More than a decade after it emerged from a brutal civil war, and three years after the Ebola epidemic in 2014, Sierra Leone faces huge challenges to lift its people out of poverty. More than 60% of them still live below the poverty line, and the Eastern Province remains one of the poorest areas in the country.
Empowering women drives economic growth and helps to build thriving, resilient societies. But Sierra Leone’s patriarchal culture means women have little access to power and resources. The culture is also characterised by high levels of violence against women and forced early marriages for girls.
The In Their Lifetime (ITL) project, Power to Women, is testing ways to shift this power dynamic in favour of women and girls. Our experience has proven that change is needed, both at a national level – where women account for just 13% of MPs – and at the local community level.
At a national level, Power to Women is looking ahead to the general elections in March 2018. In Kailahun and Kono districts in the east of the country, women’s networks have been engaging political parties to influence their manifestos in favour of women and to promote the nomination of female candidates. As a result, several parties have agreed that at least 30% of their candidates will be women.
Hear from Power to Women executive Mersa Maitsebona in this 10 minute podcast about the direct impact of the project.
At a local level, the classroom is a key focus for the project – specifically school clubs where boys and girls can discuss, among other topics, gender-based violence and ways of combatting and reporting it. Sixteen-year-old Mariama Barry’s involvement in one of these clubs enabled her to take action when she was forced into early marriage by her parents.
Mariama’s parents had secretly arranged a marriage to a rich businessman from Kenema. She pleaded to be allowed to continue her education instead and become a doctor, but this fell on deaf ears. Mariama was married and taken immediately to live in Kenema. However, her training at the school club meant she knew how to contact ChildFund, a child development organisation. Its manager invited her new husband and both sets of parents to a meeting, at which he warned them about the legal penalties for underage marriage. All parties agreed to annul the marriage with immediate effect.
‘Some have battled with whether to accept the marriage and obey their parents or continue with their education and do what the parents and some community people considered disobedience. There are many other girls of my age who face similar or worse situations than what I experienced.’
Mariama is pictured sharing her experiences of forced, early marriage with students from her school.
Unfortunately, this was not the end of Mariama’s ordeal. Her parents refused to pay for her ongoing education, would not take her back into the family home and stopped providing for even her most basic needs such as food. But after Mariama’s school club mentor intervened, she was eventually accepted back by her family and able to find the school fees herself through extended family. The Power to Women team is now working with Mariama’s parents to help them understand the importance of her education and relations are improving gradually.
The team was impressed by Mariama’s drive and determination, and her clear potential for leadership. She spoke passionately about how she wants to see girls being given the chance to make the most of their abilities instead of being thwarted by early, forced marriages. Mariama now helps to lead the school club, educating her classmates through her experiences, as she continues her studies.
Sierra Leone needs female leaders to emerge from next March’s elections. However, the battle to achieve this starts at a younger age, by enabling girls like Mariama to mature into the country’s leaders of the future.