Empowering girls

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Mudasser Siddiqui (Photo: Anteneh Aklilu)

Mudasser Siddiqui is Country Director of Plan International Ethiopia. He has over 15 years of experience with international development and humanitarian organisations. He has worked in Asia, Africa and the Middle East on issues related to child rights, gender, humanitarian advocacy and emergency response both at technical and leadership levels. Mudasser has been working with Plan International since 2011 and has moved to Ethiopia last month. Mudasser Siddiqui talked to Capital about Plan International’s activities in Ethiopia and what they plan to do. Excerpts;

Capital: What are you doing now as an organization?
Mudasser Siddiqui: Plan International is one of the oldest International Organization that has been working across the globe for more than 80 years; we have been in Ethiopia since the 90s; we are primarily a child’s rights organization that focuses on girls, adolescent girls, and young women and their rights.
We do a lot of work here in Ethiopia in the development aspect which is in line with the government development strategies. We also support efforts to work with refugees and displaced communities because of drought or conflict and other unfortunate situations. Our work focuses on areas related to education, water, sanitation, hygiene, nutrition, and youth economic empowerment. We also work on gender issues and girls rights issues. We support these alongside local and international stakeholders.

Capital: What have been some of the challenges you have faced?
Mudasser Siddiqui: Plan International Ethiopia has been making significant contributions in some of the previous sectors that I have mentioned. The recognition of this is evident in our engagement with various ministries in the country, as well as the confidence that UN agencies and other donor organizations have demonstrated in us. The challenges that we face currently are mainly related to the Covid pandemic. It has created challenges in terms of access, engaging, and working at the local level. We have been keeping our staff, the program participants, and the children with their families safe. Another challenge comes with funds and supports available for the development and humanitarian needs in Ethiopia has reduced because some of the countries that are usually very generous towards the country are facing economic challenges. This is a trend that we have seen all over the world.
The funds in humanitarian work have been reducing even though the needs are increasing. Access and engagement is a challenge for us.

Capital: You said that you were working on girls’ education. Can you elaborate on your efforts?

Mudasser Siddiqui (Photo: Anteneh Aklilu)

Mudasser Siddiqui: A lot of our work is done with the Ministry of Education and its decentralized structure in either strengthening the existing schools or setting up new educational institutions, providing training to teachers, particularly in refugee locations to teachers coming from other sites so they can better understand the Ethiopian education curriculum, providing learning material, remedial classes, and education services to our students. One of the recent significant achievements that we’ve had was that in the grade 8 exams, hundreds of children who are associated with us in locations like Gambella, and Benishangul that were partaking in Plan International Ethiopia learning centers 100% and 99.05% of them graduated and passed to grade 9 which I think is significant.
We are looking at the access and support in education for girls and trying to introduce concepts that create safety for our children making them aware of their rights and aware of their risks of protection.

Capital: How do you see the progress since you have been working with the girls since the 90s?
Mudasser Siddiqui: We have seen a lot of progress, but there’s a lot more to be done. There is a significant shift in the attitude and understanding about children’s rights and girls’ rights. Although the works of empowering girls and women is yet to be strengthened, especially at the grass-root level, the government’s gesture, strong and promising commitment is something to celebrate. I think the change we have seen is that young girls who have engaged in our programs have not only had their capacity built in their understanding of their issues but have also now become champions in their communities where they work with some support from Plan International or independently as youth organizations and in groups asking for rights of women and girls to be respected. I think that’s another significant achievement that we have seen improvement in.

Capital: How do you see girls enrollments in education when it comes to the countryside?
Mudasser Siddiqui: Enrollment is improving, but there’s a lot more to be done. I think we have to address what the barriers are that the girls would have to face. Usually, the distance of the schools from their homes and the level of infrastructure in the schools, lack of basic sanitation and hygiene that is sensitive to the needs of the girls are some of these obstacles. We would like to continue working on addressing them.

Capital: How do you work on water and sanitation for the girls?
Mudasser Siddiqui: What we do is engaging with relevant regional governments or federal government departments and the regional education bureau. We try to strengthen their infrastructure in water and sanitation in schools and communities and some locations. We are even using solar technology for our water pumping and piping as well as setting up separate toilets that are relatively safe and are hygienic.

