces where indigenous peoples live have birth registration rates that are much lower than the national figure, which as of 2010 is at 88%. In the region of Muslim Mindanao, the rate is as low as 25%; in the Cordillera Region, where the indigenous community I am part of is located, the rate is 96%!
This striking inequality becomes more interesting when compared to data on human development in the same areas. Data shows* that provinces with higher Human Development Index (HDI) scores (i.e. people are generally more educated, have better access to health services and have higher standards of living) have higher birth registration rates. This suggests a potentially complex link – to be exact, 'A Complex Story'– between birth registration, social development and human rights – in the Philippines and beyond.
The challenge to count every child therefore entails focusing on those who are most marginalised and most vulnerable – those who are, at present, invisible. For an organisation like Plan, this means continuing to reach out to indigenous communities, particularly those who live in geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas, to make sure that each birth is registered.
At the same time, we will continue calling for a responsive and rights-based national civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) system to be put in place.
The good news is that the Philippines government, with support from development partners, is taking important steps to “get everyone in the picture”*. The Philippines was one of 4 countries selected to present national CRVS investment plans at a global meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in April.
For development partners, there was the National Civil Society Forum on CRVS, which Plan co-hosted on 7-8 August. The event aimed to consolidate grassroots support for CRVS, specifically to strengthen the policy environment for CRVS towards the protection, promotion and fulfillment of the rights of every Filipino.
I can sum up all these efforts to make every indigenous person visible as celebrating diversity, addressing inequalities and guaranteeing rights. When we know with precision how many indigenous people there are, where they live and what their situation is, we will be better equipped to implement needed programmes to “bridge the gap”.
Read about Plan’s global birth registration work
Find out more about International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, via the UN website*
*Plan is not responsible for the content on external websites.
31 July 2014: Just back from Brazil, I have a rich and diverse set of images in my head as I reflect upon my visit to 2 cities – São Paulo and São Luis.
One is a city of 20 million people in the south; the other in the north east, at the heart of a long-standing Plan programme unit, where increasing prosperity cannot disguise the poverty that lies in its rural areas.
Brazil is a continent, not a country. It takes most of a day to travel from São Paulo to São Luis, including around 4 hours in the air.
Plan is now beginning to develop health programmes in some of the poorest districts of São Paulo, in partnership with NIVEA. This is very exciting, and a welcome legacy of the global partnership that Plan brokered with NIVEA some 4 years ago. This is new ground for Plan, in new areas of this vast city.
In São Luis, I saw another impressive corporate partnership, which is in its second stage. The Young Health Programme focuses on sexual and adolescent health, and is funded by Astra Zeneca. Describing it so factually does nothing to convey its vigour and energy, which blew me away.
We enter a meeting space – an intersection of classrooms – at the Dayse Galvão School in the Vila Embratel community. The audience of young teenagers is expectant, waiting to see a theatrical production using a makeshift puppet theatre – the set for fictional Radio Plan!
The radio show's plot invites young listeners to ask questions about birth control. The first action is a hilarious puppet show with wild presenters and mad doctors. But soon the puppeteers leave the safety of the wacky puppet theatre and turn up to conduct live interviews with their audience.
There is song and dance, and no subject is taboo. Moving with some style from the case for birth control, the largely female cast tackle how to use condoms (both male and female versions), including practical demonstrations involving members of the audience.
One student – a male heartthrob – is persuaded to show his technique. Gales of embarrassed laughter engulf the audience as he is told off for ripping open the condom packet with his teeth.
A model vagina is used to demonstrate the effectiveness of the female condom. Then audience members burst a set of balloons containing sexual health questions and have to answer them in front of their peers. This is audience engagement with no hiding place, but delivered with good humour tackling powerful issues.
I have seen theatre used in some parts of Plan to tackle child marriage and HIV and AIDS, but this production has the audience entranced. It is so near the edge, and performed without artifice or self-consciousness. Making sex and its related health issues so real and so funny is a whole league better than addressing them through formal teaching and textbooks.
After the show, we get a chance to talk to the cast and the health facilitators who spread the message among the young people of São Luis. The female members of the cast talk about how they persuaded their parents to let them take part. They tell us how the experience has improved relationships within their families at a time when friction can often be the order of the day.
One mother talks movingly of how proud she is of her 2 daughters for having the courage to perform this kind of material in schools and community centres.
The next generation of health facilitators will soon be taking over from this cast, and you can see them taking confidence from the stories they hear.
We can measure the number of young people reached by this project (which runs into tens of thousands in the São Luis area). But, for me, equally as powerful as the numbers is how our programmes create leaders among young people, with the confidence to tackle difficult subjects in front of their peers.
Articulate and knowledgeable, they left everyone thinking about the guts it took to do that. It made me and the Plan Brazil team proud of how we are helping to increase vital knowledge of sexual and health issues.
And we are supporting a generation who need that knowledge to navigate the challenges of being an adolescent in modern day Brazil.
