In every way, girls and women are on the back foot in Sierra Leone. Education is no exception. Girls are told that they are ‘only girls’ and that their ‘heads haven’t come for books’ etc. from day one and it is only the lucky few that get taught to rethink or who dare to challenge this received wisdom of inferiority and believe that they can target any genuine academic achievement.
EducAid runs 5 primary schools, 6 junior secondary schools and 2 senior secondary schools across 10 sites, serving over 2700 children and young people, across Western and Northern Sierra Leone. From our inception, our aim was always to achieve a 50 / 50 split between girls and boys but in the early days we found ourselves barely able to sustain a 10% female presence throughout the year. We were frequently turning girls away from the school because they failed to achieve even the most basic level that we required for entry into the secondary schools. In response to this situation, we started the Women’s Project classes.
The idea with the Women’s Project was to provide a forum in which secondary age girls with below secondary academic standards can catch up and then enter the mainstream classes for their age group. With the Women’s Project classes, we find that many many girls can be encouraged to learn to read and write and start to believe and experience that they are capable. We still struggle, however, to get all of the girls to push to the height of their abilities and many of them drop out before they complete their schooling. Because of this, we decided that we would start the Girl Power Group, in which the girls have fun together and learn about their rights, about self esteem and about who they really are as women. They listen to and learn Girl Power songs. They find out about inspirational strong women who have led the way. They discuss their rights and learn how to teach other women about their rights and so on. This has helped a good number start to believe that they can achieve far more than they had previously expected.
On reflection though, we realised that our girls so often have such an enormous battle of undoing the damage of the social and emotional abuse that they have experienced as small children with the negative messages they receive from everything and everyone around. When they get to secondary school, for far too many the die seems to have been cast and, while we can help, the scars go deep. We decided therefore to build a Girls’ Safe House. The Girls’ Safe House is a place of safety: safety from all the abuses that surround them; not only physical or sexual but indeed social and emotional too. The house is a home for all the girls who attend the Maronka primary school and live in. The idea is to catch them young and to teach them their value and make sure that the negative messages never get a chance to take hold. Our song says, ‘The sky’s the limit.’ and this is our profound belief.
In addition to these pro-equality activities with the girls, we also work with the boys and young men. It is no good pointing at the girls to end the prejudice their male colleagues hold. The boys need to change their own thinking and behaviour. Accordingly, we have started White Ribbon Campaign clubs in all of the schools. The WRC campaigns as men against violence against women. The first violence most girls experience is the deprivation of equal access to a good education.
We have a team of strong women (and men), nearly all of whom are past pupils, who deliver our pro-equality programmes. They passionately believe in the importance of everyone being empowered to contribute to the building of our vision of a democratic, dignified Sierra Leone, where all of her citizens access their rights and live well, irrespective of tribe, creed, disability or gender!
If you are in a position to support EducAid in delivering our education programmes to the most vulnerable in Sierra Leone, please click on this link to donate now.