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Empowering girls and women is key

This morning I was scanning the South African newspaper News24, and my eyes caught the headline ‘Almost a third of schoolgirls in South Africa are HIV+.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi is quoted in the same article for stating that 94.000 schoolgirls fell pregnant across the country in 2011.

Unfortunately these numbers are far from breaking news and only reflect the everyday life of many of the young girls and women I have met and worked with in South Africa.
So what can be done to change this?

The reasons behind these high numbers are quite complex.
But we can be sure that relationships with older men, in popular terms often referred to as ‘sugar daddys’ is an issue that needs attention. Poverty, lack of educational opportunities and social problems at home pressurise very young girls to engage in sexual relationships with older men.

There are many ways to tackle this problem and education and economic empowerment are keys. But it is also vital to focus on the social norms that drive the behaviors of men and boys that leave girls vulnerable.

This is exactly why we believe that we need to focus on prevention and on the way boys are socialized to see girls and women as sexually subservient. These social norms and identities are internalized by young women and girls themselves and translated into cultural practices and individual actions of those who should protect them. These being their parents, the health workers at the clinics, the schoolsystem etc.
During one of my visits at one of the public primary schools in Llanga, a township outside of Cape Town, the school counsellor told me that if a young girl fell pregnant she would be dismissed from school – being old enough to have sex she was also old enough to suffer the consequences. Nobody seemed to be asking the question why a 14 year old teenagegirl fell pregnant.

The same counsellor told me how a 13 year old girl a few years back managed to hide her pregnancy and finally gave birth in the schools bathrooms. She hid the newborn baby in the toilet cistern where it was found drowned shortly after.
What drives a young girl into doing such a desperate act? In my view only an immense lack of support from the family, the school and the health system and a tremendous fear for the future as a teenage mother.

I am not saying that the above-mentioned is the view shared by all school counsellors in the Western Cape. But I know that research and surveys show that teenage mothers are looked down upon and stigmatized not only in the schools, but also in the local community and at the health clinics where they seek help and advice.

This is why it must be and integral part of NDA’s work to advocate for empowerment of girls and women and to engage with public institutions such as schools and health services programs, when doing so. And just as important – to focus on both boys and girls in our work and the understandings of gender roles and gender equity in the local community.

But changing attitudes and social norms takes years and years and is something that involves the entire system.
Therefore we wish, on a smaller scale, to start up our own mobile health clinic in cooperation with a local NGO. The clinic must be a safe place for teenagers, pregnant girls and mothers – where they can seek help and advice without fear of being stigmatized or socially excluded.

I am leaving for South Africa again on Monday, the 18th of March – to keep working for this cause. Hopefully I’ll return with news that we are a few steps closer to be able to start up our Centre for teenage mothers and their children in the Cape Winelands.

(An interesting read: “Engaging boys and men to empower girls: Reflections from practice and evidence of impact”, by Gary Barker’, UN:

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News24: “Almost a third of schoolgirls are HIV+”
http://www.health24.com/Medical/HIV-AIDS/News/Almost-a-third-of-schoolgirls-are-HIV-20130314

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