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Changing attitudes starts with leaders

Help Lesotho GIRL4ce participants

September 22, 2023

By Janice Biehn

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It is only possible to change entrenched cultural practices when people at all levels of power are engaged in the process. That credo is at the heart of Help Lesotho’s Safer Communities project, funded by PWRDF since 2021.

In Lesotho, the small landlocked country surrounded by South Africa, girls and young women frequently experience gender-based violence (GBV). According to the 2014 Lesotho Gender-Based Violence Indicator Researcher (which is the most recent), 86% of women surveyed have experienced GBV, and 40% of men admit to perpetrating it.

GBV seriously threatens girls’ and women’s wellbeing and ignores their right to safety, health and education. It robs them of the power to make their own decisions. In Lesotho, most survivors do not report violence to police, seek medical attention or get legal help. It is still seen as a private matter, shrouded in a culture of silence and stigmatization. Asking girls, who have almost no power, to stand up for their rights can put them at greater risk if others are unwilling to use their power to support them and make a change.

The Safer Communities project addresses the urgency for local leaders, health providers, police officers, teachers, boys, men, community members and family members – who should be protecting girls and women – to understand and accept their responsibility and duty to support girls’ mental, emotional and physical health. In the past year, 81 community leaders have been trained in how to recognize GBV and support women and girls who are experiencing it.

Soai Mohasoang

Soai Mohasoang is a local chief in Botha-Bothe district. In his community, he said there were no serious sanctions to perpetrators of emotional abuse – it was widely accepted and ignored. After the training, Mohasoang saw things differently.

“I learned that GBV and emotional abuse is a silent killer to which community members turned a blind eye. In the village, grandmothers are some of the vulnerable population which perpetrators take advantage of. One of the grannies was badly insulted in front of me. … After participating in the training, I felt a sense of urgency to be a leader … hence, for the first time, I took it upon myself to act as a first witness at Khukhune Local court to offer support and increase safety to a granny who was emotionally abused, badly insulted by one of the villagers. With that, the perpetrator was fined M1000.00 [$75 Cdn]. I believe that has been a lesson to others, as I no longer hear insults which used to be a norm around the village.”

Malarato Mahapa

Malerato Mahapa is a police officer. At the beginning of the training, she admits to being defensive and negative about ending GBV. Yet one day after the three-day training, a woman who was abused by her husband came to the station in tears.

“I responded and assisted the victim of GBV with due diligence, making sure that I did not cause any further harm to the survivor,” she says. “That increased the trust to the survivor, that I will take her case seriously as I treated her with respect and dignity. A crying victim came out smiling. She thanked me for the good care I offered to her. I feel proud to have put a smile on someone’s face when they were experiencing a traumatic situation.”

Child, Early and Forced Marriage (CEFM) – a form of GBV – is also common in Lesotho, with one out of every three girls married before age 18 and one in nine married before the age of 15. Often these marriages are considered the solution for girls who become pregnant, including as a result of sexual assault. Many children are also forced into CEFM to reduce the burden of families struggling to make ends meet. The consequences of marrying too early include dropping out of school, reduced economic opportunities, high-risk pregnancy, child malnutrition and greater risk of dying. Child brides are also at higher risk of being exploited or experiencing intimate partner violence and abuse.

Although Lesotho is a signatory to numerous pieces of international legislation that make these practices illegal, GBV and CEFM are normalized at the community level and culturally acceptable. Community leaders remain unaware of the deep, lasting trauma these practices cause or their responsibility to protect the legal rights of girls and women.

Girl4ce, Help Lesotho’s youth-led edu-tainment troop, is part of the Safer Communities project. GIRL4ce is made up of young women and men who address GBV and CEFM at the community level through drama, outreach and regular radio broadcasts. They also host a call-in show in which community members are invited to share stories and ask questions. The radio program addresses the benefits of healthy relationships, promotes respect and addresses cultural myths around GBV. Girl4ce produced two short radio ads that directly confronted GBV myths and remind each member of the community that they have a responsibility to stop GBV.

Help Lesotho was established in 2004 by Dr. Peg Herbert, a Canadian who was moved to act after visiting one of her graduate students. Back then, at the height of the AIDS pandemic, the life expectancy was 34. “People were dying everywhere,” she told Queen’s Alumni News. “Contracting HIV was a death sentence. There was nobody helping in the areas I visited.” Herbert was a lecturer at the University of Ottawa who was trained as a social worker and with a PhD in Educational Psychology. Despite knowing nothing about running a non-profit, Help Lesotho became the largest Canadian NGO in Lesotho. Upon her recent retirement, the King of Lesotho thanked her for the impact Help Lesotho has had on 274,000 people.

A portion of this story appeared in the November 2023 edition of Under the Sun.