COVID-19 has turned our world upside down, and girls in developing countries and refugee camps have become its frontline victims. Along with other countless international organizations, Plan International USA has escalated its COVID-19 response to meet the unique needs of girls and children in marginalized communities most impacted by the pandemic.

President and CEO, Dr. Tessie San Martin stresses “the need to coordinate and deliver a life-saving response has never seemed more urgent.”

Plan International USA President and CEO, Dr. Tessie San Martin.
Protecting Girls’ Safety Amidst COVID-19

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Plan International’s active programs have focused on immediate needs. The pandemic has interrupted education for some 850 million children–but children in developing countries aren’t privileged with “online learning.” They face far greater challenges confined at homes lacking the very basic resources. In communities with sparse law and healthcare authorities, and social workers fully engrossed in meeting emergency needs, girls are thrusted into hard labor to help families make ends meet. They are victims of sexual abuse behind closed doors, trafficked, or forced into “child marriages” by families whose dire lives are exasperated during the pandemic. This scenario is even more desperate for millions of girls and adolescent girls barely surviving in refugee camps.

The organization, Dr. San Martin explains, is “keenly attentive and looking at new ways of delivery programs and ever committed to delivering on strategic goals in the disruption.”

The “Protected Passage” program package was originally for children and adolescents in migration in the Northern Triangle of Central America and Mexico. Now it includes personal protection gear for shelter staff in Guatemala. Providing cleaning supplies for these shelters safeguards staff and migrators from contracting the COVID-19 virus. The Philippines’ “Marawi Response Project” now conducts risk and prevention communication through roadside and community banners. Equipping front-liners with essential materials to keep safe, it provides virtual training for USAID and UN health project experts’ outreach to isolated communities.

Change Agents in the Lives of Children

When founded in 1937, Plan International provided clothes, food, shelter and necessities for the Spanish Civil War orphans. Today, as an independent development and humanitarian organization it addresses the root causes of poverty. It lifts girls to lead and “lift everyone around” them. With a staff of nearly 10,000, the worldwide movement stretches across 77 countries with a global network of collaborative partnerships, and 21 member organizations in over 70 program country offices.

Plan International breaks the mold of a typical western aid organization “telling developing countries what is best.” Instead, it engages local girls as leaders tasked to prioritize, guide solutions, and identify local needs. In process, it engages “men and boys to join the movement as allies.”

It reached over 40 million children in 2019, providing over 21 million girls better access to education, improved skills and work opportunities by supporting active citizenry through advocacy. It improved sexual and reproductive health for over 6 million girls and advocated for “gender-sensitive child protection” for nearly 7 million girls.

Giving Voice to the Marginalized

Plan International USA’s GirlEngage campaign amplifies the “voices of the most vulnerable and marginalized” girls (ages 10 to 18), positioning them as future leaders. Investing in this “resilient generation” Dr. San Martin believes, will help them navigate through the emerging mega-trends of war, migration and displacement, economic and climate change, rapid technology changes and increased nationalism.

With local girls and young women as the “experts,” programs are co-designed to meet resilient solutions. They reflect the community’s needs and priorities and set a vision for future improvements. This localized approach plants the seeds for long-term impact, allowing local girls the agency to identify the most critical issues in their communities.

For instance, Zimbabwean girls prioritized building a dormitory for better access to their schools–preventing arduous and physically dangerous treks to and from schools. Senegalese girls identified child marriage as their major barriers to advancement. The El Salvador Champions of Change campaign reaching 2,100 girls and boys directly and 18,000 indirectly, addresses ingrained gender inequality and violence. Boys and men examine and change sexist behaviors within their families and communities and champion for girls’ rights. In Bangladesh, the Advancing Adolescent Health (A2H) involves over 300,000 adolescent girls and boys (ages 10 to 19), elevating adolescent sexual and reproductive health and family planning knowledge through increased access to, and use of, related health services.

Refining its emergency response for the GirlEngage girls during the pandemic, the organization’s “rapid polling” reached some 30 girls in Senegal and Zimbabwe by phone. Based on the girls’ prioritized immediate needs, Plan International will dispatch emergency kits (hand sanitizer and soap), cash transfers to some 80 girls, and educational materials which will soon be supplemented with extracurricular life-skills resources.

100 Million Reasons to Act for Girls

“In the U.S. we’ve committed to reach 10 million girls as a contribution to our global goal to reach 100 million girls by 2022. Through our programmatic work and our advocacy, we are well on our way to attaining that goal,” explains Dr. San Martin calling on adults “to heed the voices of children–boys and girls,” when making decisions affecting the youth.

To lift 100 million girls to learn, lead, decide and thrive, Plan International depends on its well-established, deeply rooted local, private and public sector relations and collaborations. Sealing long-term impact, its solutions fully involve local residents, allowing for new realities and inevitable opportunities promoting girls’ equality. The “multiplier effects” of investing in girls and young women drives improved health and education outcomes which enhance greater economic growth.

Engaging the public, America’s young people and U.S. Policymakers, Dr. San Martin explains, helps raise awareness and “incite action.” It changes the landscape for girls’ rights in the U.S. and across the globe.

In patriarchal countries, where children are invisible, “girls are not even in the same galaxy.” Dr. San Martin stresses the need to involve the entire ecosystem of a community–boys, men, women, parents, teachers, and community leaders. This helps raise awareness of the deep-rooted biases, shedding light on different perspectives.

Girl-Led Collaborative Campaigns

Plan International’s girl-led Girls Get Equal worldwide advocacy complements girls’ rights and gender equality, raising awareness of sexism and discrimination in media and entertainment industry. Aligned with the #MeToo movement, “heeded by some fierce allies,” which Dr. San Martin lists including Reese Witherspoon to Naomi Campbell, Teen Vogue to Jameela Jamil. The campaign has captured the attention of top women in media, modeling, movies and the music industry. Its groundbreaking study with Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, examined girls’ portrayal in the most popular films and TV Shows of 2018.

To support the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Plan International hosts events annually during October 11 celebration of International Day of the Girl (IDG). During ‘take over’ girls assume leadership roles in government, nonprofit, civil service and corporate settings. Last year it partnered with ABC Network and U.S. government members, including Rhode Island Representative David Cicilline.

“These leaders support our belief that representation matters and are joining in on our efforts to dismantle the traditional stereotypical gender roles that media helps perpetuate,” explains Dr. San Martin.

A partnership with The Body Shop brought in a $50,000 donation to fund the week-long Youth Leadership Academy (YLA) for high-achieving youth from under-served communities. Training youth in leadership and civic engagement propels the Leadership Development Project (LDP) with the youth using their training to address at least one SDG in their communities.

“Sustainable change, especially when it comes to pushing back on conventional wisdom and deeply held believes, does not get changed magically because a law or policy was changed. Big change occurs and builds up from many seemingly smaller actions and changes,” says Dr. San Martin, who in driving such sustainable changes, encourages the youth to speak up.

“You don’t need a big platform to make a difference. Every single voice counts. That’s the message we hope everyone reading this article comes out with. No matter how limited or small you think your audience is, make your voice heard. It counts for more than you think.”