The International Day of the Girl Child is an international observance day declared by the United Nations (UN) which supports more opportunity for girls and increases awareness of gender inequality faced by girls based upon their gender. Special Rapporteur on discrimination against women and girls, Dr. Kefilwe Rangobana says while she pays tribute to adolescent girls in Botswana and applauds the significant progress the country has made in uplifting their status, it is critical to highlight the vulnerabilities that girls face in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. “I am not trying to be alarmist but simply trying to trigger a strong, coherent and innovative response from the Botswana government and society,” she says.
Dr. Rangobana says culture informs social roles and responsibilities of girls and this explains why female students in Botswana currently represent only 30 per cent of students enrolled in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) related fields. “These gender stereotypes start when girls are still young. Gender-based discriminations have resulted in fewer opportunities for girls across a range of sectors such as education. Batswana girls are stereotyped as socially unacceptable, which always results in them being boxed in socially defined roles and responsibilities,” she says.
Although the risk of child marriages is currently very low in Botswana, the first national lockdown which lasted 48 days resulted in almost 120 young girls being impregnated. “During the first national lockdown where almost the entire country was forced to stay at home, girls were exposed to domestic violence and early pregnancy. Covid-19 resulted in early pregnancies which reduces the chances of girls being able to pursue their aspirations and dreams,” says Dr. Rangobana.
Dr. Rangobana also says violence against girls which we have witnessed the past few months is also a grave violation of human rights and a form of discrimination. “The Coronavirus pandemic is putting the girl child at risk of being deprived of their rights such as the fundamental right to manage one’s body and consent to sexual intercourse. This is why Botswana is the second highest country globally when it comes to rape,” she says.
Dr. Rangobana highlighted that promoting girls’ rights requires a commitment to guarantee that policies and laws are fully enforced and that supportive services are available. “Despite the numerous difficulties, girls in Botswana are breaking boundaries and barriers posed by stereotypes and exclusion, including those directed at children with disabilities and those living in marginalised communities,” she says.
Amongst other things, Dr. Rangobana says discrimination against girls in school continues to be a challenge. Unlike in other countries where girls are allowed to attend school if they are pregnant, in Botswana it is a different story. “There is need for girls to be at the centre of policy-making processes and contribute to the design of age-sensitive social protection schemes. We must value the disproportionate share of household chores carried by young girls and ensure access to vocational training and economic resources,” she says.
A UN Covid-19 Response newsletter entitled: “How Covid-19 impacts women and girls” says government national response to Covid-19 must place girls – their inclusion, representation, rights, social and economic outcomes, equality and protection – at their centre if they are to have the necessary impacts.” Unfortunately Botswana does not have any gender social protection programmes and this makes it hard to achieve long-standing inequalities.
Finally, as the world commemorates the International Day of the Girl Child, Dr Rangobana says the Botswana government has a unique opportunity to re-think societies and address long-lasting structural inequalities. International Day of the Girl Child has been observed since 2011, when the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 66/170 in recognition of and commitment to address the unique challenges girls face in the world. This year’s event was heals under the theme – “My voice, our equal future”.