Story Of A Village Development Committee Chairman: An Ambassador Of Child Protection
Yillah Sesay*, Chairman of the Village Development Committee (VDC) of Bombali Bana, Safrokor Limba Chiefdom in Bombali district has won the heart of his people. In his home town, Yillah needs no introduction. He is well known as a mediator, mobilizer, pioneer, leader and an advocate for children’s rights issues. Since 2017, his group his group has single-handedly identified, managed and solved over 30 cases of abuse, violence and exploitation against children and has unified people in this scenario which has greatly impacted the socio-economic lives of children in the community.
The children living in Bombali Bana of Safrokor Limba Chiefdom, like many other children in Bombali district, are some of the most disadvantaged children. They walk miles from their village to access safe drinking water and even further to attend secondary schools in neighbouring towns and villages.
Soon after the intervention of the UNICEF supported project in September 2017, DCI-Sierra Leone met Yillah Sesay, explained the purpose and objectives of the project that targets the disadvantaged and vulnerable children of that geographically remote location of Bombali district. Despite his constantly being surrounded by people and his heavy work load, Yillah Sesay agreed to give his best to the project and has not turned back once. “Initially, we thought it was an impossible task but things have changed so fast and we are happy because our children are becoming safer,” said Yillah.
After becoming a part of the project, Yillah Sesay along with 20 members of his Committee, chose a venue in the village for regular VDC meetings. Simultaneously, the organisation assessed and reviewed the trend and status of children’s rights issues in the village and made practical recommendations to address them. More specifically, they engaged community leaders (including tribal and community chiefs) and school authorities on crucial child protection issues, increased public and community awareness and developed practical community plans of action with clear roles and responsibilities on how to effectively address such problems. The VDC thus drafted written bylaws and also established informal community patrol teams in Bombali Bana.
Night club activity was also a severe problem in the village. It was so rampant that children below the age of 18-years would travel five to ten miles from Bombali Bana during school hours to attend night shows in neighbouring towns and villages. Many children stopped attending school to go to these night shows, while those who stayed in class were performing very poorly.
With support from DCI-Sierra Leone, Yillah Sesay – with other members of the Village Development Committee –launched awareness raising campaign on responsible enjoyment of night shows in Bombali Bana and in the nearby villages. After a series of discussions, the Paramount Chief and the school headmasters were motivated to stop this harmful practice in their respective villages.
Consequently, the Paramount Chief of Safrokor Limba chiefdom, in collaboration with community leaders, placed a Community Declaration in the respective villages to restrict night club activities to the weekend. The document is also a powerful reminder of parents, leaders and the communities’ roles and responsibilities towards the wellbeing of their children. Yillah Sesay is in many ways a pioneer and a leader.
* Replacement to protect the child’s identity
“I refused”: Brave women and girls take a stand against FGM
“It was a difficult decision, but I am happy because I don’t think FGM could make me happier than my education,” – Marie* (17).
Marie, 17, is a fierce leader, a child activist and an example in her community and school. Five years ago, she refused to stay silent when she learned that her mother was planning for her to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM).
As in many other communities in Sierra Leone, FGM is deeply-rooted in the Kabombeh community, to which Marie belongs. The practice can cause lasting harm, including pain, infection, internal bleeding, psychological repercussions and complications during child birth. FGM can even be fatal.
As Marie had learned about these consequences from local activists previously trained by DCI-SL in her village, she refused to undergo the procedure. However, this meant she would have to leave home and seek help in a neighbouring village.
Fortunately, after Marie left home, she ran into her uncle, who agreed to support her. In fact, he said, he would only support her education if she kept her stance not to undergo FGM.
“If I hadn’t had support, especially from my uncle, things could have gone wrong for me and it would’ve remained with me for the rest of my life,” she says.
Marie is not alone in this. In the community of Kabombeh, a number of individuals who have seen and experienced the consequences of FGM are now raising public and community awareness to bring an end to this harmful practice.
