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08. October 2020

Sierra Leone: Raising awareness of girls’ rights

Girls in Sierra Leone face severe difficulties. Sexualised violence is widespread and is often even directed against very young girls. Almost 90 per cent of women and girls are affected by female genital cutting. In order to effect changes that are more than just occasional or short-term improvements, the organisation Girl2Girl is training girls to be contact persons for their communities – with impressive results.

Once a week the girls come in from the surrounding areas to the organisation's office in Freetown. The topics they deal can be very oppressive, ranging from dropping out of school and unwanted pregnancies through discrimination to genital cutting*. The girls talk about what they have seen in their communities or experienced themselves. They discuss possible solutions and are given space for questions, anger and any feelings of being overwhelmed.

Education about women's rights: Girls passing on their knowledge

Girl2Girl offers the girls a very special form of training. Firstly, they receive practical information which they otherwise rarely hear: the rights they have as girls; the laws which exist to protect them; and the people they can turn to in cases of emergencies. Then, they also receive training in how to set up their own girls’ groups. Their task is to help to establish an awareness in other people, too, of violence against women and girls and the fact that this is a breach of human rights.

Networks against gender-based violence: Bringing parents and communities on board

If Girl2Girl left the girls to carry out this task alone, in many communities the willingness to change would probably not survive very long. So the organisation’s project managers ensure that the girls receive support from groups of parents and that they are integrated into broader village or community work. There is a lot of persuasion needed to achieve this: “Many people do not even realise that gender-based violence is a crime. They genuinely believe that women are the property of men,” says a project manager from Girl2Girl. “So a conversation with us is often very challenging, but for many it is also an eye-opener.”

Female genital cutting in Sierra Leone: Reacting quickly to violence

The efforts of Girl2Girl to involve the community at all levels of their work does pay off. Their staff members enjoy high levels of trust – even in very thorny issues. One worker told us of a case at the end of 2019. In one of the communities where the organisation is active, 50 young girls were about to be subjected to genital cutting. Several young women heard about the plan and informed Girl2Girl, whose staff reacted very quickly. They involved the Family Unit of the police which put a stop to the plans.

Empowerment – Knowledge is power against breaches of human rights

It was important for the staff at Girl2Girl to know who to turn to in a case like this. However, the decisive factor was the presence within the community of empowered and informed young women who could notify Girl2Girl quickly enough, responsibly carrying out their role and acting upon their knowledge that female genital cutting is a violation of human rights which they and other girls can defend themselves against.

*Readers may be more familiar with the term “female genital mutilation”, which has established itself internationally. However, it is disputed since those affected can feel stigmatised by the label “mutilated”. Many do consider themselves to be “circumcised”. However, “female circumcision” is rejected by the World Health Organisation as downplaying the nature of the act. Discussion has led to the term “female genital cutting”, which is thought to reflect a critical, reflected and anti-racist approach.

Published in memo (2020/02), p. 8 (german)

 

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