Standing firm for Bold, Empowered, Affirmed and Revived (BEAR) adolescent girls and young women

Book review
Nduna, M. (2020). A magnifying glass and a fine-tooth comb: Understanding girls and young women’s sexual vulnerability. Pretoria: CSA&G Press, an imprint of the University of Pretoria. https://www.justgender.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Nduna-ebook.pdf
 
This book review shares perspectives from the experiences of the BEAR Foundation that resonate or deviate from the findings of research that was conducted by Nduna (Nduna, 2016a, 2016b; Nduna & Ndhlovu, 2016) and which inspired the writing of this book. This review is based on what has been witnessed and observed in relation to adolescent girls and young women (AG&YW) and shares some elements that may contribute to future interventions as they resonate with some of the arguments presented in this book. This review confirms my resolution to ‘stand firm’ together with other advocates for gender equity and social justice, in the ‘face of fear’, to end gender-based violence against adolescent girls and young women (Tshona, 2019).
 
BEAR Foundation is a locally grown and woman-led organisation in Gauteng. The reflections shared here, whilst based on advocacy work of the BEAR Foundation in Gauteng, have implications for AG&YW in other parts of the country and even in the Southern African region. BEAR Foundation run school programs such as advocacy for girl’s education, addressing the “Sugar Daddy” phenomenon and educating about sexual and reproductive health. BEAR Foundation found that character development in leadership programs helps shape girls to realise their strength as well as set timely goals for them to achieve and graduate to the next level in their lives. BEAR foundation’s Theory of Change sets in motion to empower AG&YW to be able to assume a position of the sequencing model. The work builds advocacy and networking skills in AG&YW and these are relevant to build AG&YW who can advocate an issue that affects them such as access to education. The BEAR Foundation is keen to include and support the sequencing model in its diversity of interventions. 
 
Are girls victims of their own biology? What BEAR Foundation has witnessed in programs that include the boy-child is that even after the empowerment of the girl-child, boys exceptionally perform better. Yes, the girl-child may do outstanding work and thrive, however, they are limited in their ability to excel due to the chores and responsibilities that girls have to complete on their day-to-day schedule between school and home, not forgetting child-headed households due to the death of parents by HIV/AIDS (Meintjies, Marera and Boulle, 2010).This gendered organization of domestic lives sets a mindset on the girl to believe that it is a norm for a boy to be a step ahead and achieve more or be better than them. To address this, interventions need to encourage that girls do not need to be masculine or feel any less capable, but to continuously thrive in what they do best and to focus on their strengths and what works best for them. This strength-based approach gives AGYW confidence to speak out with no doubts in their minds about what they strongly believe in and can do; this way they can thrive at their optimum pace.
 
In the book, the author introduces the reader to normative sexual socialisation in the context of the Southern African collectivist culture. The author suggests that girls and young women need to work twice as hard to be at the same standard or level as boys and young men. This would seem true; that when girls do not meet the standards of society they deviate to what they think would make them fit in, which is highlighted on pages 37-39 as follows;  
 
“Women who consume alcohol in public experience shaming and loss of status. In the townships, some adolescent girls and young women may even be gang members or associates of street gangs, and may be exposed to recreational drugs early in life. Adolescent girls who take drugs are viewed as social deviants and are more likely to leave school early, and thus miss out on comprehensive sexuality education that is a part of the formal curriculum” (p. 37-8).
 
“…some adolescent girls and young women appreciate having access to cash. When and where the cash comes from, and what it is used for, is determined by various factors. For various reasons, including both the need to obtain basic subsistence items and the desire to acquire luxury consumer goods, adolescents and young women may enter into transactional sexual relationships. While in many dating relationships giving and receiving of goods may be normal, once transactions become the primary motivation for a relationship, the girl who has entered into such a relationship is frowned at and judged harshly” (p. 38-9).
 
The question here would be, are HIV prevention interventions the only platforms which should be implemented for young women and adolescent girls? If it is money that girls are after, is it not better to teach them financial literacy for them to also be able to live within their means? This could include skills training as a possible avenue for those that either complete secondary school or have dropped out; in that way AG&YW will not see only one way of accessing cash through transactional sex with “sugar daddy’s”. It is left entirely in their power as AG&YW to have good character, to make good choices and follow through on the sequential model despite the fact that it may not guarantee easy cashflow that would fit the lifestyle they desire at that moment in time.
 
