(CONAKRY, DUBLIN): The news that Guinea is facing the resurgence of the Ebola virus is hugely concerning, warns child rights and humanitarian organisation Plan International.
Following the deaths of at least five people and in application of the International Health Regulations (IHR), the Guinean Government declared an epidemic of Ebola virus disease in the Nzérékoré prefecture, sub-prefecture of Gouecké,
The cases are linked to the burial of a nurse in Gouecké, near the Liberian border on 1st February.
During the previous Ebola epidemic, girls and young women were particularly hard hit, bearing the brunt of the loss of already precarious health services, community cohesion and basic needs such as food. Plan International is extremely concerned about the consequences of another epidemic.
Dualta Roughneen, Head of Programmes at Plan International Ireland, said: “Ebola devastated Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia only a few short years ago. The new outbreak in Guinea is of serious concern and the immediate need is to control and eliminate the virus as quickly as possible before we see a repeat of 2014 in order to save lives. This means ensuring the rapid scale-up of a medical response, but also controlling the onward spread of the virus. Just as we see here in Ireland in dealing with Covid-19, measures to control a viral outbreak can have a knock-on impact on the livelihoods which will be more devastating in a vulnerable country such as Guinea. However, these measures are vital to control a virus that has a 50% fatality.
“The stark reality is that these necessary measures will have a disproportionate impact on girls and young women, as we have seen replicated globally throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Resultant school closures & other restrictive measures render girls even more at risk of gender-based violence. We saw sexual exploitation & adolescent pregnancy rise during the previous Ebola outbreak, as has been happening during the coronavirus pandemic. Girls are also less likely than their male counterparts to ever return to education.”
He continued: “Plan International Ireland will continue to work with our colleagues and partners in Guinea to mitigate the risks to children and young people, especially girls and young women, as much as possible. Our work in Guinea focuses on supporting limiting the virus spread while ensuring children have access to quality and inclusive education and this has continued throughout the coronavirus pandemic.”
“Our goal is for children, especially girls, to be spared from the worst impacts of the new Ebola epidemic.”
Johnson Bien-Aimé, Plan International’s Country Director in Guinea, said: ’’We are very concerned about the resurgence of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in Guinea, reporting five suspected deaths due to the epidemic in southern Guinea, one of our organization’s intervention zones.
“In 2014, when the first cases of Ebola were reported in the prefecture of Guéckédou, Plan International Guinea was at the forefront of the response. On this occasion, Plan International has reassured the Guinean Government that we are ready to help quickly contain the disease.’’
“Protection mechanisms at the community level should also be strengthened, livelihoods restored, and support provided to ensure community resilience.”
It is estimated that 1 billion people around the world live with a disability, with approximately 80% of those with disabilities living in developing countries, according to the UN Development Programme. For people living in development and humanitarian contexts, poverty, natural disasters, conflict, and limited access to healthcare are some of the factors which can cause or exacerbate disabilities.
Across the world, persons with disabilities face marginalisation, exclusion, and discrimination, and are more likely than people without disabilities to be subjected to violence. This is true for all adults and children with disabilities, but especially for women and girls who often face discrimination at the intersection of their gender and disability, as well as other identities such as race, sexual orientation, and age.
Women and girls with disabilities face higher rates of gender-based violence (GBV) than both women and girls without disabilities and men with disabilities. Some research has indicated that they are twice as likely as their non-disabled peers to be subjected to GBV.
The Irish Consortium on Gender Based Violence (ICGBV), of which Plan International is a member, recently launched a paper in collaboration with CBM Ireland: Disability Inclusion in GBV Programming. The paper examines some of the root causes of GBV against women and girls with disabilities, as well good practices in development and humanitarian programming to both prevent and respond to it.
Included in the paper is a case study focusing on Plan International’s EQuIP (Education: Quality, Inclusive & Participative) programme which has mainstreamed the Plan2Inclusive (P2I) methodology to ensure the inclusion and participation of children, especially girls, with disabilities. P2I was developed by Plan International and the UNESCO Chair to transform the lives of children and adolescents with disabilities, their families and communities through physical education, sport, recreation, and fitness. The case study (page 19) details Sia’s story (below) and two interviews with trainers who took part in the P2I training of trainers (ToT) in Guinea and Mali.
