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South Africa

Youth leaders in Soweto greet Queen Rania of Jordan

© UNICEF South Africa
H.M. Queen Rania of Jordan and Headmaster Ronnie Lapshe of Phefeni Senior Secondary School in Soweto dance with pupils.

SOWETO, South Africa, 30 March 2009 – UNICEF’s Eminent Advocate for Children, Her Majesty Queen Rania al Abdullah of Jordan, recently spent time with members of the GEM/BEM club at the Phefeni Senior Secondary school in South Africa’s sprawling Soweto township.

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Part of the girls’ and boys’ education movement, the club offers a safe place where young people can share problems, learn leadership skills, promote gender equity and girls’ empowerment, and build confidence to withstand peer-group pressure.

Life for teenagers growing up in Soweto can be challenging. Home to almost half of the population of the city of Johannesburg, the area suffers from high unemployment and poverty. Like their contemporaries in other parts of the world, adolescents here face the dangers of drug abuse, HIV, violence and teenage pregnancy. 

Finding their own solutions
Listening to the young students discuss their experiences at the club, Queen Rania saw how their lives can be transformed by decision-making skills and peer support – particularly in addressing problems of violence and harassment.

“I think the best way to tackle violence is for you guys to be aware of it, and especially for boys to be aware of it, so you can tell your friends that this is the wrong practice,” Queen Rania told the students. “Working together as GEM/BEM means that you will gain more respect for the role of women and girls,” she added.

“The system has been very punitive to the girls,” said the Deputy Director of Gender for the Gauteng Province Department of Education, Wowb Likoetla Mburi. “[They] don’t get pregnant on their own, so how do we bring all the parties together? Rather than us coming up with solutions for them, the club’s success is for them to come up with their own solutions to the challenges they face.”

A growing trend
The club in Soweto is one of 10,000 across South Africa supported by the Ministry of Education and UNICEF. The GEM/BEM clubs have been so successful that they are soon to be rolled out in all of the country’s schools.

© UNICEF South Africa
H.M. Queen Rania of Jordan and Headmaster Ronnie Lapshe listen as students at Phefeni Senior Secondary School in Soweto sing a welcoming song.

“We are very happy that the Ministry of Education announced the movement is going to be supported in each and every school in South Africa,” said UNICEF Representative Aida Girma. “This is the type of work that UNICEF does – we start, and then the government runs with it. We were quite pleased about this development.”

Active girls’ and boys’ education movements can also found in other countries in the region, including Botswana, Southern Sudan, Uganda and Zimbabwe. 

Leaders and role models
Some of the students have become leaders in their classrooms and role models amongst their friends as a result of their GEM/BEM activities, which include debates, poetry readings, drama and music.

“First you have to start to be a leader to yourself, so that you can be able to lead other people.” said Zanele Nkutha, a member of the Soweto club since its founding two years ago. “And wherever you go, I think that it is important that every individual shows leadership skills.”

Queen Rania’s visit concluded with the club members singing her a new song about what their movement represents and the positive contribution they want to make to their future and that of their country. “We will go into our tomorrows,” they sang. “We won’t be afraid of what we see. We will soar on the wings of an eagle, and we will have faith in what we believe.”




UNICEF's Shantha Bloemen reports on the recent visit by H.M. Queen Rania al Abdullah of Jordan to South Africa.
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