The paragraph above then becomes proof that girls need programs that will not only keep them in school but encourage and help them realise their own strengths that will enable them to escape the challenges of trying to fit in. I am in total agreement that education is key, complimented with the provision of skills training, scholarships and bursary opportunities; and despite the chances that one may not be able to further their studies, it is likely that only a minority of women and girls would not be able to secure at least one of the mentioned provisions to gain a qualification to make them employable. Everything from this point on relies on the individual to be disciplined and live within their means, and that means they need to be financially literate and not desire what they cannot afford.
 
The author suggests that “Given access to funding, possibly more than 50% of learners could be prevented from dropping out of school if finance was available to support their remaining in school” (p. 60). In South Africa we have laws that enable learners without finance to attend no-fee paying schools, especially in the townships and rural areas, and as pointed out by Nkosi (2011), citing Van Rooyen (2008), “The poor rural and working class communities still suffer the legacy of large classes, deplorable physical conditions and the absence of learning resources. It is however commendable that the government of South Africa carries the plight of the poor at heart and embrace equality and equity as the cornerstones of our democratic constitution. Programmes such as the National School Nutrition have also added some value to the notion of free education.” 
 
Further to the paragraph above, the South African Schools Act of 1996 allows for learners from poor families to be exempted from paying school fees. The School Fee Exemption policy states that each school, through its school governing body (SGB), must determine fees and inform parents and caregivers about the exemption policy.”(https://www.etu.org.za/toolbox/docs/government/schoolfees.html ) Assumption 2 in this monograph addresses delayed modern consumption as a precursor for delayed transactional sex. The book suggests that;
 
“Despite girls being encouraged to stay in school, schools are not safe for poorer girls and young women, as too often they fall victim to male educators who take advantage of their economic vulnerability and their determination to remain in school and complete their education” (p. 62).
 
“Poorer and vulnerable girls tend to be victims of male educators who promise gainful relationships. Such support may be essential for learners and sometimes also for their families, in order to meet the basic needs for survival, social mobilisation and modernisation” (p. 62).
 
This assumption speaks to BEAR Foundation’s advocacy project in Dieplsoot to reinforce and advocate for an improved implementation of school violence reduction and prevention at all 13 schools, as part of the accountability structure of the school-based-psycho-social teams. This work is in support of the National School Safety Framework Policy. The BEAR Foundation conducted a desktop research as its first objective to understand the programs that have been implemented by the Department of Basic Education and other civil society organisations so as to know what worked and what did not work and why. By so doing, BEAR Foundation plans to avoid reinventing the wheel. After a successful engagement with People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA), The BEAR Foundation established an opportunity to partner and implement one of POWA’s school violence prevention programs as an add-on to its programs. The BEAR Foundation also engages with POWA, to strategize with other Diepsloot civil society organisations (CSO’s) on the field work research to be undertaken with school management bodies to understand their needs concerning school-violence prevention and support required.
 
The following questions were explored;

  1. How can schools account as a means to ensure compliance of school-violence-prevention?

  2. What defines the needs of a school that need to be met in school violence prevention?

  3. What can the school principal, SGB and educators do to ensure that the   school environment is free from hostile behaviour and learners are safe?

  4. How can parents be involved in supporting school-based interventions?

  5. What are the parents’ and school’s responsibilities towards children who become victims?

The collaboration with POWA, and other similar organisations and individual advocates for gender equity ; will strengthen BEAR Foundation’s capability to amplify advocacy work for the reduction of violence against AG&YW in schools and to foster an enabling and conducive school environment for teaching and learning. This is especially urgent in the Covid-19 recovery period as many girls will be destitute from the effects of the lockdown and pandemic fatalities on their families; they will be at increased risk for bully behaviours and sexual exploitation. In the book, Nduna supports that, “There is no doubt that post-school education and training is important to upskill and to improve the employability of young people” (p. 65).
 
She also states that;
 
“Although basic public education is more affordable, public higher education is heavily commoditised and priced to be a privilege. Bongi Zondi narrated that when she finished her basic education, she wished to study further but because her father was already a pensioner her wishes could not be fulfilled. Zondi said that she had no choice but to look for a job” (p. 65).
 
The author alludes to similar challenges with returning and continuing with school and education beyond high school, citing that “Similar studies across the region suggest that young women choose to refrain from consuming modern commodities, and wish to continue their education  but may be compelled by circumstances to leave school in order to find a job and to start a family” (p. 65).
 
This once again goes to show that AG&YW usually only have one alternative that they depend on to further their education in order to obtain a sustainable income, which is their parents or family members. So much so that should anything happen to their sources of income to enable their progress, they are assumed to be doomed with their only option being to get a job. This may not be satisfactory to them and may therefore create additional problems of seeking to belong, marrying wrong or settling for a wrong partner that abuses them emotionally and physically. The partner may even use the fact that they did not finish school against them, making them feel worthless and not worthy of anything better than who they may be at that point in time.
 
