International Women’s Day 2021: Where are the girls?

Shannon Johnson, MMM Chief Operating Officer

To mark this year’s International Women’s Day, Make Music Matter’s Chief Operating Officer, Shannon Johnson asks, “Where are the girls?” and shares some insights from a recent trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo where a new Healing in Harmony project in the province of Kasai aims to help advance gender equality and increase access to education for girls.

The Equality for Girls’ Access to Learning (EGAL) project, funded by Global Affairs Canada, is a joint partnership with World Vision Canada/DRC and the Panzi Foundation, founded by Dr. Denis Mukwege – Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

On this day to both celebrate the achievements of women and girls and recognize the work to be done to achieve gender equality, what special message do you want to share with the world?

On this day we are celebrating the achievements to come from the girls who have so much to give to the world, but are currently being deprived of a decent life and an education as well as their basic human rights.

Make Music Matter is committed to finding the lost girls in the DRC. They have survived so much, and now we want to give them back their voice.

On this latest trip we visited Kasai where Make Music Matter met with our local partners to kickstart a project that we hope will change the lives of girls in the region. Many children in the area are rejected by their families and communities based on allegations of witchcraft or stigmatization from sexual abuse. These are legacies of the conflict that has terrorized the region for decades. The boys can be easily found on the streets, but where are the girls?

What are the goals of the EGAL project?

School in Tshimbulu, Kasai, DRC, one of the EGAL project sites

The aim of the project is to increase access to education for girls by reducing barriers that prevent them from attending school. The conflict-affected areas in which they live host a high number of internally displaced persons where girls are disproportionately affected by violence, subjugation, rejection, and stigmatization. We will not let them disappear.

What barriers do these girls and young women face to accessing educational opportunities?

Studies have shown that they enter into child marriages or risk the streets where they encounter violence, sexual abuse, and forced labour by any number of perpetrators. The traumas they are forced to deal with affect them in numerous ways. They are stigmatized, shunned, and suffer from psychological ailments such as depression, anxiety and PTSD. This is where we can help.

You cannot expect a young girl to focus on education under these circumstances, in particular in a community that stigmatizes her for her traumas. We are focused on healing her mind and giving her back a voice. We and our partners are also attempting to change the environment in which she lives. To give her access, opportunities, and hope.

Healing in Harmony artists in Beni, DRC (Photo courtesy of World Vision Canada)

How does the Healing in Harmony program make a difference? 

It works because we care. Make Music Matter operates around the world with a wide range of target groups. In each location and with each local partner we ensure that we are finding those most in need and treating them as artists, not patients or beneficiaries. We have proven time and again that the people we care for are superstars who can change the world. Just listen.

What role can men and boys in the community play to help create opportunities for girls and young women?

We are all in this together. Once we all realize that, then hopefully things will change for the better. Many have had very bad role models in their lives, but just look at the great women and men who have surmounted their circumstances and gone on to greater things. I believe it’s in all of us to do so. Make Music Matter is doing so in Mulamba by engaging boys and men to be those role models and promote positive masculinity.

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”. What new challenges has the global pandemic presented in efforts to achieve equal rights and opportunities for all? 

COVID has only highlighted for me an unacknowledged pandemic that has been going on forever; the abuse of girls and women worldwide. This for me is more tragic than any other disease.

What are you most looking forward to in 2021?

I am so excited about our new project to take Healing in Harmony on the road! Stay tuned…

Do you have a favourite song by Healing in Harmony artists?

Healing in Harmony: Remix Vol. 1 features a collective of professional artists who’ve come together in solidarity to help amplify the voices of the Healing in Harmony artists. The album was mastered by trailblazer Emily Lazar (Coldplay, the Rolling Stones, the Foo Fighters, David Bowie) who is the first engineer, male or female, to have three Grammy nominations in the Album of the Year category. To have someone at this caliber working with our Healing in Harmony artists is a great dream come true.

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