The Aspire story: Showcasing the beauty of mentorship and power women in Sierra Leone

Africa has a growing population of girls who need constant support in terms of guidance and counseling. They need to be handed on the blueprint for leadership, confidence and self -esteem mostly through role modeling.

Our societies need to share our stories of our successes and failures so that our girls would be challenged to lead better lives. We are looking at changing the narrative to create a scene were girls will seek to accomplish their goals and aspire to be like the leading women in Africa, this can only be achieved through mentorship.

The Aspire story showcases the beauty of mentorship and inspires women around the world to work together. Click To Tweet

In 2016/2017 a powerful collaboration between Power Women 232 and Girls Empowerment Sierra Leone was established.

Power Women 232 is a network for women professionals in Sierra Leone. The network aims to bring professional women and entrepreneurs together to promote career advancement and development in all fields, through networking, leadership development, social events and community service 

On the other hand Girls Empowerment Sierra Leone nurtures and enhances the leadership skills of young girls to become effective advocates and social change agents in their communities.

In August 2016, they launched ‘ASPIRE’ to mentor secondary school girls from various schools in Freetown.

The program was in the form of large group workshops, small group mentorship and experiential field trips focusing on 3 C’s – Communication, Community Development, and Career Exploration.

The aim was to directly impact the lives of 30 young Sierra Leonean girls by providing them with the skills, resources, and networks to become leaders and change agents in their communities.

All 14 Power Women mentors were assigned to 3-4 girls each; they were matched by specialized questionnaires in hope to create best-fit relationships; each power woman played a big sister role spanning a yearlong of camaraderie.

Field trips to tourist monuments, spending the day at office and centers that were their career of choice. Trips to the bank, the airport, hairdressing saloon and early learning centers.

The girls had an opportunity to catch a glimpse of their real-life sheroes in their most vulnerable states behind closed doors, in the comfort of their homes and the rigidity of their corner offices.

The women shared their daily life struggles such as multi-tasking, fighting to succeed in male-dominated careers, handling a full day’s job when on their period. The discussions ranged from discussing boys, dancing, cooking, to books and music.

Most importantly the program allowed them the chance to learn new skills, ranging from topics such as:

  • Utilizing journaling and writing as a means of telling our stories
  • Utilizing resources to effect and change our future
  • Budgeting & Fundraising
  • Savings and investing for our future
  • Conflict Resolution and effective communication  
  • Building and maintaining peer positive relationships

The focus on teambuilding, communication, and self-esteem helped develop positive behavior within the group of girls that were mentored. Mentor mentee relationships encouraged some of the girls to aspire to remain dedicated to their academics as well as seek further mentor relationships due to some of the strong relationships that were cultivated.

The partnership between Power Women232 and GESSL is a reminder of how powerful women are when they work together. This relationship has garnered more interest in girls and Power Women 232 has taken on education, health and empowerment for young girls as their community service project for 2017/2018.

The project was launched with a donation of 200 power hygiene packs and hygiene information booklets to adolescent girls at The Beheshti Islamic Secondary School in Freetown.

Their aim is to provide 500 more packs to young girls across Sierra Leone and introduce sustainable hygiene practices.

The group did their first fundraiser hosted by Ms. Anita Erskine on  Saturday 18th November 2017 during their 2nd Annual Networth Ball an event that attracted the movers and shakers in Sierra Leone’s business environment with a  good media coverage which includes been featured on Bella Naija.

One cannot deny that the Aspire story showcases the beauty of mentorship and inspire women around the world to work together.

 


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Is the law keeping young African women safe from sexual violence?

Child Bride

It may be 2016, but young Nigerian girls are still being exploited by those who should be protecting them. I’m referring to the father figures, lawmakers, community leaders and even some parents. Only recently, the internet and media went into a frenzy over the notion that the age of consent had been lowered from 18 to 11.

The reason for this confusion? A bunch of subsections under Section 7 of the Sexual Offences Bill postulating penalties for sexual penetration in girls under the ages of 11, 15 and 18. We’re all still asking ourselves why the need to highlight these three ages rather than the relevant one which is 18. This is of major concern as concerns two main areas: child marriages and rape.

Child Brides in Africa

Source: BBC Africa

UNICEF reports that Nigeria is the country with the highest number of child brides across Africa. The number of child brides across Africa is expected to almost triple by the year 2050. It’s been almost 2 years now since the world has been fighting for the return of the Chibok girls following the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Sadly, at this time, we are still waiting and hoping that they are rescued.

Ese’s story

Most people have been following the story of 14-year-old Ese Oruru who was abducted from her base by a man who took her to the North to become his bride. Reports made by the Bayelsa State Police Command as captured in Punch Newspaper state that her recent kidnapping from her home in Bayelsa to faraway Kano is a case of eloping. It’s almost laughable except that it’s not.

This is a grave issue that affects every one of us regardless of gender. It thus becomes obvious that law enforcement and the rest of the community have failed to catch on that the law does not condone the violation of any woman especially one who is still a child. Ese’s predicament is our predicament and as such statements made by the very institution put in place to install law and order demonstrates our failure as a society.

