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Amos Trust’s ‘On Her Terms’ campaign is transforming the lives of girls and young women on the streets so that they can live free from abuse. We are journeying with them as they take control of their own lives, challenging the injustice they experience daily.
If a girl is on the street for more than a week, the likelihood is she will never be able to leave”.
Umthombo, Durban, South Africa.
Amos Trust has 30 years’ experience of working with children on the streets of South Africa. In 2010 we set up the Street Child World Cup with our local South African partner to transform the way society perceived and treated children on the streets.
Following the huge success of the 2010 and 2014 Rio Street Child World Cup, we decided that we had to step back and refocus our work and address the massive gap in effective responses for girls on the streets. To look at why projects found it so hard to work with these girls and what we could do to address this.
For the last three years with some funding from Comic Relief, we have worked with partners, in India, South Africa, and Tanzania, to develop highly localised responses for girls and young women. We felt it was time for the next step.
In October 2018 we brought together frontline workers from these programmes together with a few other select organisations that are on a similar journey. In a weeklong workshop, they shared their learning and their challenges. They worked together to identify how they can make their responses, which are very fragile, stronger and more effective.
Run Without Fear
To launch Amos Trust's ‘On Her Terms’ campaign, we invited four young women from our partner Cheka Sana Foundation in Tanzania, to join us in running the first Zanzibar Half Marathon for gender equality. This is their story.
We aren’t begging for this, or asking for this as a favour. It is our human right.”
Usha, 19 — Chennai, India
Poverty can be a key reason for girls leaving home but is commonly linked to a secondary factor — a dysfunctional family, conflict with a step-parent, violence, sexual abuse, alcoholism. Issues of forced marriage, or being made to leave school to become the home help and look after younger siblings are also key.
The streets can represent a release from abusers, and family members that may be complicit in covering it up. It is also attractive to think that they can prove to their family that they can make it on their own.
My stepmother would beat me up, she called me lazy and blamed me when her children became sick. I came to Durban to get a job and prove I was useful. I could not get a job and my boyfriend needed money so I undertook sex work. It is too shameful to return home without having achieved anything. My family will be ashamed.”
Teena, 19 — Durban South Africa
Our international partners are far more likely to encounter boys on the streets than girls. Boys tend to stay in groups and to be involved in highly-visible activities such as begging, while girls are often isolated, are involved in sex work or have accepted shelter from those who want to exploit them and who control their movements.
Programmes for children on the streets have therefore developed around activities that are effective for boys and less effective for girls, eg, group activities and sport.
Both boys and girls on the streets are frequently blamed for their situation, for running away from home and for their activities on the streets.
Boys are often seen as criminals; girls are judged even more harshly. They are looked down on for being involved in the sex trade and made to feel ashamed for the abuse that others have perpetrated against them.
Family reintegration work also poses additional challenges for girls. Community rejection of their decision to leave home is reinforced by the stigma that a girl on the streets has ‘lost worth’. This is often compounded by the fact that many girls become mothers on the streets.
Experience teaches girls on the streets to trust nobody. Breakthroughs, therefore, require long-term, patient, trust-building processes. Often it can take months before a girl begins to open up and start to speak honestly about her identity, experiences and her need for support. Workers must patiently prove that they are trustworthy and committed.
As a consequence of all these factors, we estimate that the time and energy it takes for our partners to make progress with 1 girl, they could have worked with 8 boys.
One of the greatest challenges of working with street girls and young women is that their notion of fear has been so compromised and watered-down by their own life experiences, it leads them to make destructive life choices. Rebuilding and reconnecting their emotions that have long been suppressed and shattered becomes the core of our work so they may move towards making choices that provide hope for their future, no matter how little or big this hope may be or might look like.”
Umthombo — Durban, South Africa
Many projects and workers report feeling repeatedly let down in this work when girls make decisions they don’t agree with or reject their support. The chaotic nature of the girls lives, the restrictions placed on them by boyfriends and pimps and their lack of belief in themselves will often mean that they fail to turn up to agreed activities and make destructive choices. It can be easy for workers to become disillusioned and they can start to see these young women as girls who will ‘not help themselves.’
However, the work that has been most successful has been built around remarkable, deeply-committed female staff who do not judge them or hide away from the truth of the trauma they face. Instead, they have an openness to try new approaches, to learn from others and to stick with girls, even when it is really hard.
When I was asked by my friends, ‘Why do you spend your time and energy working with girls, who live on the streets and sell themselves for sex?’ I replied: The fact that you are questioning their worth, is exactly why I do it. Everyone else has rejected them.”
Revina — Mwanza, Tanzania
In the summer of 2017, Umthombo, our partner in Durban, organised the funerals of two girls they had been working with. Both were involved in commercial sex work and had contracted HIV and had defaulted on their medication. The project team were the only adults present at the girls’ funerals and this had a significant impact. Other girls on the streets saw their commitment and realised they could be trusted. They are now accessing support and referring any girls that are new to the streets to the project before they too become trapped.
Any support for a girl who lives on the street can only work ‘on her terms’. If a girl feels judged by the workers supporting her, or she does not believe the project is operating with her best interests at heart, she will not engage. Trauma, broken trust, and repeated shattering of hope by those in her life have led her to ‘close-off’ from relationships and to be self-reliant.
The foundation for work with girls must prioritise relationship building. Women workers need to take ‘her’ lead while offering strong support and guidance. These relationships can be transformative — providing a place where girls can recognise their own power and agency and practice exercising it.
The programmes that result from this must similarly be built around activities that they want to engage in. This might be time twice a week to shower, wash their clothes, eat together and support one another; or it could be training on how to start up their own ways to generate an income. Through these relationships, girls and young women are able to slowly trust others and to recognise, not only their own resilience but also their ability to reshape their lives.
As they do this they start to develop the confidence to take advantage of the other opportunities available to them through the project, whether that is psychosocial support, STD/HIV testing, or home visits. With some girls, there will be rapid progress but for many, it is a long journey with many false starts.
‘On Her Terms’ is our ambitious response to create systemic change for girls and young women trapped on the streets. What is clear is that if girls on the streets around the world are to have the opportunities that are currently denied them, projects who support them must share their learning so that they can:
Normally street girls are shown in terms of the tragedy of their lives, and these tragedies are very real. Nonetheless, there is also another dimension: their resilience, dignity and enormous capacity for survival and radical hope, which is where this idea takes its inspiration from.
‘On Her Terms’ recognises the need for projects to go on a longer and deeper journey with girls and young women, and to provide them with the resources and knowledge needed to do this. It will raise the quality of programmes with girls to enable girls themselves to take a lead in the work of creating change and reshaping their lives.
Join us as we journey with girls on the streets as they take control of their own lives, and challenge the injustice they experience daily.
Watch and share our short campaign film, ‘Run Without Fear’.
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