“My name is Aissata Bangoura. I am 21 years old and a single mother of two. I was misled by an older woman who made me date a man when I was only 14 and in primary school. He made me leave school when I got pregnant at age 15. I was so ashamed that I could not go back to my poor mother who has been a single mother after the war in my country Sierra Leone. I had no choice than to stay with the man who was responsible for my pregnancy. Unfortunately I had a second child; that is when he left me with the two children and disappeared. I went back to the village to stay with my mother who did not know what to do with me and my two children. I was really struggling in the village when I heard a message on our community radio about a project enrolling girls who wanted to learn certain skills. My brother, who was trying to get me married, did not encourage me at all. I went and took the test, which I passed. People were giving me bad eyes, because here in the northern part of Sierra Leone, women are not encouraged to go to school, but it’s even worse when they try to do jobs that are ‘supposed to be men’s jobs’; like an electrician, mechanic, or engineer. “
Aissata is from Sierra Leone, a small West African country with a population of 4,976,871 (more than half of which are women).
The rebel war in Sierra Leone began on 23 March 1991. Coincidentally, the FAWE Sierra Leone Chapter was established on 23 March 1995. Barely three months after the launch of the chapter, the organization had to face its first big challenge. The streets of Freetown, the capital city, were awash with homeless children and displaced people from the provinces.
For about ten years, groups of rebels were terrorizing the population and killing anything they could meet on their way. A lot of families were separated, children (boys and girls) were enrolled in the war, and girls were used as domestic or sex tools. 10 years after the end of the war, families are still trying to reconstruct. Aissata is from one of these families where the father had died, leaving 5 children with an illiterate woman who could hardly feed her children, let alone enroll them in school. The rebel war forced thousands of distressed, forlorn, and traumatized women and children to flee their homes and schools in the provincial towns and head to Freetown.
By April 1995, over 7,000 displaced children had registered with the Department of Education. Some 4,000 were placed in schools in Freetown, which soon became overpopulated. In May, the Department of Education had to stop the exercise with over 3,500 students still displaced. It was at this juncture that the FAWE Sierra Leone Chapter offered its assistance. But the young organization with little more than a noble mandate, no secretariat and only membership dues as their source of funding, could barely meet the challenge. They somehow had to play the role of Ministry of Education. The 35 women of FAWE nevertheless showed commitment to its mandate and resolved to take up the challenge. They demonstrated the adage of “where there’s a will there’s a way” and with caps in hand established the Emergency Camp Schools Programme for Displaced Children at the abandoned Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board – Palm Kernel Oil Mill complex.
Aissata is a product of the Programme. She passed the test and was enrolled into the FAWE/Danida Makeni School. The main objective of the project was- and continues to be today- to provide out-of-school girls in conflict-affected states the opportunity to acquire technical, vocational and entrepreneurship skills in order to increase their prospects for employment in the formal or informal sectors. This project would be achieved primarily through the provision of vocational, technical and entrepreneurship training. This training will equip beneficiaries so that they can contribute to the rebuilding of their country in meaningful ways. They will be provided with skills and knowledge that will enable them to either find employment or set up income-generating activities. Additionally, the project provides scholarships for continuing education, establishes strategic alliances among key stakeholders, establishes graduates’ associations, and conducts policy advocacy and community mobilization activities.
Five institutions were chosen to participate in the project throughout the country: Young Women Christian Association (YWCA), Government Technical Institute, Kissy (GTI); Muraildo Vocational Institution, Kissy GTI; Sierra Leone Opportunity Industrialization Centre (SLOIC), Makeni; Government Technical Institute (GTI), Magburaka; and Milton Margai College of Technology (MMCET), Congo Cross. Focus was made on 9 diverse subjects according to the country’s situation and need after more than 10 years of war, but also according to local context: Special Arts and Craft, the electrical and electronic fields, automobile engineering, printing technology, welding and forging, computer studies, building and construction, plumbing, and carpentry– all at diploma level.
In Aissata’s school, they have received several counseling sessions on life skills, HIV awareness and behavior. Nonetheless the young girl admitted to still having a “sugar daddy” to help her feed her children: “I do use protection because I am a pair educator for HIV/AIDS and aware of the risks. As soon as I finish school and get a job I will not need any man to help me out anymore. I will stick to my boyfriend,” says the young woman shyly. Aissata is the only one in her entire family to receive any type of education. She and her mother are very proud of that, although the only brother she has is urging her to find a husband that will help raise the children. Very soon, she hopes that she will be able to take care of her own children and even help her mother a little. “I hope that the project will help us get the toolkit to start up because it will not be easy for me to get a job in my field (electrical engineering) in this part of the country as a woman; but I am sure if I have my own tools, I will work for myself and show them all how good a woman can be in this type of work as well…”
Some of the girls in Aissatou’s school are worried about their re-insertion within the community after they receive their degrees because they know how difficult it will be for the community to see women fixing their cars, and handling their electrical, plumber, and carpentry issues. Fortunately, the project will prepare the community in that sense before the girls finish and will equip them with tool kits so that they can be independent for a start. This project really brings hope to girls in a hopeless situation as one of them states: “I never knew girls could do such jobs even though I was dreaming about it. When I told my brother my wish to try the test after we heard the sketch on the radio where a woman was fixing somebody’s car, he laughed at me and said that I could never do such a thing, that I better find a husband very quick. Now I am here and doing very well, I am so happy and thankful to FAWE and the Danida people. Very soon, I will be able to take care of myself and my mother,” says Fatoumata Camara, a 25 year old student majoring in Mechanics at the Makeni School.
Fatoumata Thiam Diallo, FAWE Nairobi