Calling on the President to Welcome the Stranger; End Detention and Expulsion

A children's playground is surrounded by a fence of metal bars. Behind the bars are play structures, one of which bears a smiling face against a blue background.
During a visit to Philadelphia, the irony of a playground surrounded by a gate was not lost on me. Now I think of the child refugees along our southern border who face a very real assault on their human liberty.

An open letter to Joseph R. Biden Jr., President of the United States, and copied to my representatives in Congress:

Dear Mr. President,

You, your presidency, represent hope for America. Yet, there are many people in Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala who do not have that. Instead, the situation where they live has been so bad, that they are fleeing the place they called home, saying good-bye to beloved family. They arrived at our southern border, seeking protection. They, too, seek that hope. They are not migrants; they are refugees and asylum seekers. They need your hope. Moreover, they need your action.

In 2020, under the previous administration, the U.S. government used Title 42 of the Code of Federal Regulations as pretext to expel people seeking entry into the U.S. at the Mexico border. Efrén Olivares, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center Immigrant Justice Project stated, “The invocation of Title 42 was a thinly-veiled bigoted and xenophobic action that has achieved its goal of cutting off access to asylum for thousands, cloaked in the pretense of protecting public health. This policy has been roundly denounced by public health experts, including CDC scientists, as both unnecessary and ineffective. The continued use of this policy is indefensible.” In fact, continues the SPLC, the action under Title 42 is illegal:

  • It misuses public health authority (from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control) to expel individuals seeking this country’s protection without granting them access to the asylum system.
  • It violates U.S. refugee and anti-trafficking laws, as well as international treaty obligations. Under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
  • It violates the civil and human rights of children and families who asylum by expelling them to face persecution, torture, and other serious danger.

Mr. President, I applaud your many humane and humanitarian efforts to undo injustices the previous administration inflicted at home and abroad. I call on you to be a beacon of decency and hope not only in America, but the world. Yet children still languish along our southern border. During this weekend of Good Friday/Easter and Passover, we are all called on to help the stranger in need. In that spirit, I urge you end the expulsion of refugees and asylum seekers and grant them the shelter they desperately need.

I leave the last word to the great Yo Yo Ma, who last year spread his message of human unity on both sides of the border:

For Girls Everywhere Who Dream Big

A black-and-white photo shows Fearless Girl, a bronze statue of a little girl looking up with confidence. She is adorned with the white lace collar of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
State Street Global Advisors created this brilliant full-page ad to honor Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and all she did for girls and women. Fearless Girl is a statue by sculptor Kristen Visbal and was commissioned by State Street.

October 11 is a big day for little girls across the globe. The theme for the International Day of the Girl this year is “My voice, our equal future.” UN Women states that the day “reimagines a better world inspired and led by adolescent girls, as part of the global Generation Equality movement.”

The Medium recently profiled eight girls around the world who are leaders, advocates in making the world better for all, especially the children of today. These are “Girls to know: The next generation is already leading the way.” They include the following:

  • Julieta Martinez, Chile. The founder of the Tremendas Collaborative Platform, Julieta is a climate and gender equity activist.
  • Latifatou Compaoré, Burkina Faso. She is working to demanding an end to Female Genital Mutilation.
  • Greta Thunberg, Sweden. She is the person behind the global school strike for climate action, a movement that has attracted teens all over the world.
  • Samira Mehta, United States. This extraordinary 11-year-old founded Coderbunnyz and Codermindz, board games that introduce children to programming and artificial intelligence.
  • Millie Bobby Brown, United Kingdom. A leading actor in the series Stranger Things, Millie is also a UNICEF Goodwill Amabassador.
  • Neha, Nepal. Growing up in a slum in her nation’s capital, Kathmandu, Neha is a girls’ rights and gender equality activist, with a show to end sexual exploitation of girls.
  • Jakomba Jabbie, The Gambia. She works to advance the education of girls in her country, also encouraging them to embark on careers in the sciences.
  • Sofia Scarlat, Romania. The founder of Girl Up, an organization for teenagers seeking to prevent domestic and sexual violence, as well as human trafficking. 

Two of My Heroes: Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg

Malala spoke with Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry, The Duke of Sussex. Meghan has devoted her live to the education of girls worldwide. Harry is focusing on climate change. And the two are interconnected. They discussed “the barriers preventing 130 million girls from going to school and why it’s essential that we champion every girl’s right to learn.” The Malala Fund “breaks down the barriers preventing more than 130 million girls around the world from going to school.”

