The campaign to end the silence

Volume 15, Issue 1  | 
Published 10/07/2018

How best do you speak about the same thing over and over again? What method can you use to show people the gravity of the matter? In 2017, Equality Now celebrated 25 years of advocating for women and girls’ rights and advancing them across the world. In Africa laws have been made and protocols have been signed and ratified but implementation has always been a challenge. Holding governments accountable requires an informed citizenry and hence in celebrating 25 years Equality Now purposed to have 25 conversations in 25 schools across Africa.

The fact that Sexual violence, Sex trafficking, Child marriage and Female Genital Mutilation still continues means there is still work to be done despite punitive laws led us to do an activity that we have never done before, i.e. go out and empower young people in schools aged 12-18 about their rights. Equality Now sought in the course of 2017 to plant a seed of activism in students around the continent and discuss critical issues around its four programme areas that are aforementioned. When young people grow up knowing their rights as enshrined in the laws of the land, they are better placed to defend the same rights and to speak out where violations might occur.

The conversation took a turn that made us realise that we had to inform people of what the children were saying and the violations they were going through. The conversations covered schools in 6 African countries namely, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Mauritania and The Gambia and brought out voices of young girls who are being violated in places that they should be safe in the first place.

Out of these schools about 2500 young people were involved, 200 of them being boys and the rest girls. The young people that we spoke with responded through writing their questions or comments on flash cards. The content of the flash cards is what led to the Sound of Silence gallery (an exhibition that amplifies the voices of the girls) and the street billboards as well.

What started out as conversations with girls in schools ended up reminding us of the linkage between the work we do at policy level and the reality on the ground. It clearly showed us the gaps that still exist and that make it a challenge for girls to report even where laws exist. It highlighted a very sad reality that shows that children are violated where they should otherwise feel safe. The impact for these conversations was two-fold, internal and external.

Social Media- From the beginning of the sixteen days of activism, we shared one statement from a child every day from the 25th of November 2017 to the 10th of December 2018.  We would share with partners first thing in the morning and they would share the same on their social media platforms.  The Nairobi Women Representative, Ms Esther Passaris also joined and would share the same on her facebook page that has 200, 000 plus follower as well as twitter.

Street adverts-During the planning of the national dialogue on safe spaces that was informed by the messages from the girls, our running theme was: Our children are speaking, are we listening? We thought it best together with partners to have them on street billboards and we wanted the nation to break the silence on sexual violence. A lot these messages were on high traffic streets and highways like, Mombasa Rd, Langata Rd, Waiyaki Way, Haille Sellasie Rd among others. This was an initiative meant to start conversations on these issues amongst Kenyans.

The Nairobi Women Representative decided to sponsor the billboards and host the messages on the streets for a whole month.  There was one particular billboard that created a lot of conversations online. It was a question by a 13- year old who asked in the Kiswahili language - Why do men rape children? Most men felt that the question was unfair but equally online it created a discussion around abuse of children by those very close to them. It also opened up a discussion around state actors and what needs to be done.

Media Impact - After the many media interviews by ourselves and partners, what followed was many people referring cases to us and asking us for help.  An example was a young girl who emailed us saying that she wished that someone would have come to her school to speak with her, it would have helped in starting the journey for healing much earlier. She even gave insight on what she would like to see and echoed our call that was made at the National Dialogue on Safe spaces in Kenya, that the government through the ministry of education should have a counsellor in each school.

Since then when there are cases of sexual violence, we get email alerts or calls asking us to help but because we had worked with different partners during the planning of the National Dialogue on Safe Spaces in Kenya, we are able to link them with partners on the ground for example the office of the public prosecution who have a child protection unit. We can confidently state that now people associate us with fighting for girls’ rights.

By the time we left the schools we didn’t know what we would do with the material, it is when we sat down and realised that we cannot keep silent, that we started coming up with innovative ways of presenting these issues at different forums and in different spaces.

The idea of the gallery and place cards arose because of the forums we had an opportunity to attend and amplify the voices of the girls. The method of showcasing the cards came up because we couldn’t bring the girls to the spaces where we were going; plus the cards were meant to be anonymous.

In one school in Nairobi where we spoke to 200 girls, 80 percent of the cards came back with questions and statements around sexual violence. In another girls’ school in Nairobi where we spoke with 50 girls, 35 cards came back with issues to do with early marriage as well as FGM, something that was not expected in the capital city. The narrative is that early marriage and FGM are issues that are found in more  than just rural settings.

In another school in The Gambia, the key theme was sexual violence and FGM. The recurrence of the sexual violence theme and the culture of silence was very disturbing.

That notwithstanding, what is clear in the conversations is that girls are violated by people well known to them e.g. fathers, stepfathers, mothers or aunties giving them away for early marriage, cousins , guardians and teachers. This might not be news but what this revelation means is the need to find a way of providing safe spaces for girls in schools. Some of the schools that Equality Now and partners visited were by the invitation of the head teachers or the guidance and counselling teachers. It was noted in the numerous visits that the teachers are not equipped to handle cases especially because a) they are not aware of the law and b) they don’t have linkages to service providers.

One of the questions we asked ourselves was based on a card by a girl who wrote : ‘I was raped before coming to school, I have not told anyone and I have a discharge.’ Who supports a 16 year old girl to go to the Gender Recovery Centre? If an adult finds challenges visiting a hospital or a police station for help, how about a child who is below 18 and in school?

Some of cards talk of the culture of silence at home and fear of reporting but also a big factor is the fact that the teachers are not aware of the laws and the girls are not able to open up to them and report.

Since the cards are anonymous, we share with the guiding and counselling teachers as well as the school heads after each conversation. What we found out is that there are no reporting mechanisms in schools for girls to report cases of sexual violence.

In one school the head teacher told Equality Now that when a girl misses school for more than 2 days she usually follows up and can even visit homes. More often than not she has found the issue to be FGM and early marriage unlike in rural areas in these cases the girls still come back to school because the parents ‘fear’ the law. In one incident she found out her index one student was already married off and dowry paid. As soon as she sat her KCSE last year, she was picked by the alleged husband in school. This is the school head’s own initiative, but a structure that is directly linked with the ministry of education could make sense, hence the need to channel advocacy efforts towards relevant government institutions in the countries where we carried out the conversations.

These conversations so far have taught us that there is a need to create safe spaces in schools especially because many culprits are in the homes, but also because the school system could be structured to create safe spaces.

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