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Tag Archives: Girls Empowerment Clubs
Little did I know I’d be returning to Swaziland in less than a year! Crossroads sent me back in March for two weeks. It was great to get out of the polar vortex of Canada, but Swaziland was Noah’s Arc. Fourteen solid days of rain. I can’t help but think Mother Nature is trying to detox herself of all the pollutants humans have forced on her.
My assignment was to interview a number of members of the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA) Girls Empowerment Clubs. The first couple of days I tried writing up a schedule, but the rain kept getting in the way, along with other activities. We were to drive to schools throughout the country and many times the roads were just too bad.
After one week I had three stories. Not enough to go home with. It was very frustrating. Plus, I had a very sore face from walking into my bathroom wall one night when the power was off. Thank god for makeup. The other Crossroads volunteer, Laura Dowling, went back to Canada after my first week. Staff was stretched thin between having to attend training workshops and having to sensitize 26 schools for new clubs. By the end of this year there will be 46 Girls Empowerment Clubs throughout the country. With an average of 30 members each, that totals 1,380 girls reached. Fantastic.
My last week was the final push and I ended up with 15 interviews. Many of the girls were orphans. Some had had to leave school because they got pregnant. Others had tough tales of rape and incidences of HIV/AIDS. Swaziland is not an easy place if you are female. However, the clubs give these girls hope. They told me they wanted to become nurses, doctors, accountants and geologists. Since joining the clubs their marks had improved. In some cases they finally received the medical attention they required because someone at the club made sure a teacher took them to the clinic. Some of the most impoverished said they were glad to feel equal to their “sisters” and they wanted to help others who were even worse off than themselves.
What an uplifting trip. The stories have been written and submitted and now we’ll put them into a booklet that SWAGAA can use during advocacy campaigns such as the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, or International Day of the Girl Child. The stories, with all names changed to protect the innocent, will hopefully pull on the heartstrings of potential donors and trigger financing for more prevention education. Hopefully they will also come across a politician’s desk and trigger political will for law enforcement and proper punishment of perpetrators.
Despite their tough situations, the girls I met in Swaziland had warm smiles and were filled with sunny optimism. Looking at their faces, I had hope for their futures. God bless the girls of Swaziland.
These are a few snippets, taken from visits to the Girls Empowerment Clubs with SWAGAA’s Doreen Ngwenya, GEC coordinator, a few weeks ago….
Mabheleni Primary School is off a dirt road winding far into the countryside north of Mbabane. We were going there with girls from Waterford School, a private institution populated with the children of diplomats and expats. Nelson Mandela sent his children to school there during apartheid. After pulling into the schoolyard, we met the Mabheleni School head teacher, a passionate woman who explained that most of her students were orphans, from the same clan. “It is very difficult. We need books, supplies, everything!) she told us. The teenaged girls from Waterford were hoping to start some fundraising activities to help them out, but they wanted to meet the Mabheleni girls first. We all introduced ourselves and some of the club members got up and recited poetry. The Waterford girls then got up and told them what their career dreams were: teacher, lawyer, doctor, artist.
The Mabheleni girls sat quietly, listening, and learned they had a chance to attend Waterford on a scholarship if they applied themselves. Although the Mabheleni girls were wearing worn uniforms, their eyes shone like new pennies. We distributed some snacks, fruit, bread and lollipops. I couldn’t believe it as the club members patiently waited to be given the go ahead to eat. At home kids would have torn into the food in a nanosecond. This is something I have seen time and time again: Gracious, good behaviour from the girls at the clubs.
At Mhlanghya School, Doreen asked the club members “What have you gained from the club?” The answers came fast and furious…”Confidence!” “I learned how to bathe myself and stay away from boys,” “How to help abused people,” “I learned how to conduct myself and respect myself as a girl,” “You shouldn’t keep quiet when you are abused,” “information on child trafficking.”
Doreen stood at the front of the class, smiling. “Good. Now, do this,” she said, clapping her hands and repeating the rat-at-tat pattern the girls knew so well. “Doooo this,” she said as they put their hands together in a final thunderous smack.
She invited three of the pre-teen girls to demonstrate one of the abuse prevention songs they had learned in the club. Giggling, the girls put their hands over their breasts. “This is a bad touch.” Moving down to their private parts, they continued. “This is a bad touch.” Next came the buttocks…”and this is a bad touch.” As they repeated the motions, all the girls joined in. BAAAD TOUCHHHH!
