Etobicoke-based journalist Maureen Littlejohn has found a way to marry her love of writing, traveling, and giving back all into one volunteer experience – working with Crossroads International to empower girls in Swaziland.
Stationed in Manzini, Swaziland in southern Africa for the last six months, Littlejohn – who earned her Masters in Journalism from Carleton University and studied International Development at Humber College – has worked alongside Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA) workers to help promote their Girls Empowerment Club program as a communications and advocacy officer.
Her job, she said, is to get the word out about all the positive changes brought about by the program in a country that not only has the highest prevalence of HIV and AIDS in the world (26.1 per cent of the population), but where one out of every three girls experiences sexual abuse before she reaches the age of 18. And where women are often treated as minors, unable to own property, forced into marriage (oftentimes polygamous ones), and physically abused and neglected.
“The clubs are a safe space for the girls to discuss anything from sexual abuse to career dreams,” Littlejohn said in an email interview with The Guardian, noting that there are currently 12 Girls Empowerment Clubs across Swaziland, each with about 40 members aged eight to 18. “A big focus of the clubs is to inform the girls about what abuse is, how to prevent it and how to report it. It’s also about encouraging them to complete their education, delay sexual activity and go on to university and healthy marriages.”
The Girls Empowerment Club first got started in Swaziland in 2008, and was modeled after a similar program in Zimbabwe run by the Girl Child Network, said Helene Duquette, Crossroads International’s Women’s Rights team leader.
“It was a critical moment in Swaziland, because UNICEF had just conducted a national survey on violence against women and young women, and the survey had found that one in three adult females in Swaziland had experienced some kind of abuse as a child,” she said. “So that was obviously very shocking, but also very motivating to try to curb this trend, and to stop it at the beginning with a prevention strategy, which is very much what the Girls Empowerment Program is.”
Crossroads’ goal for 2013, Duquette added, set up another 20 clubs by the end of the year. They’re also working with SWAGAA towards increasing membership in the clubs by tenfold over the next five years – to 4,000 girls from 400.
“The idea is to really create a critical mass of young women who are literally empowered to detect abuse, to refuse abuse, and to report abuse,” she said.
From the results she’s seen personally so far from the field, Littlejohn said Crossroads and SWAGAA are making serious progress towards those ends – thanks, in large part, to the commitment of women like Doreen Ngwenya, the Girls Empowerment Club co-ordinator.
Known by her girls as “Auntie Doreen,” Ngwenya has been working with SWAGAA for eight years, and is “totally dedicated” to her job, Littlejohn said.
“I’ve seen her speak to the girls about self esteem – ‘Look in the mirror. You are beautiful. So when a boy tells you this, you can say, ‘yes, I already know that!’’ She tells them they are strong and smart and that the sky is the limit for them.
“These messages are really important, because many young girls are seduced by ‘sugar daddies’ while they are at school – older males who ply them with promises to pay their school fees, or buy them presents – then they get pregnant and are kicked out of school and often out of their homes,” Littlejohn said, noting that for many of those girls, the situation quickly becomes dire. “So when I go to the Girls Club meetings and see them singing and their eyes shining with hopes and dreams, I know the clubs are giving them something they generally do not get elsewhere.”
Initial results coming out of the schools that host the Girls Empowerment Club are promising – more girls are coming forward with their experiences of abuse and getting help, academic performance of club members has markedly improved, and at some schools, teachers have reported a 50 per cent drop in teen pregnancy.
“At one institution prior to the club starting, there were 14 girls who dropped out; the year the club was launched that number dropped to nine,” Littlejohn reported, a congregant at Royal York United Church. “Schools have also reported an increase in members’ academic achievement – some have even ranked in the top five achievers.”
With another six months to go on her mandate in Swaziland, Littlejohn said she’s looking forward to visiting more Girls Empowerment Clubs across Swaziland, to gather their stories for publication.
Throughout her journey in Swaziland so far, Littlejohn has captured her travels and experiences on her online blog at maureenlittlejohn.com, and plans to continue doing so.
It was in one of those blog posts from back in August – after Littlejohn’s first visit with the 36 girls of a Girls Empowerment Club at Swaziland National High School in Matsapha – that she said she came to truly understand the club’s song, “The Sky’s the Limit.”
“’The sky’s the limit, we’re going to be the doctors, lawyers, teachers of tomorrow,’ rang out 36 exuberant voices...” she wrote.
“To wrap the meeting, the girls shouted the club song again. Our 45 minutes of empowerment were over, but I’m hoping to attend lots more of these uplifting gatherings. Being a girl in Swaziland is immensely challenging, but in this little incubator at this moment in time, I felt hope for these girls. It felt like the sky truly was the limit.”