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Caritas Sierra Leone Providing Girls with Life Skills to Address Early Marriages

Fr. Peter Konteh. Credit: Caritas Freetown

Caritas Sierra Leone’s School Related Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SR-SGBV) and Life Skills Program, which started to address the high number of teenage pregnancies and school dropout rates among girls, is keeping more girls in school, a Catholic Priest in the country has said.

According to Fr. Peter Konteh who is the Executive Director of Caritas Freetown and acting Director Caritas Sierra Leone, 85 percent of girls in schools that are involved in the program have recorded improvement in their academic performance.

Additionally, 80 percent of girls who enrolled for the program in the Archdiocese of Freetown have reported that they confidently attend classes during menstruation, Fr. Konteh said in his message on the International Day of the Girl Child.

The Caritas Freetown Director noted that the Church-based charity organization was working with other stakeholders in the country to turn around the situation of the girl child in the country.

“Caritas has a well-established reputation of working hand in hand with parents, male peers and local community-based organizations in Sierra Leone to help girls get the education they need for themselves, their family, their country and the world. Taken literally, by supporting and focusing on the girl’s voice, it helps our equal future,” Fr. Konteh said in a speech he shared with ACI Africa ahead of the international celebrations of the Day of the Girl Child on October 11. 

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The International Day of the Girl Child focuses attention on the need to address the challenges girls face and to promote girls’ empowerment and the fulfilment of their human rights, the United Nations indicates.

The UN states that adolescent girls have the right to a safe, educated, and healthy life, not only during these critical formative years, but also as they mature into women.

“If effectively supported during the adolescent years, girls have the potential to change the world – both as the empowered girls of today and as tomorrow’s workers, mothers, entrepreneurs, mentors, household heads, and political leaders,” the UN says in the message for the celebration of the 2021 International Day of the Girl Child marked under the theme, “Digital generation. Our generation.”

While unveiling the theme of the event, UNICEF noted that while the pandemic has accelerated digital platforms for learning, earning and connecting, some 2.2 billion people below the age of 25 still do not have internet access at home.

According to UNICEF, girls are more likely to be cut off in this divide.

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Statistics provided by the UN agency indicate that the gender gap for global internet users grew from 11 per cent in 2013 to 17 per cent in 2019. In the world’s least developed countries, it hovers around 43 per cent. 

However, the gender digital divide is about more than connectivity, UNICEF says, adding, “Girls are also less likely than boys to use and own devices, and gain access to tech-related skills and jobs. Only by addressing the inequity and exclusion that span geographies and generations can we usher in a digital revolution for all, with all.”

According to Fr. Konteh, this year’s theme for the International Day of the Girl Child applies to the potential of girls in Sierra Leone who face numerous challenges including FGM, inequalities in the provision of education, early pregnancies and related challenges such as maternal deaths.

“We’re thrilled about this year’s theme as it directly applies to the potential of the girls in Sierra Leone, one of the West African countries in which Caritas works,” Fr. Konteh said.

He added, “Similar to other parts of West Africa, girls growing up in Sierra Leone face enormous challenges which includes female genital mutilation (FGM), SGBV, education inequality, early childhood marriage, and high teenage pregnancy rates which can also contribute to a high rate of maternal death when proper healthcare is unavailable.”

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“For the millions of girls in countries prone to conflict and crisis, these challenges are especially formidable,” the Catholic Priest in Sierra Leone said, and added, “When women and girls lack power in their homes and communities, every shock – whether armed conflict, drought, flood or COVID-19 – inevitably affects them differently than others.”

The Caritas Freetown Director says that often the educational path for girls becomes obstructed because associated cultural or health factors become hurdles to their learning.

“In fact, a UNICEF report showed that 40 percent of girls in Sierra Leone are married before their 18th birthday and drop out of school because of early marriage and 70 percent drop out due to pregnancy,” he says. 

Activities of the SR-SGBV and Life Skills Program include reproductive rights, sexual maturation and personal safety education for girls.

Girls in Freetown, especially those who have undergone abuse and are in the process of getting justice are also provided with safe spaces to learn.

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Caritas Freetown also fosters communication between parents and daughters and builds peer support networks and clubs for girls, which Fr. Konteh says it has resulted in higher confidence and a multiplying effect among peers.

Additionally, boys are engaged in these programs to provide an all-rounded support for the girls, the Sierra Leonean Catholic Priest says.

In his message on the important day of the girl child, Fr. Konteh highlighted the need for society to teach girls that they can be the best in whatever they aspire to be and to give them the tools they need to succeed.