Soon after, DCI – Sierra Leone began operating in Marie’s community. With the UNICEF founded project, the organization raised community awareness about harmful traditional practices including child marriage, teenage pregnancy and FGM, and encouraged community members to mobilize against these practices.
Marie was one of the children who received training, support and help with accessing essential justice services. She is now a powerful advocate for the end of child FGM in her community.
Despite the obstacles, there is genuine hope in Kabombeh that FGM will be eradicated. With DCI-SL’s support, according to Marie, the practice is declining. “We are raising awareness about the effects of child abuse to bring an end to the practice for good,” she says.
* Replacement to protect the child’s identity
“I had no idea what was happening” – A turning point for girls Menstrual health in ‘Lago’
“I felt embarrassed to be a girl and felt like it was punishment,” recalls 16-year-old Kadiatu*, describing her first period.
She was leaving for school, in her village of Logo, in Kenema district when it happened for the first time. Her mother taught her to use a cloth to manage the blood. “I was not knowledgeable about how and why it happens, and what to expect. So, naturally, I was scared and confused. I will never forget that experience,” she explains.
Kadiatu is far from being the only one. Girls in Lago lack basic knowledge about their sexual and reproductive health and struggle to access menstrual health supplies to manage their menstrual hygiene. Many grapple with shame and taboos surrounding menstruation. These issues undermine girls’ health and rights. Girls can be subjected to stigma or miss school due to difficulty managing their menstrual hygiene. Kadiatu understands these challenges. “I hated going to class,” she told DCI-Sierra Leone.
An estimated one in ten girls in sub-Saharan Africa misses school at some point during their period. Improving sexual and reproductive health can yield a significant return, by increasing women’s and girls’ participation in education, sustainable community and national development and the economy. But there are enormous challenges that must be addressed first.
African sexuality is very much a taboo. However, not talking about sexual reproductive health perpetuates stigma and discrimination. Access to sexual education is vital not only for menstrual literacy but also for self-confidence, self-esteem and self-worth.
Before the intervention of DCI – Sierra Leone, many women in Lago, including girls like Kadiatu including girls like Kadiatu, lacked knowledge on the use of sanitary pads. “When I’m menstruating, I usually use strips of absorbent cloth. That was all my mother taught me”- Kadiatu said.
Fortunately for Kadiatu, she participated in a UNICEF-supported Life Skill training organized by Defence for Children International – Sierra Leone, and it changed her life forever. There, she learned skills to break down taboos as well as to build positive norms around menstruation.
Today, while Kadiatu effectively manages her menstrual period, she advocates among her peers in schools and communities, and tells them about the importance of using sanitary pad to manage their menstrual period.
“I have now taken it upon myself to help other girls in school experiencing their first menstrual period,” she says. “Now I know that it’s a normal human body function and there is no need to be embarrassed.”
* Replacement to protect the child’s identity
The “agony” of an abandoned child
“All that I ever wanted was to go to school, play with my friends and make my mother happy. This is not possible right now because my father abandoned us when we needed him the most. I feel sorry for my mother and it’s painful, but I am hopeful,” says 6-year-old Lahai*.
Lahai is a bright and enthusiastic boy living in the outskirts of Kenema district. Abandoned by his father when he was only two months old, he lives with his pregnant mother, step-father and 7-year-old brother.
Lahai’s parents are poor and do not have regular work: his step-father spends most of his days as a labourer in a community construction company. The mother, Hawa*, is expecting another baby but every day is busy for her. She gets up very early, prepares the morning meals, and then starts doing household chores. She then sells rice. Sometimes Hawa goes to the market to buy other products to resell.
Because he is not in school, Lahai goes with his mother to the market and helps her with the housework. After Lahai’s father abandoned them Hawa was devastated and did not know how to care for Lahai, his 7-year old brother and herself. Her community isolated her and to many she had mental disability.
On the morning of 15 August 2018, desperate to lead a life of hope for Lahai and her other children, Hawa and her family took to the streets of their impoverished village of Hanga, in search of her uncle- a Chiefdom Police Officer, who lived in the Kpetema section in the Kenema township. She decided to secure a loan scheme from her uncle to improve her business in the village, thereby continuing to secure little earnings to continue to survive.
