Hope for girls in Sierra Leone
Writer: Grieteke Meerman
Mellicentia (17) from Sierra Leone is determined to improve the future of girls and young women in her country. In the framework of the Girls Advocacy Alliance programme, she is lobbying against economic exclusion, sexual violence and teenage pregnancies. Her struggle took her to Geneva in 2018, where she impressed the UN Children’s Rights Committee.
“One day she told me she wanted to become a human rights lawyer,” Mellicentia’s mother says as she chuckles. “And there was me hoping she’d become a doctor, so at least she’d be able to tend to me if I was sick! She is now following technical vocational education and once she completes it she’ll be allowed to study law.” Sitting next to her mother on the couch in their simple apartment in Freetown, Mellicentia adds that she’d eventually like to become Secretary General of the UN!
Looks can be deceptive. She might give the impression of being a little doll-like, but 17-year-old Mellicentia is determined to dedicate her career to a higher goal. She started at the tender age of 13, by joining a youth network. And for about a year now she has been an important voice in the Girls Advocacy Alliance (GAA), a collaborative programme being implemented by Plan International Nederland, Defence for Children – ECPAT, Terre des Hommes and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Alliance is using lobbying activities to combat violence against girls and young women and improve their economic participation. Setting up and supporting youth groups like Mellicentia’s is just one element of the Alliance, and, in addition to Sierra Leone, it is being done in Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Liberia and India.
As a GAA youth advocate Mellicentia participates in discussions with politicians and journalists, and speaks on behalf of other girls during meetings throughout the country and even outside its borders. In September her struggle took her to the Swiss city of Geneva, where she impressed members of the UN Children’s Rights Committee with an impassioned speech. So much so, apparently, that afterwards someone told her that she would not look out of place as the Secretary General of the UN! That has now become Mellicentia’s dream.
Girl Advocacy Alliance
Motivation and inspiration
Mellicentia is still active in her own community, which is located in an impoverished neighbourhood in Freetown. She talks to the parents of girls who are not going to school, for example, and to teenage mothers who think that education is no longer an option for them. “We motivate them and inspire them to move on with their lives and to look to the future.”
One such girl is Mellicentia’s neighbour, who regularly changes and breast-feeds her four-month-old son in front of her house. He has a brother who is four years older and born when his mother was just 15. She quit school during that first pregnancy and never went back. “I’ve been talking to her for three years now, and time and time again I try to make it clear to her that she shouldn’t give up hope of having a better future. I think my persistence is finally paying off because now she is exploring her options of going back to school. Members of her family will probably be able to look after her children.”
Have children and stay at home
When it comes to the position of girls and young women in Sierra Leone, teenage pregnancies are the proverbial thorn in Mellicentia’s side. “So many girls in my neighbourhood are becoming pregnant, after which they just stop going to school. When I leave my house in the morning I see them sitting on the pavement and they’ll still be there when I get back. It’s their life; they have children and then they stay at home.”
Poverty is one of the reasons that so many young girls in this West African country get pregnant. “If some guy has a lot of money, that is often seen as a good reason for a girl to have sex with him, with all the associated consequences,” says Mellicentia. But the huge taboo surrounding sex, and everything to do with it, also plays a role. “In our culture parents don’t talk to their children about sex. Fortunately for me, my parents did. I’m now a proponent of sex education, telling girls that in addition to pleasure it also brings pain, like the repercussions of becoming pregnant when you are very young.”
Not surprisingly, Mellicentia’s activism has elicited resistance. She has even been threatened by individuals who disagree with her, or take issue with the way she makes sensitive topics open to discussion. “It’s just part of the course in this line of work,” she says stoically. But despite the resistance she continues to lobby, steadfast in her belief that sooner or later it will pay dividends. In the meantime, she’s still working hard to become a human rights lawyer.
Listening with pride to what her daughter has to say, Mellicentia’s mother insists that it’s every parent’s dream to see his or her child excelling at what they do best. “In Mellicentia’s case, it’s her lobbying work,” her mother says. “And what she is doing is really necessary, because there is a lot of suffering among the girls in this country. Perhaps her efforts will signal the start of a far-reaching change.”