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South Africa: ‘GEM and bread’ help nourish communities

©UNICEF South Africa/2005/Neville Josie
During the small group Bethuel shares a joke and information from the boys group with the girls: Itumeleng, Refilwe, Mathakane and Ntshupi.

GA THOKA, Limpopo Province, South Africa – There is no light or electricity in this grey, dusty village. Basic services such as water and sanitation are inaccessible for many families, and health facilities are nearly non-existent. Resettled on land that was claimed by the government in an attempt to redress the legacies of apartheid, the community of Ga Thoka has few resources to help it forge a brighter future for its children.

Yet against this backdrop of privation and hardship, Ga Thoka is on the brink of transformation by some of its younger citizens. Through the Girls’ Education Movement, girls and boys are working together to draw attention to the plight of orphaned and vulnerable children and help create a cleaner, safer environment. Over fifty GEM clubs have taken shape in Limpopo Province, and a growing number of dynamic young leaders are encouraging children to break down stereotypes, communicate important life skills information, plan community development activities and promote education for all.

Fifteen-year-old Bethuel Mothapo is an example of this new generation. “Girls and boys need to find solutions together,” he says at a workshop at Klass Mothapo High School. “It’s through the GEM that we are able for the first time to listen properly to what girls think and feel about us. It has taught us to respect everyone’s rights and to work together to make our community a better and safer place for both girls and boys.”

© UNICEF South Africa/2005/Neville Josie
Veteran GEM facilitator, 17 year old Millet Nkanyane (with braids) who provides inspired leadership believes that through the GEM groups children and young people can provide solutions to prevent problems.

The groups use drama, music and sporting events to publicize their messages, and work with local radio stations and partners such as UNICEF to broadcast messages on gender and HIV prevention. Where once there was silence, there is now a chorus of voices speaking out on previously taboo subjects like sexual violence and AIDS – and a place for young people to voice both their fears and their ideas for the future.

“We are always talking about rights this and rights that, but I would like to know how knowledge about my rights will help me when I am in a rape situation when as a girl I do not have power,” asked 17-year-old Refilwe Malatji at the workshop at the high school in Ga Thoka.

"We don’t want you to get raped, so we must learn how to prevent rape,” replied Millet Nkonyane, already a veteran GEM facilitator at the age of 17. “Remember that your rights are protected by the law. Making you aware of your rights can help reduce violent crimes.”

In a community where teenage pregnancy and early marriage is commonplace, a key strategy has been to include boys from the very beginning. “When we first began, boys just would not talk,” says Albina Kekana, a member of an NGO called The South African Girl Child Alliance who works with the Provincial Department of Education to monitor, train and support the development of the Girls’ Education Movement. “It was only after training boys in life skills and through sensitization workshops on gender and masculinity that they began to share their stories with their peers, particularly girls.”

©UNICEF South Africa/2005/Neville Josie
Boys in the GEM group discuss what they think about girls and their own status in their community.

Today, boys often make up half of club participants. And in Ga Thoka, the young people have made remarkable progress among parents and community elders, even convincing headmasters and a local priest to publicly support the initiative.

Her hair fashionably braided, Millet told a recent gathering that “GEM groups do not have to wait for the problem. GEM can also prevent the problem. We are here to learn from everyone, old and young, and very soon you will be here facilitating instead of me.”

Her eyes sparkling with intelligence, and trying hard to stifle her laughter, Millet adds a sly allusion to the jam and bread that is handed out as a free staple to hungry children at school. “To get more members, we’ll tell them that they’ll get GEM and bread,” she says – effectively reminding her listeners that the purpose of the clubs is to help nourish communities in need.


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