Greta Thunberg earned Time Magazine’s coveted Person of the Year; which honored her in a beautiful article. “We can’t just continue living as if there was no tomorrow, because there is a tomorrow,” she says. Though her actions have inspired teens across the globe to start school climate strikes in their countries, Greta says. She is dedicated and she is humble. “I am not the leader the face of the climate movement,” she says. “I am just one of many faces.”

 

Girls like Greta are advocating for the rights of girls everywhere, so that the girls of the future will be able to change the world. 

 

Children Around the World Confront Climate Change

 

With the 31st anniversary of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child less than two months away, UNICEF produced an extraordinary video in which nine young climate activists spoke out on climate change.

“Can you tell me, in your own words, how you see the climate crisis affecting your country? What do you see is happening?” The following nine courageous children give their obseravations:

  • Greta Thunberg, Sweden
  • Alexandria Villasenor, USA
  • Catarina Lorenzo, Brazil
  • Carlos Manuel, Palau
  • Timoci Naulusala, Fiji
  • Iris Duquesn, France
  • Raina Ivanova, Germany
  • Raslene Jbali, Tunisia
  • Ridhima Pandey, India

The children speak of cyclones, forest fires, droughts and floods, hot summers and quickly melting snows. They speak of lost memories, stolen childhoods. Seeing these cataclysmic events, these teens were compelled to take action. Agile social media users, the children saw that it isn’t just their homes being destroyed. Severe climate events have been impacting communities around the world. “I just wanted to contribute and help out,” And who inspired them? Greta Thunberg. “She’s not afraid to speak up for what she believes.”

children climate change

“I couldn’t understand why everyone else was just continuing like before,” says Greta, “not doing anything, not caring about this.”

The nine children speak of adults not taking them seriously, much as they are not taking climate change seriously. Adults need to know the climate science.

Yet, they are in solidarity with young activists around the world. After all, they say, we all live on the same planet.

“The climate crisis is a child rights crisis.

According to the C.R.C., “…the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community.”

Specifically, Article 6 declares that the signatories (1) “recognize that every child has the inherent right to life” and (2) “shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.”

They are fighting to make the world a livable place not just for themselves, but for all people.

 

Three Years into the Rohingya Catastrophe

Rohingya refugees

Rohingya refugees fled their native Myanmar in 2017. Here they await humanitarian aid at a camp at Cox’s Bazaar in neighboring Bangladesh. Photo by Zlatica Hoke, Voice Of America

 

This week marks a somber anniversary: the Rohingya genocide. Three years ago, the military forces of Myanmar started persecuting the country’s mostly-Muslim ethnic minority.

According to UNICEF, “When hundreds of thousands of terrified Rohingya refugees began flooding onto the beaches and paddy fields of southern Bangladesh in August 2017, it was the children who caught many people’s attention.” After all, nearly 60 percent of these refugees are children. UNICEF cites some 466,000 children in need of humanitarian assistance in Bangladesh. The refugee camp, Cox’s Bazaar, is the world’s largest, with more than one million souls languishing. They fled, according to ABC News, “a sustained, violent campaign of murder, rape and beatings that cleared hundreds of thousands from their land and burned their villages to the ground.” Another 362,000 Rohingya children in Myanmar require humanitarian aid. And to make matters worse, it’s the children who bear the brunt of COVID-19.

Since 1982, the Rohingya have been stateless, not recognized in Myanmar as citizens. Their voting rights were rescinded in 2015. Now, most are stuck in Bangladesh, which is struggling to do what it can.

 

It’s Genocide

A 1948 international treaty defines genocide as “as killing, harming, or seeking to prevent the births of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group with intent to destroy them.” The U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights in 2018 declared that catastrophe of the Rohingya must meet the definition of ethnic cleansing. In 2020, another devastating ABC News report points out, the United States has yet to make this declaration.

Rohingya genocide

A new online exhibit from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum tells the story of the Rohingya genocide through the eyes of nine members of the ethnic group. The exhibit commemorates the third year of the humanitarian catastrophe.

