"Protecting and empowering girls often mean challenging mindsets."
Anne-Birgitte “AB|”Albrectsen, the global CEO of Plan International, has a tough job of dealing with age-old beliefs and mindsets about girls and young women.
Whatever aspect of advancing the cause of the girl-child, there seems to be not just a bias, but a double bias, against them because of their age and because of their gender, she said at a lunch meeting during a brief trip to Manila in mid-August.
These mindsets are also prevalent in Philippine communities with which Plan has been working for decades now.
For example, despite the passage of the Reproductive Health Law, the rate of teenage pregnancies remains high in the Philippines—some 196,000 Filipino women between the ages of 15 and 19 get pregnant every year, according to the Commission on Population.
“We think we’re shielding our kids by keeping them in the dark,” Albrectsen says. Many also believe that providing sex education will promote promiscuity. As a result, generally family planning services are not available for anybody under 18 and comprehensive sex education is sorely lacking.
Indeed, young mothers that Plan has been working with tell them the main reason for their pregnancies was that they simply did not know.
Albrectsen says evidence has shown the more information you give, the more you actually delay the time of sexual action. “Then again, even with the best information, young people will have sex. That’s a fact.”
In the end, the issue is not only untimely pregnancy and the health risks posed to both mother and child. There are also plenty of missed opportunities. Young mothers fall out of school. They are not able to pursue their ambition. They curtail future opportunities. “Teenage pregnancy has dire consequences for the future and society,” she says.
In settings created by emergency situations such as disasters, girls are also up against a lot of odds—and face a lot of risks. “In these situations, infrastructure and law enforcement break down, and we see massive increases in early marriages, trafficking, sex exploitation and abuse.”
Again, for parents, the instinct may be to keep their daughters in tents and limit their interaction with other people. Some in fact marry them off to ensure their safety.
This is something Plan intends to help work on as well. “There is a notion that humanitarian work simply provides the basics: food, shelter, medicine,” AB says. “But we have seen that you also have to put safeguarding first: Get these young girls out of tents and into safe spaces. Initiate conversations so that they can process and overcome the trauma they have seen and experienced. Get them to participate, even initiate conversations, on how they see themselves moving forward from their tragedy.”
And then of course there is technology, which for most Filipinos means time on social media. “There is a huge part of the population that is on Facebook all the time,” AB says. While it is good to establish and maintain friendships, there is also a need to impress upon the young that just because it is convenient and familiar does not mean it is not dangerous. “We also need to be ina heightened degree of awareness because social media offers new venus for exploitation and abuse,” she says.
“Often, young people do not understand the risks if being on the internet. They form friendships, share their information, share photos,” says Dennis O’Brien, Plan’s Country Director for the Philippines. He recalls the case of a 16-year-old girl who was befriended by a man from India. Eventually she thought she was in love and agreed to send revealing photos of herself to the man. The man then told that her if she did not send him 100 dollars, her photos would be all over the Internet.
What, indeed, should be done in a situation like this? “We start from a base of people not knowing what the risk is. And then we give them the capability to address this risk,” he says. Part of their program is going around schools disseminating information on how the young can ensure their own safety online.
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Albrectsen concedes that the world has always been patriarchal—even in her home country, Denmark, there is male dominance in political systems, business, the academe. “There is no country in the world that can claim to be gender-equal.”
The good news is that, in her long experience in development work, “even in the most restrictive countries, you are always able to find that there are always change agents, and advocates. You have young people that want to change and government officials, especially those at the local level, who are passionate about their cause.” The key, then, is finding these gems, and working through them to gain contextual knowledge of how the culture and the community operate.
Indeed, girls don’t just need protection; they need empowerment, too. A joint study by Plan International and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that among more than 10,000 girls interviewed in 19 countries, may young women—76 percent—aspire to lead in their country, community or career. Sixty-two percent are confident in their ability to lead.
They are much too aware, though, of the barriers of discrimination, sexism and stereotyping. “What is holding them back is that they are afraid of how they would be received by the rest of us,” Albrectsen says.
But AB’s optimism is rooted in the observation that nothing is ever static. “Cultures change. Behaviors change.” This has also allowed her and her team to push their advocacy of changing mindsets about what girls can and can’t do.
“We mean no disrespect. We do not impose our agenda and challenge traditional beliefs. We believe that parents ultimately just want the best for their children.”
How, then, do they advance the issues they champion amid the practices and beliefs of communities over the years?
“We are here to put facts on the table. And then we step back observe change. It does not happen overnight, but it does happen.”