The previous article elucidated on the importance of focusing on the well-being of girls and women in order to fuel sustainable and equal development globally. The adversity girls face in developing countries is multiplied if they are forced to live on the streets. Vulnerability to emotional, physical and sexual exploitation and diseases increase drastically with each night they have to sleep rough.
The exploitation of girls and women is often an inherent part of the culture in developing regions with predominant patriarchal customs. In these cases female relatives often exercise the same abuse they suffered onto their younger relatives; while men and boys proliferate a set of values that undermines the healthy and happy development of girls. The vicious cycle is created and hard to be escaped from.
While the education and development of boys is often welcomed and supported by families; girls are kept at home to take care of the household and to be later married off as they reach puberty. A minimum of three years of schooling can decrease child marriage rates and childbirth mortality drastically; in other words: girls have more life choices. Studies agree that girl development is essential in order to accomplish sustainable and equal development across regions and globally.
The main factors contributing to girl exploitation are lack of education of the girls themselves, their families and their communities. Strict cultural and social codes often affect girls negatively through stigma, prosecution, and exploitation, which are perpetuated by poor understanding of girl development, and their requirement for health and safety. The fear of stigma leads girls to enduring abuse and exploitation for longer and be silent about it, affecting directly their self-esteem, and mental and physical health and therefore the well-being of their children.
Breaking the cycle of girl exploitation is difficult. It not only requires access and provision of proper education for girls, but also the involvement of the entire family, community and probably the amendment of some ingrained values. Sensitive topics (such as Female Genital Mutilation) reach the public conscience through international and regional campaigning and advocacy, and serve to highlight the importance of multilateral action when tackling complex issues.
The majority of studies on street children and street girl children highlight the prevalence of sexual abuse and the threat of abduction into human and sex trafficking. Additionally, reaching girls who are involved into sex work and re-integrating them into families and society has proven to be very difficult: the stigma adhered to sex work makes girls reluctant to open up about their lives and struggles; and independence gained through sex work decreases the motivation to seek out more regulated and formal revenue streams.
The protection of girls needs to run on multiple dimensions and from multiple sources. It requires adequate training and regular monitoring and evaluating on all levels of the involved bodies. Protection runs from community based participation and advocacy, to the provision of needed female health services, education on rights, access to financial services, family planning services, refuges for girls and young mothers from abusive partners and families, to adequate counselling service in order to avoid inter-generational trauma.
RETRAK has addressed the issue of invisible street girl children through various channels and in cooperation with local partners. They have recognised the importance of giving girls a safe space in which they can open up and develop without fear of threat, which resulted in a “girls only” house in the Belamu centre in Uganda. The inclusion of girls into the programs required careful assessment of RETRAK’s both material and non-material resources in order to provide adequate support for the girls since they require different clothing and hygiene products, as well as female care and ward staff.
The protection of girls starts with community sensitisation on girls’ developmental needs. However, the government and local authorities advisably undertake these efforts, since their knowledge of customs and social hierarchies surpasses the capacity of any international agency. RETRAK overcame this challenge by engaging with local organisations in Ethiopia and Uganda, which is recommendable for any organisation addressing multidimensional issues, especially girl and women’s wellbeing, development and empowerment. The goal of girl protection is to prepare the girls and women to such an extent that they can provide for themselves without fear of abuse and exploitation, and equip them with the tools so that their daughters can face their future well educated and self-confident, perpetuating an upward spiral of sustainable development.
Protecting girls from abuse and exploitation contributes directly to a healthier and happier community, sustainable development and positive change. RETRAK’s focus on street children therefore contributes directly to the well-being and development of the community overall, and we are proud to be part of this positive change!
Happy New Year!
 Pratima Poudel & Jenny Carryer (2000) Girl-trafficking, HIV/AIDS, and the position of women in Nepal, Gender & Development, 8:2, 74-79