It takes safe, girl driven spaces where young people are supported to tell their stories, discuss their issues and challenges, and develop girl driven solutions. Feminist activist tools including leadership and advocacy, safe spaces for peer to peer learning and community building are important for girls to become change agents and leaders in their societies.
Over the past 5 years, I have supported the leadership of young girls in Sierra Leone through GESL, a feminist organization that works to build the confidence of girls by providing leadership training, and creating safe spaces for girls to become activists. It has been remarkable to observe the growth of girls who have been in our programmes for a few years. We have seen young girls become more confident, and speak boldly about some of the controversial issues that affect their lives, including sexual harassment and female genital mutilation. More importantly, these girls are able to present potential solutions to the challenges they face.
A few years ago, whilst conducting a Young Girls Transformative Leadership project in communities in the Nkwanta north and south districts of Ghana, I worked with a group of girls to share through peer to peer learning the challenges they faced. During community dialogues, women and girls shared human rights abuses they had experienced. A girl aged 15 shared that from a very young age, her mother had promised to marry her off to an older man who would bring firewood to the house in exchange for her hand in marriage once she was “old enough” to marry him. She also shared that her sister had undergone female genital mutilation. She further explained that she has never had the opportunity to speak so openly about her life, and sharing her story and hearing other women talk about their experiences, gave her the confidence to continue to speak out so other girls don’t have to go through this process. She later went on to be a mentor to many girls within her community speaking against harmful traditional practices within her society. Without such a safe space where girls had the agency to discuss their issues openly with each other, it is highly unlikely she would have felt so empowered to drive change.
Without such a safe space where girls had the agency to discuss their issues openly with each other, it is highly unlikely she would have felt so empowered to drive change.
Recently, The Mastercard Foundation and Boabab Summit convened over 120 secondary school participants in their scholars programme from Rwanda, Malawi, Kenya and Uganda. After being provided with advocacy and storytelling training, participants were invited to share their stories of who they were, identify a problem in their community and how they would solve it. Girls showed a high awareness of gender specific issues, tackling subjects around teenage pregnancy, child marriage and female genital mutilation. They also identified possible solutions including the need for more awareness raising and providing programmes to educate community leaders about violence. This demonstrated to me the awareness that girls have on the impact of gender based violence, and the clear need for the leadership of young girls to be supported such that they can speak up, and play a leading role in contributing solutions to these issues.
Harnessing the power of storytelling
My experience has shown me that storytelling is a powerful tool for young girls stepping into leadership. Being able to give voice to their experiences, gives girls the power to drive change in their lives. They are able to create greater awareness of issues, and in the telling of their stories, are able to gain greater understanding that these issues do not only impact on them, but reverberate in the wider community.
Creating safe spaces that are girl led is important for organisations and communities working with girls. This means giving girls the agency to create their own meeting spaces, activities and helping them identify what resources are needed for them to become leaders and activists. Creating safe spaces and nurturing community and relationships amongst girls is also key. When girls see each other as allies for change,w tremendous impact can occur. Girls must receive the necessary support to work within community peer groups to be able to develop solutions to reducing issues of violence against girls. Peer led discussions, team-building activities with their counterparts helps in developing such a space.
Having the confidence to excel as leaders in school and other communities such as their churches or mosques also boosts their confidence and helps them remain focused in their academic work.
Giving girls the right support in the form of leadership and advocacy training is important in helping them tackle issues of violence and sexual assault in their communities. Once girls can become change agents and leaders, they begin to speak on such issues, which ultimately will impact a macro level change. Girls have a very high impact on their peers and the more girls can hear the stories of other girls, the greater chances we will have to tackle issues of gender based violence, teenage pregnancy, harmful cultural practices and the more we can shift the power of society back into the hands of girls to own their spaces, challenge patriarchal structures and create real, lasting change. The girls we have worked with in Sierra Leone, have attributed their academic success in school to our leadership and mentorship workshops. Having the confidence to excel as leaders in school and other communities such as their churches or mosques also boosts their confidence and helps them remain focused in their academic work. Teachers within our partner schools have also reported that girls in our leadership programme gain more confidence and achieve higher grades. This I believe is a strong correlation to the 94 percent retention of girls in our leadership programme, with a corresponding retention rate in schools. This is remarkable when one considers that the girls we work with, are in the age group where most girls are said to drop out of schools in Sierra Leone. This has led us to believe that leadership programming directly supports girls remaining in school at higher rates than those who do not have access to such programmes.
This article is published as part of the ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence’ online campaign activities led by the Gender Based Violence Prevention Network, coordinated by the Uganda-based organisation Raising Voices.