What Young Women and Girls Need
I am passionate about the issues that concern women and girls. To those who know me, this shouldn’t be a surprise. I have had too many experiences of my own not to be passionate about how we treat and respect women.
I was born in Alexandra Township, South Africa – a place where far too many young girls stand a high chance of being abused. I was the first-born in a family of eight. My family was very poor. We used to eat food taken from the dumps.
My mum left the house early every morning to go to work and at the age of 11, I started looking after my siblings. When I woke up each morning, I would get our family ready for the day – preparing breakfast and getting everyone settled for school. My chores included cleaning the house, cooking dinner, and eventually doing my homework.
I dreamt that I would one day finish my studies so that I could contribute positively to my community. But everything changed when my mum married my stepfather and moved to Limpopo, a community far away from our home.
I was left in the care of my grandmother. I loved my grandmother, but she was not always there for me. She worked away from home, only returning home on weekends. This affected my schooling, and my well-being. My grades were good, but no one supported me. I received awards for my schoolwork, but no one came to see me receive those awards.
As I got older, I was raised by extended families and neighbors. Life was tough, and I had no one to help me grow up. I was alone and I had to fend for myself most of the time, living in cardboard boxes or tin houses. I was abused in my home by extended family members. Eventually, I could not afford to go to school.
The hunger and abuse compelled me to flee home and stay with strangers so that I could go to school. High school was a challenge. I was always praying that I would not end up in drugs or prostitution. My grades were affected – I repeated my classes until I received my high school degree when I was 20.
I got married shortly thereafter. I was ready for a new life with my new husband. A chance at a better future with the children we would raise together, including our newborn daughter. But just when I thought that I could begin a new tomorrow, I learned that my husband, my daughter, and I were HIV positive.
Did I bring it up upon myself? Was I to blame? Even though I struggled with these questions, I knew the truth. From the day I was born, I was often not in control of my own life. I couldn’t make choices for myself. I was abused; I was taken advantage of; I was left to fend for myself.
Sadly, my experiences are not all that different from those faced by many children in the townships of South Africa, and in communities around the world. Too many women, girls, and children do not have the power, choice, or voice to protect themselves and their health.
We must help them.
None of them – none of us – asked to be victims of our circumstances. We did not bring these experiences upon ourselves. We were not in the wrong place at the wrong time. We are not victims – we don’t need handouts. We are humans. What we need is the right to determine our destiny.
What we need is the right to say no. What we need is respect. What we need is a way to defend ourselves. What we need is safety. What we need is the power and information to make informed decisions for ourselves and our children.
Join me on my personal mission to make a difference in the lives of women and girls. Because none of these needs – self-protection, respect, power, health, education, and safety – should never be out of reach for any woman or girl. Not today. Not ever.
It was out of reach for me, and it cost me my daughter’s life.
Florence Ngobeni-Allen is a Foundation Ambassador. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.