Unfortunately for Hawa, this didn’t happen and her hopes for a better life seemed even more unattainable. After traveling approximately 4 miles, an exhausted Hawa started acting strangely, and began to scream aloud in the middle of the street as she stripped her clothes off her body.
As panic gripped Lahai, the situation aroused curiosity in Mohamed*, a local resident, who decided to interrogate Lahai and took him to a local police station for protective custody to ensure his safety. The local police division later referred the case to DCI-Sierra Leone’s trained social worker in Kenema district, who directly provided Lahai with life skills and other support before proceeding with the reintegration process. Lahai and his mother were also provided with psychological counselling. Lahai was additionally provided with a temporary shelter at his uncle’s place in Kenema.
Today, Lahai and his mother have moved to the Kenema township and for the first time in his life, Lahai wants to go to school, and fulfil his dream of becoming a doctor. He wants to help his family and support other vulnerable children in his village.
* Replacement to protect the child’s identity
In Gbonkonka, information key to halting child abuse
“Before, I knew nothing about U-Report. I did not even know what the platform was and how it prevents abuse and promotes children’s rights. But now I know that when it comes to preventing child abuse, information and mobile technology are key. Today, we share free information about us and raise awareness on certain issues, community-led development and information sharing as well as advocate at a community level through our phones and by SMS,” says30-year-old Abass*.
Abass speaks in a slow, whispery voice as he recounts his short life. Abass and his wife, Kallay*, are just one of the many food insecure families that struggled to feed their children. For Abass, cooking three meals a day for his family of two was a near-impossible task. The family depended entirely on the income of Abass, a primary school teacher, to cover daily expenses.
With all these responsibilities, Abass was frustrated about the ever-increasing rate of child abuse in his village and was determined to change this: “My personal story inspired me to protect and prevent abuse in my community,” he told DCI-Sierra Leone. “I didn’t want any of my relatives or any child in this village to go through what I did.”Like many other children, growing up as a child in his impoverished neighbourhood, Abass had a difficult upbringing. He was a victim of regular bullying, intimidation and social exclusion and he began to think that “the strong wins and the weak loses.”
For Abass, his friends and many other young people in the Gbonkonka community, this had change. A friend told him about the UNICEF supported project, implemented by DCI-Sierra Leone in his village. Thanks to this new initiative, Abass was given a chance to “serve humanity,” as he describes it. He then became a reporter on U-Report – a platform of young and dedicated youths, including girls and young women, using information to transform lives.
As a leader, Abass and other 49 U-reporters use mobile technology to identify and report cases of abuse, violence and exploitation against children in the village. Additionally, they play a critical role in educating one another and fostering safe environments for discussions on topics otherwise deemed as taboo, like teenage pregnancy, education, early marriage, child FGM and sexual violence in schools and community.
U-Report is an innovative UNICEF project designed to collect information directly from young people regarding their living conditions or the respect of their rights. The innovation lies in the unique opportunity the access to mobile technology provides to promote development. From their mobile devices, young people in Gbonkonka, lead their community’s development, address social issues and make a better life for everyone.
“Each child feels their problems differently and U-Report gives everyone of them the possibility to give the answer they think is the best one. The platform is a completely free SMS system that gives voice to young people on issues that concern them,” says Abass.
In the last 12 months ,Abass and his group has identified, reported and jointly managed several child rights issues, and raised public and community awareness on key community development issues including on the Free Health Care Scheme, National Vaccination Programme and the Free Education Initiative and several child protection issues, in the community.
“This is just the beginning,” he says. As a victims of bulling, growing up in his village, Abass feels hopeful that with increased community awareness, strong community mechanisms, continued capacity building, and strong community solidarity, the Gbonkonka community will become a safer place for children.
“We consider U-Report as a new space created for them and allowing them to share an embarrassing situation for free. With U-Report we hope that in the future, no one will dare to deprive a child of his rights or that the fear of being exposed prevents them from doing it,” says Abass filled with hope.