Sia Satta Tolno (15 years) is an orphaned girl from Gunea living under the care of her aunt.
At the age of 10, her arm was amputated due to a severe infection, and she subsequently missed two years of schooling.
Through the EQuIP and P2I project, Sia was eventually reintegrated into an EQuIP supported primary school, after running the P2I programme. “I am fully integrated into the class and have friends. School children accept my difference and disability through awarenessraising, advocacy, and the psychosocial support activities of the EQuIP project.”
“In the past, FGM was a tradition that was imposed. A girl who was not cut was stigmatised and even rejected by the community. Excision was also a very beneficial practice for us the cutters. Each girl who was cut earned us money, rice, oil and clothes,” explains Kadiatou.
“Today, I am 65 years old. I inherited this profession from my grandmother who was a renowned cutter in this region and through whom I learned how to excise girls more than 30 years ago. Each year, I cut up to seven groups of girls, divided into 10 to 15 per group. We often had serious cases of excessive bleeding, but we used to keep it a secret. My grandmother showed me how to use tree bark to stop the bleeding and treat infections.”
Despite being a violation of girls’ rights and prohibited in Guinea by law, FGM continues to be practised across the country due to social, cultural and religious norms which uphold the idea that FGM preserves chastity, cleanliness, and family honour.
Plan International’s ‘Save Girls from FGM’ project is working with 80 communities in Guinea to help end the practice and dispel the myth that FGM is a necessity for women and girls. We raise awareness of the dangers of FGM by involving the whole community in training sessions on gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Once aware of the negative effects on girls’ and women’s health, we encourage communities to abandon the practice of FGM. We also provide support to women and girls who have suffered complications as a result of being cut.
“We have to thank Plan International for showing us in a practical way the consequences of FGM. For five days, we were gathered in a classroom to talk about subjects that hinder the development of our community, subjects that are at the root of divorces and sometimes conflicts between us. It was following all these reflections that we talked about FGM as a key factor in the problems our village face. I then decided to give up cutting,” Aissatou says.
After deciding to abandon their profession, which earned them a lot of money, Kadiatou and Aissatou were helped to identify other money-making activities so they could continue to take care of their families.
“During the dialogue sessions, we asked Plan International how we would survive if we gave up cutting? The organisation helped us to create savings and loans groups, which are very supportive, as they help us to finance income-generating activities. Today, these activities are more profitable than what we earned when we were cutters. Thanks to this initiative, we no longer go elsewhere to take loans with high interest. We lend each other money at a very low rate. This is what prompted us to go out publicly and tell the community that from now on we are done with excision,” Kadiatou says.
Instead of the traditional cutting initiation, Kadiatou and Aissatou spend time with the adolescent girls in their village to educate them in life skills and pass on good practices. The majority of girls they instruct thank them for holding this alternative ritual without practicing excision.
“Our decision remains unchanged, which is why we have decided to maintain the educational aspect of the initiation. We gather girls of the same age in groups and spend a few days in the forest with them. We use the time we spend to pass on knowledge and encourage the understanding of our identity through traditional songs and dances. During the alternative rites, the girls also learn about reproductive health, sexuality and how to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and other diseases,” Kadiatou explains.
Over the next four years, Plan International aims to reach 2.25 million girls in Guinea so that they can make informed decisions about their lives and be protected from FGM, child marriage and early pregnancy.
“The girls’ club was set up in 2018 and since then, we have carried out several activities in public spaces on early marriage, the fight against female genital mutilation, girls’ education and more recently, prevention measure to stop the spread of COVID-19.”
Last year, Fatoumata and her team provided mentorship to nearly 100 girls, helping many of them return to school. For girls who do not want to go back to school, the group encourages them to learn a trade so they can live independent lives.
The club is supported by Plan International who have provided the girls with training on advocacy techniques to help them with their work, something that is key when dealing with sensitive issues such as child marriage.
