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Marginalised girls take centre stage at UN panel on unleashing their potential

© UNICEF/HQ07-0207/Markisz
Fatuma Roba, 20, of Kenya speaks at the UN youth panel on strategies to reach marginalised adolescent girls.

By Rachel Bonham Carter

NEW YORK, USA, 6 March 2007 – A panel of young women dedicated to improving the lives of marginalised girls shared their experiences during a panel discussion at United Nations headquarters this afternoon.

They are in New York from Botswana, Jordan, Kenya, Guatemala, Malawi and Mali to participate in the 51st Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, in the run-up to International Women’s Day on 8 March.

“We know this group has great potential but is often overlooked,” said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah, who moderated the panel. In her opening remarks, Ms. Salah emphasised the importance of including girls’ and women’s voices in high-level discussions because, she said, the targets for most of the Millennium Development Goals can be reached only by removing existing obstacles to the advancement of adolescent girls.

Support makes a difference

“A woman is a sister to a man, a daughter to a man, a friend, a wife – and every man has a mother. Woman is the central post to a man as much as man is to a woman.”

Girls can be considered marginalised for a variety of reasons – primarily poverty, societal traditions and geographical location. These factors are to blame for hindering their access to, among other things, education, health facilities and safe places for personal growth and development.

The girls on the UN youth panel drew upon their personal experiences from growing up marginalised and described the difference that dedicated support has made in their lives.

“Literacy can take you very far, even to the United States,” said Mariam Kouyate, 17, from Mali, quoting advice that her somewhat prophetic literacy mentor gave her in 2003.

© UNICEF/HQ07-0189/Markisz
Left to right on the podium: Esther Morales (Guatemala), Veronica Nampota (Malawi), UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah, Mariam Kouyate (Mali), Fatuma Roba (Kenya) and Golfidan Al Abassy (Jordan).

“It has made me the woman I am today,” said Fatuma Roba, 20, of Kenya, reflecting on a program for marginalised girls in Kibera, the slum area outside Nairobi where she lives. “You would not have recognised me when I was 15,” she added.

Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, is home to some 800,000 people. Half of the population is under the age of 15. In her presentation, Fatuma said only 1 per cent of Kibera’s girls have access to a program like the one that has benefited her. She appealed for more resources to set up safe centres where girls can learn new skills and avoid the typical route of early marriage, early motherhood and ill health.

‘Why are we waiting?’

The involvement of boys and men in improving the situation of girls was central to the presentation by Tsholofelo Sefularo, 18, of Botswana. She said mutual respect is key to changing the lives of not only marginalised girls but their male peers as well.

This view was echoed by a young man in the audience who said he hadn’t realised that he was disempowered until he became involved in girls’ empowerment.

“A woman is a sister to a man, a daughter to a man, a friend, a wife – and every man has a mother,” noted Tsolofelo. “Woman is the central post to a man as much as man is to a woman.”

The girls credited the organisations in which they are involved with changing their lives for the better, and giving them opportunities for a future that other girls from their communities still only dream about. They called for additional programs to reach more girls and help them realise their rights as women.

“There are still millions of adolescent girls who need our support to unleash the power,” said Ms. Salah, wrapping up the session. “We know how to do it, so why are we waiting? Let us do it now!”





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