Books Before Babies

Books Before Babies

Empowering Girls at Risk of Teenage Pregnancy and Abuse in Sierra Leone

I felt truly privileged to be in a cramped room buzzing with energy, filled with 20 eager and excited girls and young women in a deprived community of Freetown, Sierra Leone. We started the meeting with their mantra, “Books before boys because boys bring babies.” As I listened to their shy introductions and reasons for joining the network of Girl to Girl Empowerment Movement (G2G), it struck me that teenage pregnancy isn’t just a statistic here; it’s a reality shaping their lives and future options in multiple ways, and girls and young women are now determined to change this reality.

G2G a beacon of hope for girls and young women in deprived communities

My visit to Sierra Leone was to support FORWARD’s local organisation, G2G – a young women-led organisation working with deprived communities in Freetown – and explore how their work was transforming lives of girls and young women at risk of teenage pregnancy and abuse. G2G was born 10 years ago with the support of FORWARD, following the involvement of 15 very courageous young women who participated in a study on sexuality and teenage pregnancy. They uncovered a web of challenges – poverty, peer pressure, and a lack of sexuality education traps girls in a cycle of vulnerability. We found that gender inequalities, sexual exploitation, and entrenched practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) all help create this toxic environment for girls and young women in these communities.  FGM is viewed as an initiation rite to womanhood and preparation for marriage and sexual initiation.

Today, G2G is changing lives. It’s a beacon of hope for over 400 members aged 13 to 35 years operating in 10 communities in two regions in Sierra Leone. Led by young women who’ve lived through teenage motherhood and abuse, this organisation isn’t just fighting against the odds – they’re rewriting the script for girls like them. Their mission? To arm every girl with knowledge, leadership skills, and a voice that can’t be silenced. G2G’s work is led by dedicated volunteer network leaders who are based at the community level and a secretariat of 5 staff who provide oversight, training, and amplify their work.

Saying No to Rape is Not Enough to Protect Girls from Abuse

In Red Pump Community, I witnessed the power of their work first-hand. Girls, some barely teenagers, performed engaging role plays on teenage pregnancy, child marriage, and domestic violence. Amidst their fears, they all echoed a resounding message; say no to rape; say no to child marriage; say no to FGM. But is saying no really enough to keep them safe from sexual abuse, child marriage, and FGM? This is because girls and young women face multiple barriers ranging from lack of enabling policies, deep-rooted social norms, and lack of enforcement mechanisms at all levels. Sadly, three girls have died from FGM in Sierra Leone, but there is still no government move to criminalise FGM.

We had deeper conversations with Red Pump Network Members to explore ways to empower girls beyond merely saying no – teaching them to scream, to resist, to reclaim their agency and understand the risk factors. Because, in a world where 12-year-olds are coerced into child marriage, sexual exploitation, and FGM, silence is not an option. Providing safe spaces and access to economic options will help reinforce these messages and enable girls and young women to stay safe from harm.

Urgent need to build capacity and resilience of grassroots young women-led organisations

Organisations like G2G provide a much-needed lifeline for girls and young women. However, as a small young women’s organisation, this journey is fraught with challenges. From funding, organisational infrastructure, staff capacity to cultural barriers, young women’s organizations face many uphill battles. G2G is at the frontline of development and a pillar of hope for the 400 network members and their peers, but they remain fragile.

Last November, tragedy struck Brookfield Community, another of the G2G communities that I visited. A devastating fire gutted the homes of many of the network members, yet amid the ashes, the resilience of young women leaders shone bright. Speaking to network members and their mothers in their network meeting, each one of them who spoke mentioned the books, bags and school uniforms as well as start-up money given to their mothers, by G2G. However, building resilience in many of these deprived communities requires access to livelihood skills to provide independence and keep them focused on books and not babies.

“The highlight of my visit was seeing Patience in Brookfield. I met Patience when she was pregnant at 15 years and had dropped out of school. Patience was supported to return to education and became the poster girl for the legal action in 2020 against the Sierra Leonean government which resulted in lifting the ban on pregnant girls from returning to school.  Patience proudly showed off her 7-year-old daughter who goes with her to network meeting. Patience hugged me and thanked me for the help given to her. She works as a secretary and remembers fondly the leadership training and drama activities that helped her cope with the stigma of being a child mother.”

FORWARD has continued to build the foundation for G2G. Our approach of funding support, strategic partnerships, mentoring, capacity-building support, and sustained accompaniment has enabled G2G to survive. Young women from G2G communities are for the first time getting into tertiary education. Four of them have joined the board of G2G as trustees. Parents are seeing the change in the lives of network members and new communities are requesting to join G2G network.

Reflecting on FORWARD’s decade-long journey with G2G, one truth remains clear: the fight for equality isn’t confined to classrooms or boardrooms – it’s fought in the communities at the local levels, where every girl’s dream is a revolution waiting to happen. FORWARD needs your support to invest in the work of organisations like G2G to unlock the full potential of girls and young women so they can grow, thrive and create a more gender equitable society. But, our funding for the work in Sierra Leone ends this year.

Visiting G2G was refreshing and difficult but this made me realise that G2G isn’t just about equipping network members with knowledge; they’re sowing seeds of change that will yield a more equitable future free of abuse and better opportunities for girls and young women.

Naana Otoo-Oyortey MBE, is the Executive Director of FORWARD. FORWARD is a pioneer African-women led organisation working on multiple forms of violence against women and girls in the UK and Africa. This work in Sierra Leone was funded by Comic Relief and Kate Wilkinson.