Writer : Grieteke Meerman
Abeigel, who is from Sierra Leone, is somewhat of a celebrity in the coastal town where she is from. The 18-year-old youth lobbyist has been waging her own war against, among other things, teenage pregnancies.
It is a big problem in her community, she explains, during a training course given by the Girls Advocacy Alliance (GAA). The course is part of a programme being carried out by children’s rights organisations Plan International Nederland, Terre des Hommes, Defence for Children - ECPAT − Nederland and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 10 countries, girls just like Abeigal are being trained to lobby actively at various levels in society for equal rights and opportunities for girls and young women.
“I’ve seen many young girls, some as young as 13 and 14, become pregnant,” says Abeigel. “And as soon as they were pregnant they had to stop going to school, either because they were denied further access or they were simply bullied until they left. Even at the tender age of 10, I knew that this couldn’t be right. It had to stop!”
Abeigel is convinced that a lack of education is the main reason for the high number of teenage pregnancies, which are often the result of rape. “I come from a village of fishermen, where most of the people have had no education and are often illiterate. This also means that the people know very little about sexual health.”
During the first few years of her struggle against sexual violence, teenage pregnancies and child marriages, she stood completely alone. This exposed her to a lot of bullying at school and in her village. But she was helped by, among others, Defence for Children, an organisation that is active in her community. “Thanks to aid organisations that are fighting the same battle as me, I have learned to believe in myself and I now have much more self-confidence.”
Whereas in the past most villagers saw Abeigel as the enemy, she has now been able to convince many people that girls must be able to go to school, even if they are pregnant or already mothers. This contributes to women’s independence and the country’s economic growth. “Becoming pregnant as a teenager should not mean the end of your education, because, without an education you are very likely to spend the rest of your life in poverty. Encouraging girls to finish school will reduce this likelihood and stimulate the country’s economic growth.”
Since she first came into contact with the Defence for Children, Abeigel has been a participant of the GAA, a programme in which three children’s rights organisations, Plan International Nederland, Defence for Children-ECPAT Nederland and Terre des Hommes have joined forces. The programme is being funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She is chairperson of a network group comprising 22 girls and they regularly go door-to-door to inform families about teenage pregnancies and gender equality. They also spring into collective action in there is an unlawful marriage involving an underage girl. “For the time being the men whose marriages we are stopping will continue to see us as the enemy, but the girls that would otherwise have to marry them are very grateful.”
Abeigel’s work as a youth lobbyist for girls and young women has become such an important part of her life that she has adjusted her future plans. “I always wanted to be an accountant, but after doing this work for so long I have developed a huge passion for helping girls who are unable to stand up for themselves. Now I want to be a social worker.”