“2015 is around the corner. Every country will have a report card. If you work hard, you will get good grades. If you don’t work hard, then you will fail. We need to start working hard now,” remarked Fatmata to the Speaker of the House of Parliament.
In Sierra Leone, an estimated 64 percent of primary school aged children are currently enrolled in school. However, only 54 percent of enrolled girls successfully complete their primary education. Although attendance rates for boys and girls are almost equal at the primary education level, attendance rates for girls in secondary school stands at only 29 percent.
Girls in Sierra Leone face a multitude of barriers to education, including high rates of early marriage, teenage pregnancy, extra fees, and lack of proper parental guidance and sexual exploitation in schools. This year’s Girls’ Education Week encouraged people to invest in girls’ education and rid schools of sexual abuse and exploitation.
To confront this reality and to call for action to reverse the trend, girls from schools across the country also staged a march to Parliament. Led by Sierra Leone’s First Lady Mrs. Sia Nyama Koroma, children presented a petition to Ministers and members of Parliament to call for stronger support and legislation to ameliorate barriers to education for girls.
“There is an urgent need for a concerted effort, unwavering commitment and investment to ensure that all girls have access to free education – where they can be innovative and thrive,” said Mrs. Koroma.
Representatives were chosen from schools in each of Sierra Leone’s four provinces to present their region’s specific challenges. The students made a strong call for increased national budget allocation, ratification and implementation of the Sexual Offences Act, and enforcement of the Child Rights Act of 2007 to ensure the protection of their rights and dignity.
“It is a proven fact that the more educated a woman is the better she can take care of her children. If there is to be any gains in addressing some of key MDGs – such as Universal Access to Primary Education, Gender Parity, Reducing Child Mortality, and Improving Maternal Health – there has to be sustained investment in girls’ education,” UNICEF Country Representative Mr. Mahimbo Mdoe said at Monday’s event. UNICEF has been a strong supporter of the government’s initiatives on girls’ education in Sierra Leone.
“We need to give a voice to the other girls who can’t be here. Pregnancy and poverty and are some of the biggest problems affecting girls’ education. And when people are aware of the problem, they can start to make changes for the better,” said Salamatu Bangura, 15, from the Western Area.
In his response to the girls’ petition, the Speaker of Parliament Justice Abel Strong, acknowledged that the community and weakened family structures were failing the children. He made a strong call to parents to provide moral, emotional, and educational support to their children – to help build the next generation. Mr. Strong also pledged to support the girls’ petition and welcomed an assessment of these issues in one year.
The petition was part of ongoing activities to support for Girls Education Week, which ran from the 20th to the 26th of October. UNICEF and the Government of Sierra Leone organized recognition and award ceremonies at schools in all four of Sierra Leone’s provinces to commend exceptional results to advance the course of girls’ education in the country.
Salena McCaphy lives in the town of Waterloo in western Sierra Leone. She is the mother of six children- five girls and one boy. She lost her husband earlier this year, leaving her to raise her children alone. Surviving on a very modest salary from selling vegetables from her garden, Salena faces financial uncertainty which could force her to put her children to work. In spite of all this, Salena sends all five of her girls to school – something rare here in rural Sierra Leone.
“Investing in our girls’ education will have big rewards for us,” Salena says. “I want my children to be educated so that they won’t have the problems that I have – like financial troubles. I want them to grow up to be happy.”
The oldest of these children, Humu Aruna is 13 years old. She recently passed the National Primary School Exam (NPSE), a required exam for students throughout Sierra Leone. “I want to be a nurse when I grow up, so that I can take care of my mother and grandmother. I’m so proud that I passed the exam, and I made my mother proud too!”
Humu and her siblings attend the Saturday Adventist Primary School in Waterloo, which was recognized on Tuesday for strides it has taken in girls’ education.
The Government of Sierra Leone has made great strides to ensure that all children have access to quality primary schooling. This includes providing fee subsidies, teaching and learning materials for primary schools, secondary school tuition fees for girls, and the adoption of the 2004 Education Act and 2007 Child Rights Act. Many in the country realize that 2015 is fast approaching. To achieve the Millennium Development Goals and the Education for All targets policy makers, communities, schools and families are working together to produce tangible results.