COVID-19, and the measures taken by governments worldwide to prevent its further spread, have a major impact on the lives of the girls and their families we work for. Now schools have been closed almost everywhere and meetings and travel are forbidden, can we still carry out our programme and are we still able to work towards our goal using our six programme strategies? What about, for example, the first strategy: investing in girls during lockdown?
In the communities where Her Choice operates, girls and women are already in a vulnerable position, but now, in addition to the health risk of COVID-19, they are at great risk of becoming victims of poverty, which is rapidly worsening as a result of the crisis, and increasing domestic violence. Therefore, all ten Her Choice countries have developed an adapted plan for the Her Choice programme. These plans are based upon the recommendations from Girls Not Brides. In the adapted plan, Her Choice will focus on activities that strengthen the safety and well-being of our target group, while continuing to use the six programme strategies. This approach enables Her Choice to continue to contribute to the results of the programme.
Regarding strategy 1 (investing in girls) Her Choice keeps on investing in the knowledge and skills of girls related to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) and their participation in society. But Her Choice will also focus on awareness raising campaigns to inform boys and girls about COVID-19 prevention measures such as hand washing and social distancing. Miet Chielens, coordinator of Her Choice at The Hunger Project Nederland explains: ‘In respect to SRHR-related topics, we’ll inform boys and girls about the additional risks to gender-based violence and violence against children, like sexual assaults during periods of lockdown. And, of course, we point out to them the increased risk of child marriages. We know that the SRHR-related risks become higher in and after periods of crisis.’
The local volunteers (called animators) who are trained by The Hunger Project to carry out the programme can once again play an important role in these times, Chielens tells us: ‘They work in the front lines of their own villages and come into action very fast. In Ghana, for example, animators pay house-to house visits and use one-on-one education to inform people about violence against children.’ Also, community information centres play an important role in awareness raising campaigns on SRHR-related topics and COVID-19 prevention measures, as well as local radio broadcasting, and information distributed via car speakers or leaflets.’
Many activities focused on strategy 1, in the countries where Her Choice alliance member Stichting Kinderpostzegels Nederland (KPZ) is active, continue through the Youth Clubs or Girls Clubs, says Odilia van Manen, Her Choice’s programme manager: ‘Contact between implementing partners and Youth Clubs takes place mostly over the phone. Because mobile phones are scarce in Senegal and Burkina Faso, mobile phones have been provided to maintain contact between Youth Clubs and girls in the communities.’
Often, also hygiene and sanitation kits are handed out to youth club members as a COVID-19-19 protection measure. Much is also done by radio: ‘In radio programmes there is a lot of room for information about COVID-19, gender-based violence, child protection and child rights and SRHR. Girls and teachers who have been trained through the programme are actively involved in the presentation of such programmes.’ Van Manen is impressed by the positive energy of people in the programme countries: ‘A lot is happening in the field of Her Choice activities; people are not standing still. It’s good to see that our grassroots approach is working.’
Lies Kieboom, country coordinator for Mali and Ethiopia or KPZ, adds: ‘Girls from the Girls Glubs go house to house, maintaining enough distance, to inform the community about COVID-19 and girls’ rights. These visits take place to make sure that during the closure of the schools the girls do not disappear out of sight and are still married off. Besides that, youth organisations in Mali are trained in radio journalism and get accelerated attention for radio as an information medium.’ Also, in Ethiopia experiments with local journalism take place, says Kieboom: ‘These are aimed at girls who tell their peers SRHR related stories.’
In Ethiopia, the pandemic comes almost simultaneously with a large regional (East African) plague of locusts: ‘As a result, many communities are engaged in survival and food security. However, Her Choice activities continue in an alternative form as much as possible. More often than before, people are thinking about how hygiene can be improved and new sanitation facilities can be constructed’.
Prevented child marriages
In Nepal, CWIN, a pioneer child rights NGO and partner of Her Choice alliance member ICDI, has developed posters entitled ‘Let’s Talk about COVID-19 with Children’ and has distributed these widely. Child Helplines (for which CWIN is responsible) in the project areas are still functioning to provide emergency services to children in need. As a part of the awareness campaigns, adolescent facilitators are teaching children how to wash their hands and stay safe. The adolescents have been going door to door to distribute informative leaflets in the Her Choice communities.
Despite the lockdown in Nepal, CWIN successfully stopped several child marriages. Suspected child marriages in Makwanpur were reported to the Child Helpline so that with the help of local government officers, police and parents the boys and girls were able to come home. Her Choice is encouraging all her partners to cooperate with other organisations to set up virtual and telephone-based hotlines to provide SRHR information to young people and psychosocial support to girls and women.
Despite the lockdown, Rutger van Oudenhoven, Senior Programme Manager at ICDI sees a good cooperation between Her Choice partners and the local authorities and the police. Which is very necessary, he explains: ‘Our biggest concern is that a lot of girls don’t go back to school, even if they are eventually allowed to, and that they end up marrying too early. Only if we cooperate with other organizations, authorities and the police, we have a chance to succeed in preventing child marriages.’
Van Oudenhoven has great faith in the strength of the Her Choice communities in the four countries where ICDI’s partners work (Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Ethiopia): ‘As local staff is now often unable to travel to the villages because of the COVID-19 measures, community leaders and girls who we trained as changemakers, now have the responsibility to keep the Her Choice activities running and people engaged. It is through them that we manage to keep an eye out on the girls.’
Survivors, not victims
Van Oudenhoven is optimistic: ‘We see that all our partners are survivors, not victims. The Dalit communities, for example, in our Her Choice working areas, have been experiencing injustice and setbacks for centuries, with the pandemic being one of many. They have a tough skin, and will deal with matters as they come. Our local partner in Bangladesh the NGO Dalit is however, like everybody else, also worried about the girls: they are at risk of disappearing into child marriage because they don’t go to school anymore.’
 Research has taught us that the number of child marriages increases explosively in times of crisis and pandemics. We are therefore concerned about the consequences of this crisis on the wellbeing of our main target group: girls and women.
 Girls not Brides has developed a brief on child marriage and COVID-19 for all their development partners, including civil society and governments. It provides insights, recommendations and resources for responding to the needs of adolescent girls during and after this crisis, including those at risk of early marriage, married girls, and those in informal unions.