Along a dusty narrow road, bustling with mopeds and small transport buses overflowing with commuters, you will find the local Health Centre situated high on the slopes of the Western District in Freetown. It is there that we meet our local partner in the HER CHOICE Programme – One Family People (OFP) – a well-established and respected NGO operating in Sierra Leone since 2004.
Sierra Leone is ranked one of the 10 lowest countries in the Human development Index at 179th (of 188), with 52% of the population earning below $2 US a day. It is a country still picking up the pieces from a decade-long civil war and the devastation of the Ebola epidemic. As we have seen in so many other cases, children (more so girls) and women suffer the most in situations of poverty and displacement.
Even though it is illegal to marry before the age of 18 in Sierra Leone, this small West African nation has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. 44% of girls in Sierra Leone are married before the age of 18. There are many reasons for this, but one of the main reasons for child marriage is that parents believe that marriage will secure their daughters future from a life of poverty and destitution. However, evidence tells us otherwise: young girls giving birth to children are more likely to experience complications during childbirth and long term health issues after multiple pregnancies at a young age. Child brides are also much more likely to experience school dropout, domestic violence and contracting HIV.
ICDI and the One Family Project (OFP) work together in the framework of the HER CHOICE programme on creating child marriage-free communities and improve the opportunities of young women in Sierra Leone.
As we walk into the Health Centre to meet with the OFP staff, there are two posters that catch my eye. One says, “It’s possible to give birth to your child HIV free”. The other reads “Prepare for birth delivery. You are the mother, do what’s best”, encouraging mothers to have clothes, nappies and savings for the birth. The waiting area is an open veranda overflowing with families, newborns and the elderly.
The managers of the HER CHOICE programme, Mentors, Sexual Health Educators and Parent advocates meet in an open room in the middle of the Health centre surrounded by those in the waiting area. It’s a busy and vibrant place. I am particularly struck by the work done by the OFP here, and the impact of the HER CHOICE programme in raising awareness about girls’ rights and wellbeing in this district.
OFP staff engages girls by going door to door in the district checking in on girls and mothers, by inviting girls to participate in the education workshops, and by offering free advice about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.
OFP staff also uses music and the nation’s obsession of football to engage girls and boys in conversations about child marriage and girls’ sexual and reproductive health. It appears that their girls’ football programme has been one of the most successful strategies to engage girls in the HER CHOICE education programme. Boys and men have traditionally dominated football, but women’s football is growing everywhere, and each week OFP organises girls-only football teams in different locations, where girls are coached and play matches with great enthusiasm. Up to 130 girls are so far involved in the HER CHOICE education programme across the capital.
The OFP staff believes that education is the key to preventing child marriage and domestic violence. Put simply, if a girl completes her education then she is less likely to marry before getting 18. She has more opportunities and her body is more developed, more ready for childbirth. As Hannah, one of the nurses at the centre, puts it: “We can’t blame poverty all of the time. We cannot all be rich. What we need is education and love. Education will fill our heads, our body and our hearts.”