Protect, Support and Empower Girls in Lake Chad Region

Lake Chad isn’t really a lake any more. Most of it is islands
and inlets. Credit: UNHCR/A. Bahaddou

By Lakshi De Vass Gunawardena
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 5 2019 (IPS)

As Lake Chad enters its 10th year of conflict, millions of young
girls are being used and manipulated in grotesque ways.

Maria Sole Fanuzzi, Lake Chad Child Protection Specialist at
Plan International, said: “New York City has 8.25 million people,
so when we talk about the girls in the Lake Chad crisis, you have
to imagine the whole city where we are now is completely filled by
children, and half of that would be girls.”

She was speaking at an event co-hosted last week by the
Permanent Mission of Belgium, the Government of Niger, and Plan
International.

Spanning across Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, and Chad, the Lake
Chad crisis is a complex one, attributed to extreme poverty,
climate change, underdevelopment, and attacks by the jihadist group
Boko Haram, which garnered international attention with the
kidnapping of 276 girls from a school in Nigeria in 2014.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
(OCHA), says the Lake Chad region (specifically in northeast
Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger) is struggling with “the
compounded impact of climate change, deep poverty, and violent
extremism.”

A report by Plan International has revealed that over 15% of
girls aged 10-19 had been married at least once or were currently
married. As a result, the levels of girls’ education have
drastically decreased.

With this, there is a severe lack of information concerning
sexual and reproductive health. The Lake Chad basin has one of the
highest rates of maternal deaths anywhere in the world, with about
773.4 deaths for every 100,000 successful births.

“Conflicts and disasters amplify this relative powerlessness
of girls,’” said Sole, pointing out that the crisis affects
girls disproportionately, where they are faced with situations,
such as the deprivation of basic needs, sexual and gender-based
violence and harmful practices such as trafficking, forced as
suicide bombers and child marriages.

Those that survive and do manage to return home are confronted
with discrimination and stigmatization from their communities and
are even accused of witchcraft, she said.

“They are considered to have somehow absorbed the demon of the
enemy- to have somehow given their consent,” she explained.

“And for the children in there that might have conceived
during their captivity are unwanted, unrecognized and chased
away.”

Credit: World Bank

Sole went on to narrate the story of a girl from Cameroon who
stated that “If a girl gets pregnant out of wedlock, and no
matter if we consent or not, it is a sign of terrible doom, that
will fall on her house.”

She then described a case two months ago where a girl had been
abused, and thus conceived out of wedlock returned home only to be
rejected for “bringing shame to her house.”

Still, “some important initiatives have been taken,” Sole
announced.

These initiatives include strengthening of social and emotional
learning; building confidence; fostering relationships; harmonizing
with their communities to build safe environments; economic
empowerment and adequate education. However, it is important to
educate the boys as well, she noted.

“The engagement of men and boys is crucial to tackle gendered
social norms. the change cannot happen if masculinity continues to
be seen as the affirmation of a predominance over the other
gender,” Sole told IPS.

Boys and men get raped constantly in the world, and conflict all
the more exasperated the exposure and the impact of this
phenomenon.

“They are exploited as child workers, they are trafficked, and
when they are deprived of sexual and reproductive health rights
they are also deprived of their own right to a positive
fatherhood,” she added.

“After all, the gendered norms that prescribe masculinity as
an aggressive form of domination deprive also men and boys of that
peaceful coexistence that eventually turn into the many males
dominated wars we see worldwide. So, no wonder that statistics show
that more equal societies are also more peaceful ones.”

“Boys and girls do share a common destiny and as much as we
recognize the different perspectives of one and the other our
ultimate goal is to empower both of them to live free from
oppression and free to express their own human personality to the
fullest and greatest extent,” she declared.

“We need to look at adolescents for what they are-
humans.”

Asked what role Plan International will have going forward,
Jessica Malter, Senior Communications and Advocacy Advisor at
Planned International, told IPS: “Plan International is committed
to working together with international partners and local entities
to advance girls rights in the Lake Chad Basin and worldwide”

She further noted that they are working on developing integrated
programs “that address the complex and interconnected issues
affecting adolescents, such as lack of education, child marriage,
early pregnancy, child labour and sexual exploitation and that

“We cannot continue to address these issues with single-sector
responses or ad-hoc interventions.”

She also stressed the importance of incorporating the young
generation stating that “including young people in the decision
making that impacts their lives is absolutely critical, and note
that

“We still do not sufficiently listen to young people, and
particularly not adolescent girls who are often invisible”, said
Malter.

“It is rare though, that girls are given the opportunity to
express their views.
That said, they do have a way of tackling the issue.

Malter said “one way we are addressing this is with the Girls
Get Equal, which is a global campaign that provides girls and young
women the tools and resources they need to demand power, freedom
and representation. age disaggregated data, to strengthen evidence
and better inform programmes.”

Asked about what surprised her the most about the survivors she
encountered, Sole said: “The most striking thing in almost every
encounter is to see how incredibly resilient girls and boys are.
They face the unspoken, some of them have witnessed the slaughter
of their own parents, almost all of them are mothers to their
younger siblings, and yet you can see a strength to restart and to
rebuild their lives that is uncommon in most of our wealthier
societies.

“Girls agency is something that can be at times challenging,
but the recognition of this factor is the only way to trace back
the logical, historical and societal meaning into the events that
we witness and within which we move.”

“Girls and women cannot be confined to the role of the victims
and need to play a major role into the rebuilding of their own
lives whenever conflicts have broken the flow of their existence
and shaken their previous foundations.”

With this is mind, it will be a victory to watch the growth and
success of these children if/ when it happens.

“They are the beginning and the end of their own history
making.” Sole concluded.

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Protect, Support and Empower Girls in Lake Chad Region
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Protect, Support and Empower Girls in Lake Chad Region