Can we talk about some of the confronting realities facing girls in poverty? Female genital mutilation, period poverty, forced child marriage, trafficking and disrupted education—these are real issues that girls living in poverty contend with every day. The challenges are immense but they are not insurmountable.

Content warning: This blog contains material that may be confronting and distressing to some readers, including female genital mutilation and child trafficking.

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1. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

Each year, 3 million girls are at risk of female genital mutilation.1 This brutal practice involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. Despite being illegal in many countries, FGM is still considered by many to be a cultural rite of passage signalling a girl’s readiness for womanhood and marriage.

The World Health Organisation has labelled FGM “an extreme form of discrimination against women” and “a violation of the rights of children.” The consequences of undergoing this ritual are debilitating: infections, psychological trauma, chronic pain, difficulty urinating, infertility and even death.

For 14-year-old Faith in Kenya, the issues of FGM and child marriage are very close to home. One in five Kenyan girls and women aged between 15 and 49 have been subjected to FGM, and close to one in four Kenyan girls are married before their 18th birthday.2

“In our community, when a girl reaches 9 years old, she is taken through FGM and then married off. I know girls my age who went through FGM,” Faith shares.

Florence is a teacher and Compassion centre chairperson at one of our local church partners in Kenya. She also runs a school and rescue centre for at-risk girls. Over the past 20 years, she has rescued more than 413 girls from being subjected to FGM and child marriage. Today, these girls attend school and colleges. Florence’s passion for championing girls’ rights is fuelled by her own experience at just 9 years old.

“An old man had approached my family to arrange a marriage with me. He wanted me to be his fourth wife,” Florence recalls. “I didn't want to be married, so I ran away and lived with well-wishers who supported my desire to complete my education and make something of myself.”

Florence finished high school and went on to obtain her bachelor’s degree in teaching. She married the man of her choice—a privilege few women her age knew. She then had the credentials and platform she needed to effect change in the lives of girls in poverty.

“Girls and women are the pillar of a nation. An educated girl means the community can make better choices at a family level. When girls and women are economically empowered, the entire community experiences the benefits,” Florence shares.

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2. Period Poverty

What is it like to have a period when living in poverty? The United Nations estimates that over 1.25 billion women and girls don’t have access to a safe, private toilet to manage their period. Period products are often unaffordable for lower-income families, forcing girls to instead use unsanitary items like rags, newspaper or plastic bags. In this situation, girls have no choice but to miss out on school and be excluded from the activities they love on a monthly basis.

Periods are a taboo topic in many cultures, adding another layer of disadvantage for menstruating girls. 13-year-old Monse in Honduras knows that some girls her age think it’s inappropriate to even talk about periods.

“Girls feel ashamed or blush when the word menstruation is mentioned. Even men in my community think of women as unclean when they find out we’re in our menstrual cycle. Because of misinformation, they act and think like that,” shares Monse.

Stigma around periods affects a girl’s dignity, confidence and self-esteem. Sadly, this means girls in poverty are frequently left to suffer alone and in silence during their periods, crippled by feelings of shame.

Girls registered in Compassion’s programs are provided with culturally sensitive support to help them confidently and safely manage their periods. In Honduras, Compassion Centre Director Wendy runs a workshop about periods for girls in her community. She gives each girl a box containing pads, an information booklet, body lotions and some sweet treats.

“Because of the workshop at the Compassion centre, I didn’t panic when I first got my period. Now I continue to do my daily activities without a problem,” says Monse.

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3. Trafficking

Every year, millions of people around the world are trafficked for labour, sexual exploitation or forced marriage. One in four of these victims are children, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Overwhelmingly, women and girls in poverty are most at risk of facing this horrific reality—71% of all trafficking victims are female.3

Sometimes, girls are kidnapped. Other times, families in the grip of extreme poverty are promised their daughters will have a better future elsewhere. Traffickers may be known to the child or act opportunistically, but mostly, perpetrators are part of organised criminal groups. Trafficked girls and women are typically controlled with fear, violence or debt bondage. It's difficult for them to see a way out.

On the front lines of rescuing survivors and bringing perpetrators to justice is the anti-slavery organisation International Justice Mission (IJM). IJM rescues and restores trafficking survivors to stability and safety.

Compassion stands beside IJM as advocates of child protection and the rights of girls in poverty around the world. Our local church partners are committed to knowing, loving and protecting every child in their care. Through our holistic Child Sponsorship Program, we work closely with our partners to identify vulnerable children and help reduce the risk of being trafficked.

“Our programs and initiatives in Compassion are always mindful of protecting children. The dangers are real, and what we do to protect the children is real, too,” says Mary Ann, a Child Protection Specialist for Compassion Philippines.

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4. Child Marriage

Despite being illegal in many countries, child marriage remains widespread and culturally ingrained. Alarmingly, it is becoming more prevalent. UNICEF estimates that 10 million more girls could face child marriage by 2030 because of COVID-19. The impacts of the pandemic have disrupted girls’ education, increased poverty and blocked access to social services—all catalysts for increased child marriages.