“Not everyone appreciates the work we do. For example, in early marriage cases, many families think we’re interfering in their family affairs, but we just want to help girls have fulfilled and prosperous lives. So, the work we are doing is aimed at making girls feel safe,” explains Fatoumata.
“The fight we are fighting is not directed against our parents, but rather we want them to know that early marriage and other abuses against girls does not promote their wellbeing and development.”
When the group hear of a case of early marriage, the first thing they do is obtain evidence of the bride’s age by obtaining a copy of her birth certificate from the town hall.
“If we find that the girl is not 18 years old as the law says, we file a complaint with the police so that they can take up the case. By doing this, we do not become publicly known, the rest of the process is handled by the relevant authorities, because if we show up, the family in question is capable of harming us.”
The group’s work is recognised by state services and the club have reported a number of cases of rape to the authorities.
“The last rape case that we handled just a month ago was transferred to court to be tried. So far, a judgment has not been made and we have encountered difficulties in holding the trial because the accused is a soldier who uses his friends to intimidate us so that we will settle the case out of court.”
Fatoumata and her colleagues regularly experience threats, but Fatoumata says this will not discourage her and her friends from continuing their fight for justice. “Despite the intimidation we face, we will not stop this fight, we are more than determined to defend the rights of girls, even at the cost of our own lives.”
“We ask Plan International to continue to support us because the workload is huge. We want to keep on strengthening our capacities and create a mechanism for reporting cases of rape and abuse, this will allow us to be safer and more operational on the ground.”
Coronavirus has wreaked havoc on education and the lives of children in Ireland and across the world.
When the lockdown lifts once again in Ireland, as it will, children and adolescents across the country will return to classrooms, where they belong. With careful consideration of the implications school closures have had on the most vulnerable children, targeted interventions should mitigate some of the harshest consequences on their lives to date.
Imagine, however, that the pandemic had robbed you of your entire future? That is the grim reality facing millions of children around the world right now unless swift and decisive action is taken by world leaders to ensure their return to education is prioritised.
School closures across the world resulted in over 1.5 billion children being out of school at the height of the pandemic in 2020, over 750 million of whom were girls. Upwards of 111 million of these girls were living in the least developed countries, where their access to education is often already curtailed due to traditional gender norms, gender–based violence and harmful practices such as child marriage. According to UNESCO, 130 million girls of school-going age were not in education prior to the outbreak of coronavirus and this profoundly unequal disparity between boys and girls has only been exacerbated as a result of the pandemic.
In some parts of the world, when parents are forced to make the decision as to which of their children receives an education, it is boys who are prioritised. Traditional gender roles mean that girls are often seen as destined for caring responsibilities and child marriage, rendering their education unimportant.
Even after girls overcome barriers to access education, when they have to drop out during crises they are far less likely than their male counterparts to ever return. Throughout the pandemic, girls have also been less likely than boys to have access to broadband and participate in remote lessons. When girls are out of education, they face child marriage, adolescent pregnancy, female genital mutilation, sexual exploitation, and trafficking. Throughout the pandemic, girls have also ended up shouldering burdens of domestic responsibilities and supporting the income-generating activities of their families as livelihoods have been ripped from people due to lockdowns.
Many girls who spoke to Plan International in the Lake Chad region, already living through one of the worst humanitarian emergencies in the world prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, spoke about peers in their communities who had been married during lockdown. Turned into child brides, these girls have now been robbed of their education and their futures. The Guardian recently reported on the sexual exploitation of girls in Kenya who no longer had access to period products in schools and were forced into sexual acts in exchange for money and pads. Thousands are now pregnant with no prospect of returning to school.
The World Bank has sounded the alarm about how school closures during the pandemic may not only impact upon students’ learning in the short term, but will likely have long-term economic consequences. It estimates the current generation of students risk losing out on $10 trillion in earnings as a result of drop-outs.
Despite schools in many countries having reopened to some degree since the initial widespread closures, targeted, gender-transformative measures are needed to ensure that girls return to education. Governments, community leaders and education personnel must view this time as an opportunity to build back better education systems which include gender-responsive measures to transform education, prioritise resilience and address the key barriers to girls’ education.
