Why Sierra Leone needs a Women’s Entrepreneurship Center of Resources, Education, Access, and Training for Economic Empowerment

Africa’s women and girls offer untapped potential to drive African development. Reductions in the gender gap in education, health, and economic inclusion will result in an increase in the continent’s economic competitiveness.

This week, the United States Department of State announced that its African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program will open the third new Women’s Entrepreneurship Centers of Resources, Education, Access, and Training for Economic Empowerment (WECREATE), in Mali this year, in addition to the centers already open in Zambia and Kenya.

The centers are expected to create 7,194 new jobs and 630 certified female mentors by October 2016.

In Africa, women are the backbone of communities and the continent’s greatest potential to unlocking economic growth. 

Sheriff Mahmud Ismail reports from Sierra Leone, where nearly half the population is under the age of 18. 

In a recent UN Population Fund (UNFPA) report focused on motherhood in childhood and adolescent pregnancy, we saw some staggering statistics.

20,000 girls under age 18 give birth in developing countries every day. And every year, there are 70,000 adolescent deaths from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Of the 20 countries with the highest rates of adolescent pregnancy, 18 are African, the report said.

“There are 580 million adolescent girls in the world. Four out of five of them live in developing countries. Investing in them today will unleash their full potential to shape humanity’s future,” UNFPA’s Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin explained in the report foreword.

The distorted transitioning of girls into womanhood as a result of early pregnancy ought to be seen as a significant economic loss.

Earlier this year, a World Bank Country Office mission visited a community health center in Kailahun, eastern Sierra Leone.  One clinic was full with pregnant and nursing mothers.

The seats in the Kailahun center, as in many other health facilities across the country, were occupied largely by teenage girls.

Jeneh Bockarie 17, is seven months pregnant. She had taken the Basic Education Certificate Examination in 2010 but didn’t make the grade to senior secondary school. Then one of her teachers, who is also her boyfriend, persuaded her to wait.

“Not that I wanted this situation, but things have been hard with my parents and he came along with help for extra classes and other school needs,” the young girl lamented.

Jeneh is not the only victim of rogue teachers.

Vanday B. Taylor, also seven months pregnant, has been in a relationship with one of her teachers for five years. She took the West African Senior School Certificate Examination in 2010 and in 2011, then enrolled in a distance education program for a teacher’s certificate at the Eastern Polytechnic. Vanday, now 20, was due to take her final examinations in June 2014. She hopes to complete her training after delivering the baby.

Mariama Swarray now 20, was fifteen and in junior secondary school, when she travelled 17 miles from Buedu to stay with her sister in Kailahun. But life became difficult for her sister who was criticized by her husband for bringing on an additional burden with extended family.

This provided a businessman an opening. He lured Mariama, then 15, with the all too familiar promise of school fees and other support. Mariama, who had been promoted to senior secondary school III in 2014, is now 6 months pregnant.

In Freetown, at the main referral children and maternity hospital, Isatu Jalloh, 17 brought her three-month old baby for immunization. She was in senior secondary school when she became pregnant by a trader.

“I want to go back to school but it is complicated now because I have to also take of the baby,” Isatu said.

For Fatmata Koroma, who had also brought her infant in for childhood vaccines, going back to school is no longer an option. She had her first baby when she was only thirteen.

“I could not deliver the baby and a caesarian section was done on me. It took me about two years to fully recover from the pain and the trauma that I went through,” she said.

Fatmata’s boyfriend is also a trader.

In Sierra Leone, more than one third of all pregnancies involve teenage girls. Up to 40 per cent of maternal deaths occur among them.

“They will start off nicely, providing much needed assistance, then just as one becomes dependent on them, they come up with their demands for babies – by now we would have already been trapped,” another girl explains.

Hawa Reffell, a matron at Panguma Hospital says some girls are impregnated by their schoolmates.

“The closure of schools during the [Ebola] outbreak meant pupils, some of whose parents or guardians had died of the virus, suddenly found themselves cooped at home and within the communities, a lot of the time, without supervision,” Matron Reffell said.

According to a 2013 UNICEF report “An Evaluation of Teenage Pregnancy Pilot Projects in Sierra Leone” there is a prevalence of 68 percent pregnancy rate among sexually experienced teenage girls, with a mean age of 15, and 28 percent of teenage boys having caused a pregnancy.

While sexually active teenagers had frequent sex, slightly more than one-third (35 percent) had ever used a condom.

Only a small percentage (9.2 percent) of the girls between 15 and 19, who had more than one sexual partner during the last twelve months, reported having used a condom the last time they had sex.
Youth activists say that one of the key factors responsible for teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone is impunity.

Morlai Conteh, chair of the Youth Coalition believes the problem resides in “out- of -court -settlements” between the family of the victim and the perpetrator.

The government enacted the Sexual Offences Act in 2012.   The Act states that, “a person below the age of 18 is not capable of giving consent…” In order words, the Act considers sex with a girl under 18 as rape.

