During the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Girls’ Globe attended an event with a particularly passionate speaker, Chernor Bah, from Sierra Leone. Starting work at 15, he travelled throughout his country gathering stories from child soldiers to assess the impact of years of war on children, Bah is now an associate at the Population Council, the youth representative on the UN Secretary General’s Global Education First Initiative and chair of the its Youth Advocacy Group. Bah has also emerged as a champion for women’s rights, advocating for the importance of empowering girls and women.
ah gave Girls’ Globe a look into his work on the ground, his insight into the reality of battling gender discrimination and-most importantly-his belief in its power to succeed.
Q: Can you give us an example you’ve seen on the field that highlights the plight of women & girls?
This is such a hard question for me, because I know so many. But one of the cases I’m dealing with right now is a very industrious young girl who paid her way through high school – keep in mind only 10% of girls in Sierra Leone even finish high school – this young girl was able to finish high school with the hopes of enrolling in a full university program.
She decided to go to a highly placed official in the Ministry of Education in Sierra Leone and say, “I need help – I do well in school, I hear you do government scholarships, I need some help.”
What happens is instead of supporting her, the official – allegedly, I should say- asks her for sex in exchange for any support. When she refuses, the official allegedly rapes her.
This became a big story in Sierra Leone. The girl had to suffer indignity and moral judgement. She had to drop out of school, it was untenable for her to continue in university. Nobody wanted to be seen close to her. She took refuge in a safe home run by a local organization.
And of course, because the official is very connected in government, they do a spectacularly poor job of prosecuting the case even though the medical examiner said that there was clear evidence of rape. But the jury still found the official not guilty, and he was acquitted of all charges on some very flaky technical grounds.
So what’s happened with this girl is she wanted to go to university in a country where that is the exception. Now she can’t have that. She thought that at least the court case would be an example to other girls. Now she’s been branded by the court as a liar.
I think this highlights the challenges we face as a society that is so entrenched in terms of patriarchal culture, in terms of power, in terms of lack of opportunity, in terms of how girls cannot push back against the wall.
It’s a story that keeps me up at night. It does highlight for me just the spectrum of the challenges that we face on a personal level and a structural level and community level.
Q: While speaking on the panel, you said, “Who bears the brunt of crisis? Girls.” Can you elaborate on that statement for me?
Absolutely. When a crisis happens, people say that focusing on girls is a luxury. But once you look beyond the periphery, you find that the people who suffer the most are the girls.
In a conflict like famine or Ebola, one of the ways people are affected is isolation. Now, on that measure alone, girls have lower social capital than boys. And when they are isolated, it affects them way more, because girls need the social spaces that they hardly have – they do not have a lot of luxury, a lot of free time, especially poor girls.
And when there’s no food in the house, the primary responsibility falls on the young girls. In Sierra Leone, when there was Ebola, there was no food, there was no movement and family members died, who had the responsibility of bringing food and taking care of the siblings? It’s not the boys. It’s not the men. It’s the young adolescent girl who really becomes the primary caregiver in her home and in her family. She has to cook, she has to go sell in the market.
And what happens when there’s a breakdown of law and order? What typically happens is there’s an increase in lawlessness. And how do men express lawlessness? Without exception, they exact power over women. The rates of sexual violence spiked in Sierra Leone and the rate of brutal rape cases that we hear of, in war to the Ebola crisis, that went up.
And something else that went up: the number of what the government themselves referred to as visibly pregnant girls. In one year, the number of girls who were pregnant was so high that the government had to put in place a new policy which banned pregnant girls from going to school. If they were pregnant, they couldn’t go to school, because there were too many of them.
So you find a situation where because of the crisis, her vulnerability goes up, her isolation, displacement, lack of food and water, all these things go up. And often, the only way she has to provide for her family is an exchange of sex, often unprotected sex, which leads to a disproportionate number of pregnancies.
Then the government adds to that. The only hope she has to get out of this is education, and that’s what they take away from her.
Across every one of these measures in terms of taking care of the home, in terms of health, in terms of law and order, in terms of isolation, in terms of displacement, girls carry the burden. Unfortunately, they’re often the last that any of the relief efforts get to, especially the poor girl. When they’re planning these efforts, they think somehow that if you just give generally, everyone will get a share. But we know that’s never true.
Q: Given your experience, what do you think is the best way to go about changing mindsets about women and girls?
I think the best way of changing mindsets over time is not education, it’s not a PR campaign, it’s not an advocacy campaign. The best way to change mindsets is to show that girls have values and can be great changemakers in their community.
I always give the example of the civil rights movement. You don’t spend finite resources on trying to convince white people that black people are human beings. I think you spend the resources on investing in black people, putting them in school, giving them economic empowerment, making them President, making them become leaders in their society.
When we’ve achieved critical mass, when it’s not the exception anymore for a young girl born in a village somewhere to become a businesswoman, mindsets will change.
I think yes, we have to spend some resources and some time on engaging mindsets, but I think that the best and most important way of shifting the paradigm is direct investment in girls. Let’s change the story of what happens to girls. Let them break the social barrier, and then I don’t think we have to worry about mindsets.
Cover photo credit: Celine Kamanda, Flickr Creative Commons