Mpaka Primary School is an institution where SWAGAA is just starting to establish a club. Sensitizing the whole school to the purpose of the club, Doreen demonstrated the “Good Touch, Bad Touch” and the kids squealed with delight and joined in.
I felt so privileged to have spent a year in Swaziland, watching the clubs grow. Some of these girls may be from impoverished or abused backgrounds, but they now have a chance to survive and flourish. With the help of the clubs, they are putting their hearts and souls into becoming stronger, more confident young women. And we all know women hold up the sky!
“This day is about young girls in Swaziland. This day about you!” said SWAGAA Director Cebile Manzini-Henwood to a captive audience of around 300 girls. It was a Saturday, 9 a.m. and the hall at Swazi National High in Matsapha was packed. “Enough is enough. We refuse to be vulnerable. We are going to take back the power, stand up and take back the power,” Cebile continued, her voice rising until all the girls joined in the chant. “Take back our power,” they shouted.
The audience comprised girls from many other high school girls clubs, out to support the new venture. By the end of the year, Manzini-Henwood noted, there would be a total of 25 clubs throughout the country.
The clubs provide a special, dedicated place where girls can explore their dreams, have fun and also tackle serious subjects. “The Girls Empowerment Club saves lives,” Manzini-Henwood told the crowd, explaining, “Some young girls are on the verge of committing suicide. They need somewhere to go and feel safe. We are all different but we all need to have a place to go and be loved and feel safe. At the club you can dig deep into your own potential, so you can share and help others. It equips you to go out and help others. There was a girl who shared her journal with a friend. In it she wrote about how she was being abused by her brother. The friend took her to the club and helped her report the situation. It saved her life because she had been feeling helpless and overpowered and didn’t want to live anymore. By reporting the situation, her parents were notified and the abuse stopped.”
The program was full of wise words from inspirational women, as well as song and dance performances from club members. St. Paul’s High School girls did a rousing African dance, scientist Thabile Ndlovu spoke about the importance of education and Swazi poet Black Note presented a moving piece about abuse and protecting the spirit.
The launch also featured motivational speaker, Gciniwe Fakudze, CEO of Matsapha Town Council. At 34, Gciniwe manages the administration of one of Swaziland’s most important industrial hubs. She is constantly interviewed in the newspaper and as a successful, single businesswoman, she is proud to declare she achieved her goals solely under her own steam. “When I was in high school, I was not someone my teachers thought would succeed. I was never in the top 10. But at one point after high school I decided, ‘I can do this. I don’t want a mediocre life.’ I made a few decisions, and I realized I could be the greatness I wanted to be. I just had to work hard. Here’s what I did…
- Changed my friends. People who speak into your head and heart are important. I found I didn’t work well in groups where everyone did the same thing. I had to hang with people who wanted greatness in life like me.
- Stopped trying to impress boys. They are always going to be there. If you are competing you go nowhere. Boys just want to play with you…and older men just want to abuse you. So I didn’t worry about them.
- Raised myself up as a package. When you go shopping in a high-end boutique, you might feel a little uncomfortable and say, “I’m just looking.” But the higher you raise yourself up to feel comfortable in elevated situations, the more elevated people you attract.”
Gciniwe was not finished with her advice. “I’m not married and society says when you are single you are incomplete. But I say, ‘Don’t rush into it.’ There is no better feeling that waking up and saying ‘Let me buy myself a ticket to Dubai or New York. I have a good job, I own my own car I can make my own decisions. I don’t have to rely on a man. You need to have power in society and that is based on money. Men will abuse you by tempting you with money or gifts. You have to be strong and eventually you will make your own money.”
Reaching out to her young listeners, Gciniwe left them with these final thoughts, “The good thing about the club is that it is a place where girls support each other. We understand what each other are going through. I had known what greatness I had inside, I would have started working on myself a lot earlier. You need to do the work, make a difference and don’t let anything get in your way. Including yourself!”
As the event wrapped up, I turned over my printed program and read SWAGAA’s message for month of the African Child: “Take pride in yourself. You are Swaziland’s future. Live with joy, but also take care. Don’t accept gifts, rides or invitations from strangers. Be safe, make friends, share information and make sure you report any incidences of abuse.”
Judging from the bright energy in the room, the message had found its targets. Girl power!