Once married, pressure mounts for girls to become pregnant, even when their young bodies aren’t ready for birth. For these girls, the risk of complications during pregnancy, birth and the post-natal period are increased while the likelihood of them staying in school is decreased.

“Child marriage is not right. A girl is not prepared physically or mentally to assume the role of a grown-up,” says 13-year-old Lauri from the Dominican Republic.

Pushed by poverty or pressured by tradition, some parents in Burkina Faso do not hesitate to marry off their young daughters. Despite the nation’s legal age for marriage being 17, UNICEF reports that more than 52 per cent of girls in Burkina Faso are married before 18, with 10 per cent married before just 15 years of age.

Compassion’s local church partners are actively working with children and their caregivers to prevent child marriage. “Our role is to be there to encourage their dreams and show them a new path,” explains tutor Claudeane in Brazil.

For 14-year-old Djamila, the support of her local Compassion centre was pivotal in preventing her marriage to a much older man. Djamila’s father was secretly planning for her to be married to an adult man before her 15th birthday. When she found out, Djamila was terrified. She would have to quit school and start having babies.

Djamila immediately confided in her local Compassion project director who alerted authorities. She was taken to a safe house and her parents were counselled about the dangers of child marriage. Thankfully, they had a change of heart.

“If not for the support of the centre, I would have been married against my will at a young age. I thank the workers at the centre for saving me from becoming a wife. May God bless them,” says Djamila.

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5. Disrupted Education

All of these issues contribute towards a broader problem for girls in poverty: disrupted education. COVID-19 has exacerbated this learning crisis for girls. Up to 130 million girls were already out of school before COVID-19. By the end of 2020, an estimated 11 million more girls didn't return to school.4

Keeping girls in school is important. The economic advantage of education is clear: every additional year of primary school boosts a girl’s future wages by up to 20 per cent. But more than increased earnings, schools also offer girls a place of refuge and safety during their childhood and adolescent years. Schools provide girls with social, mental and emotional support and, in many places, free meals. Above all, education can help provide girls with a pathway out of generational poverty and help them to reach their full potential.

So why do girls in poverty stay home from school? For some, they simply don’t have access to a school in their community. But we also know that in times of crisis, girls are usually the first to leave school and the last to return, if they return at all. They may be required to stay home and care for younger siblings and undertake household duties. They may be forced into child labour or marriage for financial or cultural reasons. Some may fall pregnant or lack the resources to comfortably manage their periods at school. In many situations, a girl’s parents may not support her continued education, reinforcing generational cycles of poverty that are not easily broken.

Compassion’s Child Sponsorship Program helps to remove the obstacles that prevent girls from completing their education. For Fatoumata in Burkina Faso, the support of Compassion, her sponsor and her church has helped her become the first person in her family to attend university. She is passionate about seeing other young women rise above their circumstances to become all that they can be.

“Never give up on education, especially for girls. There is a saying that educating a girl equals educating a nation. Education is key for children to develop their God-given skills," says Fatoumata.

The enormity of the issues affecting girls in poverty is confronting. But we serve a God who is more powerful than these challenges—a God who is as interested in restoring hope to an individual girl’s life as he is in overcoming all forms of poverty and injustice everywhere. A God who sent his one and only Son Jesus to be the light in the darkness (John 12:46) and an ever-present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1).

It is not too late to end female genital mutilation, alleviate period poverty, prevent child trafficking, stop child marriage and get girls back in school. Act to end poverty by sponsoring a girl so she can see a bright future.

Sponsor a child today →

Your sponsorship helps to surround a girl in poverty with a network of support that will protect her future as well as her childhood. She will receive personal guidance and care from local workers, as well as encouraging letters and prayers from you—her loving sponsor. She will receive regular health check-ups, hygiene and sanitation support, supplementary food, vocational training and life skills. Importantly, she will hear the Good News that Jesus loves her and has a plan and purpose for her life.


Words by Rachel Howlett with field reporting by Isaac Ogila, Juana Ordonez Martinez, Jehojakim Sangare, Edwin Estioko and Yrahisa Mateo.

Sources

1World Health Organisation (21 January 2022). Female Genital Mutilation. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/female-genital-mutilation

2UNICEF (2020). A Profile of Female Genital Mutilation in Kenya. https://data.unicef.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Profile-of-FGM-in-Kenya-English_2020.pdf

3United Nations (22 December 2016). Report: Majority of trafficking victims are women and girls; one-third children. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2016/12/report-majority-of-trafficking-victims-are-women-and-girls-one-third-children/

4UNESCO (8 August 2020). COVID-19: UNESCO and partners in education launch global campaign to keep girls in the picture. https://en.unesco.org/news/covid-19-unesco-and-partners-education-launch-global-campaign-keep-girls-picture