Forced marriage and sex for grades – the schoolgirls fighting for an education
‘If you love me, I’ll give you good grades – if you say no, you’ll fail.’
These horrifying words are a stark reality for too many schoolgirls across the globe.
However, being expected to swap sex for good marks isn’t the only trauma they are dealing with. From being sold by impoverished families for the ‘right price’, to forced into marriages with elderly men the moment they start their period, they face a life of abuse from an early age.
‘The rise of sexual violence and gender based violence in general is there for girls in and out of school,’ Amy Mina, Chief Programmes Officer for global children’s charity, Right To Play, tells Metro.co.uk.
With currently 330 million girls out of school worldwide, Mozambique holds one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world: nearly half of girls there are forced to wed before they reach adulthood.
According to the charity’s Country Director, Daina Mutindi, who is based in Mozambique, ‘Communities don’t value a child’s education, they value that she becomes a good wife.
‘Most girls here are married before they turn 18 because they’re pregnant already.’
Such gender bias is clear to see. 60% of Mozambican men are literate, according to USAID, compared to just 28% of the country’s women. Meanwhile, in 2017, only 4% of females in Mozambique had salaried jobs, so with marriage – even when enforced – comes financial stability.
It’s not a new problem for Mozambique, either. Back in 2008, the country’s Ministry of Education discovered that a shocking 70% of schoolgirls knew of teachers putting pressure on students for sex, according to SBS reports – with a UN study revealing that over half of Mozambique women were the subject of physical or sexual violence.
Sadly, rates of accountability of sexual abusers are low, even when it comes to teachers, and its government is slow to respond. So, it’s no wonder that only 1% of Mozambique girls ever make it to university.
Until recently, if they did become pregnant as a student, they would be banished from classes during the day, with only 4% of schools offering evening sessions as an alternative option. However, with the higher risk of sexual violence at night, it led to thousands of girls dropping out of studies altogether.
It was only in 2019 that the mandate was revoked – after much protest from Right To Play – but the charity say schoolgirls are still at risk of gender-based violence, harassment and bullying. Even from those in authority.
The issue isn’t exclusive to Mozambique, either. When Adele, a student in neighbouring country Tanzania turned 10, she knew she would be pulled out of school as soon as she started bleeding.
Blood meant she would be married off and sent to another family for the right price, and no longer able to stay in school, explains Daina.
And even if she wasn’t married to an elderly man anytime soon, bleeding and starting puberty also meant Adele would be more at risk of being attacked and raped on her way to school – making the walk more dangerous than ever.
It also came down to a case of not being able to afford sanitary products too. Imagine the embarrassment of bleeding through your clothes, and risk being bullied or harassed for being unclean?
Instead of feeling excited about ‘becoming a woman’, for girls like Adele it’s used as a weapon against them – often by peers, from just the tender age of 10.
‘They come from poor backgrounds and there’s no support for their pain,’ explains Daina. ‘They’re a victim of bullying and because they’re shy, they end up dropping out due to lack of help with menstrual hygiene.
‘Sexual harrassment cases are also huge in the school environment,’ she adds. ‘Seven in 10 girls have confirmed that they have experienced it at school, and others have seen it happen.’
Daina estimates that nearly half of these cases are at the hands of teachers.
‘They exchange sex for grades,’ she says, giving the example of what a teacher would say to a young girl: “Either you love me and I’ll give you higher grades, or you don’t and you will fail.”
‘There’s a lot of unsafe learning environments that don’t support gender needs or girls.’
Thankfully for Adele, through the help of a reading club set up in the school by Right To Play, she learned about her right to an education and found the courage to speak out about it to her family.
‘She changed her parents’ view and remained a pupil,’ says Daina. ‘As she got older she started leading youth clubs in her school and educating younger children to vouch to their parents about keeping them in school.’
First founded in 2000, Right To Play works to educate and empower children – especially the two thirds who drop out of the education system after primary school without any basic literary, reading or maths skills. Their aim is to teach youngsters about the difference they can make to their community, their life worth and how to fight social norms via various methods of play.
Working across 15 countries, including Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Canada, the charity reaches over 2.5m children every year – with over 50% of them being female. Through their programmes, vulnerable kids are able to start having important life conversations with a newfound sense of confidence, and education.
They also help young women learn how to make period pads from recycled cloth, while holding reading clubs and offer the opportunity to debate; as well as holding group exercise sessions without gender bias.
‘There’s a lot of social norms that keep girls out of class and poverty forces families to make tough decisions about which child gets to go to school, and how long they stay there,’ Amy explains.
‘We teach them to rise above adversities. Education is fundamental on so many levels, whether it’s basic literacy and number skills in order to function in life, they are critical skills. When learning environments are welcoming, inclusive and safe, it’s really empowering.’
Amy adds: ‘We do a lot of work using play to help children and adults learn about their rights and how to work with each other, such as how resolve conflict without violence, and respect and understand each other.
‘It’s really about using play to help children build a common and shared space that they are learning about each other in, and not othering each other.’
Many of the charity’s staff started off as young adults on one of their programmes 20 years ago. One of them is Fatima, who grew up in the rural village of Darvesh, Pakistan.
