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Girls must be supported to achieve their potential — UK ambassador

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AHEAD of International Day of the Girl Child, which is commemorated on 11 October, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Zimbabwe, Melanie Robinson (A), answers questions (Q) on the importance of protecting children and ensuring that they are empowered to fully maximise on opportunities for personal development and nation building. The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the plight of girls.

Robinson explains how the UK government is assisting in tackling the challenges through various programmes:

Q: What does this day mean to you, as an ambassador and as a mother?

A: As an ambassador, the International Day of the Girl Child is an important reminder of how fundamental girls’ rights are to our mission in Zimbabwe. Improving the life chances and choices of girls are at the heart of our development programme, and the shared interests we have with the government and with other development partners.

If girls grow up healthy, well-educated, safe and free to make their own decisions, everyone wins. My own daughters inspire me to strive for a better future for them: I love sharing with my girls the stories of incredible women around the world who’ve fought for their education or their rights. The Campaign for Female Education (Camfed)’s Angeline Murimirwa from Zimbabwe has a wonderfully inspiring story of her time at boarding school.

 Q: So much talk about improving the lot of the girl child: should we not be improving the lot of all children?

A: We should all be committed to improving the lot of all children, and indeed we are working to do so, through a wide range of programmes. We appreciate that boys are also part of this picture and also face their own challenges. But despite campaigns to promote gender equality, girls still face greater challenges in accessing their right to education, health and freedom to make their own choices.

Q: What would you say are the particular risks young girls face in Zimbabwe that we can do something about?

A: Zimbabwean girls face disproportionate levels of risk to their health and well-being. These are worsened when they are married or become pregnant. The tragic case of Anna Machaya epitomised the worst risks. Cases of child rape rose last year, exacerbated by Covid-19 and lockdowns. We’re told school dropout rates due to pregnancy and early marriage rose dramatically.

I have also been concerned to learn that more limited income generation opportunities has exposed some women and girls to practices of “sextortion”, where they are forced into sex in order to access basic services, resources or jobs. I firmly believe we can all work together towards protecting girls from these risks; strengthening legal services, mechanisms and frameworks needed to protect them and to hold perpetrators of abuses to account, and funding services to keep girls safe and guaranteeing them their basic rights.

Q: Can you tell us about the programmes supported by the UK to educate girls in Zimbabwe and keep them safe?

A: Since 2012, the UK has supported nearly 60 000 girls from disadvantaged backgrounds with school bursaries: many more girls have been equipped with the vital knowledge and skills they need to succeed.

Alongside that, the UK has for the last 10 years helped hundreds of thousands of children by supporting the government’s systems that work with the most vulnerable children, and supporting innovative approaches to reducing and preventing harm to children. Through the Unicef-led Child Protection Fund, last year alone we supported nearly 65 000 children to access social work assistance, and over 26 000 to access psychosocial support services.

 Q: What more will the UK be doing for Zimbabwean girls in the next year or so?

 A: Supporting girls to achieve their potential continues to be a central part of our development programme and diplomatic engagement here in Zimbabwe. Girls’ education is a key priority of the UK government around the world.

 We’ll continue to support girls through our Zimbabwe Girls Secondary Education (ZGSE) programme and the Girls Education Challenge Fund. We will also continue to support and monitor the government’s follow through on its commitments in the recently signed Kenyatta Declaration — to increase domestic financing for the education sector, and to implement the “Safe to Learn” campaign to end violence in schools. We will continue to tackle violence against women and girls. Our SAFE — Stopping Abuse and Female Exploitation — programme aims to prevent and respond to the most severe types of gender-based violence in Zimbabwe.

We are piloting an innovative approach to reducing violence through fusing community interventions with household economic empowerment. It will take a holistic approach involving men and boys, community and faith leaders. It’s so important to acknowledge that we all have a role to play. The UK will also support the government in its endeavours to make Zimbabwe a safer place for girls. We are extremely supportive of a new Sexual Harassment Bill. This year, the UK is chair of the HeForShe campaign in Zimbabwe, an alliance of Ambassadors and senior leaders committed to taking action for gender equality.

Q: You have spoken about the scourge of child marriage before. What steps are being taken to address this in Zimbabwe?

A: Child marriage is a complex issue, driven by a mix of social norms, attitudes, religious and cultural beliefs, often compounded by poverty and economic stress. We know that when a girl marries later, she is more likely to stay in school longer and have better access to information, support and resources to later earn a decent income.

The UK-funded SAFE programme is working in communities to research the key drivers of child marriage and to develop successful approaches to challenge and change harmful practices. I have already mentioned the significant contributions the UK has made to wider efforts increasing girls’ access to the services that are their fundamental right.

We have supported the work of brilliant groups helping get the Marriage Bill to its current point in Parliament. We hope MPs will now take the final step to enact it into law. Programmes such as the Spotlight Initiative and GBV 365 have also been working closely with government and development partners to turn the tide.

This is not just a problem for Zimbabwe. While Zimbabwe has a higher-than-average rate of child marriage, it really is a global issue, with around one in five girls around the world married before their 18th birthday. Tackling this is a global priority for the UK, one that’s really close to my heart.

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