A 2013 report from a child welfare organization, Don Bosco Fambul makes a grim reading:
“It is not only the increasing brutality of the perpetrators of violence against the girls that is alarming but also the rising number of rape against girls and young women under the age of 14,” the report says, and criticizes the investigating authorities for engendering “a culture of impunity.”

The report further states that:

“In 37 cases of rape investigation files were demonstrably manipulated by the police or investigations were deliberately delayed. Perpetrators were released from custody and disappeared without a trace, in spite of the incriminating evidence against them. Only a fraction of the rapes make it to court to be punished.

The report also states that “most victims do not wish to report the perpetrators to the police.”
On International Women’s Day March 8th, 2015, Women in the Media Sierra Leone (WIMSAL) chose a poignant theme: “Make it Happen – Enforce Sexual Offences Act, Review 1861 Abortion Law, Stop Early Marriage and Rape”

A Plan International report on the rise of teenage pregnancy rates in November 2014, highlights some of the effects of teenage pregnancies with miscarriages and stillbirths are on the rise.

The report asserts that “With fistula, prolonged labor and other complications, all notable symptoms of teenage pregnancy, the lack of sufficient care during pregnancy and at birth is of particular concern.

Plan International are not the only ones concerned.

In UNICEF’s March 2013 report, teenage pregnancy is considered a problem of child abuse:
Teenage pregnancy and motherhood has been identified as the second most prevalent child abuse practice in Sierra Leone. It constitutes a national and community-wide problem, with a prevalence of 68 percent pregnancy rate among sexually experienced teenage girls, with a mean age of 15, and 28 percent of teenage boys having caused a pregnancy.

UNICEF further asserts that:

The Sierra Leone Out-of-School Study identified ‘high pregnancy rate’ amongst primary and secondary school children as a strong contributing factor to why school-aged children drop out of school.

Teenage pregnancy has serious long-term and wide-ranging consequences – from health complications (for young mother and the baby) to educational attainment and broader socio-economic repercussions. With nearly 48 percent of the total population between 0-17 years of age, prevention and reduction of teenage pregnancy is a national priority.

The government of Sierra Leone acknowledges the problem and looks at it from a multi-sectorial point of view.

The National Strategy for the Reduction of Teenage Pregnancy states that:

“Early child bearing and teenage pregnancy is a complex issue with multiple causes and diverse consequences, which requires a large spectrum of interventions. It appears that it cannot be addressed independently from other adolescent and youth sexual and reproductive health questions and from economic and social issues.”

The Ministry of Social Welfare Children and Gender Affairs says they are working with partners to deal with the problem.

Many people however believe that until the laws are enforced and impunity addressed, the girls will continue to be at the mercy of the perpetrators.

In its efforts to improve the maternal and child mortality indicators through its reproductive and child health project, the Sierra Leone Government may wish to look at ways to support the fight against teenage pregnancy.

When a girl becomes pregnant or has a child, her health, education, earning potential and her entire future may be in jeopardy, trapping her in a lifetime of poverty, exclusion and powerlessness, UNFPA says.

“Adolescent pregnancy is intertwined with issues of human rights,” writes UNFPA’s Babatunde Osotimehin.

“There are 580 million adolescent girls in the world. Four out of five of them live in developing countries. Investing in them today will unleash their full potential to shape humanity’s future,” he adds.

Africa’s women and girls offer enormous untapped potentials to drive African development. Women account for two thirds of our smallholder farmers, for example. So this report shines light on a critical issue.

The distorted transitioning of girls into womanhood as a result of early pregnancy ought to be seen as a significant economic loss.

Through the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program, the U.S. Department of State seeks to dismantle the obstacles to business opportunities and economic participation that African women face.

Launched in July 2010, the initiative identifies and builds networks of women entrepreneurs across sub-Saharan Africa poised to transform their societies by owning, running, and operating small and medium businesses, and by becoming voices for social advocacy in their communities.

The first Women’s Entrepreneurial Centers of Resources, Education, Access, and Training for Economic Empowerment (WECREATE) Center opened in Islamabad, Pakistan in February 2015.

It was the first of a number of WECREATE Centers to be launched by the U.S. Department of State to empower women and promote entrepreneurship globally. 

Unleashing the economic potential of women is a powerful tool to drive economic growth and prosperity. Women entrepreneurs are integral to stable and thriving formal economies, but often face disproportionate barriers, including gender-based, cultural and social discrimination, the department said in a statement.

WECREATE Centers are designed to be safe and in centralized locations where women can access essential resources needed to overcome these barriers and start or grow their businesses.

The Centers will build the capacity of women business owners and support women-led businesses as they transition from entities operating in the informal economy to formally registered companies. Each Center will also tailor its portfolio of programs, tools and events to address the unique needs of women entrepreneurs in the country where it operates.


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