October 11 was International Day of the Girl Child. It’s a day intended to focus attention on the “challenges girls face and to promote girls’ empowerment and the fulfilment of their human rights.” (www.un.org)
Gender equality and the empowerment of girls and women is one of the pillars upon which the Hampton-Piggs Peak Partnership is built. In a country where cultural norms dictate that women and girls stay at home and provide the bulk of household-related work, we provide girls with an equal opportunity for education by paying school fees for at least as many females as males.
Swaziland has a deeply patriarchal society where women don’t have the same rights as men. Polygamy for men is accepted, discrimination against women is normalized, and sexual abuse of women is common.
A survey of Swazi females, ages 13-24, exposed the disturbing reality that, for 57% of them, their first experience with sexual intercourse was forced or coerced. The study also showed that girls who experience sexual violence are 4X more likely to contract HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases; 3X more likely to have unwanted pregnancies; and 2X more likely to experience suicidal thoughts.
This year, the Partnership is paying school fees for 91 girls. We know that an education provides females with dignity, self-respect, and the self confidence that allows them to say “no” to unwanted sex and the heightened risk of pregnancy and contracting HIV.
In the past couple of years, the government and courts of Swaziland have taken some steps toward reducing discrimination against girls and women and protecting their human rights. However, it will take a cultural overhaul to achieve true gender equality and solve the serious problems of physical and sexual abuse of girls. It won’t happen overnight but empowering women by putting more girls through school is a giant step toward gender equality – a step that will provide a brighter, safer, and healthier future for the nation.
Through your Starfish sponsorships, girls who would not otherwise have the opportunity are going to school. Our expectation is that these young women become educated. Our hope is that they become powerful. Our dream is that they change Swazi society.