She experienced a childhood where girls were mainly valued for traditional roles and that ordinary activities like sport were considered things that only men were allowed.
However, after the charity began a support programme in 2014 in the nearby region of Thatta, 40km from the village, girls were finally offered the opportunity to play sport at school. Within a year, they had transformed an old football pitch into a safe space for play.
Intrigued by the charity’s work and desperate to help give others the chances she had been denied, in 2016 Fatima trained as one of Right To Play’s sports coaches when she was just 19.
It often meant she was subjected to abuse from community members, who would berate her for ‘acting like a man’. However her hard work paid off and now she inspires many girls to play sports and has even represented the charity in the US, telling others about their vital work.
Talking about the changes she has helped make to her village, Fatima simply says: ‘I finally proved them wrong.’
Crucially, the charity’s work is also paying off in countries like Mozambique. After years of campaigning, in 2019, the Mozambican Parliament made marriage with minors (those under the age of 18) illegal.
That same year, Mozambique’s Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Action launched The Spotlight Initiative, with $40m of funding from the EU, to focus on ending gender-based and sexual violence, stopping child marriage and promoting girl’s sexual health – reaching 1.1m women.
Despite this much-needed change, progress is still extremely slow – with many cases of sexual abuse, harrassment and rape being dropped for lack of evidence, or simply never even filed.
In 2016, the Ministry of Education even blamed teacher’s sexually inappropriate behaviour on the way some students were dressed, making it mandatory for female students to wear long skirts. The Mozambican education minister said the mandate was to ‘protect’ students, ‘safeguarding her integrity and making [them] appear decent.’
‘We want schools to become a safe place for children to learn together, offering equal opportunities in the classroom for children to learn and help overcome gender bias,’ Daina says.
She goes on to tell Metro.co.uk about a girl the charity supported called Angelina, who became pregnant at the age of 16 and dropped out of school.
Thankfully, through coaching from charity staff, rather than expelling her from the family, her father encouraged and empowered Angelina to return to school.
Meanwhile, adds Daina, 16-year-old schoolgirl Sandra, from the Chókwè District of Mozambique, received vital support after fleeing a life of abuse at the hands of older men.
‘She was an orphan being raised by her aunt, who looked at her as a source of money,’ she explains. ‘She was forced to go away with elderly men and ended up running away.’
When Sandra’s classmates – who belong to a girls club at the school set up by Right To Play – noticed that their friend was absent, they decided to investigate. Eventually they discovered she was in a ‘premature union’ after being made pregnant by a teenage boy.
‘I was ashamed to go back to school,’ admits Sandra. ‘I was afraid that my colleagues would not play with me since I already had a big stomach and the school uniform did not fit me.’
Thankfully, her friends, together with a teacher and some parents who were members of the school council, convinced the teenager to return to education.
Although Sandra lost her baby after a premature birth, she is doing well academically. She is yet to join the girls club, but is already benefitting from the subjects her friends have being learning about, such as women’s rights and resilience. The club’s hope is that soon Sandra will join them and champion other girls about their rights to an education even when pregnant.
Meanwhile, the school has also demonstrated their commitment to fighting against premature unions and school drop-outs, especially from girls – another principle taught through working the charity.
‘Right now I am in school and I am happy. I am very grateful for the support I receive from my friends in the club and from my teacher,’ says Sandra, who has returned to her home with a new life plan.
‘She told her aunt she wanted to be a nurse,’ adds Daina.
Unfortunately, like many charities worldwide, Right To Play’s work has been hit hard by the pandemic. 11 million female students have been left at risk of not returning to school, due to sexual violations from traditional practices, child pregnancies, and enforced, often unlawful, marriages.
Covid-19 has also exacerbated rates of gender-based violence across the globe, with the unintended effects of lockdowns leading to many families resorting to harmful traditional practices in desperate efforts to marry off children, and make an income.
Judith, now 17, from rural Tanzania, was due to undergo Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – a common ritual in the country, with an expected 8million young women having undergone the practice – during lockdown, since her school was closed and her parents decided it was time for her to be ‘cut’.
The teenager’s family believed the illegal traditional practice would help her get wed sooner, but having attended a Right To Play programme set up in her school, Judith felt confident enough to open up about her rights, and seek protection from the illegal practice.
FGM is an issue that has been high on the agenda for the charity since 2005. After years of campaigning to protect and educate women at risk, they have so far managed to reduce procedures by a third in rural Tanzania. ‘We are trying to encourage girls to rise above barriers and above gender norms,’says Daina. ‘They need protection as they’re minors and have been abused from a young age.’
With UNESCO expecting two million students to have experienced illegal FGM over lockdown and 2.5million child marriages, they also estimate that girls are twice as likely as boys to drop out of school, and never return – even when the pandemic ends.
That’s why one of Right To Play’s aims for 2030 is to reach 100 million children worldwide, including the 11million girls at risk of not heading back to school, through its #SaveHerSeat campaign. For every £30 donated, it saves a girl’s seat in a marginalised community classroom, reclaiming her future and rights to return to school.
‘We want to motivate as many girls as possible to look inside themselves and understand the power of being a girl and that means there is power in being a woman,’ says Daina.
‘They have got potential and the capacity to write their own destiny.’