Building Sierra Leone's next generation of feminists
The next generation of feminists are being nurtured in Sierra Leone, and Moiyattu Banya-Keister, a Sierra Leonean educator and feminist, has created a safe space for this to happen. Along with a small group of volunteers, Banya-Keister founded Girls Empowerment Sierra Leone (GESL), a feminist organization that helps girls become leaders and make positive changes in their communities, in Freetown, the nation’s capital. Since its founding in 2012, GESL has successfully impacted the lives of over 200 girls between the ages of 12 and 17.
Banya-Keister left Sierra Leone as a refugee in 1997. In 2011, she returned to her home country to volunteer with youth-based organizations, but she “quickly realized that there was no exclusive space like those, for girls in Sierra Leone,” she told the FBomb. “I yearned to see girls nurtured in a space to help them thrive in a peaceful society, and be able to carve out a future that belongs to them.”
Myriad obstacles stand in the way of girls in Sierra Leone’s abilities to realize their full potential. Some of these issues include limited access to proper education, the prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), rape, and sexual assault, and high rates of teenage pregnancy. In the United Nations Development Program’s 2017 Gender Inequality Index, an indication of gaps in women’s and girls’ access to socio-economic opportunities, Sierra Leone ranked 150th. Save the Children’s 2018 childhood index rating — which measures factors like school attendance and adequacy of education, as well as adult labor, marriage, and motherhood — included in its End of Childhood Report, ranked Sierra Leone as one of the bottom ten out of 175 countries in these measures.
GESL addresses these issues by creating a curriculum that aims to helps girls overcome adversity, stay in school, and reach their full potential. Participating girls enroll for a total of six years — a length of time the program believes will enable them to stay fully engaged in and benefit from it —and start during their first year in secondary school. GESL’s core curriculum focuses on leadership development, mentorship, technology and innovation, community action and activism, and health. It does this through five pillars of the program: an annual summit that brings young Sierra Leonean girls together to participate in leadership development workshops; year-round mentorship workshops that are led and facilitated by Sierra Leonean women; community development projects to solve particular problems in the girls’ school communities; an emergency assistance program that supports the families of girls involved in times of crisis; and a yearlong community/national project led by GESL girls in their fourth year in the program to engage in advocacy efforts to solve broader issues on a national level.
Feminist activism serves as the curriculum’s framework in that such ideals shape every aspect of what the girls learn. “There are core topics on feminism,” Maryam Darwich, the In-Country Coordinator for GESL, explained, “but the essence and the spirit run through the design as opposed to specifically the ‘content.’” The effect of this framework is evident, as girls involved in the program have championed campaigns against female genital mutilation in their communities, taken part in international leadership training like the Yale Africa Scholars program, and confidently and articulately voiced their experiences through blogging.
GESL’s newest program, the IGNITE series, which was started in 2017, applies these principles to engaging new formats of physical and digital spaces. IGNITE mainly produces speaking events with the goal of helping “girls learn about feminism through different angles and engage in dialogue within Sierra Leone through the lens of feminist politics,” according to Banya-Keister. IGNITE lectures are recorded and published as a podcast — IGNITE Series, which has over 2,000 listeners — so that they are accessible to a wider audience as well as for posterity. This is a unique form of digital archiving in Sierra Leone, where the idea of podcasting is slowly starting to be widely acceptable and accessible. Ideally, the IGNITE series podcast — which remains the only exclusive digital platform solely dedicated to feminist issues in Sierra Leone — will enable boys and girls from all 16 districts of the country to listen to dynamic speakers talk about the importance of women’s rights and feminism. GESL is working on this goal of creating more dialogue about and engagement with feminism all over the country by partnering with key radio and TV stations as well.
To understand the power of the series, take the first lecture, which was given in April 2017 by Dr. Aisha Fofanah Ibrahim, a feminist scholar and activist who also served as president of 50-50, a lobby group for women’s political participation in Sierra Leone. Her lecture on the impact of women’s activism on political participation in Sierra Leone attracted over 100 guests, including students, women’s rights activists, and policy makers in Sierra Leone.
For Dr. Ibrahim, giving the lecture was a way to impart knowledge and spark an interest in challenging patriarchal norms in Sierra Leone. When asked about her experience giving the IGNITE lecture, Dr. Ibrahim told the FBomb, “It is easier for people to just give up and not keep challenging the status quo, but we should continuously engage young people in different ways and in different fora.”
Eighteen-year-old Josephine Thullah, an alumna of GESL’s program, told the FBomb she was inspired by Dr. Fofanah Ibrahim’s lecture, saying, “It was educational, informative, and empowering. It empowered me to believe in myself and other women out there that we can do anything that will bring change in our beloved country."
It is GESL’s hope that the girls who graduate from the program will start to take up leadership positions in Sierra Leone that will really affect change. As Maryam Darwich put it, “We pride ourselves in providing spaces for girls to have a voice, where they can build feminist sisterhood relationships and become the next champions of gender equality rights in Sierra Leone.”
Ngozi is one of the four fellows who were selected as part of the Young Feminist Media Fellowship between FRIDA The Young Feminist Fund and The Fbomb. A pilot project launched this year, the fellowship is an attempt to counter dominant narratives that provide little to no space to achievements and accomplishments of young feminist organizers, giving an opportunity to young feminist storytellers to tell the story themselves of young feminist trends around them.
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