Last week Crossroads’ Southern Africa regional director Nikunja Nepal and board member Kathy Macpherson came to Swaziland to check up on the various projects and local NGOs Crossroads supports. One of the projects Crossroads is proudest of supporting is the Girls Empowerment Clubs (GEC) program at SWAGAA. Nikunja, Cathy and I joined SWAGAA GEC coordinator Doreen Ngwenya and visited three schools where the clubs have been established. Currently there are 10 clubs throughout the country, each with around 40 members, and Crossroads will be providing the finances to start more clubs this year. The clubs are a safe space for girls to gather once a week and share stories, plan activities, learn about their bodies and hygiene, and learn about what abuse is and how to report it to a teacher, social worker or the police.
The first school we visited was Sydney Williams, a semi-public/private school in Manzini. It wasn’t the regular day or time for the club to meet, but the teacher and coordinator of the club was able to assemble around 15 members to meet with us. It was around 8:30 am and the girls filed into the classroom, dressed in their green and white uniforms. As school had just started for the semester, the girls had yet to elect their president or come up with plans for the year. But they gamely sang the “Sky’s the Limit” for us and engaged in a discussion lead by Nikunja who asked, “Do you think we need to start boys’ clubs?” Humm. “Maybe a few responded. A high point for me was meeting a member also named Maureen. My name is very unusual in Swaziland. You’re far more likely to meet Phumziles, Teneles or Zeniles.
The second school we visited was Mhlanghya High School. Located in more of a rural setting, the school was a little less well-funded than Sydney Williams and the students from less affluent families. This was the first meeting of the club this year so the girls were quiet and shy. Their teacher coordinator encouraged a few members to share poems and songs and Nikunja asked them what they liked most about the clubs. “It’s a safe space,” replied one girl. “We love the exchange visits with other clubs,” responded a chorus of three.
The final stop was Sigangeni High School. It was around an hour’s drive from Manzini, on a very bumpy gravel road. Due to the torrential rains lately, roads were in rough shape and we were lucky to get through. The club coordinator, Mrs. Thobile Nkambule led the girls in an energetic welcome song and dance that was followed with poems and presentations. One member thanked the club for helping to pay her school fees last year (high school fees are around E5000 per year which is equal to or double what some people earn in a month). They told us they loved the club because it was a place to discuss their problems, and make friends. When asked if a boys’ club should be started, the answer was, “Yes. They should learn not to abuse and rape girls.” Thobile told us before the club was established there were many student/teacher relationships in the school. “The club teaches girls those relationships are not good and those have stopped. There is less teenage pregnancy.” At most Swazi schools, pregnant students are discouraged from attending school, which creates a cycle of poverty – no education, more babies, no income, and often an abuse relationship with various partners. It was good to hear the club helped discourage these relationships. Thobile said she’d seen girls come out of their shells, become more confident and responsible. “One of our members became very assertive and took part in school debates. She was the best speaker at our school and has gone on to university.” Not all has been rosy, however. “Last year a girl committed suicide. Due to the teacher’s strike our club was not active last year. I am very sorry about that.”
Swaziland is a difficult place for young girls. Every day there are horrendous stories in the paper about rape and abuse. The Girls Empowerment Clubs provide a much-needed service, building the confidence of young females raised in a patriarchal society. Change won’t come overnight, but the seed has been planted.
On October 11, 2012, the Swazi Observer printed the essays of the winners of the national essay competition commemorating the International Day of the Girl Child. I wanted to share a couple of them with you…
STOP TEEN PREGNANCY
Swazi girls are very important. By taking care of them, yongsters will also become better citizens like our parents. We need to repect our elders’ advice because they are helping us lead exemplary lives. Everyone is the master of her destiny. Teenage pregnancy must come to an end. Imagine a nine-year-old pretty girl pregnant. Who will take care of the little angel and the baby? They are all young and need love and care as they grow up. Seeing teenagers pregnant is very painful and it increases the population of the world. This causes the babies to be victims and this is not fair at all. Education must come first. In a nutshell, let us play our role as girls by taking care of ourselves and focus on education which will make us proud and special in future. Teenage pregnancy is on the increase worldwide and we need to decrease it. Everyone is special — let us be heroes. The future is in our hands. Let us all fight teenage pregnancy! — ZIYANDA DLAMINI, Grade 5A, 10 years old, Lusoti Primary School.
STOP SEXUAL ABUSE
Sexual abuse can be stopped by not leaving young ones with people you don’t trust. Abuse could be avoided by the law which much put strong fires to abusers. Sexual abuse could be stopped by giving lessons to the public, teaching them about the consequences of abuse. Children who have no parents should be protected by government through building them homes so that they don’t fall in bad hands as they are orphans. Sexual abuse could be stopped by isolating the offenders from the the public, putting them in jail. Sexual abuse can also be stopped by preventing children from going alone at night as bad things occur during such ungodly hours. Relatives should not protect abusers claiming that they are family members instead of reporting them to the police so that justice is done. — Neliswa Magongo, Grade 4, 10 years old.