According to the Malala fund, up to 20 million girls right now face never returning to education when public health restrictions lift. Their voices must be central in the global response to COVID-19 – if leaders do not take the needs of girls seriously, we risk reversing decades of progress towards gender equality and ensuring education for all girls everywhere is a reality.
Hike for Her is a fun, virtual, fundraising challenge in celebration of International Women’s Day. The challenge is to hike 100 kilometres in March to raise vital funds for girls’ education in West Africa.
You can hike wherever you like – around the house, in the garden or in your local area (just please be mindful of public health guidelines).
There is nothing more important than education, but unfortunately, due to conflict, child marriage, food crises and many other factors, so many children worldwide, especially girls, do not have the access to the education they need to thrive.
We are asking YOU to Hike for Her to transform a girl’s life.
Don’t forget to take pictures and post them to social media, using the hashtag #HikeForHer2021.
Last week I travelled to Maiduguri, in the North East of Nigeria where Plan International is working to support people displaced as a result of the prolonged crisis in the Lake Chad region.
Kaleri youth group has over 700 members and 12 officers and is working with Plan International on a programme working on youth engagement and social cohesion. Lydia has been with the youth group for three years. She joined because she wanted to help in her community. Lydia works as a volunteer teacher with primary classes 3 and 5. Lydia was also one of the people who was interviewed for the study that the Plan International Lake Chad programme carried out on the impact of COVID-19 on youth in the Lake Chad region, and presented on her experiences of the pandemic during the webinar that was organized to launch the report.
You can read the report here: https://reliefweb.int/node/3685738
The report highlighted the challenges for young people to get involved in their communities and making their voices heard. Some of the other challenges included access to accurate information relating to the pandemic; the impact of school closures and the loss of income opportunities. In fact, access to fair and decent employment and income opportunities pre-existed the pandemic and is a huge challenge for young people in the Lake Chad region, and beyond.
Plan is working with support from the European Union and Plan International Germany on a programme to support the participation of young people in decision making on processes that affect them, in cooperation with Kaleri youth group, as mentioned above. It targets disenfranchised youth groups and addresses the rights of the most vulnerable youth, including young women and girls, minorities and persons with disabilities.
During the meeting with young people in the North-east of Nigeria, where I met Lydia, the youth groups present explained that while they are very active and want to participate, they often struggle to organise effectively and be heard.
In Niger, up to 70% of the population are under 25 and in Cameroon and Nigeria, the figures are very similar. Young people are disproportionately affected by the conflict, both as victims and as active participants. There is sometimes a perception that the identity and development of young people have been affected by the prolonged armed conflict. The constant involvement of some young people as perpetrators of violence has led some people to stereotype them as the problem.
In a society, where the elders dominate political and social activity, young people find themselves with a very limited role to play. The youth group representatives told us that there are still critical gaps with regard to youth engagement in the development and peacebuilding process within communities. Plan International is working with communities to support platforms where important discussions can take place.
To paraphrase Whitney Houston, (I believe) the children (and young people) are our future.
How well will we let them lead the way?
Plan International Ireland, funded by Irish Aid, is working with Plan International Mali to deliver the EQuIP Programme – ensuring the delivery of inclusive,quality education to children. While the coronavirus pandemic has presented challenges to the programme’s delivery, activities have been adapted to ensure children can access education and protect themselves from COVID-19.
Mali has been affected by a complex insecurity situation since 2012. Following the outbreak of the conflict, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and many thousands of children were left without access to education.
Plan International has been working in Timbuktu in the north of the country to ensure children have access to quality, inclusive education via the EQuIP programme funded by Irish Aid.
The project is being implemented in 60 primary schools and 30 preschools in villages in Timbuktu, with a core focus on inclusion for marginalised children, especially girls and children with disabilities, through their participation and that of their communities in educational decision-making at all levels. Partners and participants are also supported to advocate for positive changes in education policy and practice.