Read about Plan’s global work on sexual health
Learn more about Plan’s work in Brazil
23 July 2014: I am just as shocked and saddened by the kidnapping of the girls in Nigeria today as I was 100 days ago. And I have no doubt you feel the same, but the question is how does the world keep the momentum and energy up to help get the girls safely released?
At Plan we have worked with many of our partners to campaign for their release, along with millions of other people around the world but they have not been released. As such we all need to reflect on the last 100 days of campaigning and what we can do better to make sure the girls are returned home safely.
Here are my top 5 reflections on the campaigning work we have seen around the world over the last 100 days.
1. Yes, assess risk - but do it quickly
Wow - there was a lot of unnecessary delays in responding to the kidnapping. Yes there is a risk in speaking out strongly on such a sensitive situation. But this is the time the world needs leadership. Assess risk smartly but do it quickly, there are hundreds of lives at stake. I know of many institutions and organisations which took over 2 weeks to speak out against the kidnapping. That is too long.
2. Don't change the story
This is mostly a point to the media who within days were looking for a different angle to report the kidnapping. It became an opportunity to criticise the Nigerian government and president - who instantly worked up a new safe school initiative with the UN Special Envoy for Global Education - for pretty much anything.
Innocent girls were kidnapped while trying to go to school and their lives are at risk - that is the point and as soon as the coverage moves away from this people disengage from what is really at stake and the momentum is lost.
3.Target the right people
You see time and time again in the campaigning world people developing actions and calls which are directed at the wrong people. The current and future safety of the girls lies predominantly in the hands of people who live in Nigeria.
Yes we live in a global world and global leaders can have an impact, but only by working with people in power in Nigeria. Don’t target campaigning work at people who do not have the ability to bring about the change we want to see.
4. Support other campaigners
Over the second half of the 100 days we have seen a lot of criticism about #BringBackOurGirls. Let’s be clear this hashtag raised awareness of the situation to millions of people around the world. Nobody ever claimed a hashtag would set the girls free but it is an important part of the solution.
It has done more to maintain the continued support for the girls than anything else I have seen – including being an engagement tool which brought Michelle Obama into the discussions. We all want the same result so let’s get behind all the campaigning actions people are doing.
5. Don't give up
Change can take time and it can also happen when you least expect it. There are always things going on behind closed doors and it is our job as campaigners to keep up the external support and pressure so negotiators feel empowered by the backing of the global community.
It is great to see the amazing work taking place around the world today to re-engage people 100 days on, such as the vigils being organised around the world by A World At School and through our Because I am a Girl campaign, which will continue to raise awareness and put pressure on the right people to see the girls returned home safely.
I urge you to join us; don’t give up. If you want some ideas check out our campaigning toolkit.
These are just my reflections, but what do you think of the campaigning so far? And what are you going to do next? Let us know using #BringBackOurGirls so we can all keep the momentum going together.
Read more about Plan's call for action to #BringBackOurGirls
Join Plan's Because I am a Girl campaign
23 July 2014: Around the world, girls and women are forced to live with the consequences of female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriage.
Although Kenya has made strides in outlawing FGM, child marriage and protecting children’s rights, the practise is still rampant.
Often motivated by cultural beliefs, FGM leads to early marriage and health complications and is forced upon girls aged 7 to 12.
In Kenya, FGM is a criminal offence under the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act 2011 - a step in the right direction towards completely ending the harmful practise. However, girls and women are too often under strong social pressure and risk victimisation and stigma if they refuse to be cut.
I listened to amazing stories from girls who had refused the cut and risked alienation from their family and community and those who were cut at an early age without knowing what was happening to them. Women opened up at the Girl Summit Kenya, which was hosted by the British High Commissioner to Nairobi Dr Christian Turner in conjunction with UNICEF and UNFPA.
The summit in Nairobi, which focused on FGM and child marriage, galvanised support in preparation for the *. It emerged that Kenya has one of the highest child marriage prevalence in the world, estimated to be 25 to 30%.
The Girl Summit is helping to drive momentum towards this unique opportunity that we have to end these harmful practises within a generation. If we do not act now, 824,000 girls born between 2005 and 2010 will be married before the age of 18 by 2030.
Your dowry is my inheritance
Sadly, we live in a society where as a woman you must prove your worth unlike men who are valued by birth. Most girls drop out of school at a very early age because their parents cannot educate them, reason – they are girls and the only value attached to them is in goats and cows – as bride price.
This is the case in Marimanti, a village in central Kenya where girls are treated as a source of income and fetch 48 goats when they are married. With such retrogressive cultures, most girls can only dream of a life as homemakers without knowing what could have become of them or the great opportunities in life. What then happens to future generations?
Some of the traditions girls and women have to go through to earn respect in some of the communities across the globe are dehumanising. So much has been said and continues to be said on FGM and its detrimental effects.
