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Empowering Rural Women

As a result of the disruption caused by war, extreme poverty and parental prejudice against the education of girl children -- and the practice of marrying off girls at an early age -- over 90% of the women in the north of Sierra Leone have had little or no education. Lack of formal education limits women’s opportunities for independent action, including income generation, and adversely affects the health and development of children. It puts women and their families at greater risk of sickness and disease because of poor hygiene, inadequate nutrition and unsafe activities, including unprotected sex. If you’ve never been to school you can’t count money, read notices and signs or write your name; and you cannot understand or help your children with their homework. You may well have low self esteem.

Lack of schooling also means that women live in ignorance of their legal rights, including rights over their children and property, and their rights within marriage, and this in turn can lead to neglect, abuse, and too often domestic violence. It should be noted also that very few women in the region are in positions of authority in government, business or the professions, and there are no women Section or Paramount Chiefs (as there are in the south), so there are few role models for young girls to emulate.

Non-Formal Basic Education

We started our work on functional literacy and non-formal basic education in 2002 in a programme run jointly with local partners. The main target group is women and teenage girls who had had little or no formal education. However, we have allowed a few men to join the programme because of real fears about women’s security. (Most learning circles meet at night and some women have to walk in the dark from neighbouring villages.)

Map of Sierra Leone.

We have been concentrating our efforts on villages in and around Makeni in Bombali District, and in 2007 we started some new learning circles in Koinadugu, in and around the District Capital, Kabala.

Within six months of starting our facilitators were reporting changes in participants’ attitudes and behaviour, including improved confidence and better communication skills. Indeed, a number of women joined circles because of the changes they saw in their friends. After two years virtually all participants could write their name and no longer had to endorse official papers with a thumb print and they could read street signs and count money; and over 60% could do simple mathematical calculations, and even write short sentences. Moreover, we began to see changes in the attitudes of men towards their wives and girl friends getting an education because they are seeing real benefits. To date more than 1,600 women (and several hundred men) have taken part in the programme through 30 community-based learning circles, including one circle for blind women. You can read about what education has meant for some of these women elsewhere on this site.

REFLECT Technique

We are using the REFLECT technique which combines learning to read and write and handle numbers, with developing a deeper understanding of a broad range of issues, from health, hygiene and childcare, to basic business skills, gender awareness and human rights. The women start by learning the alphabet: this is generally done by continued repetition, with some of the more advanced learners playing an active part at the blackboard. They then move on to holding discussions about topics of interest, for example, how to deal with a particular pest or disease, or how to keep animals, or how to avoid snake bites or poisonous insects; or it could be concerned with social or political issues, such as land tenure, or the role of the police and the law courts. The facilitator’s job is to encourage participants to speak and share their thoughts.

Often a word will emerge from such discussions – ‘water’, ‘malaria’, ‘woman’, etc. -- and this is written on the board by the facilitator. This ‘generic word’ is then broken down into syllables and the participants try to build up new words from these syllables. (This process can be seen in the photo - the generic word is 'proposal'). These are written on the board and repeated over and over. We have found the technique remarkably successful.

The teaching is in local languages, however, the women want to learn English, and we designed the programme with this in mind. A knowledge of English enables participants to communicate in a common language with people from other parts of the country (who speak Krio, Mende, Fula, Kranko, Limba, etc.) and also read signposts and hoardings (most of which are in English). Two other factors were important in the decision to teach English: first that there is very little material written in local languages (some of which use additional characters), and second, although all of our facilitators are native speakers, few can write in their mother tongue.


The photo to the right is of a participant from one learning circle demonstrating her newly-acquired reading skills. To read about some of the women's stories press here. Our work in the villages is gradually changing attitudes towards women and their role in society, and paramount chiefs and village elders are very appreciative of what has been achieved. Indeed, we have been coming under increasing pressure to extend the programme to new communities. Just how fast we can do this depends on our finding the necessary resources.

If you would like to support our work to empower women and teenage girls in Sierra Leone please press the button. Your contribution can make a real difference. Thank you!