As a result of the outbreak of COVID-19 and subsequent public health restrictions, children and their families have been, and will continue to be, affected by the far-reaching impacts of the disease. COVID-19 restrictions initially resulted in the closure of schools and pre-schools, and due to the need for social distancing many other programme activities, like teacher training and community sensitisation, had to be postponed.
Plan International Mali staff worked closely with relevant local stakeholders and communities to figure out ways that the EQuIP Programme could adapt and support educational needs remotely, while also assisting in awareness raising about COVID-19, and prevention and protection measures that could be implemented.
Below you will see some of the activities we have been implementing in Timbuktu since the outbreak of COVID-19!
Student, Fatouma Mint, is demonstrating handwashing in the Kasbar Reception Centre for children of families who have been displaced by the violence in the Timbuktu area. The project is supporting these children to return to school. The photo was taken during an awareness raising session on COVID-19 prevention and protection and was organised in partnership with the Taoudenie Children’s Parliament.
Here, one of the children attending Arouane kindergarten in Timbuktu, Mohamed Touré, is showing everyone the handwashing techniques he learned to protect himself from COVID-19. He was showing the techniques he had learned at a ceremony for the presentation of COVID-19 prevention kits to the Araouane kindergarten on behalf of the EQuIP programme, funded by Irish Aid.
Although in-person education came to a halt as a result of the pandemic, education modules were broadcast on local radio to ensure children could still access learning. Above is a photo from the opening ceremony of the validation workshop on the module to be broadcast on local radio during COVID-19. From left to right: Idrissa Maiga, representative of partner organisation Humanity and Inclusion; Yehia H Konta, Coordinator of the Municipality; Seyo Tamboura, director of the Timbuktu Teaching Academy (local office of the Ministry of Education); Bocar Sidiki Djitteye Plan International, Timbuktu Office.
Community leaders and women’s organisations have also been engaged in activities to prevent COVID-19. This picture was taken during a training of women’s organisations in the urban municipality of Timbuktu on COVID-19 prevention and protection, practicing social distancing and wearing masks. The training was carried out in partnership with the coordination of women’s associations in Timbuktu.
When children are out of school, they can miss out on the provision of essentials, such as school meals and period products for girls. The above picture shows the preparations by Plan International and the Timbuktu Academy (local office of the Ministry of Education) for the delivery of dignity kits to 50 vulnerable children (girls and children living with a disability) and also COVID-19 prevention kits to target EQuIP schools.
As yesterday marked World Children’s Day, I want to take the opportunity to highlight the impact that the coronavirus pandemic is having on children across the world and the threat it poses to any gains made in recent years on children’s rights and equality for girls.
As restrictions came into force around the world this year to halt the spread of coronavirus, schools closed their doors, meaning 1.6 billion children no longer had access to in-person education. This has left many children, and girls in particular, at risk of physical, sexual and psychological violence. The longer that children stay out of education, the less likely they are to return – this is true for girls especially, with justified fears of an increase in harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM).
Plan International’s recently launched #FreeToBeOnline campaign also sounds the alarm about online gender-based violence, a phenomenon which has similarly been exacerbated by the pandemic. As children across the world spend less time in education and more time online, so too do those willing to abuse, harass and exploit them. Online freedom is an issue which transcends global divides, and disproportionately impacts girls and young women.
Our global Free To Be Online? report delved into the experiences of 14,000 girls in 22 countries of online abuse and harassment, and our Youth Advisory Panel also carried out research here in Ireland. While the global research found that 58% of girls have experienced some form of online harassment, 67% of girls surveyed in Ireland have been subjected to abuse or harassment online. The violence includes cyberstalking, being sent explicit images or messages, and/ or abusive and threatening messages and comments.
Girls and young women from ethnic & racial minorities, from the LGBTQ+ community, and girls with disabilities reported being more likely to suffer harassment. Shockingly, the average age the abuse starts at in Ireland is 13. Globally, girls as young as 8 face violence online.
