May 24, 2023
As a teacher at a junior secondary school in The Gambia, Joseph Idigba Awuru had high hopes for his star pupil 14-year Fatou, who was achieving the best marks of the entire school. When Fatou did not return to school the following year, Joseph was distressed to learn that she had been forced into marriage by her parents. He decided at that point that he would find a way to keep his other students in school as long as possible. Young people and girls especially, faced many challenges including early pregnancies, dropping out of school, drug use, date rape and HIV/AIDS.
“Societal inequalities between males and females, and harmful traditional practices against young girls in The Gambia are powerful forces that impede efforts to educate young women and men about reproductive health and provide them with the services they need,” explains Joseph.
A few years later, Joseph achieved his goal when he created the organization Hope Life International (HLI), with the mission of “providing awareness, empowerment and sustainable projects to the poor that will enable us to transform the lives of the children, youths, and adults and in the communities we serve.”
Thanks to a $50,000 grant from Madiro in 2021, Hope Life international implemented several outreach programs to educate youth about their sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR)*. Through educational workshops, HLI was able to reach over 2000 students and created over 20 Ambassador Clubs in schools to keep the conversation going with students. The Ambassadors Clubs were particularly impactful as many students reported that their parents never discussed their sexual health and rights with them. With their newly acquired knowledge, students felt a sense of responsibility to share what they learned with their peers. As 17-year-old Zita explains,
“I attended the sexual reproductive health rights workshop with some of my friends, and we all learned so much. The workshop covered topics like STIs, pregnancy, and healthy relationships. We had the opportunity to ask questions and get answers from trained professionals, which was really helpful. I feel more empowered now to take control of my sexual health and to advocate for my rights.” Sixteen-year-old Awa was also impressed by how much she learned in the workshop, “As a student, I was always curious about sexual health, but I didn’t know where to go for accurate information. The sexual reproductive health rights workshop was the perfect opportunity for me to learn more about my body and my rights. The workshop was inclusive and welcoming, and I felt comfortable asking questions and discussing sensitive topics. I now have a better understanding of the importance of sexual health education and how it can empower individuals to make informed choices.”
To ensure that the messages about adolescent sexual health and rights reached beyond youth, HLI also conducted sensitization workshops with teachers, in communities, and with religious and traditional leaders. Many leaders appreciated the workshops and became convinced that sexual health and rights should be discussed with youth in schools. In fact, the outreach by HLI was so successful that they were able to go beyond the community level and negotiate an agreement with the Ministry of Education to change school curriculum and include sexual health and rights. This groundbreaking agreement ensures that teachers across The Gambia teach this subject in their classrooms, providing youth with vital information to make informed choices about their health.
Joseph reflects on the inspiring story of a young girl who was able to take charge of her life after learning about her rights,
“We teach students their rights against child marriage and this changed the life of a 12-year old student. Last May, her parents had told her that she would be married to a much older man but she refused and went to the police. The police called our organization for help. The parents eventually signed an agreement to let her finish her schooling. Hope Life International is educating communities and changing lives at the grassroots because this awareness has been missing in communities. Had this child not been aware of her rights, she would have been forced into marriage which would have destroyed her future forever. We want to thank Madiro and KBF Canada for the support of this project as it has impacted our communities.”
*Direction for the implementation of this project was led by KBF Canada
About the author
A passionate humanitarian, Isabelle has worked in Canada and Europe, and in over a dozen countries around the world as a humanitarian field worker. Her professional parcours includes a background in journalism, emergency management in highly insecure contexts, crisis incident management and communications leadership roles. She has an MA in Interdisciplinary Studies focusing on peacebuilding, leadership, and communications.
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Hope Life International is empowering Gambian youth to take control of their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
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