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Supporting vulnerable adolescent girls and young women is a collective effort

By Dr. Agathe Lawson, Representative UNFPA South Africa, and Christine Muhigana, Representative, UNICEF South Africa 

Walking home from school in a village outside Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, 15-year-old Lindiwe* was attacked and raped by a man who emerged from the nearby bushes. This traumatic incident was reported by her distraught mother to the local chief and then to the closest police station. Upon discovering that the teenager was pregnant a few months after the rape, her family refused to allow her to terminate the pregnancy as this went against their religious beliefs. Lindiwe missed a year of schooling due to her pregnancy and today, is the mother of a little boy. Most concerning is that, two years later, Lindiwe and her family have given up on the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator.

Sadly, Lindiwe’s story is all too common in many parts of South Africa, where girls and young women are sexually violated and no-one is held responsible. While the prevalence of this type of crime is high, the conviction rate for sexual violence is a low 8.6 per cent, according to the South African Medical Research Council (2017), pointing to a lack of accountability and justice.

As Women’s Month drew to a close, we are reminded that, despite notable progress in the country, much more needs to be done to tackle gender-based violence (GBV) and to promote sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for adolescent girls and young women. 

This is why the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Global Affairs Canada have established a joint programme on empowering women and girls to realize their sexual and reproductive health and rights, in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal districts of uThukela, Alfred Nzo and Nelson Mandela.

With a focus on decreasing discriminatory and harmful practices and attitudes that perpetuate sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls, the programme aims to strengthen the capacity of the health and social sectors at district level to ensure non-discriminatory and age-appropriate sexual and reproductive health, HIV and GBV services and referrals for adolescent girls and young women (aged 15 to 24). As the funder of the programme, the Government of Canada, grounded in its Feminist International Assistance Policy, supports efforts to address and transform harmful behaviour that has negative consequences for all genders.

Before commencing with any implementation, however, it is vital to understand the actual situation on the ground. We therefore conducted a study in the key districts of the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal between October 2020 and July 2021 to map out the available services and to analyse prevalent knowledge, attitudes and practices on GBV, SRHR and HIV among adolescent girls and young women, their male counterparts as well as our government and civil society partners.

The study pointed to the need for strengthening the quality of services and resources, while highlighting the low levels of knowledge on GBV, as well as the absence of Sexual Offences Courts in many rural districts. Furthermore, victim empowerment services, located at police stations, are limited in terms of presence and budget.

The rural-urban divide was also highlighted, with one young woman in a rural area saying that she learns about GBV from community meetings organized by local non-governmental organizations, while in an urban district, the youth participants reported that they learn about these issues mostly from television, social media and radio.    

The study showed that in one rural district, just 3 per cent of youth accessed services related to termination of pregnancy. Despite being available, a combination of traditional, cultural and religious beliefs often hinders the uptake of these services. It is thus a collective effort of health, safety and social services working together – as prescribed by the National Strategic Plan on GBV and Femicide – to ensure that cases like Lindiwe’s do not fall through the cracks.

If she had approached a health facility immediately after being attacked or visited a local chief who had experienced the capacity building initiatives of this programme, the outcome could well have been different. She would likely have been referred to the relevant support services to access the treatment she needed, including pregnancy prevention and other necessary medication. Her community could then have engaged the police to pursue an investigation and bring pressure to bear for an arrest of the suspect.

Lindiwe is hoping to complete her schooling this year and to pursue a career in nursing. It has been a difficult journey for her, and for too many other adolescent girls and young women who, like her, have experienced rape. With programmes like this, we hope to make the journey an easier one for all of them.

* Name changed to protect her privacy.