DELAY SEXUAL DEBUT
From faux love to early loss of virginity, to helplessness of the heart, to sickness and unfortunately to unplanned pregnancy. Sadly , it is girls that are mostly affected by this. Delaying sexual debut is being advocated in the world as a means to reduce HIV infection in young women. Early sexual involvement makes teen girls vulnerable to multiple relationships, reproductive health problems like cervical cancer that largely derail young girls’ lives, scarring them psychologically and emotionally. “Later is safer,” I strongly believe. There is no hurry in Swaziland, as Swazis would say, and indeed it is true. Avoiding sexual relationships before marriage or rather maturity may be one of the solutions. Thus, preventing unplanned pregnancy, pychologoical and emotional pain or problems, which are unnecessary. Being a mother at 15? A single mother, unemployed and homeless because your parents have chucked you out. No girl deserves such burden, pain, agony and distress. In conclusion, media campaigns encouraging delayed sexual debut as part of a comprehensive sexual education programme and abstinence messages is how I would make this dream come true for Swazi girls. LATER IS SAFER. — Nosimilo Simelane, 16 years old, Sitembiso Sebunye Bahai High School
After two months of planning, the Swaziland International Day of the Girl Child was a smash success! Three weeks of media were a great lead up to the actual day. Representatives from SWAGAA (including me) and various NGOs spoke on radio and TV about the dangers of teen pregnancy, early sexual debut and the reality of sexual abuse in this country. The statistics are shocking, but at least there are prevention measures such as education and awareness campaigns in place.
On the actual day, Oct. 11th, there was a commemorative event at Happy Valley Casino and resort, where the winners of the essay contest were able to read their essays. It was enlightening, upsetting and heartwarming all at the same time. Beautiful 10-year-old girl children telling their stories and warning perpetrators to stop abusing girls. I cried, and I laughed with joy watching them do dances, songs and poems that blew the rest of the house away as well. Deputy Prime Minister Themba Masuku attended, as did U.S. Ambassador Makila James, and top represetatives from the UNFPA and the UNDP offices.
Having attended all the planning meetings, and having coordinated the essay contest, it was a big day for me and all the girl children of Swaziland.
CONGRATULATIONS! WE GOT THE WORD OUT!! SWAZILAND GIRLS DESERVE TO REACH THEIR FULL POTENTIAL. LET THEM REACH FOR THE SKY!!
An article I wrote that appeared in The Times of Swaziland…..
The first International Day of the Girl Child on October 11 is an exciting event for the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA) as it marks a culmination of a several efforts and initiatives aimed at supporting the Girl Child worldwide and in the country.
A prime example, which is the pride and joy of SWAGAA, is the Girls Empowerment Clubs programme. This initiative is modeled after a programme in Zimbabwe and was born out of a belief that all girls have a right to a safe space where they can freely and openly learn about their human rights, share their experiences, and their hopes for the future. SWAGAA started the program in 2008 with the support from Canada’s Crossroads International as a way to encourage the development of a positive self-concept among young girls while providing comprehensive education about sexual and gender-based violence, HIV and AIDS and healthy life choices. The establishment of the school-based clubs was in response to the disturbing findings of a UNICEF 2007 study on Violence Against Children which showed one in three females in Swaziland have experienced sexual violence as a child.
Currently there are 12 clubs, five in primary schools and seven in high schools in both rural and urban areas in the country. On an annual basis, more than 400 young girls benefit from these safe spaces and begin to realize their strength and potential. To date, more than 2,000 Swazi girls have gained the skills that will prepare them to become dynamic women in leadership and agents of change for society.
Assessments of the program show some very positive results, which among others include: reported decrease in school drop-out rate due to teenage pregnancy, reported increase in club members’ academic achievement despite poor performance prior to club establishment – some have even ranked in the top five achievers.
One of the most effective tools used in the club is a personal journal, which every club member receives. When permitted by the girls, club leaders read through the journals to identify and report challenges in the girls’ lives. This exercise allows the girls to speak out about their life experiences and enables the club leaders to assist them, whether through identifying and referring cases of abuse to SWAGAA, or to connect the girl with other relevant structures within the community such as child protection committees for other support needs. The examples are many. One leader recalled a nine-year-old girl in a rural area who drew a house with no windows, roof or doors. It was empty. She also drew a picture of herself and two younger siblings looking very lonely, playing outside. After reading through the journal, the leader asked her about the picture. The girl said she wanted to become a better person tomorrow, so she could finish the house her deceased parents left to them. This further enabled the club leader to identify the abject poverty the children were living in and connect them to other agencies (including Crossroads International, which provided them with school uniforms) and community structures which monitored their situation and ensured the children attended school and had a healthy living situation.
