By Natalie Brown, Communications Officer, Together for Girls
By Natalie Brown, Communications Officer, Together for Girls
All children deserve to live free from violence. Unfortunately, all around the world, girls experience sexual violence at staggering rates. Global estimates show that 120 million (or one in ten) girls under the age of 20 have experienced some form of forced sexual contact.
While we know the magnitude of sexual violence against children, we also know that it doesn’t have to be this way. There are proven, evidence-based solutions that work to prevent and respond to violence against children and promote gender equality. Girls Health Ed is one organization working in and through schools to address the root causes of gender equality that often lead to violence.
Founded in 2012, Girls Health Ed works to advance gender equality by fostering empowered, healthy and informed decision making in adolescent girls and young women through comprehensive health and sexuality education.
“We noticed that both girls and boys experience a drop in confidence during adolescence, but young men are more likely to get that confidence back, and women are not; this can lead to gender inequality, which we know leads to gender-based violence,” explained Pavita Singh, Executive Director of Girls Health Ed.
To address the issue, Girls Health Ed hosts interactive and educational workshops in the US and Kenya to equip girls with tools to build their confidence throughout adolescence. With the help of Teaching Fellows who lead the workshops in schools, Girls Health Ed provides a curriculum to teach girls about a wide range of topics including nutrition, puberty, body image/self esteem and more, focusing on the unique needs of girls and young women. Some of the lessons include how to read nutrition labels, how to take care of themselves during puberty, and how to love themselves regardless of how they look.
In spring of 2020, the UN estimated that there would be 61 million additional cases of gender-based violence if lockdowns or restricted movements continued for a year. During that time is also when Girls Health Ed happened to be developing their newest module, focused on violence prevention.
“We know that early exposure to violence in childhood is a huge risk factor for later involvement in violence, either as a victim or perpetrator,” explained Singh. “The goal of this module is to help prevent violence that could perpetuate more violence in the future. It also came at a critical time when gender-based violence was on the rise due to the pandemic.”
Through interactive activities and role plays, the violence prevention module teaches girls about healthy communication, boundary setting, digital safety and more. They also learn to identify the qualities of healthy, unhealthy and abusive relationships.
“We also introduce the idea of consent,” said Singh. “So that by the time the girls do engage in romantic and sexual relationships, they are so comfortable with consent that they feel comfortable telling their partners yes or no.”
UNICEF estimates that 168 million children missed out on learning in school for an entire year as a result of the pandemic, representing a significant rollback of gains made in ensuring access to safe, equitable and quality education.
To continue providing girls and young women with access to quality education in a safe space, Girls Health Ed shifted to virtual workshops in the US so that girls could continue the curriculum while their schools remained closed. In Kenya, where virtual workshops were not an option due to limited access to technology, the girls gathered in open community spaces, where they could follow social distancing guidelines while still participating in the activities.
“COVID made the work we’re doing even more urgent,” said Singh.
In addition to the violence prevention module that was developed during COVID-19, the workshops started focusing on personal hygiene and hand-washing. They also put a particular focus on menstrual health management, with which girls and women around the world struggle due to reductions in income and mobility restrictions.
“We know that access to menstrual products is limited during COVID-19. To help girls and young women cope, we started providing menstrual products in all of our workshops,” explained Singh. “The workshops provide a safe space for girls to access resources they wouldn’t have had access to before.”
The results from Girls Health Ed’s workshops show the powerful impact of the program on girls’ attitudes towards themselves and their confidence overall. Based on surveys taken before and after the workshops, results show:
“Through educating girls and sharing resources, the program helps boost their confidence and raise their self-awareness so that they are never put in positions where they can be taken advantage of and so they can step into positions of power and authority with that same confidence,” explained Angela Young, Director of Communications and Teaching Fellow for Girls Health Ed.
Not only do girls who participate in the workshops feel more confident with themselves, but they are equipped with knowledge and tools to share what they learned with their families and peers, leading to safer and healthier schools and communities.
“In one workshop, we were told that a group of boys was bullying a group of girls at school because they had their periods,” said Singh. “The girls, who had participated in the workshop, stepped in and educated the boys on what periods were and why.”
This ripple effect from the program is growing globally, as Girls Health Ed plans to expand to other countries in the coming years, and has already piloted programs in India and Bangladesh. So far, over 6,500 girls and young women have participated in their workshops. In addition to expanding to other geographies, the program seeks to expand the curriculum to focus on girls’ leadership.
“We would like to include advocacy training as part of what we offer,” explained Singh. “We want to train the girls and young women we serve to be advocates for issues that are important to them, to take on leadership roles and to be champions for themselves.”
While we know the magnitude of gender inequality and violence against women and girls, we also know what works to prevent violence and promote equality. Interventions like Girls Health Ed show what is possible when we harness the power of education to create change – in individuals, schools, families and communities – leading to a safer, more equitable world for all.