How on earth does a teenager elope? The fact that such a statement can be made by the police public relations rep confirm to us that child marriages are still very much a thing in this part of the world. This is a practice prevalent in the northern part of the country where matured men take on child brides.

At this point of the century where societies are moving to expel inhumane practices, the reaction to Ese’s case is a prime example of the normalcy of such a practice. Whether or not Ese voluntarily left her base in Bayelsa for a faraway state or was kidnapped / coerced into doing so as certain assertions have been made, the baseline is she is still a minor.

Although it has taken six whole months, the good news is Ese has been handed over to the police for her return to her family in Bayelsa. Just as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has been quoted as saying, ‘culture does not make people, people make culture’.

Thus, the mere fact that something is a part of our culture is not a good enough reason to uphold it. There is certainly good culture and bad culture and as humans we are expected to evolve and be progressive.

What are some of the risks?

There are several risks that child brides are faced with including emotional and psychological trauma that may follow them way into adulthood and in fact for the rest of their lives

In addition, if the ‘marriage’ had been consummated underage, pregnancy, Vesicovaginal Fistula and STIs are all common occurrences for child brides.

As a society, where do we go from here?

  • We need to close the gap between the law and its practice through proper information dissemination and sensitization. The Nigerian police force must undertake reorientation programs with the passing of new laws.
  • The law should expressly state the age of consent for sexual intercourse by getting rid of the compounding subsections in the Sexual Offences Bill.
  • It is also not enough that the law prescribe a penalty of 5 years imprisonment or a fine of N500,000 for the perpetrators in child marriages! A part of her life is taken away from her as she is forced to grow up in the worst ways possible. The maximum penalty should be sought for such offenders.

What can we do as women?

As women, each of us has a responsibility to uplift other women especially those who do not have some of the privileges we do have.

  • Speak up about it! Challenge the status quo! Tweet about it, blog about it, discuss with peers, make your voice heard. You may be surprised how little people actually think about this issue.
  • Educate yourselves including other young girls and women. Females need to be aware of the dangers they face and to take extra precaution where necessary.
  • Counsel and encourage one another. As women we need to quit slut shaming and blaming the victim. The guilty party is the aggressor or manipulator. Skimpy clothing or a flirtatious nature do not equal a license to rape.
  • Parents and guardians also need to be receptive enough for their daughters to feel free enough to tell them about any funny business going on.
  • Raise your sons to respect women. Men have as much a part to play as women do in the promotion of gender rights.

Becoming a leader from the inside out

The Growing Ambitions CoFounders_Lusungu Kalanga, Chikondi Chabvuta & Umba Zalira

Irene Umba Zalira is a women’s rights and sexual and reproductive health advocate. In this piece, she shares the impact of Global Health Corps on her views on leadership and how she engages with her work. 

Global Health Corps is a leadership development organization that places young leaders under 30 from all backgrounds in year-long paid positions. Applications for the 160+ positions for the 2016-2017 class are due February 2nd, 2016. You can apply here


Is leadership something you’ve always desired?

I never wanted to be a leader, never saw myself as one. I took on small roles throughout my primary and secondary school life but nothing too serious. At least that is what I thought. I didn’t know these small roles were preparing me for bigger leadership roles that I would take on later in life.

Last year, I spent a year serving as a Global Health Corps fellow at the Ministry of Health in Malawi. Prior to being a Global Health Corps fellow, I shied away from leadership positions, aiming for roles with  less responsibility.

From your experience, do you think leadership skills can be taught? Or is it simply an innate skill?

People who know me now would never believe I once shied away from leadership roles. I truly believe my Global Health Corps experience molded me into the leader I am today. None of the leadership workshops and trainings I ever attended mentioned the need to work on your self-esteem.

Everyone spoke of leadership as something you did on the outside: how you talk, how you influence people and how you convince people. No one mentioned self-acceptance and confidence are the source of leadership. And because I was struggling on the inside, I couldn’t see myself as a leader.

What has been the greatest inspiration for you?

I remember being at Yale University in a room full of 127 young amazing people who had done extraordinary things in their lives: 127 change makers. There was one specific story that stuck with me.

One of the program participants had lived in Vietnam, and taught kids in the village how to swim because there had been a lot of drowning incidents during the rainy season. It made me think: ‘wow, I don’t even know how to swim!’

Global Health Corps

There were people younger than me who had already started organisations and initiatives in their own communities. That was definitely not me!

But there is something about being in such a space, a safe space with peers, where you can be vulnerable to say: ‘I am scared’. ‘I don’t know how I am going to do this.’ ‘Hell, I don’t even know how I got here!’ But, by the end of those 2 weeks at Yale, I was ready to own the GHC slogan of ‘change maker’.

The sessions with GHC staff and my peers, helped me see myself as a leader. I started working on my fears, passions, abilities, strengths and even weaknesses.

That must have been a huge inspiration for you. What did you then do with all that fire?