 

The United States House of Representatives and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) have also made the declaration. Jieun Pyun of the Bush Institute recently spoke with Andrea Gittleman, program manager for the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. , about the Museum’s new exhibit, “Burma’s Path to Genocide.” This new online exhibition, “explores how Rohingya went from citizens to outsiders—and became targets of a sustained campaign of genocide” and to tell their story. “They are among the more than 700,000 Rohingya who have fled Burma since 2017. These stories show what their lives were like before and how decades of persecution culminated in genocide.” They are:

  • Haunted by Loss
  • Visible and Invisible Scars
  • Holding a Family Together
  • A Young Life Interrupted
  • Safeguarding Life
  • Remembering When They Belonged.

The museum plans to open a physical exhibition later in 2020. The Museum has also filed a legal brief to address the Genocide Convention’s obligation to the Rohingya.

“While the refugees in Bangladesh live in relative safety, they still face serious risks. The camps are overcrowded and refugees are not allowed to pursue livelihoods or use the internet to communicate, and access to formal education is very limited,” says Ms. Giggleman. “Recently, many refugees have tried to escape the camps on boats and have become stranded at sea, with other countries in the region refusing to permit them entry. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we fear that the population of genocide survivors are facing yet another grave threat.”

 

UNICEF Brings a Glimmer of Hope

UNICEF Radio Listener Clubs and Information and Feedback Centers empower Sofira and other Rohingya girls and women with knowledge, offering hope for a better future. As a recent photo essay bears witness, remarkable people in the sprawling camp are bringing happiness to themselves and others in the camp.

 

 

What Unites Us in Our Diversity Is Our Common Humanity

diversity humanity

A collection of dolls wear costumes from around of world, symbolizing diversity and our common humanity.

 

Our shared humanity is a them of which my Rabbi often speaks. At the end of Friday night service last week (via the magic of Zoom), she included a song a cantor they know composed recently. Steve Klaper part of an interfaith effort to spread the message of peace (Shalom, Salaam) among people of multiple faith traditions “to engage in creative service through music, art, education and outreach to the poor.”

“Ain’t no child to go hungry anymore / With so much that we do have here in this land that we all love / Ain’t no child to go hungry anymore.” Hazzan Klaper includes the full lyrics of his song with the video.

 

 

 

BringBackOurGirls 01 rFurthermore, in May, Steve reminded us in another video about the Nigerian girls of Chibok kidnapped by Boko Haram.

Finally, my Rabbi points out that Steve’s sentiments are reflected in the following lines by poet and artist Judy Chicago:

And then all that has divided us will merge,
And then compassion will be wedded to power,
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind,
And then both men and women will be gentle,
And both women and men will be strong,
And then no person will be subject to another’s will,
And then all who wish to be rich and free and varied,
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many,
And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance,
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old,
And then all will nourish the young,
And then all will cherish life’s creatures,
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth,
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

In the last blog post, girls around the world made a plea for equal treatment in education.

 

During the COVID-19 Crisis, Girls Around the World Look to the Future

Girls COVID-19 Future

“School on a Rainy Day” by Vinoth Chandar Picture in the public, via https://www.flickr.com/photos/44345361@N06/6139326431

 

Laetitia, a 15-year-old girl in Chad, points out a saying she has heard often: “To educate a girl is to educate a whole nation.”

This week marks the final episode of UNICEF’s Breathakingly beautiful, painfully said, but ultimately hopeful series, Coping with COVID-19, “The Future Through a Girl’s Eyes.”

As for telling the stories, “I have loved the experience of telling my story, because it allowed me to express myself and reach out to people,” says Makadidia, a 15-year-old from Mali. Though at first she felt stressed out knowing people would be watching her video and listening to her story. “I thought I wouldn’t be good enough,” she says. But over time, she learned to open up to people. “My advice to the young people watching this is to never lose hope, to believe in their dreams and to contribute to world development.”

 

Climate Change and COVID-19: Two Challenges at Once

During the fifth week of filming, the communities of many of the girls experienced flooding and other increasingly extreme weather events. We are reminded how fragile these communities are when their already limited resources are stretched even thinner on account of the pandemic.

Safina and Madhu, two 13-year-old girls from Nepal, describe how heavy rainfall led to flooding that damaged or destroyed homes and affected stored food, a precious commodity. Their families had hoped to use the money from their crops for household expenses. “But that dream is gone because we lost them.”

Antsa (16, of Madagascar) has positive thoughts. “When COVID-19 is over, something I want people to remember is the relationships they have with their families.”  “We must not forget to talk to each other and spend time together.”

“I still feel the same stress, fear, and anxiety,” says Makadidia. “When I think about COVID-19, I am really troubled. I have no idea how our lives will get back to normal.”

