Johannesburg - On Monday, 9 October at 8:39am child activist Malala Yousafzai tweeted: “5 years ago, I was shot in an attempt to stop me from speaking out for girls' education. Today, I attend my first lectures at Oxford.”
Thousands of kilometres away in South Africa, the words of the young Pakistani-born activist resonate with Grade 10 pupil Mpho Molutsi.
Although never brutally assaulted, Mpho - who was born in the poverty-stricken township of Alexandra, north of Johannesburg - knows what it signifies for girls like her to be at school.
Ahead of International Day of the Girl Child today, Independent Media caught up with the teen.
With her backpack full of books she confidently walks into the Alex FM offices where she co-hosts a show every Saturday with other youngsters. The show titled Bigger Than Life tackles youth issues.
For Mpho, the local community radio station has become her safe haven. It is her refuge from the hustle and bustle of the township life where young girls on a daily basis tussle with sexual harassment, lost hope, lack of opportunity and where fending off teenage pregnancy requires strong will.
It has now been eight months since Mpho was afforded a chance to to recite her poems at the station, through the Children's Radio Foundation. She hasn’t looked back ever since and has diligently and patiently worked her way to the presenter seat.
“My wish is for young people in Alex to amass knowledge and learn about socio-economic issues and how they can work towards a life of purpose. Radio is one of the ways I can help them achieve this,” she says with a smile.
But her smile quickly disappears as she relates the challenges she faces daily. This includes “catcalling” - a unending struggle she says confronts her at every street corner whenever she walks back home from the station.
“I feel unsafe in the spaces where I live in. Our house is surrounded by a string of taverns.”
She adds there are times when the noise pollution in her area becomes so unbearable and she often finds it hard to study.
But ask her what her plans are post her matric at Waverly Girls’ High School and she wastes no time in pointing out that she wants to pursue her pursue her two passions - Literature Philosophy and Civil Law.
“I believe through accessing education I can make a change required in my community. It’s a matter of taking it one step at a time,” she says.
In Africa, 51 million of young girls are denied access to education with the One Campaign insisting that without an education: “no child can reach their full potential.”
Futhermore, it is thought that 80% of girls in Africa start primary school while 40% start high school. Of these only 8% make it to university.
Unicef also maintains that girls are 2.5 times likely to be out of school than boys in war-afflicted countries.
To mark this year’s Day of the Girl Child the organisation has adopted the theme - “EmPower Girls: Emergency response and Resilience Planning.”
Behind the scenes are people such as Richard Mabaso, chief executive officer of the Imbumba Foundation, who alongside his team have made it his life mission to empower young girls. The Imbumba Foundation have done this through programmes such as Caring4Girls which, in South Africa, focuses on distributing sanitary towels to ensure that the Girl Child goes to school during their menstrual period.
“When you keep a young girl at school, you secure their future,” he says and adds through initiatives such as Trek4Mandela, the organisation will next year provide a platform for young girls through various intercontinental tours in which they can discover new spaces in hope that their lives will change for better.
Likewise the Thope Foundation is making inroads in changing the lives of young girls through education by offering programmes in tutoring, robotics and coding, leadership camps and sexuals and reproductinve health, among other things.
The foundation recently launched the Molo Mhlaba Schools’ Network which focuses on girls at the lower school level.
“We strongly believe there is no reason why these young girls shouldn’t be inspired to dream about a career in iSTEAM (innovation, science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics),” says Thope Foundation’s Imameleng Masitha.
Those like India Baird have taken a much bolder step in emancipating young girls.
Baird says: "The programme trains girls living on the front lines of dangerous communities in South Africa as journalists so they can tell their own stories."
“Each year, Rock Girl selects girls to travel across South Africa in our BRAVE mobile studio to listen to other girls stories and advocate for common solutions, while exploring their own countries. Our next road trip will take SA girls to the American South on a tour of the civil rights movement alongside American girls who face similar challenges,” she says.
“They need to feel safe travelling to and from school and also at school. Without education, girls opportunities are greatly limited. But the biggest challenge facing girls is violence - from Helenvale to Upington to Rustenberg to Manenberg, girls face unacceptable levels of violence.
"Sexual violence, physical violence - this is the biggest challenge our country has ever faced,” she says.
While she advocates for the dignity of girls, she adds: “Sanitary pads are one piece of the puzzle. The real challenge for young women is safe, clean sanitation facilities and the provision of reproductive health care at an early age.”
Independent Media catches a glimpse of Mpho as she prepares to walk home. When she gets to her family home she’ll be hitting her books to prepare for this year’s final exams.
While the noise pollution goes on around her and the smell of beer and stink from polluted water and blocked drains fills the air, she’s confident of one thing: One day she like Malala will tweet about her first year at university - a place she’s worked and fought hard to be at.
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