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06. September 2023 - News

Working with girls in Sierra Leone: Network of resolve

Fatima* was 15 when her parents decided to marry her off. The husband they had selected was older than her mother. Almost one in ten girls in Sierra Leone are younger than 15 when they marry, and more than a half are married off before their 18th birthday. Most young wives drop out of school. However, Fatima did not want to get married: she wanted to pass her secondary school exams. Her wish prevailed thanks in part to support from Girl2Girl.

Ten years have passed since a group of young women met when they were all participants in a study on teenage pregnancy. From this initial impulse, they then became activists. They founded Girl2Girl to empower girls in the poor neighbourhoods of Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. Over the years, the resolve of those founding members has spread further, with eight Girl2Girl networks now operating around Freetown.

Set up by young women for young women, they provide protected spaces in a society where sexualised violence is widespread. Nearly 90 per cent of women and girls in the country are affected by female genital mutilation (FGM).

Raising awareness of women’s rights and violence: Awareness-raising in schools, families and communities

At their meetings, Girl2Girl participants talk about the consequences of leaving school early and unwanted pregnancies, as well as women’s rights and FGM. These discussions provide insights which they carry with them back into their families and circles of friends, helping to break the silence on violence against women in everyday life. The Girl2Girl team supports these young activists and ensures they find allies for their cause: staff members hold frequent meetings to raise awareness of women’s rights among neighbours, community leaders and local politicians.

This also helped Fatima to assert her wishes. When activists from the Girl2Girl network in Fatima’s village heard of the marriage being planned for her, the network leader spoke with Fatima’s parents about the importance of education and the consequences of child marriage: the younger the bride, the higher is the risk of violence within the partnership and the greater are the dangers of pregnancy complications - sometimes with fatal consequences for mother and child. With the support of the Girl2Girl network, Fatima managed to persuade her parents to cancel the wedding.

Sierra Leone: School clubs for girls’ rights

Since then, Fatima has become active to try and help other girls and their parents realise how important education is. She gets support from the clubs for pupils that Girl2Girl has established in six schools. Each club has five boys and five girls as members, who regularly attend training sessions on gender and sexualised violence, menstruation and contraception. They then pass on their knowledge to their fellow students.

Protection network: Support for girls affected by violence

Girl2Girl also offers training for teachers, police officers, and government officials. Slowly, this ensures the emergence of a firm network around Freetown where girls can find protection and support. The nodes in this network consist of members of Girl2Girl groups, teachers, officials, and neighbours who are all committed to changing their society’s patriarchal structures, as well as being points of contact for survivors. A school in the north of Freetown provides an example. There, a female teacher managed to put what she had learned into action in a trauma-sensitive way when a schoolgirl confided in her. The 12-year-old had been raped and felt she was alone with her brutal experience of violence until she talked to her teacher.

* Name changed