Capital: I heard that you were giving free sanitary pads to girls…
Mudasser Siddiqui: I think the personal hygiene in the menstrual hygiene of the girls is a very critical issue and an issue that in some cultures is also a taboo, to begin with. I think this particular gesture of distributing sanitary pads is mainly aimed at not only meeting the needs of some of these girls but also trying to break the taboo of menstrual hygiene. This isn’t a small gesture in the right direction and can generate awareness on this particular need of girls which if not met, would lead to girls not being able to attend school and not being able to participate generally in day-to-day activities. We see this distribution of sanitary pads and talking about menstrual issues as a way of ensuring that this is a very personal and important topic related to girl’s mobility, and their ability to contribute to society is understood and addressed.

Capital: Some countries are giving away free sanitary pads. Do you think this could happen here as well?
Mudasser Siddiqui: We will advocate for access to the sanitation and personal hygiene items for girls is improved, and we would like to work with counterparts in the government and private sector in ensuring how best that can be done; we would at a minimum like to advocate that the government in collaboration with other key actors finds ways in making pads accessible in terms of making them cheaper or by making them available for free within schools and community centers.

Capital: Can you elaborate on your work when it comes to empowering girls?
Mudasser Siddiqui: We empower girls to live their everyday life and enjoy all their rights. We also want to generate awareness among girls in the society at large working with the girls and the larger community to identify ways in which we can help those girls over some of the challenges they face in realizing and enjoying those rights. If those rights are available and they’re able to enjoy them, we would consider them to be empowered.

Capital: What would you say is the most challenging thing for girls?
Mudasser Siddiqui: One of the biggest challenges that girls face in Ethiopia is the patriarchal societal norms that lead to the fact that many girls and women are treated differently in the house and outside the house and of the day-to-day struggle that girls and young women face. I think there are challenges when it comes to access to education as well. More than 40% of Ethiopian girls get married below the age of 15 even though there are laws in place and they are forced to abandon their education which means that they are physically, psychologically, and socially not ready to take up the responsibility of a married woman. They are not actually getting the opportunity to be contributing to the economy and society as an active member. We see challenges where more than half of the girls in Ethiopia are subjected to FGM which again is an indication of the downgrading status that women and girls traditionally are put in the patriarchal society. These are some of the fundamental challenges that we would like to address.

Capital: Are you working on these issues?
Mudasser Siddiqui: We are working a lot on child marriage and working with the government, community leaders, parents, and the girls themselves, and generating awareness about the harmful effects of these harmful traditional practices like early marriage and FGM.

Capital: How do you cope with the resistance of society?
Mudasser Siddiqui: We try to engage with the community leaders, parents and caregiver in a conversation and making them aware of the adverse effects of such harmful traditional practices and creating platforms with the young women and girls to understand their perspectives using religious leaders in communities to brigade positive messages around it.

Capital: What are the activities that you have taken part in during the pandemic?
Mudasser Siddiqui: There has been a significant impact on the people who are already marginalized and excluded because of the Covid pandemic. Our movements were affected where we had to scale back on some of the activities that required gathering of people into the same spaces, but we also worked very quickly to review our actions and how we can continue to do them in a safe manner. We have been using items that ensure that we have proper sanitation with handwashing facilities and sanitizers and that we have open spaces so we can provide social distancing. We also looked at the people in poverty that were facing a lot of financial difficulty because of the pandemic and we re-purposed and redirected some of our resources in meeting those immediate needs by providing direct cash support or food items and non-food items.

Capital: Is your funding affected?
Mudasser Siddiqui: Our funding is indeed affected like any other organization and larger developing countries like Ethiopia. All of us face financial challenges however the need has increased while our funds are a bit inefficient.
Lastly, what I’d like to add is that as we celebrate this international women’s day on March 8, I’d like to call upon all stakeholders, including the media, to continue to proactively play a role in helping women and young girls to realize their rights and to make sure that their stories, our actions, and policies are truly affecting young girls in learning their rights that are legitimate, that the constitution has given to the, that the UN conventions gave to them and that the society should also give to them. We look forward to continued partnerships with the government and civil society and media to promote these positive messages to create the spaces and re-iterate the stories of success.