Hope for girls in Sierra Leone

Writer: Grieteke Meerman

Think of Sierra Leone, and chances are the 1990s civil war and the 2014 ebola outbreak probably be the first things that come to mind. But change is in the offing for this poverty-stricken West African country, thanks in part to the lobbying of the Girls Advocacy Alliance programme, which is fighting to improve the position of girls and young women there.

In Sierra Leone two out of every five girls marry before they are 18. About the same proportion of girls are already mothers at that age, often as a result of being raped. Ninety per cent of girls and young women there have undergone female circumcision, with 40 per cent of those being between the ages of 10 and 14. “Girls also have significantly less access to education and economic opportunities, making them even more vulnerable to sexual violence and teenage pregnancy,” laments Joyce Brummelman, a lawyer at Defence for Children Nederland and active in the field of girls’ and women’s rights in Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

From village elder to minister

Under the banner of the Girls Advocacy Alliance (GAA), children’s rights organisation Defence for Children has joined forces with Plan International Nederland and Terre des Hommes to improve the position of girls and young women in 10 different countries, including Sierra Leone. The GAA regards violence against girls and young women and improving their economic opportunities as two sides of the same coin, which is why a twofold approach has been adopted. Their approach is through lobbying and influencing policies throughout all levels of society and government, from village elder to minister.

The people doing the lobbying are not Dutch delegates from the Alliance members; they are all local professionals from partner organisations based in Sierra Leone. They are convinced that functioning as a group that speaks with a collective voice makes them stronger, so they have consolidated their efforts into a consultative body acting between children’s rights organisations. Known in Sierra Leone as the Child’s Rights Coalition, they are stepping up to the plate in the various layers of society.

To-do list

“When it comes to stopping sexual violence we are looking, for example, at whether we can work with traditional leaders in villages in which the problems are the worst,” explains Brummelman. “We then try to forge mutual agreements, in the form of regulations, about what should be done if a girl is subjected to any form of violence. If we are successful, we then try to apply the results in all the villages in the region.”

To win acceptance for the introduction of certain laws, the alliance is lobbying among the various levels of civil society at national level. The to-do list includes: advocating for the quicker prosecution of sexual assault; the introduction of a law to prohibit the circumcision of underage girls; the enforcement of legislation pertaining to child marriages; and the abolition of the law that excludes pregnant girls from regular education.

“But we are also advocating for other, more minor, things,” continues Brummelman. “Such as extending the opening hours of courts, to improve the treatment of sexual-violence victims. And making medical examinations, the results of which rape victims must present if they are pressing charges, free-of-charge.” In the case of the latter, some progress in the right direction has already been made. The newly elected government has announced this year that victims of sexual violence will receive free examinations and treatment.

Youth advocates

In addition to this professional lobby, a key part of the GAA is training girls, young women, and some boys too, to be youth advocates. They form part of various network groups throughout the country that try to protect girls in communities from abuse and violence and improve their access to education and the jobs market. “These youth groups are important,” insists Brummelman. “They have personal experience of what’s going on, which is why they are ideally placed to inform stakeholders about the problems.”

Long-term project

There is no shortage of challenges, particularly of a financial nature. You can advocate for measures as enthusiastically as you like, but the fact remains that in Sierra Leone there is sometimes just no money. Brummelman sees the work of the GAA as a long-term project. “I’m convinced that change has already started, but I’ve no idea how quickly it will go. There are plenty of strong girls in the young generation, but first of all they will have to overcome the disadvantaged position they currently find themselves in.”

A positive side effect is that by joining forces these young people are also protecting themselves and strengthening their position. Even more importantly, however, is the simple fact that these young people in Sierra Leone constitute the largest group in the population. “They are the generation on whose actions we will rely. If we can get them on-board at this stage they will hopefully continue advocating when they become adults. If boys can be made to appreciate the harmful effects that certain attitudes towards girls can have, they will hopefully not resort to violence later in life.”