Fatmata Sesay is a journalist, women’s empowerment activist, and regional coordinator of the Sierra Leone Association of Women Journalists in Tonkolili District, Sierra Leone.
Growing up, I faced many challenges, having lost my parents in Sierra Leone’s civil war. Organizations helped me go to school. Now, I want to support other women and girls.
Girls in Tonkolili district have many challenges. Adolescents lack information about sexual and reproductive health and often have little support from their parents. There are a lot of teen pregnancies, forcing girls to drop out of school. Without education, it’s difficult for them to find jobs. Others get married at a very young age, before they are 18. There is also a lot of domestic violence. Many girls don’t know their rights.
I was already working with adolescents, including producing and hosting a women’s program on a local radio station, when I met the SeeChange team at the end of 2022. With SeeChange’s support, we started the Circle of Girls, which engages adolescent girls to talk and learn about sexual and reproductive health, the importance of going to school, the dangers of early marriage, and other topics.
We regularly meet in villages around Mile 91, a major town in the district. I initially met some girls at the market, where they work instead of going to school, others at social clubs and some adolescents are referred by village chiefs or heard about us on the radio. I also engage with parents and village Elders.
I have seen a lot of changes in the girls. While many were initially shy to talk about their problems, they soon started opening up and asking for advice. “It feels so good to talk to other people, I feel more positive about myself” is something I often hear. One issue many adolescents are facing is their menstruation, which is often a taboo topic in families. Girls are often too shy to ask their parents for sanitary pads and don’t go to school when they have their period. Since participating in the Circle of Girls, adolescents are less afraid to talk to their parents – even their fathers - and parents have become more supportive. I am also talking to schools to raise awareness and encourage them to provide sanitary pads, which not all parents can afford.
Some girls and young women have become mentors for others. Some are participating in our bi-weekly radio show, which addresses issues such as sexual and reproductive health, teenage pregnancy, women’s and girls’ rights, and other issues. It’s a good way to reach villages where we can’t have Circles of Girls meetings in person. Listeners can call us or text us questions or comments. We invite medical experts to talk about a range of issues, such as menstrual hygiene.
Circle of Girls has helped many adolescents better understand sexual and reproductive health, as well as their rights, and empowered them to seek help and mentor others. My vision is that girls in Tonkolili district will have a better future – without teen pregnancies and early marriages.