This practise is condemned by many yet still remains deep rooted in some communities. So entrenched is the culture that any reference to ‘backwardness’ is music to the ears of those practising it. Closely linked to the practise is child marriage.
The sad truth is that girls who undergo the cut more often than not abandon school and are made to believe that they are mature enough to manage men in marriage. Worse still, a girl who is cut is valued more and the bride price is higher.
Religion as a catalyst
I recently visited some ‘agents of change’, and had the pleasure of meeting Rev Mathinja Nduyo from one of the largest churches in Marimanti. The Reverend takes a religious angle to tackling the issue of FGM and brings the community together to dispel the myths surrounding the practise.
Value is placed on marriage and girls who are not married are often despised by the villagers, including women. This affects the girls psychologically, making them opt for the cut just to ‘fit in’. Religious leaders have come together to condemn the practise and relentlessly include its detriments in sermons and pre-marital counselling sessions.
Education is power
Many Kenyan girls are being denied the freedom to control their future – by not getting an education. It is well known that education is slowly changing attitudes and influencing the choice to have the cut.
However, many girls from underserved communities have challenges in completing their education therefore miss out on the opportunities open to others in respect to acquisition of knowledge and skills.
Plan Kenya not only works with communities to see the end of such harmful practices, but has also worked tirelessly to build the knowledge reservoirs to individuals, groups and community members.
Plan Kenya fulfils its mandate by engaging different sectors of the community in advocating for structures and mechanisms that address people’s rights. Part of our work is to engage the community and empower it to make the right choices – those that give the best chance for girls and boys to reach their full potential.
At the end of the Girl Summit Kenya we were asked to pledge what we could do to end FGM and early marriage.
Plan Kenya pledges to link up with many strong groups and do more than we currently do to enable communities to have the knowledge to abandon this practise and pursue alternative rites of passage within one generation.
Read about Plan's work in Kenya
* Plan is not responsible for the content on external websites
Syrian refugee children in Egypt are living a life of misery, despair and challenging school conditions, blogs Arjimand Hussain, Emergency Response Manager for Plan International.
21 July 2014: Sitting on the sands of the Mediterranean sea in Alexandria on a warm evening, Nada, 11, asks her mother if they’ll be returning to Syria. Her mother is non-committal: "Yes of course, my dear, very soon."
In reality, Syrian children like Nada may not be able to go back, as Syria's conflict rages on. Marooned in Egypt, they miss their families, homes and schools.
Nada often points her finger in the direction of the sea towards Syria, where her father was left behind. Back home she would play on a similar beach with her friends. But Nada's life is different now.
Leaving everything behind
A refugee in Alexandria, separated from everything she loved back home, she shares a rented flat in a crowded city neighbourhood with 12 other people, including some of their former Syrian neighbours. Nada attends a local public school, which she says is too crowded, with a syllabus and learning methods quite different from her school in Syria.
When Nada and her mother escaped from their northern Syria town, there was intense fighting all around. "The girl was horrified, she was shivering, crying and held me tightly," her mother recalls.
Nada's father promised he would join them once they reached Egypt. "But he never comes," Nada mumbles in a distraught voice. She looks pale and is clearly anaemic, as her mother doesn't have enough money to provide her with good food.
Due to the difference in accents, Nada isn't able to communicate with her Egyptian classmates. She has no friends either. She only has one wish: to go back home and rejoin her school, which may not exist anymore.
School drop out risk
Like hundreds of other Syrian refugee children in Egypt, she may drop out of the school if not supported. The schooling grants provided by the UN Refugee Agency to registered vulnerable children have already been cut by half.
"She isn't able to follow the lessons at school. She says she doesn't like to sit in huddled classrooms. The toilets in schools are too dirty and not girl-friendly. She is too distracted and her behaviour has changed," says her mother.
Nada is just one of thousands of Syrian children facing tremendous challenges in coping with refugee life in Egypt. Although the government of Egypt has allowed Syrian children to enrol in public schools, their access is hampered by lack of resources for fees, school books, uniforms, high student-to-teacher ratio and shortage of basic amenities in public schools. Some school drop outs have even started working to contribute towards the family income.
Vital refugee support
The charity I work for, Plan International, is supporting children like Nada to go back to school and supporting Syrian families with fees and other school materials for their children.
Plan will also be supporting remedial classes for Syrian children to follow up lessons and better understand the Egyptian Arabic accent. We’ll also offer training of school teachers to make them embrace more student-friendly techniques, and open-day school activities will seek to provide Syrian and Egyptian children opportunities to engage in sports and recreational activities, thus promoting socialisation and free expression.
Plan is also organising psychosocial support for children and their families. Some livelihood activities for women, young men and girls are also planned to help family incomes and boost social integration and normalisation.
With most public schools running out of space and necessary amenities, Plan aims to start community schools for Syrian children – as a means to get them special attention for coping with the new curriculum and accent.
Still, much more remains to be done for girls like Nada, and their families.
Read more about Plan’s work in Egypt
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