By Abdul Karim Koroma in Ethiopia.
“Under the astute and dynamic leadership of His Excellency President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma, the protection of Sierra Leone children especially the Girl Child, remains a priority but sometimes our friends and partners, though with very best intentioned motives, can actually prove to be counter-productive to the ultimate success of the laudable objectives that they share with us,” was how Sierra Leone’s Honourable Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden opened her power-point presentation on Monday November 7th 2016 at the United Nations Conference Centre in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The Minister is in Ethiopia as a guest of Madam Graca Machel, the widow of late President Nelson Mandela who chairs the International Board of Trustees of the African Child Policy Forum (ACPF). Hon. Dr. Blyden was invited to address the 7th International Policy Conference on the African Child with her choice being to showcase success stories from Sierra Leone.
The Sierra Leone Minister’s presentation today took a look at how two of His Excellency the President’s fantastic innovative interventions, could have lost their fascinating lessons to be learnt by other countries “because some of our well-respected partners initially refused to join us in thinking outside the box”.
She identified the two innovations to be interventions for one, Eliminating Female Genital Cutting of girls under the age of 18 years and secondly, upholding and protecting the psycho-social welfare of schoolgirls who turned pregnant.
She however lamented that “had it not been for the persistence of the Government to refuse to be cowed in the face of massive propaganda from activists around the world, the successes borne of innovation could not have been possible to be recounted here today”.
“Today, I will highlight how the innovative thinker we have as our Head of State has achieved and is achieving success, by thinking outside the box,” Hon. Blyden said.
She started with the issue of Female Genital Mutilation. She cited the African Union Resolution sponsored by Burkina Faso which had called on the United Nations for a global ban on FGM. Reading from the Resolution, she pointed out the frustrations expressed wherein the AU lamented that despite over 30 years of activism to end FGM in Africa, they had no significant success stories and instead FGM continued to flourish. She then went on to point out that despite some countries having passed legislations that banned FGM in their nations, yet FGM continued to be practiced; sometimes going underground whilst being done in communities.
She said a similar frustration as expressed within the AU Resolution was expressed to her by one of the esteemed United Nations Panel of Experts during her session with them some six weeks back.
“The Child Expert was asking me in obvious frustration as to why should it be so difficult to simply just pass a law and ban FGM in Sierra Leone?” Blyden recounted.
The Minister then told the audience which was now in rapt attention that the reason why the AU and the UN will continue to be frustrated with the issue of ending FGM was because they were using approaches that were doomed to fail.
“The methods are never going to work even for the next 30 or more years until the world realizes that the way forward is to learn from Sierra Leone where we respect our women and protect our children. When we learn to stop insulting our African women and instead focus attention on letting them join us to protect our children, we will make headway in this matter,” Hon. Blyden said.
She then played a two minutes video of her speech to the nation on the Day of the African Child this year. At this point, was when she explained of how for the first time in the history of Sierra Leone, a sitting Cabinet Minister went live on radio and television to denounce the practice of subjecting girls to be cut. She explained that it was previously a taboo to even mention such a denunciation even in whispers and Governments usually shied away from such.
“However, to the astonishment of everyone concerned, the reaction from the leaders of the Bondo secret societies which performs genital cutting, was not anger with me. Rather, they not only applauded my words but they came out in vocal solidarity to endorse that indeed no female should be cut unless the person reached the legal age of consent. They reiterated that they had promised the President that they will follow the policy and indeed they are now right at the front of protecting girls,” Hon. Blyden stated adding, “as a government, we are not telling over 80% of our women whom have been through the procedure that they are mutilated or that they are victims. No, no, no. That is counter productive to the respect that our women deserve. Instead, we tell them that any adult woman who wants to go the way of her ancestors and be circumcised, is free to do so as long as no child is cut”.
Speaking with clarity, confidence and assurance, the Minister’s statements were interrupted several times with loud applause. At the end of the presentation, it was clear to the entire hall that she had convinced everyone in there as to the value of the message of “Respect the Women and Protect the Girls”. She said other African Leaders should take a leaf out of the page of President Koroma in order to eliminate FGM amongst children.
