Peeking under a girl’s uniform using a mirror is one of the many pranks Basotho teenagers play at school despite the anger this elicits from their victims.
This sickening ‘game’ has largely gone unpunished because the aggrieved schoolgirls do not pursue the matter with the relevant authorities for one reason or the other, among them fear of being shunned by their peers or outright bullying by the pranksters.
But thanks to a Leribe-based youth movement fighting gender-based violence (GBV), such abuse could soon be a thing of the past.
Established in October 2015 under the umbrella of Help Lesotho, Girl4ce is a youth advocacy movement whose main focus is to make society aware of the evils of sexual and gender-based violence, as well as child and forced marriages.
To date, the movement has engaged over 3000 youths, traditional and church leaders and parents in Leribe and Butha-Buthe.
Although the movement is driven by female youths and targets the 14 to 24 years age-group, young males constitute 10 percent of the membership.
According to one of the organisation’s leaders, Monoana Tente, Girl4ce was established after Help Lesotho, which funded the first five months of the project, realised girls continued to be vulnerable to GBV and suffer in silence.
Mr Tente (18) said GBV as well as child and forced marriages were a major concern to Girl4ce as they deprived the victims of a happy future.
Such practices were usually taken as normal by society despite the irreparable harm they inflict on the victims hence Girl4ce’s decision to tackle them head-on, Mr Tente added.
“Until I was part of the Girl4ce movement, there were many things I did as a boy towards girls which appeared normal to both me and society at large.
“For instance, it is normal in our society for a group of boys to mock a girl who has turned down a proposal from one of them. I can bet that even old males have done such things and this is why they abuse women without even realising it because it started a long time ago when they were children,” Mr Tente said.
He said this and many similar acts continue to subject girls to abuse although in the eyes of society, they are perceived as normal and harmless.
The teenager said joining Girl4ce had helped him learn to make the right decisions and be sensitive to other people’s feelings.
“We were further made to understand some acts which might not appear as abusive to women, actually constitute GBV, such as the approaches we use as teenagers to have sex with girls. We must still live our lives as the youth but in a more responsible and sensitive way,” he said.
“Joining Girl4ce has helped us understand that everyone, regardless of their sex, has a voice in every decision taken on their behalf, whether it’s in family, school, society or relationship set-ups.”
Help Lesotho Senior Advocacy and Network Officer, Felleng Lethola, says Girl4ce was established after realizing female children continued to suffer in silence. Founded in 2004, Help Lesotho is a rapidly growing Canadian registered charity partnering public, private and volunteer resources to mitigate against gender-inequity and HIV/AIDS in the country. The organization builds partnerships with community leadership and organizations in both countries to support locally initiated, championed and managed projects for the benefit of orphans, vulnerable children and Lesotho’s youths. Key programs include child sponsorship, grandmother support, schools involvement, teacher training, and HIV/AIDS Clubs.
“We realised there were so many issues surrounding child and forced marriages, among them dropping out of school because of lack of funds and resorting to marriage as a way of escaping poverty,” Ms Lethola said.
She further said studies had shown early marriages were devastating on the underage girls because their bodies were not strong enough to carry their pregnancy for nine months.
She continued: “If such underage girls give birth to healthy children, in most cases, you will find they don’t have time to be loving mothers. For instance, you will find them playing outside, leaving these children unattended because they are still children themselves.”
She added although child marriage is deeply rooted in most African societies including Basotho, it is still an unacceptable practice which needs to be eradicated.
“Children are still being forced into marriage as a mechanism for families to escape poverty. For instance, you find that underage girls are married off to rich families which will pay a huge bride-price to her family.
“Some girls are also forced into marriages by their families simply because they would have fallen pregnant and families believe this is the solution,” Ms Lethola asked.
Girls, she added, continue to endure this abuse because most families believe pregnancy guarantees them marriage and a happy life.
“The time to force children into marriage because of pregnancy has passed. Pregnant children must be allowed to make their own decisions about their future because at times, they end up abusing each other in their so-called marriage because of poverty. Pregnancy is not an answer to solving one’s marital status. Youths must get married because they want to, not because they are forced into it by circumstances like pregnancy.”
According to Ms Lethola, many girls affected by this practice suffer in silence and this is what Help Lesotho is hoping to end by teaching the youth their rights.
She further said after realising the girls do not live in isolation and that other sectors of society such as community leaders, teachers and even parents perpetuate GBV, Help Lesotho decided to come in.
“After speaking with them, these adults realised they were playing a role in their children’s abuse.
“They admitted that not talking to their children was fanning GBV. They further realised that referring to their offspring as ‘today’s children who don’t listen to their parents’ was not helping matters as they would then run away to seek advice from the wrong people.”
She also said Help Lesotho funded Girl4ce from October 2015 to February 2016, and hopes the organisation is going to survive.
“The girls are on their own now but we are still helping them wherever we can with things like organising meetings at schools for their outreach programmes. We also have YES (Youth Empowerment in Schools) Clubs made up of students, which is sponsored by Help Lesotho. Girl4ce is also using YES to empower the youth in different schools.”
One of the parents who benefitted from this programme, ‘Mampho Likhoka, said it was important for parents to freely talk to their children about sexual reproductive health (SRH), sexual abuse and child marriage.
Ms Likhoka (55) is raising her 10-year-old granddaughter she believes must be “properly” introduced to SRH as empowering her with knowledge is the only way to win the fight against the scourge of teenage pregnancy, child marriage and sexual abuse.
“Knowledge is power. I can’t protect her forever and I am not always with her so I made a decision to start discussing SRH with her at a tender age. Most parents make a mistake of introducing SRH discussions with their children when they enter puberty and by that time, it is already too late. I know it’s difficult but once you have started, you sleep peacefully at night knowing that even if you die, you have given your child something that will never be taken away from her,” Ms Likhoka said.
She however warned the subject of SRH must be carefully introduced to the child because the wrong information could destroy her.
“For me, the appropriate age to introduce SRH is five years because that’s when they start realising that their bodies are different. That’s when they start picking interest in things like family set-up and you gradually introduce these things to them.
“At the moment, I am discussing relationships, sex and marriage with my granddaughter because soon she will start menstruating and taking interest in boys.
“Mostly discussions are centered around waiting until she is ready to have sex. I encourage her to wait until she is 20 because I strongly believe at that age, she would now be in a position to know what she wants in life.
“For as long as she knows her rights and will not allow boys into tricking her to have sex, I am happy and will support her decisions no matter how painful they might be to me,” she said.
“We know that today’s children rush into sex but we can only hope and pray discussing SRH with them will help delay such activities. I remember telling my granddaughter she must wait for the right time to have a boyfriend and I was very happy to learn that teachers are always encouraging them to concentrate on their books.”
For those who cannot wait for marriage to have sex, Ms Likhoka encouraged them to use condoms to avoid teenage pregnancies and child marriages.