 

Education Is the Future – the Future Is Education

Zulfa (15, of Indonesia) graduated from junior high school, but without the fanfare earlier classes were afforded. She says she will remember a phrase she heard many times: “It’s better for us to keep our distance temporarily than to be apart forever.” She recognizes that many people have learned about the importance of health and sanitation. This, she says, includes eating a healthy diet, maintaining immunity, and exercising.

“Adolescent girls face many difficulties in their lives,” says Laetitia (15, of Chad). “Among these, one of the major problems they face is dropping out of school and getting married early,” continues Bijita (15, of India). “Parents are not giving permission to adolescent girls to study, learn any skill, or go outside their houses, says Madhu. And, reveals Sangamithra (15, India), “They are not in an environment where they can share their problems.”

“Teen girls are a valuable asset that deserves to be protected,” declares Zulfa. And Bijita hopes “every adolescent girl is safe and secure, has sound health, and is able to fulfill her dreams.”

Esta (15, of Niger) proclaims there should be no discrimination on account of gender, religion, tribe, or nation, “so that everyone can play their part to help society.” Education for all is essential.

 

The Girls Have Hope for Their Futures

Esta wants to help advise her nation’s government. “Children should be allowed to study, especially girls.” Antsa would like to see an end to early and forced marriage. Laetitia envisions taking an active part to put an end to gender inequality and the harmful practices it bring about. For that, girls will have to be educated like boys.

Bijita hopes the problems adolescent girls face today will disappear. “I wish they don’t have to drop out of school, get married early, or face any sexual violence.” Education will afford girls better jobs. “For this to happen,” she adds, “parents should help them out and our government should provide the necessary help.”

Sangamithra says that if her parents support her studying now, “I will be able to achieve my dreams and then get married later.”

Fanja (15, of Madagascar) wants to be a nurse “for the sake of the future” to help the many women who die in childbirth or of malaria.

Hamadou (15, of Niger) wants to finish her studies to become a doctor. “I want to help and save lives,” she says. So does Imoro (15, of Ghana). “I want to take good care of people in the future.”

Memunatu (15, of Ghana) aspires to become a journalist, as does Trisha (15, of Bangladesh). “As a journalist I want to help people,” she says. “Through reporting, I want to bring to light the problems people face.”

 

Their Messages to Us, the Adults

These 16 girls from 9 nations feel they have little or no voice in their communities. So what messages do they have to those of us watching their video diaries?

“I ask the adults… to protect and take care of their children, to understand that we, the children, have something to say.”

Zulfa “I hope everyone who has watched the videos I made can remember me and my stories… can remember what my dreams and desires are.”  “Don’t ever change your spirit and don’t ever get discouraged. … Never give up pursuing your dreams.”

“We must have hope and courage in everything we do in our lives, and we will overcome,” says Laetitia.

Bijita would like to tell the elders “to let their children study and help them fulfill their dreams and aspirations.”

And Antsa’s message is, “We, the youth, are going to build the future. Make their education a priority. Respect our rights.

Moreover, say the girls, “Don’t be afraid to speak your mind.”

 

Anyone seeking to help UNICEF with a donation can go here.

Girls Around the World Face a Health Scourge. Then There Is COVID-19

female genital mutilation COVID-19 UNICEF

Even where it is not allowed by law, female genital mutilation is often the social norm, because it always has been. The practice is considered essential for marriage and preparation for womanhood. In the picture, “Fourteen-year-old Ami knew when other girls in her village (in the west African country of Burkina Faso) were being cut – she’d hear them scream. But now her community is abandoning the practice, and – unlike her mother when she was a child – Ami will not undergo female genital mutilation.” Picture by: Jessica Lea, in the public domain. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dfid/12344890033/

 

On Friday, August 14, UNICEF published this, the fourth part of its Coping with COVID-19 series, “Inequality Through a Girl’s Eyes.” The children’s advocacy organization provided 16 girls in nine nations around the world with cellphones to record how they, their families, and their communities were handling the current pandemic emergency.

 

Madhu, a 13-year-old girl from Nepal broke her piggy bank to buy the essential supplies her parents could not afford. Like many parents, they found themselves unemployed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, Madhu’s parents worry about her education. Will she forget all she has learned? With her siblings, “I make an effort to study together and enjoy ourselves.”

She is one of the lucky girls. As we learned during the second episode of Coping with COVID-19, gender inequality was already limiting the ability of many girls to have an education.

