Advise Salone: EducAid Staff Advocate for Gender Equality

by Ellie Wilson and Nnamdi Eseme

Nnamdi Eseme speaks with girls at Educaid’s Maronka School

Nnamdi Eseme, EducAid’s Education Programme Officer, is a 2016 Fellow of the Women Deliver Young Leaders Programme, a program which identifies and supports young people to address issues affecting youth, especially women and girls, in their community. The program also offers highly competitive grants to Fellows to implement projects that address women and youth sexual and reproductive health and rights issues, education, gender equality, etc. When Nnamdi joined EducAid, he looked for opportunities to further promote equality within the organisation and expand the organisation’s advocacy in relation to issues of equality, which led to him submitting a successful proposal to Women Deliver in 2019

This led to the development of EducAid’s initial 6-month advocacy project ADVISE SALONE, which advocated to seek the reversal of the ban of pregnant girls from attending schools and participating in public examinations in Sierra Leone

The ADVISE SALONE project started in August 2019. Following successful implementation of the 6-month project and a need for strengthening major wins – like the lifting of the ban which prohibited pregnant girls from attending school or exams – the project and its funding has been extended for another 6 months

Nnamdi, fills us in about the project’s work so far, the impacts of Covid-19 on Sierra Leoneans, and the activities taking place to support people during this time..

Why is this project important in Sierra Leone?

The project is important in Sierra Leone because prior to now, the country had one of the lowest literacy rates globally especially for girls; ranked 10th in the world according to a 2015 study, as well as having 28% of girls aged 15-19 already pregnant or having given birth at least once (UNFPA 2015: 05). This has led to cross sectional inequality in access to education, job opportunities, development, etc.

Also, following the Ebola crisis of 2015, there was an increase in school-age pregnancies which led to the government introducing the ban which prohibited pregnant girls from attending schools thus, causing many vulnerable girls to drop out of school. The project seeks to address this.

What are the objectives of the ADVISE SALONE project and the main achievements so far?

The ADVISE SALONE project reaches adolescents, young people, community members, community/faith leaders, policy makers and government officials, and media organisation practitioners.

Phase I (initial 6 months) of the project sought to reverse the policy prohibiting tens of thousands of pregnant girls from attending schools or participating in public examinations since the policy initiated in 2015.

Some of our major wins are as follows:

We have contributed to wider advocacy efforts along with other civil society organisations that led to The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) court ordering the Government of Sierra Leone to lift the ban policy immediately, which took place in February 2020. The court also requested the government to include sexual education in the national curriculum in order to spread awareness about contraception and decrease the number of teen pregnancies in the country. The court considered it as inimical in creating a more gender equal world and one that could slow progress made in the education sector in Sierra Leone.

Team EducAid were really excited about the lifting of the ban! We had students happy that they could see their friends again. EducAid as an organisation, is like a family and for our students, if their peers in other schools or communities can’t go to school, it worries our students. Our students were really happy that their peers could go back to school. We actually saw some girls coming back to school and some from other schools requested to join EducAid because of our use of non-judgemental and gender transformative approach to education. About 10 girls were enrolled into the Women’s Project which is a pathway to reintegrate girls who had dropped out of school back to mainstream schooling

Phase II of the project seeks to solidify this win by strengthening targeted advocacy efforts to key players and supporting vulnerable girls who have had to drop out of school when the ban was in place to be reintegrated into mainstream schooling

Sexual and reproductive health

❖ Carried out advocacy visits to 5 secondary schools in Port Loko, and have had several sessions with EducAid students in Port Loko and Freetown. Through our advocacy visits to schools, we have been able to reach an estimated 1,000 students with key messages on improving their sexual and reproductive health

❖ Conducted a pre- and post-assessment surveys to know the level of knowledge of family planning methods among 100 secondary school girls living in the urban slum area of Sierra Leone

❖ Facilitated 5 sessions on family life planning and positive sexual behaviour to 300 students of EducAid Secondary Schools in Sierra Leone

Gender Equality

❖ Prevented two teenage girls 13 and 15 years old from becoming child brides.

❖ Trained 20 teachers of EducAid Secondary School on gender mainstreaming in the classroom.

❖ Identified and supported 10 vulnerable female school who had left school to be re-enrolled into mainstream schooling at EducAid

Advocacy

❖ Applied innovative educational approaches within the Sierra Leone context to shift behaviours and mindsets of teachers that underpin teacher-inflicted prejudices on pregnant students in their schools. It engaged men in actions that promote gender equality at community and national level.

❖ Further challenged patriarchal norms that serve as a spinning wheel for the reinforcement of gender inequality in Sierra Leone.

❖ Amplified the voices of young people, especially girls in the focal communities to call for improved condition of admission into secondary schools thus, galvanising youth power to drive change at community level.

❖ Conducted media engagement sessions at the local radio station (Children Advocacy Radio) reaching an estimated 600,000 residents of Port Loko district. We are still engaging the media.

❖ Made advocacy visits to 4 communities in Port Loko namely: Roppolon, Rolal, Maronka and Gbanbahila

❖ Enabled community members (particularly women and girls) to understand policies by the government, the benefits and or implications and appropriate channels to reach policy makers.

❖ Improved EducAid’s social media presence attracting interest from international organisations such as UNFPA, Marie Stopes and Restless Development

Girls learning at EducAid’s Lumley Schoo

What is the impact of Covid-19 on Sierra Leoneans? Particularly for the youth, women and girls?