In the book, the author suggests that Modern consumption is achievable and affordable post-school;
 
“At the age of 18, after 12 years of basic education, some young women exit the education system because they have no guaranteed access to higher education. Some girls and young women exit the education system with a secondary school certificate, which does not guarantee employment. Jobs are hard to find for qualified graduates, let alone for matriculants. Research suggests that almost half of all young Africans in South Africa end up with a job that sits at the same level as their parents, which are … amongst the lowest skill levels in the country, despite the fact that the number of completed years of education have increased substantially across the generations from three years for grandparents, to five to six years for parents, and an average of 10 years for the current generation” (p.68-9).
 
The above paragraph suggests that even after young women would have successfully followed the sequential model they stand a chance of not being able to secure a decent job, putting them at the same level as their parents in lower skilled jobs, which also makes them prey to domestic violence due to their choices of life partners. This would put them under pressure to have a family assuming that life would be better financially and that the man would look after them.
 
The author suggests that SRHR interventions make an assumption that Romantic restraint is an ingredient for success; “In all these cases, education and employment status failed to protect women from intimate partner violence and femicide. The point to be made here is that refraining from dating the good boy(s) at school is no guarantee of a good, secure, healthy and successful relationship post-school” (p. 73).
 
It seems like there is no full-proof successful model that women can follow and successfully tick all the boxes. In my personal experience, I managed to successfully complete secondary school as well as tertiary. I secured a job that I desired with my Hospitality Management Diploma and was well on my way to further my studies as I had not yet reached my goals or fulfilled my desired academic achievement. I wanted a BBA in Communications Degree; this I could successfully manage part-time with a full time job while staying in a bachelor flat on my own. Life was sure easy to manage and when relationships would not work, I would sulk for a moment and move on; until the day I met a guy who gradually made me think and feel less of myself. He seemed to have achieved what I was in the process of working towards but constantly wanted to make me feel as if I could not achieve it or it required more than I thought I had to achieve it. The relationship grew from emotional abuse to physical abuse. In the interim of being in that relationship, I dropped out of university and to this day, 10 years later, I plan to go back and start all over again with my Degree. But the one thing I appreciate from that experience is that it has helped me to realise my strength and that just when I thought I was strong and brave enough, I in actual fact was not. With the help of family, friends and the church, I pulled myself up and vowed to help adolescent girls avoid being in a similar situation. This gave birth to an organisation I founded: BEAR Foundation. BEAR which is an acronym of the organisation’s objectives, seeks to help girls to be Bold, Empowered, Affirmed and Revived to the true reality of who they are.
 
References 

  1. Meintjes H., Hall K., Marera & Boulle A. (2010). Orphans of the AIDS epidemic: The extent, nature and circumstances D.H. of child-headed households in South Africa. AIDS care, 22(1): 40-49.)

  2. Nduna, M. (2016a). Aligning sexual and reproductive health rights with traditional and religious systems. Baseline study report Case Study 1: Flagstaff. Retrieved from Durban: https://www.aids.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/AFSA_Case-Study-on-Ri...

  3. Nduna, M. (2016b). Aligning sexual and reproductive health rights with traditional and religious systems. Baseline study report Case Study 3: Eshowe. Retrieved from Durban: https://www.aids.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/AFSA_Case-Study-on-Righs-Values-and-Services-in-Eshowe.pdf

  4. Nduna, M., & Ndhlovu, L. (2016). Aligning sexual and reproductive health rights with traditional and religious systems. Baseline study report Case Study 2: Pietermaritzburg. Retrieved from Durban: https://www.aids.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/AFSA_Case-Study-on-Righs-Values-and-Services-in-PMB.pdf

  5. Nkosi, C.S. (2011). The implications of being declared a no fee school. [Unpublished Master’s Dissertation. University of Pretoria.

  6. http://www.ci.uct.ac.za/ci/projects/completed/analysing-the-nature-extent-child-headed-households-south-africa

  7. https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwi3_Y2U3JHsAhXxRxUIHUxaA8gQFjAAegQIAxAB&url=https%3A%2F%2Frepository.up.ac.za%2Fbitstream%2Fhandle%2F2263%2F27245%2Fdissertation.pdf%3Bsequence%3D1&usg=AOvVaw0vrTfwU2JkAw7LyKypOtXG

  8. Tshona, O. (2019). The Base Work.  Retrieved fromhttps://thethantombi.wordpress.com/2019/12/06/the-journey-begins/

  9. Van Rooyen, J.W. (2008). AFB study Guide. Pretoria. University of Pretoria. 

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