Sangamithra’s her father is searching for a job. The 15-year-old girl’s mother is volunteering for an NGO. She has borrowed money so she can care for her family. Next month is Sangamithra’s birthday. In years past, her parents used to buy her a new dress for the occasion. This year, they cannot. And Sangamithra won’t be able to go out to eat with her friends. “But it’s my birthday, so I will celebrate it happily,” she says.

Now, as some schools reopen, some girls feel the effects more than others. There is a very real threat that the virus could make gender discrimination and inequality even worse – creating another barrier for girls. Girls from countries in Africa and Asia confront one of the most harmful, at times deadly practices, female genital mutilation. According to UNICEF, at least 200 million girls and women around the world have undergone the procedure. In Indonesia, half of girls and women have experienced female genital mutilation. In Mali, the figure is an astonishing nine of 10 girls.

Adiaratou (15, of Mali) knows that the practice can lead to hemorrhaging during childbirth, death for them or the mother. She can contract HIV/AIDS during the procedure. “The consequences are very real for the girl,” says Laetitia (15, of Chad), who wants to be a lawyer to protect women’s rights. The authorities do not punish the parents who subject their daughters to the procedure to severe punishment.

Through all this, COVID-19 continues to pose great concerns. For Bijita (15,of  India) having to stay home from school at first seemed like a summer vacation. “However, as the lockdown continued, I started to feel bad,” she says. “I feel angry when I have to work at home.” She feels scared for her country and the many people who face problems because of the coronavirus. All the bad news scares her.

Antsa (16, of Madagascar) tries to remain positive. “I might be laughing, but the truth is that I’m really stressed about this right now,” she says.

Esta (15, of Niger) is calling on authorities to find a cure for the coronavirus. “And when it is found, it should be given to countries to use,” she says. And she poses a critically ethical question: Will countries like hers be granted access to the benefits of a cure? In her community, Esta ponders how a class with 85 students can follow the rules of safety. After all, as she points out, the government cannot even provide simple hand-washing stations. If the virus spreads further, schools will once again be closed.

Bijita (15, India) says, “Every girl like me should get equal rights like boys, in order to study, participate in sports, and explore our talents.”

And from Antsa, “Just because our gender is different, doesn’t mean that our rights are different.”

 

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Elsewhere, UNICEF is calling for family-friendly policies, such as paid family leave and access to quality childcare, to prevent children from having to work. You can support the work of UNICEF here.

“I Am Not Going to Get Married; I Should Still Be Going to School.”

 

Girls COVID19 relationships

This beautiful portrait shows a girl from Madagascar. Photo by Rod Waddington, in the public domain. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rod_waddington/20464569853/

 

On Friday, August 7, UNICEF published the third part of its Coping with COVID-19 series, “Relationships Through a Girl’s Eyes.” The children’s advocacy organization provided 16 girls in nine nations around the world with cellphones to record how they, their families, and their communities were handling the current pandemic emergency.

 

Meet Esta. The 15-year-old girl from Niger recounts of how, as a little girl used to play with her doll, bathing and dressing her. Far away, in Indonesia, Zulfa (15) shares her fond memories of  visiting a popular beach when she was eight. She thrilled to swim in the sea and play in the sand. “Everyone has childhood memories, both sad and very happy,” says Zulfa (15, of Indonesia).

“I am sad because she was forced to get married,” says Fanja of one her friends. The 15-year-old of Madagascar says this was an arranged marriage. Her friend runs away a lot, she says. The girl tries to tell her dad, “I am not going to get married; I should still be going to school…. Marriage will ruin my education and my future.” So now when Fanja goes on vacation, she has no friends.

Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, they and other teen girls around the world are unable to play and socialize with their cherished friends. However, for many, another type of relationship looms, one with deeply sinister implications.

Laetitia (15, Chad) is one of the fortunate ones. In the video, she introduces her friend, Alna Oumar Mouhamad. They call each other with terms of endearment, such as “dear” and “honey.” He says he hopes their friendship will be forever. Laetitia sees her friends getting married and says that someday wants to do the same. It would make her family proud. But she will wait until completing her studies. Laetitia tells of several types of marriage in her community. There is traditional marriage. And there is forced marriage, when “one isn’t in love, but they’re forced to marry.”

