FREETOWN, Sierra Leone – At one point during the civil war that raged in Sierra Leone throughout the 1990s, 12-year-old Moiyattu Banya and her family decided they had no choice but to leave. They moved to the U.S., where Banya, 32, has been living ever since. Now a lecturer in gender and sexuality studies at Temple University in Pennsylvania, she says she grew up aware of the benefits that came with having an education. When she returned to Sierra Leone, she saw that for the girls in the country, education was a luxury few would ever experience.
In 2016, Save the Children declared Sierra Leone one of the worst places in the world to be a girl, ranking it at 139 out of 144 countries. Gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, child marriage and early pregnancy are everyday realities for many girls in Sierra Leone, and all contribute to a gender imbalance in school dropout rates: Although equal numbers of girls and boys register for schooling, many girls drop out before they are able to complete their education. According to UNICEF, only 15 percent of girls reach secondary school.
“I started visiting Sierra Leone again when I was in my 20s, and I noticed there weren’t safe spaces for girls, aside from a few youth programs,” says Banya. At that time, intentional feminist spaces that catered to the social and emotional well-being of girls did not exist in the capital city. So she decided to build one.
In 2012, Banya founded the Girls Empowerment Summit Sierra Leone (GESSL), which uses year-round workshops, a leadership program and a mentorship system to equip girls with the life skills and support networks they need to overcome the challenges they face and stay in school. Its work is complicated by both poverty and patriarchy. Transactional sex is common among girls who can’t afford food or clothes, with harmful consequences to their health and education. According to Amnesty International, girls in Sierra Leone are among the most likely in the world to be child or teen mothers, and 28 percent of girls aged between 15 and 19 have already had a child or are pregnant.
When a girl’s pregnancy begins to show, she is forced to leave school in accordance with government policy. The Department of Education bans pregnant girls from attending school, with Sierra Leone’s president claiming in 2015 that pregnant girls have contravened Sierra Leonean culture and values. During the Ebola pandemic, teenage pregnancy figures surged when many young girls were forced to undertake transactional sex to meet their basic needs, or were left unsupervised and hence were vulnerable to rape and abuse. During the 2015 Ebola epidemic, an estimated 14,000 teenage girls became pregnant and were later barred from attending school. Unable to complete their education, teen mothers are forced to stay at home, facing stigma and discrimination from their communities.
GESSL aims to address the factors that are keeping so many girls from finishing their education. “We focus on mental health, menstrual hygiene, and discuss topics such as early marriage, teenage pregnancy, female genital mutilation,” says Banya. The organization recently partnered with Freetown-based nonprofit Girl2Girl Empowerment Movement, whose peer educators sometimes provide sexual reproductive health training to the girls enrolled in the GESSL program.
By teaching feminist values and the importance of sisterhood, GESSL encourages young girls to forge their own paths in their personal and professional lives. Some of the program’s first participants say it gave them renewed confidence and a commitment to staying in school. “After I attended, I realized that I can only achieve my dreams of being a social worker if I take part in planning my own life,” says Janet Ganu, 20, who started the program in 2012 at age 16. Her parents had wanted her to be a lawyer, yet after participating in the GESSL summit, Janet knew that wasn’t the right choice for her. “So I made that decision, spoke with my family, and now I’m in my third year of studying to be a social worker.”
While she completes her studies, Ganu also volunteers with GESSL, helping to mentor newer participants. Building a sustainable support network is a core part of GESSL’s work. Girls who have been through the program are encouraged to return as volunteers, and the organization also matches female Sierra Leonean professionals living in and outside the country to the girls in the program, to provide advice and support throughout the year.
Now in its fifth year, GESSL has reached over 200 girls, according to Banya. “The program is offered to girls from the start of their secondary school career to the end, meaning that, where possible, if they start with us at the earliest age, they benefit from [our] programs for six full years,” she says.
Each year starts with a summit, which launches a year-long program. GESSL’s most recent summit, held over three days in December 2016, had over 90 attendees taking part in workshops that focused on self development, community development, mentorship, sexual and reproductive health, and technology.
Josephine Thullah, 18, who has participated in GESSL activities for five years, says the program taught her “all the do’s and don’ts” of being a good leader. “I will make sure that the community where I am living says ‘no’ to teenage pregnancy and early marriage,” she says. “I will encourage young people around me to focus on education, which is the only weapon they can use to change the world, including their communities.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the various programs GESSL offers its members and to correct the number of years the program has been running.