In 1959, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which defines children’s rights to safety and protection, education, health care, shelter and nutrition. Three decades later, in 1989, global leaders made a historic promise to the children of the world by adopting the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child — an international commitment to protect one of the world’s most vulnerable groups. Yet, despite these entrenched rights, children throughout the world, particularly girls, live in conditions where their rights are violated and their basic needs go unmet with few opportunities to break cycles of poverty. Amnesty International highlights, “Children are likely to form the group at highest risk of poverty, malnourishment and abuse, and are often disproportionately impacted by human rights crises.” The Borgen Project reached out to Rachel Clement, Senior Policy Manager at ChildFund International, who in turn interviewed girls in Kenya, Sri Lanka and Zambia, who offered insight into what matters most to girls and what ChildFund does to support girls in the countries it works in.
When was ChildFund International founded and what does it aim to achieve?
ChildFund International was founded in 1938 and currently works in 23 countries in the Americas, Asia and Africa. ChildFund is a global community of people who care about children and take action on our vision of a world where every child realizes their rights and achieves their potential. We work to achieve that vision by connecting children with the people, resources and institutions they need to grow up healthy, educated, skilled and safe.
How does supporting girls worldwide contribute to completing your organization’s overall mission?
ChildFund International believes that young people are the best advocates for the issues impacting their lives and that their voices are the most powerful ones policymakers and other decision-makers can hear. All too often, girls face systemic barriers to fully realizing their rights and achieving their potential due to discrimination and harmful social norms that undervalue girls because of both their age and gender. In fact, at the current rate of progress, it will take over 100 years to achieve gender parity in political participation. This lack of representation in policy and decision-making arenas means that girls’ unique assets and challenges often go un- or under-represented. Without girls’ equal participation, realizing their equal rights and achieving their full potential is impossible.
What is the best example you’ve seen of your organization’s work making a difference in girls’ lives around the globe?
ChildFund International works with girls from around the world who shared that it is difficult to figure out what to dream of becoming when you are from a marginalized group that does not have access to resources and services like digital tools or safe and quality educational opportunities. Through their participation in ChildFund’s programs, the girls felt that they were able to increase their skills in areas like digital literacy and collective action while simultaneously improving their self-esteem and allowing them to dream of futures and careers that they previously did not even know existed.
Unesta, 16, from Kenya, attended the African Children’s Summit and underscored the importance of peer exchanges to empower children and young people. She said, “I think that was one of my best days because I got to interact with so many children across Africa. I had never met anyone outside of Kenya, so when I shared the same room with children from Senegal, South Africa, Zambia and Uganda I was so excited. I realized that most of the problems children from Kenya faced were experienced by children from other African countries too. I learned that some countries were facing food crises and it affected school-going children, girls my age have no access to sanitary towels, and this really affects their self-esteem. I also learned how technology is helping to solve some of these issues. I am very grateful to ChildFund because I spoke on behalf of so many children and I am hoping that the government will take our opinions into consideration as these issues affect us emotionally and physically.”
Upendo, 15, who also attended the Summit on behalf of ChildFund Kenya said, “The African Children’s Summit made me see everything differently. I was part of the children chosen by ChildFund to represent the voices of other children across the continent. Honestly, I did not know that children could be given such platforms to air their grievances. Part of the issues we talked about at the summit were child rights concerns and challenges in Africa. As a girl, I was able to ask governments through the forum to protect children against all forms of abuse. Now, I can easily teach other children what abuse is and direct them to platforms where they can report and get help.”
Twiza, who is 16 and from Zambia said, “The best example l can give about ChildFund making a difference in girl’s lives is education. ChildFund has really been a great help to girl children around the globe who would have dropped out of school due to school fees and other challenges if it wasn’t for ChildFund through scholarships from the primary to the tertiary level.” She went on to say that ChildFund conducted activities on early and child marriages, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, STIs and other important issues affecting girls that are often taboo to discuss. She said, “ChildFund helps the girls with knowledge to prevent themselves from getting involved in such issues.” Not only that, but ChildFund provides menstrual hygiene products alongside education on menstrual hygiene management in her community, which she believes helps girls stay in school.
ChildFund International supports numerous child- and youth-led advocacy efforts and collectives and the development of engaged citizens. We believe that it is our mandate to ensure young people are knowledgeable about their rights, to support their leadership abilities, to mobilize them as change agents, and to give them opportunities to engage in making decisions about their lives and the world around them.
Janaika, who is 17, and from Sri Lanka, says that ChildFund provides girls the skills to improve their vocational skills and to engage in civic and social responses. She says ChildFund supports life skills and self-confidence “so we trust ChildFund to support us and help us to gain more power as girls in the society.”
Mallika, who is 20 and also from Sri Lanka was most impressed by the EDGE program which works on digital literacy, English language and social skills. She says, “By educating a girl, you are changing her personality for the better, changing her attitudes, and increasing her skill set. I am not afraid anymore…Programs such as these are very important for girls like us. It improves not only our academic knowledge, but it also builds our social-emotional skills, increases our self-esteem and helps in present ourselves in a dignified and significant role in society.”
What message would you like to send to advocates who are passionate about supporting girls globally?
Every girl we spoke to emphasized a similar message about the need to listen to and support girls. Twize from Zambia said that everyone needs to “Continue supporting girls through whatever means you can to reduce the number of cases on issues affecting girls globally.” Janaika from Sri Lanka said that it was critical to “Create opportunities and facilities for education to the girls, which will contribute to the development of women in their life and brighten their future.”
Other girls felt strongly that change cannot occur without serious attention to harmful social norms. S.Thinesha, a 19-year-old youth club member from Sri Lanka said, “Provide support to overcome social barriers, superstition, and discrimination against girls.” Fathima, 18, also from Sri Lanka, said “Girls need to be empowered more. Every girl deserves to have a great future.”
Sixteen-year-old Unesta hopes that individuals feel empowered to affect change at an interpersonal level. “I live in Kibera (one of the largest informal settlements in Nairobi). I see so many young girls dropping out of school because of drugs and alcoholism, depression and poverty. My appeal to girl advocates worldwide is to reach out to these girls and encourage them to stay focused in school. We should stay vocal enough for governments to hear us out by keeping girls in school.” Her classmate, 15-year-old Upendo said, “I would like to tell other girls that they should take the initiative and fight for their rights as they will be supported. SDG 5 states that there should be gender equality, and this shows that we can be listened to.”
Photos: Courtesy of ChildFund