I got back to my country and I was ready to serve! I was serving before, but this time around, it was different. I was more than willing to lead initiatives and own the title of a change maker. I was one of the founding members of the Rotaract Club of Lilongwe and served as the Director of Community Services in the first year.

The Rotaract Club of Lilongwe is a service club of young people between the ages of 18-30 from different professional and educational backgrounds. We use our diverse skills and resources to improve the communities we live through the implementation of various projects and programs.

We understand you’ve been involved in different projects. Tell us about them.

Two friends and I started a community initiative in Kauma, a peri urban area on the outskirts of Lilongwe City, Malawi after we noticed teenage pregnancies was prevalent, resulting in high school drop out rates for girls. Initially, the plan was to go through the project a local church in the area had started to address the issue, to talk to the girls and encouragement them, then move on with our lives. But my drive to make an impact didn’t let me be. When you start doing something you are passionate about, you have to see it through.

So 17 months later, we found ourselves as co-founders of an organization called Growing Ambitions. We are currently supporting more than 20 girls with school fees and school materials. We recently enrolled one of our girls, Esther, a 19-year-old mother of a beautiful baby boy, into Stella Maris, a prestigious catholic secondary school.

Our mission is to help girls make informed decisions through mentoring and career guidance. We envision a Malawi where girls, regardless of their socio-economic status or negative experiences, take charge of their lives and thrive.

Growing ambitions

Tell us more about Growing Ambitions

Growing Ambitions primary target group are girls and young women who have dropped out of school due to unplanned pregnancy. We re-enroll them into schools and provide support to ensure they stay in school. We conduct monthly sessions on different topics ranging from sexual reproductive health, human rights, feminism, gender, time management based on the girl’s interests.

So far, the initiative has been self-funded along contributions from well-wishers. But, seeing that we’re growing, there’s going to be need for an alternative source of funding. Currently, we are in the process of getting registered as a non-governmental organization with the Malawian Ministry of Justice, and look forward to serving more girls and young women in Kauma and beyond.

What inspires you to keep the initiative alive?

It’s been a new, and sometimes arduous journey for me, my co-founders and the girls as well. These girls and young women live in communities where their rights are disregarded and they’re treated as second class citizens. But every small step in the right direction ensures more girls complete their education, and knowing that keeps me going.

Why smart girls become risk averse women

More attention is being drawn to the obstacles that female entrepreneurs and career women around the world face when looking to reach the next level of professional success.

From studies revealing that women are less likely to receive venture capitalist funding to research confirming that women have to work harder to be considered at par with their male colleagues, it is clear that women face a unique set of challenges in the workforce.

Beyond opportunity and wage inequality, there are gaps in the way young girls are raised that can create a mindset which can hinder the future success of these women.

Women are their own strongest critics

It turns out that most women judge their abilities and intellect much more critically than men do. In one study, fifth grade students with high IQs were given challenging tasks.

The girls were more likely to give up on challenging tasks while the boys worked harder to figure out the solution. Interestingly, the higher the girl’s IQ, the more likely she was to throw in the towel and feel helpless in face of the challenging task.

Gymnast HappyIt should be noted that the girls in the fifth grade, as observed in this study, typically outperform boys in math and science.

So why do otherwise smart girls doubt themselves when it comes to unfamiliar and challenging tasks? What does it have to do with the confidence professional women have in themselves?

Praise and self-confidence in women

Social psychologist Dr. Halvorson’s explanation of this study in a Psychology Today post, provides  great insight on why this happens:

Girls, who develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions, are often praised for their “goodness.” When we do well in school, we are told that we are “so smart,” “so clever, ” or “such a good student.” This kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t.

Boys, on the other hand, are a handful. Just trying to get boys to sit still and pay attention is a real challenge for any parent or teacher. As a result, boys are given a lot more feedback that emphasizes effort (e.g., “If you would just pay attention you could learn this,” “If you would just try a little harder you could get it right.”) The net result: When learning something new is truly difficult, girls take it as sign that they aren’t “good” and “smart,” and boys take it as a sign to pay attention and try harder”

Research at Stanford confirms this association: smart young girls are likely to unconsciously retain this perception that ability is a rigid characteristic that cannot be changed. They eventually grow up to be adults that judge themselves harshly and are less likely to take risks or challenges outside their area of expertise.

What does this mean for you?

If you have been mulling about launching a new blog, tech start up, ecommerce store, website or any other venture for a while, and your main concern is your lack of expertise in the field, remember this: the ability to perform a task is very flexible.

Just go for it! Research shows that the key to mastering a skill or area you are unfamiliar with is to be persistent and continue practicing.
Fifth Harmony

Raising a girl child and wondering how you can help her develop a “growth mindset” that sees challenging tasks as an opportunity as opposed to a problem? It’s fairly simple.

Encourage your children of both sexes (especially the girls) by praising their progress and achievements in relation to their hard work. Instead of praising them for work well done by saying, “You are so smart,” recognize them by saying, “You must have worked hard to get this done!”

It’s a message that’s not just great for kids but for budding entrepreneurs too. Nothing great happens overnight; keep building.