It is clear that a whole-of-society approach is needed to tackle the issue. Almost 60,000 people have signed our open letter to social media companies calling for more action to prevent and respond to the abuse and harassment girls face on their platforms. We also need governments to step up and implement legislation that will hold perpetrators account for their actions. Earlier this month, we wrote to government and opposition leaders in Ireland calling for urgent enactment of the Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017 and the establishment of an Online Safety Commissioner. We also advocated for awareness-raising and education initiatives on the issue. The detestable non-consensual leaking of images of children and young women in Ireland this week once again highlights the need for urgent action to address this issue, and we are glad to see the government’s commitment to enact legislation soon. However, there will be a need for effective implementation and complementary policy measures to ensure the spirit of the law is realised.
Children, and girls in particular, across the world must be free from the threat and reality of violence in every space they occupy.
As we envision a world beyond the pandemic, we must ensure that children’s needs and gender equality are at the heart of decision-making processes. Without this, we risk reversing progress made towards a safer, more equal world and leaving no one behind by 2030.
Cameroon was already in a vulnerable position prior to the outbreak of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic this year.
Conflict and insecurity have prevailed in three distinct regions across the country in recent years: the Far North region has been suffering from the impact of the Lake Chad crisis; the Eastern region is hosting a large refugee population displaced by the conflict in Central African Republic; and the North West and South West regions are increasingly insecure due to intensifying clashes between Non-State Armed Groups and the government. The health service is stretched and has limited resources to cover a very large geographical area. The first recorded case of COVID-19 in the country was on the 19th of March this year, and over 22,000 cases have been recorded to date with 429 reported deaths.
With the support of Irish Aid, Plan International’s emergency response in Cameroon aimed to reduce the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in isolated and rural areas. The actions targeted adults, youths and children in the North Region of Cameroon, and had two key focuses – capacity building to support the health service, and improving hygiene behaviours in communities.
During the project, community health workers were trained in COVID-19 prevention, and on how to safely conduct community awareness-raising activities on the disease. A national ban on public gatherings of over 50 people made large gatherings to educate communities about the virus impossible, so the solution was for community health workers to safely conduct door-to-door sensitizations instead. Messages were delivered to a total of 69,235 people in 5 districts via the project. In addition, messages were also translated into local languages Lame, Fali and Toupouri and broadcast on the radio to ensure they were accessible to those who do not understand French or English.
Amadou N, a health worker from the Gaschiga health district says: “before the training, I had no idea of what the terms ‘suspected case’, ‘confirmed case’ or ‘close contact’ meant. I knew the various barrier measures that the government had put in place, but I did not understand how exactly the virus was transmitted and acquired.”
For two days, the community health workers were trained on the various terminology related to the COVID-19 pandemic, on various symptoms of the disease and how to recognise a suspected case. They also received training on contact tracing, and reporting of suspected cases. After their training, they were deployed to the field to sensitize the population. Through demonstrating proper hand washing, they helped people to realise the need to wash their hands regularly and properly.
Amadou has noticed a significant change in behaviours in the community: “People were reluctant at first to put on face masks but thanks to our sensitization, they now wear their face masks every time they leave home. We also worked with the Fulanis who live in encampments that are separated from the rest of the community to ensure they received the messages on how to prevent the virus from spreading.”
100 hand-washing facilities were installed across 5 districts during the project. 15-year-old Hariratou S. lives in the community of Tapare in the Gaschiga health district. She was there the day a hand washing device was placed in her village square. She said:
“I used to go with my sister to the village square to sell beignet and pap made by our mother. Before the facility was installed, people used to buy our beignet and start eating without washing their hands. Now this has changed. People have become more conscious of the need to wash their hands before eating our beignet. Even passers-by stop frequently to wash their hands.”
Haoua K. who lives in Lagdo says: “We were hearing about coronavirus on the radio and on TV but when it entered into our community, we were very scared. Thanks to Plan International Cameroon, we now have enough knowledge about the virus and how to prevent its spread. I now move around with my face mask always. We also received soap to wash our hands regularly. Thanks to this effort, we have successfully kept the virus out of our community. We shall continue to respect the prevention measures so that our community can stay safe”.