CEO Column: Girls on the Move

Monday 13 January 2020
I recently accompanied one of our Save the Children South Africa (SCSA) community mediators to meet a young girl in Bez Valley, a part of Johannesburg that is a home to large migrant communities. I was there to find out more about the everyday realities of migration, from a gendered perspective. 

Supporting migrant girls (or girls on the move) who are unaccompanied or have been separated from their families, is a major priority for SCSA. And the best way for me to understand the situation is to spend time listening to stories and speaking to girls about what they would like to see changed. 

There are more girls than boys on the move in southern Africa, yet very little is known about how girls experience migration. Research is limited, and statistics are rarely disaggregated by age or gender. When we see images of xenophobic violence on our screens, they are generally of men fighting men. When we hear stories of migration, they are generally told from the perspective of an adult. Migrant girls are missing from this picture.

And so, Save the Children recently conducted research into the experiences of girls on the move in southern Africa (the report will be available on this website soon). Of course, each story is different depending on where the girls come from, the paths they take, people they meet, and where they end up. But there are also significant commonalities that we can use to guide gender-sensitive programming.

We know, for example, that most girls feel safer on the journey than they do at home or in South Africa. They often express anger at their vulnerability here, to transactional sex, gender-based violence and other forms of exploitation. They live in constant fear of xenophobic attacks. And because of problems with documentation, they often avoid authorities and are scared to access services. 

And most of them want to talk to someone about their situation. The girl that I met in Bez Valley, like many other children who leave at a very young age, doesn’t know exactly why she had to flee her home in the Congo. All she remembers is feeling excited about travelling to Johannesburg with her mother and two younger brothers. 

On arrival in South Africa her mother was granted asylum, and found work as a cleaner, and so life was ok for a while. But then her mother died, and the girl found herself responsible to care for her two brothers. Things became difficult then. 

When I met her, they were about to be evicted from their second home (a single room without electricity or running water). With no family contacts and no place to return, they are just one step away from becoming homeless. The girl recently passed her matric exams, but she cannot access her results because she doesn’t have a birth certificate. Nor does she have asylum documentation, despite being included in her late mother’s asylum file. She is worried about the future, but terrified of the present.

I have a daughter, and I cannot imagine anyone in more need of protection than a girl child far from home, afraid and alone. We need to make this personal, because it is personal. How we respond in situations like these help to define us as human beings, and as a society. And I, for one, am tired of the xenophobes setting the narrative in our country.

Save the Children South Africa has a well-established programmme for children on the move. We are developing mechanisms to identify migrant girls immediately as they arrive, so that we can keep them from harm. We teach them about their rights. We help link them to children in similar situations and to adults and programmes that can help them, and we lobby for access to documentation and services in South Africa. Importantly, we try to increase their visibility through our communications and advocacy. And so, now that you know the story - what are you going to do?

So join us. Support us. Contact us at [email protected] , or look here to find out how you can contribute.
By Steve Miller, CEO of Save the Children South Africa


About: Save the Children believes every child deserves a future. In South Africa and around the world, we give children a healthy start in life, the opportunity to learn and protection from harm. We do whatever it takes for children – every day and in times of crisis – transforming their lives and the future we share.
Note to the Editor: If children are affected, we’ve got something to say. Our team of experts are available for comments, interviews and information.