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No girl is too young to fight for her rights

Edith Esinam Asamani-Wasie, a GPE Youth Advocate in Ghana, is weighing in on the realities of gender-based violence, especially during COVID-19, and the steps everyone can take to achieve gender equality.

The pandemic has socioeconomically affected more girls and women than boys and men. First, despite progress, there is still a gender disparity in access to education. The pandemic led to the closure of schools and movement of most physical classes to virtual platforms, where there is a gender digital gap, meaning, there is already a large proportion of girls less likely to join virtual classes, hence missing more school days.

Second are the health impacts. Our National Population Council reported an increase in teenage pregnancies within the period. In a recent webinar, a young new mother said she was afraid to seek antenatal care because she was afraid she might be infected with COVID. If many others did not seek healthcare during COVID-19, that would be a recipe for increased maternal or under 5 mortality. Additionally, some girls were locked down with their abusers at home.

The situation was worse for marginalized and vulnerable girls such as the Kayayei (female in-country migrants) who could not work or move. Some were caught being “‘smuggled”’ back home in a truck.

The unfortunate reality is that the pandemic is taking its toll on girls.But during this time, women and girls cannot forget their voices. No girl is too young to fight for her rights. There is a chance for anyone, including girls, to be bold and speak truth to power.

Exposing societal realities during a pandemic

I coordinate the United Against Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) Project of the African Youth and Adolescents’ Network on Population and Development (AfriYAN Ghana), with an amazing team of young people who believe in making the world a safer and better place for girls and women.

AfriYAN Ghana is the country chapter of a regional network of youth-led organisations that are working on population and development issues. Apart from engaging in national, continental, and global advocacy on adolescent, youth development, and gender issues, I am happy to have led the network to win its first grant from Amplify Change to implement the #UnitedAgainstSGBV Project.

The #UnitedAgainstSGBV Project was supposed to begin earlier this year, but COVID-19 delayed access to funds. However, before the project, I was running some personal projects on mental health; supporting the psychology unit of the Accra Psychiatric Hospital with needed equipment to improve functionality, and creating awareness on mental health.

The pandemic did not necessarily create the challenge. It exposed what society pretended did not exist.

In the course of creating awareness on mental health virtually (during COVID-19), we noticed how the pandemic was contributing to an increased number of SGBV cases. The pandemic did not necessarily create the challenge. It exposed what society pretended did not exist. The pandemic was an opportunity to support survivors of violence and gave better meaning to the need for the #UnitedAgainstSGBV project. The pandemic actually gave more meaning to my work.

A journey to advocacy

What inspires me to do this work is discomfort. I do not feel okay being in a place and not contributing in any way to make the place better. I happen to find myself in this part of the world, and I need to help fix what I can. Being a girl and a young woman, I went through challenges, especially SGBV-related ones, that only those who went through can stand strong to fix.

I, to this point, still do not understand how humans can rape or defile other humans, or intentionally cause pain to others. Many girls and young women have been raped, some even killed after the act. The greatest gender equality advancement would be when no girl or woman lives in fear of defilement or rape, or being forced into marriage; it is when males see females as humans with dignity too, and not as objects to satisfy their sexual desires.

For me, I started working towards these gender equality goals at a young age — I started activism at age 11 with a media advocacy group, Curious Minds. We were speaking truth to power on national radio and I stepped on many toes who had issues with my age, gender, and the power in my voice. When I started, some policies and interventions did not exist, but a lot has changed and I believe I contributed a lot to the change.

Ghana currently has a national framework to oversee the reintegration of teen mothers back to school. Most interventions in the past were only focused on creating awareness as a tool for empowerment. I advocated a lot for the integration of livelihood and skills building for out-of-school girls and teen mothers as an additional tool for empowerment. We see a lot of change in programming for girls now, and this has been made possible not only because of my advocacy but by the efforts and contributions of many young people and strong adult voices. We can only do more now.

Recommendations for others

It is not easy to be inclusive if you do not find yourself in the shoes of the people you want to include. Our political leaders, the majority of whom are men, must be deliberate about adopting a broader consultative approach to rolling out any COVID response plans. Though consultations, especially with marginalized and easily-forgotten groups, can be time and resource consuming, they are worth holding to ensure inclusive plans that are gender responsive. When everybody is around the table, it is easier for everyone to make inputs that positively influence their community.

As for my advice to girls, it is that no girl is too young to fight for her rights. I started when I was 11 and tiny. What mattered was my voice, not my stature. There is a chance for anyone, including girls, to be bold and speak truth to power. The voices matter.

To the young women especially in my part of the world — our religious and traditional beliefs sometimes make the concept of gender equality seem like an opposition or a competing priority. It is not easy for one young woman or a group of young women to decide to change a patriarchal system and fight for gender equality. The change takes time and comes in phases.

Young women must therefore understand that, as they fight now, they need to train the next generation to take up the next course of change. Do not fight alone, fight with mentees.

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