Antsa (16, Madagascar) does not see marriage as part of her future. For other girls in her country, however, when and who they marry is not in their control. Some of these arranged marriages are between cousins, she explains, so wealth stays in the family. Some of these girls are as young as 14. Often, Antsa explains, parents want to avoid their responsibilities as soon as possible. Or parents want to marry their daughter into a wealthy family as a “financial investment.” Zulfa (15), says the same about her country, Indonesia. Child marriage, she says, “gives rise to many problems, including a child’s education, mental state, and psychological state.”

Like Antsa, Sangamithra (15, India) does not desire a marriage because, she explains, she would be forced to obey her husband. “If I get married, I will lose all my dreams,” she says. And when girls get married during their summer vacation, they won’t return to school. Sangamithra realized this when saw one of her classmates who had already married and had a baby. “I decided then that child marriage should stop.”

COVID-19 for many families has added financial pressures. Many girls in Sangamithra’s neighborhood have dropped out of school to work or get married. Then, she says, “they are unable to pursue their higher education they always dreamt of.” Echoes Makadidia (15, Mali),“The child can be traumatized for life.”

“We’ve heard stories from the voices we don’t usually hear,” says the adult narrator in the video. “But what if we could do more than listen? What would the future look like if these girls were actually empowered to change their communities?”

“I want a social system where women and children are completely safe,” says Trisha, 15, in Bangladesh. “Child marriage is a curse for our society. When a girl is a victim of child marriage, she is affected physically and emotionally.”

Trisha (15, Bangladesh” says, “…child marriage needs to be stopped completely. Child marriage is a curse for our society.” Her 15-year old peer in Mali, Adiaratou, agrees. “Early marriage remains one of the biggest obstacles for the world today.”

Among the future leaders is Laetitia. She says wants to go into law to help young girls, “because a lot of girls are victims of violence and abuse.”

Episode 3: Relationships Through a Girl’s Eyes

To donate to UNICEF’s COVID-19 Response, please go here.

#EndChildMarriage #EndFGM

Girls Around the World Tell What School Means to Them

UNICEF COVID19 Girs Education

Schoolgirls are engaged in a game football. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the education of girls particularly in developing nations. Girls recording their feelings in the UNICEF Coping with COVID-19 series, note the importance of the social aspect of their learning. Photo by Wintermute00, in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

On Friday, July 31, UNICEF published the second part of its Coping with COVID-19 series.

Fikoh (15) Indonesia “Helping family, parents, and society is the most beautiful thing in my life.” “and I feel an extraordinary happiness when I’m able to help others.”

Adiaratou (Mali), Laetitia (Chad), Fikoh (Indonesia), and Trisha (Bangladesh), reminisced on waking up early to go to school. They would get together with friends to play, chat, and tell jokes. They are among the more than 700 million girls around the world suddenly no longer able to go to school Now, they – along with Antsa (Madagascar), Safina (Nepal), Imoro (Ghana) tell about waking up, feeling they have little to do. Safina says she feels like sleeping all the time. Bijita (India) tries to keep up with her studies, but now her classroom is a mobile phone. She has mixed feelings. She appreciates that study materials can be saved. However, she cannot notes from the board in her classroom, which is challenging for her, as she is a visual learner.

Girls elsewhere face other challenges. Imoro. She says how she loves school, because her teachers are there to answer questions. Now, there are no teachers or friends to ask for help when she needs it. She and other girls like her are missing out on other benefits of school. They all talk about how important social activities are.

COVID-19 is not the only reason many girls are no longer in school. Laetitia tells of a friend who went to an after-school program for academic help. Instead, the teacher raped the girl. Stigma prevented the girl from continuing her program. But Laetitia is determined to help her friend, “and it will serve as an example for others.”

Antsa recounts how in Malagasy culture women are expected get married, have children, and take care of the home. Men are educated, because they are considered the heads of their households. Antsa knows that this something women can do equally well. She is sad for her friend who got pregnant at age 16. She had a daughter; Antsa worries what will become of her. “Or will she realize that it wasn’t the best way to do things, and that she needs to learn?”

“Educating a girl is educating an entire nation.”

Further on the subject of girls and school, New York Times essayist Nicholas Kristof has noted how empowering education is for girls, when he asked rhetorically, “What’s so scary about smart girls?” Indeed, he stated in Half the Sky, education is both a way out of poverty and a basic human right, which is also enshrined in Article 28 of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.

