October 11 marked the International Day of the Girl Child, a day that aims at highlighting and addressing challenges faced by young girls. It also presents a platform to renew efforts toward empowerment of girls and women in general.
This year’s theme “The Power of the Adolescent Girl: Vision for 2030” focused on the problematic stage in a girl’s life; adolescence. This physical transition marked by the onset of puberty comes with a set of challenges that can lead to unwanted pregnancies, dropping out of school, among other adversities.
So, amidst all that, how can young girls cope with the adolescence stage?
Damien Mouzoun, a counsellor with Ayina Think Tank, says it is evident that there has been a lot of progress in uplifting girls in society over the past decades; however, adolescent girls are still facing challenges such as low school performance, bad peer groups, family or society pressure, addictions, risky love relationships and sex issues.
He points out that the foundation of society is the family and that is why the responsibility of the parents toward the adolescent girls is the first step to help them overcome the challenges they face. Mouzoun cites early or uncontrolled exposure to television and social media as one of the many factors exposing adolescent girls to risky behaviour.
“Educating a child doesn’t only mean paying the school fees or putting food on the table, for the girl, it goes up to all the details about her life, like friendship or a relationship, exposure, and good parenting which is a big issue in our society today,” he says.
“Our work at Ayina Think Tank focuses on teenagers building their personality and character. This is backed up by valuable learning and positive exposure to greatness through discipline, vision, passion and conscience,” the counsellor adds.
With this overwhelming need in terms of shaping their future, Mouzoun hopes to expand his services to fill this gap.
“We wish we could have the space to work with all teenagers as they desperately need help, it doesn’t matter if they are from rich or poor families,” he says.
Erica Matasi, the founder of ‘IAmHer’, a community girls’ circle for young girls in secondary schools, says adolescence is a tough phase that comes with issues of self-esteem and peer pressure, among others.
She believes that availing a more organised platform for them can be of great help.
“Young girls need to discover who they are and what they want to be in future. We also need to dig deep and understand what it is they are going through exactly by talking to them,” she says.
Matasi also thinks that sharing inspirational stories of successful girls and women can help serve as a motivation and help shape their lives.
What can schools do to shape teens?
Charles Mutazihana, the Principal of Kigali Parents School, observes that some of the challenges faced by adolescent girls include bullying, especially by boys, bad peer influence, and change in personality, among others.
“Young girls experience confusion about growing up and body changes, which lead to shyness about their bodies. Some of these include menstruation period sickness that at times makes some miss school,” he says.
He also says that such a stage leads to development of antisocial behaviour, conflicts between adolescents and elders.
“Sexual feelings on the other hand arise and trigger a sense of guilt. These changes at times lead to early love relationships and marriages, teenage pregnancy and dropping out of school,” he adds.
Mutazihana suggests that teachers and schools have a role to play in shaping teens and helping them to overcome these challenges. He says that giving teens enough time and letting them know that you are there for them is critical.
Create awareness amongst teens, talk to them about the consequences of unprotected sex and how it can change their life. Explain to teens that body changes are normal and every teenager goes through them, he advises. Guide teens as a parent, but never decide for them.
“Let the teens talk and listen to them without judging. Assist them in taking care of themselves, say by encouraging them to exercise as physical activity creates positive happiness.
“Do not expose the teenager’s problems to their colleagues in class or in public; avoid exposing teens to inappropriate stories, games or movies. And also, sharing social life experience in school with the teens can be helpful,” he adds.
The principal also says that teens should always feel loved unconditionally. “Let them know that you love them just the way they are.”
What should parents do to support their teens?
Yvette Mukahigiro, a mother of three, says parents should endeavour to be supportive by having their child’s best interests at heart.
“Be present and get involved in your teenage daughter’s life if you are to understand them better. I think this can help in building a bond which can be helpful when trying to handle your kid’s issues,” she says.
Mukahigiro also advises parents not to impose too much authority when handling adolescents because this may only push the child further away.
Fred Byagatonda is of the view that at this point in life; children need lots of love and support.
“We as parents are obliged to make our children feel safe and secure. We also need to guide them through their changes, make them understand that whatever they are going through is natural,” he says.
“Though it is a hard topic, we need to discuss with our teens about sex education to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and it will certainly keep them from abuse,” he adds.
Teens speak out
19-year-old Anna Mugabo says girls go through a lot when they hit puberty with a number of rapid changes that are at most times overwhelming to deal with.
“The experiences are new and most young girls don’t know how to go about them. Parental support is very important at this stage or even guidance from older siblings who went through the same,” Mugabo says.
Emmy Umutoniwabo says at this stage girls are prone to unfortunate situations like dropping out of school or worse, unwanted pregnancies.
She calls upon various stakeholders to always carry out sensitisation on sex education, whether in school or out of school.
“Some girls are still naïve about certain things they experience as they grow up, but sex education is important. All teen girls should have access to this kind of information,” she emphasises.