Growing up in a refugee camp is difficult, unstable and, often times, dangerous. For girls, challenges are greater than for most. Uncertainty and lack of trust are common feelings that result from the obstacles they face. These feelings can be attributed not only to the precarious environment and threats that they live with every day, but also to the lack of access to information, absence of positive role models, and weak social networks.
Angelique, a 14-year-old from Gihembe Refugee Camp in Rwanda, used to have trust issues. She felt she could not confide in anyone, not even her own parents. She was recruited to participate in Plan International’s Girls Take the Lead project and now feels differently.
The project, implemented with funding from Caterpillar Foundation and an anonymous donor, creates a safe space and employs Plan’s Better Life Options and Opportunity (BLOOM) model, an integrated approach to improving the lives of young people through non-formal education, to provide adolescent girls with relevant knowledge and skills that will protect them from risks and help them develop social networks. The girls are gathered into groups that are facilitated by local trained mentors in their mid-twenties. The mentors lead the girls through Plan’s Choose A Future! curriculum, which is the core of the BLOOM model and covers topics such as setting goals, effective communication, financial literacy, self-confidence, gender stereotypes and sexual and reproductive health.
Angelique now has someone she can trust. She feels she can disclose her thoughts to the mentor.
“I used to be so shy and ashamed to ask my mother questions about taboo topics. Our mentor in the Girls Take the Lead project is so nice and gentle towards us. I can ask her anything and not feel uncomfortable, because she told us that we should not hide anything or fear them,” explains Angelique. “If we tell our mentors about our personal struggles, we know they will help us, and my parents trust them, too. My parents often question where I am in the camp, but they do not question me when I am at the CAF sessions or pry about what we discuss when we meet every Sunday.”
Divine, a 16-year-old from Gihembe, feels the same way. Even though she has two older sisters and a mother, she would never ask them anything related to sexual health.
“I could not dare to ask my mother about things related to my sexuality and reproductive health. I was shy and I thought it would make my mother think that I have started becoming a prostitute,” says Divine. “Apart from the radio, I’ve heard some sexual health information from girl friends that are my age, but I am hesitant to believe what they say. Now, through Girls Take the Lead, we are being taught the truth about our sexual and reproductive health and how we should protect ourselves as girls who aspire to become important and respected in our society.”
Since the Girls Take the Lead project began to address issues that adolescent girls are experiencing in the camps, girls say they are happy they get factual information about their body, sexual and reproductive health and feel more confident about themselves.
For Alliance, another 16-year-old from Gihembe, having the mentors in her life motivate her to think in new ways and try new things. She now has big dreams for a future she knows she can achieve.
“I know I want to become a doctor, and there is no way I will do it if I do not study hard and focus,” says Alliance. “From what the mentors have been teaching us, I now know that I should not engage in sexual relationships without protection no matter what.”
The safe spaces created by the project and the mentors provide an open, participatory environment in which the girls learn, grow and plan for a brighter future. The project will continue facilitating the Choose A Future! curriculum, adding more sessions once the girls are on school break. The next phase of the project includes an economic empowerment training to equip the girls to develop their own income-generating activities.