Covid-19 has had a significant impact on youth, women and girls in Sierra Leone; from schools being shut for months, to markets being shut for days and many girls having to stay at home with a potential risk of being sexually abused or exploited.

Many young people in Sierra Leone live in vulnerable situations, and just like across the world, the vulnerable are made more so by lockdowns and enforced school closure. We learnt from Sierra Leone’s experience during the Ebola crisis that girls and women are particularly at risk during school closure, which left girls vulnerable to assault and led to a surge in school-age pregnancies.

All over the world, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of sexual and gender-based violence following the Covid-19 pandemic and Sierra Leone is no different as there have been several reported cases in the media.

The impact of Covid-19 has also been felt more by youth, women and girls because they are mostly dependent members of most households in Sierra Leone. They feel the pinch of poverty more and for the few women who engage in farming, they cannot take their farm yields to far away markets as movement is restricted. I know of a businesswoman in Port Loko who usually travels to Freetown to buy second-hand clothes which she sells in Port Loko. It is from the profit she makes from selling the clothes that she feeds her son and four young daughters but since the introduction of restriction for inter-district movement, her business has suffered major loss.

Please tell us about the ADVISE SALONE Tweet Sessions

Since our target audience for these sessions are mostly young people and policy makers who use social media, and because of Covid-19 social distancing measures, more people in Sierra Leone are using and seeking information from social media platforms at this time. Our message can reach a larger number of people by engaging via Twitter, and also other traditional media like the radio and newspaper.

We have carried out a few Tweet Sessions to engage youth advocates in proffering solutions to some of the peculiar challenges affecting young people, especially women and girls, in Sierra Leone and across Africa. The first few sessions engaged youth advocates from across West Africa and we have plans to engage wider global youth advocates from other regions.

EducAid student advocates for the education of girls through Covid-19 and lockdowns

The tweet sessions are used as an advocacy tool to drive and reach out to active players, partners and the government to influence policy change, drive sustainable impact and sensitize young people who are active on social media. We address a wide range of issues like the need for sexual education and services for young people during Covid-19, as well as addressing sexual and gender-based violence during Covid-19.
In one of our sessions focusing on addressing youth risk to sexual and gender based violence during Covid-A9, the facilitator highlighted that “African governments can do more to address sexual and gender-based violence during Covid-19 by applying a gender lens to examine how women and girls are engaged across sectors and evaluate the current legal and socio-economic structures. This will catalyse interventions on the impact of Covid-19 on women and girls”. I also feel that it is critical at this point, for young people to work together more than ever to show to the world that we are the solution to the problems that the world is currently facing

From our tweet engagements, we have observed strong interest from not just youth people but from several international organisations with presence in Sierra Leone such as UNFPA, Restless Development, Equality Now, among others. We also noticed that the sessions have been very informational particularly for young people who sent in their questions and made positive comments about the session. For our audience, the sessions were timely and carefully expressed their challenges which means that we identify with their problems and the solutions we proffered are achievable. We also noticed that following our tweet sessions, some youth-led organisations are beginning to tag us in their tweets.

We have a series of interesting topics and renowned facilitators lined up for our tweet sessions for the entire duration of the project. For example, discussing how power imbalances put women at a disadvantaged position especially during Covid-19, discussing ways to address teenage pregnancy.

To get involved or to see our discussions on Twitter so far, you can follow us @EducAidT, search for the hashtag #ADVISESALONE or follow the handle of the donor highlighting projects led by young leaders @YouthDeliver on Twitter. Nnamdi himself tweet @Eseme01

Please tell us about other work ADVISE SALONE is focusing on during school closure?

We are currently engaging a local radio station in Port Loko, Children Advocacy Radio, to advocate for improved safety and safeguarding of women and girls who are forced to stay at home during Covid-19. EducAid students have been speaking on the radio about the need to protect girls in Sierra Leone from teenage pregnancy during Covid-19, as seen in the photo below, left. The team are also using a radio jingle to spread a message of health precaution about Covid-19, and calling on stakeholders to prevent sexual abuse of women, girls and children during this period.

We have also engaged with female students of EducAid to project key advocacy messages shared on our social media platforms (as seen in photo on the below, right). To contribute to staff development during school closure, we have also conducted a virtual training for EducAid staff members on reporting for sustainable impact.

EducAid student advocates for the safety of girls during Covid-19
Nnamdi Eseme and an EducAid science student speak about the need to protect girls from school-age pregnancy during Covid-19

What are your next steps?

Several training sessions will be taking place for EducAid staff on reporting for sustainable impact, as well as training for journalists on solutions journalism to spread the message of what ADVISE SALONE and EducAid are doing to support young people – especially women and girls – during Covid-19. We also plan to put out thought-provoking articles that will influence policy change and develop the skills of members of the implementation team.

We intend to develop an advocacy video message from the people we currently support to spread a message of hope and encourage other vulnerable girls who have had to drop out of school to think about going back to school. Following up on those who we support who have been forced to stay at home during this period is critical to ensure they are safe and engaged in their school education, which we will continue to focus on. The project also plans to identify and support 5 vulnerable girls who have had to drop out of school to be re-enrolled into mainstream schooling.

Nnamdi Eseme and Miriam Mason-Sesay speak on radio about the importance of keeping girls safe and learning through Covid-19
EducAid’s Equality Team and students advocating for girls on the radio

We would like to thank the Women Deliver and those who have supported the ADVISE SALONE project. We are delighted with the impact of the project so far and our passionate team are committed to continue to advocate for gender equality across Sierra Leone.

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