UNICEF Gives Girls Around the World a Voice on COVID-19

UNICEF girls COVID-19

In many countries, girls like this teen from Niger are needed to help the family. The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to make things even harder. This beautiful photo is by NigerTZai, via Wikimedia Commons

Though most children in the U.S. have been spared from the physical effects of COVID-19, the disease has been taking a tremendous toll on their mental health. Around the world, however, in many nations, children have suffered severely, especially girls.

UNICEF, on July 20, launched a five part series, Coping with COVID 19. “As their schools close and their families struggle to stay afloat, girls in nine countries grapple with social isolation and the threat of poverty and child marriage,” said the agency in a statement, To create the videos, UNICEF provided 16 girls in nine countries with cell phones. The girls themselves shot all the video footage, which “captures their own words, ideas,  and beliefs.” They are, as the trailer says, “coping with more than a pandemic.”

“I’m kind of laughing, but the truth is that I am really stressed out about this now,” says one teenager.

“Many people have lost their jobs as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says a young girl in Arabic.

“Many parents don’t have a job or money for school fees, so they have started planning to send their children to work,” says Sangamithra, 15, in India. “In [the] case of girls, they may plan to marry them off at an early age.”

Around the world, girls under the age of 18 make up some 1.1 billion people. In some countries, girls are not allowed to go to school. And in others where they are able, they are raped by a teacher. Or they face a forced marriage.

“If we are to solve problems like poverty and inequality, we need girls to be part of the solution,” says the narrator in one of the videos. “And we need to make sure they are empowered to use their voices.”

A girl from Bangladesh, speaks about how the COVID-19 crisis hit her country and family. Four teen girls – Bijita (India), Makaditia (Mali), Fikoh (Indonesia), and Trisha, recount how early on the virus once seemed so far away, something they would not have to worry about. It was not long, however, until people at home became frightened – as Madhu (Nepal) recounts. Imoro (Ghana) reports how people in her town were told about the need for hand washing, but there was often no soap to be had. Zulfa (Indonesia) and Adiaratou (Mali) mention the need to wear masks.  “All around the world, the news has been filled with stories about the virus, but there are some stories that have not been told, from voices that need to be heard” says the narrator.

 

Episode 1: A Pandemic Through a Girl’s Eyes

The first video, Trisha, Sangamithra,  tells her story.

Sangamithra, a 15-year-old from India, introduces us to her family and home. It’s very modest, but she is very happy to be there. However, everyone wonders when there will be a vaccine and she – like so many children – will be able to go to school again and see her friends. For now, she learns through Zoom. “I badly miss my school,” she says. Other parents do not have the money for school fees. For them, Sangamithra says, they have to work. And in the case of girls, parents “plan to marry them off at an early age.”

In Niger, Esta, 15, explains how she does household chores and tends to the family’s livestock. In her country, 90 percent of children live in poverty. And “the added pressures of COVID-19 mean that life may get even tougher in the months to come.” Some believe the disease does not exist. Esta knows better.” She is aware that people have died or are battling for their lives. Like her, others in her village are very afraid. Life has changed. She used to love playing with her friends, but now she does not go out. School has been closed. With seven people in her home, people have arguments.

Like Esta, Madhu a 13-year-old from Nepal, has to stay at home… with 24 other people. Girls her age are are not allowed to study at school. So parents have to pay to send their children to schools, private for sons and public for daughters. Even then, sometimes Madhu has to stay home to tend to what needs to be done, including working in the fields and tending to the cattle.

Even worse, the girls say, is early and forced marriage. Others, Makaditia says, are raped. In Bangladesh, according to Trisha, and Mali, according to Adiaratou these girls can be as young as 15 or 16. In Chad, 30 percent of girls like Laetitia (who is in a polygamous family) are married by the time they turn 15. Many girls suffer from anemia and menstruation can be painful, Bijita reports. Girls who are harassed sexually are often unable to continue their education.

The film asks, “But what if we could use this moment as a reset switch, a chance to reassess the situation, a chance to re-imagine a better future for everyone?”

“My hope for the future,” says Laetitia, “is helping street children, child herdsmen, and orphans.”

Future Episodes

Additional episodes are planned for the next four weeks:

  • Episode 2: Education through a girl’s eyes, July 31, 2020
  • Episode 3: Relationships through a girl’s eyes, August 7, 2020
  • Episode 4: Inequality through a girl’s eyes, August 14, 2020
  • Episode 5: The future through a girl’s eyes, August 21, 2020