Through working with trained mentors, SWAGAA ensures that the girls also develop a strong sense of responsibility toward the development of their communities. Girls are encouraged to do community outreach programs to get buy-in from the community, while raising awareness about the Girls Empowerment Clubs and the activities they engage in.
SWAGAA appreciates the importance of empowering the boy child too, particularly in the area of human rights and gender. It is important to challenge and deconstruct status quo notions of masculinity starting at an early age and it is for this reason that SWAGAA has developed a program for engaging men and boys as agents in promoting Human Rights and Gender Justice in Swaziland.
On October 11th, the world celebrates the girl child because globally, where there is poverty, disease, lack, exploitation, discrimination, unemployment, illiteracy, mortality, and hunger — the most vulnerable to these social ills is the girl child. There is a need to champion the girl child, to break the divide and ensure that girls and boys, men and women, can have equal opportunities and be celebrated equally.
Last week I went to my first Girls Empowerment Club meeting at Swaziland National High School in Matsapha, just outside Manzini (where I’m stationed). I went with Doreen Ngwenya, who is SWAGAA’s dynamic Girls Empowerment Coordinator, and Gina Schmidt, a social work volunteer from Germany who is working at the SWAGAA office for six months. At the entrance to the school were a statue of an elephant and a lion. “The lion symbolizes the King, and the elephant is the Queen mother,” explained Doreen. The school was big, around 2,000 students and comprised a scattering of white bungalows, a chapel and a recreation hall. We headed to a bungalow on the edge of the large property. This club had 36 members, mostly girls from forms A and B (grades nine and 10). Gina and I sat on the side and Doreen took charge, leading the girls in the opening song. “The sky’s the limit, we’re going to be the doctors, lawyers, teachers of tomorrow,” rang out 36 exuberant voices.
There are 10 empowerment clubs throughout Swaziland, with around 400 members in total. SWAGAA started them as a preventative measure, to teach girls that they have the right to say “no” to inappropriate behaviour and “yes” to their hopes for the future. This is a tough slog in a country where one in three 13- to-18-year-old girls have been sexually abused. Where women are treated as minors, not allowed to own property, forced into marriage, physically abused and neglected. Plus there’s the fact that HIV/AIDS has afflicted one quarter of the population.
SWAGAA, which is not funded by the government, but rather by organizations such as Crossroads, has felt the economic pinch that is affecting most of its donors’ countries. Even as budgets have shrunk, staff members such as Doreen are out in the field trying to shed light on a problem that is often kept behind closed doors.
“This is a space where you are free to do whatever you want to do. Girls are so powerful and unique and you should see that in the mirror. We don’t want boys to take us for granted, so when they tell you, you are beautiful, just say, ‘Thank you for confirming what I saw in the mirror this morning,’” Doreen told the class.
Then she asked them about their dreams and they called out, “I want to own a car.” “I want to be a doctor.” “I want to be a laywer.” “I want a big beautiful house.” “I want to be accountant.”
The importance of keeping a journal, provided by SWAGAA, was next on the agenda. “We are going to have a competition to see who has the best one. You can talk to it, share your inner feelings and treat it like a true friend,” explained Doreen.
SWAGAA’s mandate is to eradicate gender-based violence and Doreen spent a portion of the meeting talking about abuse. “Do you know what abuse is? It can be emotional, physical and sexual. Do you know that when you are touched in your private parts you can say ‘No.’?” The girls nodded at her words, listening carefully.
A positive space to share ideas, poems and songs, the classroom bubbled with excitement when participants got up to perform. Four girls got up and did a pitch-perfect version of “We Are the World,” which had the whole room clapping and singing along. The leader of the club announced an upcoming fundraising concert with singing, dancing and maybe even a guest appearance from a well-known Swazi performer.
To wrap the meeting, the girls shouted out the club song again. Our 45 minutes of empowerment were over, but I’m hoping to attend lots more of these uplifting gatherings. Being a girl in Swaziland is immensely challenging, but in this little incubator at this moment in time, I felt hope for these girls. It felt like the sky truly was the limit.