“African Leaders, please do not be cowed into thinking you have to follow those who insult our women who believe in FGM but rather focus all your attention on convincing the women to protect the girls,” Hon. Blyden ended her first presentation.
In the second half of her presentation, Hon. Blyden also highlighted how enrolling more girls into school was not the only focus of President Koroma in educating girls but that another key objective is for our girls to be able to complete school and reach their full potential under the best possible conditions including protecting their psychosocial welfare to ensure they can complete school and go into tertiary education.
She said despite the ravage of the Ebola crisis, His Excellency President Koroma has not relented in pushing his Gender Policies in Education and Health including ensuring our girls complete school in good frame of mind and with high self-confidence. In that direction, she revealed that one of the most highly successful policies which was implemented during the aftermath of the Ebola crisis was the needful protection of Sierra Leone school girls who unfortunately fell pregnant.
She said well documented taunts of pregnant girls by their peers in classrooms tend to traumatize the girls and make them decide not to continue school so as to avoid the taunts from classmates who can be quite hurtful in their choice of words used to taunt peers who fall pregnant.
The following are verbatim how she ended her presentation:
“Pregnancy amongst Sierra Leone school girls reached scary levels during the Ebola crisis. Prior to Ebola, Teenage Pregnancy had already been identified by His Excelllebcy President Koroma as a menace affecting the future of productive women and a multi-agency Secretariat had been created to combat it. The escalation of the problem during Ebola crisis was of astronomical levels and is now attributed to:
1. Disruption of health systems including Family Planning and Birth Control
2. Total Closure of all Schools
3. An Abnormal Life pattern which Ebola brought had psychological effects that caused Girls to seek emotional solace
4. Pervasion of practise of Sex with and by Minors.”
“To avoid peer taunts caused the huge majority of Pregnant Girls to decide not to go back to school when Schools re-opened. Going by pre-Ebola data, it was clear that the majority of these girls will decide never to re-enrol back into school. It meant many potentially highly educated women will be lost from reaching their full educational potentials. This sadly meant a widening of the gender gap amongst educated adults in the future. Clearly, His Excellency who is very gender-sensitive and always striving to close the gender gap, realised Sierra Leone had a future Gender Crisis on its hands if all those thousands of girls dropped out of school. To combat the Crisis, our government had to be innovative and think outside the box. We developed an Innovation which was ALTERNATIVE SCHOOLING FOR PREGNANT GIRLS.”
“Pregnant Girls could now be assured that in the company of fellow pregnant girls at the alternative Schools, peer taunts were impossibility as everyone in the classroom was pregnant. The pregnant girls rushed to enrol. We provided classes for them in Core Subjects & most importantly, WE PROVIDED COUNSELING TO REBUILD THEIR CONFIDENCE TO GO BACK TO SCHOOL.”
“Lamentably, the Reaction from our well respected and great friends like AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL and other CHILD RIGHTS AGENCIES was Shocking and Disappointing. They did not applaud the move but condemned it as a Negative.
They could not join us to THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX but instead interpreted our steps to mean “Sierra Leone took Pregnant Girls out of School” instead of what it really was, which should be headlined as: “Sierra Leone Protecting Psychosocial Welfare of Pregnant Girls and assuring their Continued Education”.
But the outcome has JUSTIFIED us. Where the country would have normally had over 14,000 of those girls never going back to school, by September this year, we had re-enrolled almost 10,000 Girls back to Regular Schooling brimming with self confidence.
We had UNPRECEDENTED SUCCESS!! And all because our Head of State and Government, decided to think outside the box.”
As Hon. Minister Dr. Sylvia Blyden thanked the audience for their attention, the entire hall erupted into clearly appreciative round of applause.
Afterwards, a cross section of persons interviewed by this writer had nothing but high commendation for the two strategies of His Excellency President Koroma.
The representative from Save the Children International described Hon. Blyden’s presentation as very educative and insightful.
Abdul Karim Koroma
Embassy of the Republic of Sierra Leone