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Building a GirlForce: 4 Girls, 4 Stories Unscripted, 4 Forces Unstoppable

11 October 2019

As the world commemorates the International Day of the Girl Child today, on the theme; “Girl Force: Unscripted and unstoppable” UNFPA The Gambia celebrates the achievements by, with and for girls in The Gambia. We explore the stories of four vibrant adolescent girls, who have benefitted from UNFPA supported interventions in the country and have dedicated their efforts and time to impacting change in their communities, inspiring their peers and being the voice of the thousands of girls who continue to suffer in silence from issues like Female Genital Mutilation, pad poverty and period shaming, among many others.

Fatima Gomez, 17, is on a Mission to Empower Adolescent Girls in her Community

Meet Fatima Gomez, 17, one of the young rising voices ready to take the world by storm. Fatima is an energetic young girl who benefitted from a UNFPA supported mentorship programme for adolescent girls, organised by Think Young Women.

Currently a Grade 12 student and the Deputy Head girl of her school, The Gambia Methodist Academy, Fatima shares with us her experience going through the mentorship programme and how it has impacted her life and journey.

The vibrant young lady began her discussion with us by mentioning that the mentorship programme opened up doors for her and helped her realise that, even though still young, she can contribute to the country’s development in different areas.

“I realised that people need help in this country especially young girls as the most vulnerable group in society. Learning this during the three-month programme and understanding the role I can play, changed my perspective about myself and my responsibility to make the world a better place for everyone.”

Fatima confessed that, before her participation in the mentorship programme, she was a little negligent about issues around her, her friends and the relationships she kept with people. Going through the module on sisterhood, dawned on her the reality to be more vigilant about issues affecting people in her community and the need to strengthen her relationship with her friends and family. This new perspective and her constant readiness to voice out her concerns about the issues she and other young people are faced with, has earned her series of titles like “Lawyer of the class", "madam advocate” etc. in school.

“When I see people being tortured, bullied and abused, I have to do something about it. Otherwise, I feel bad for not changing a situation when I had the chance to. This was strengthened by the Think Young Women mentorship program”.

Ms. Gomez expressed her gratitude to the Think Young Women team, the mentors she has grown to cherish and UNFPA The Gambia for supporting her growth and the advancement of young girls in The Gambia to realise their full potentials and go beyond just dreaming for a better world for them to excel in, but to achieving it.

“Spending every Saturday morning with a group of twenty-nine (29) other girls, mentors who challenged us to aim for big things, for three months, and learning lessons that will help us in our daily lives and in our relations with the people around us, I count myself lucky to have been through the programme and I see myself as an agent through whom other girls who did not have the opportunity I had, can also receive the information and learn the lessons I learnt from the program.”

With the strong zeal to serve and impact her society after the mentorship program, Fatima Gomez encouraged 2 of her friends from school to sign up for the mentorship program and came back as a mentor to share her knowledge and experience with the girls that came after her.

With a strong belief in herself and the power young girls possess, Fatima is still giving back to the mentorship program with her friends, where they support the smooth running of the programme.

Fatima aspires to be a lot of things, all of which connect to salvaging girls from the issues hindering their progress and growth. As a strong believer of the power of art, Fatima uses her talent as a young poet, to advocate for the rights of the girl and shed light on issues affecting them, so the world can take swift action towards their wellbeing.

When asked to share a message to young girls everywhere, she stressed

“we might face countless challenges in life, but we should hold our heads up high and fight for what we deserve, never let any form of stigma degrade our capabilities nor destroy our dreams and aspirations. We should be the authors of our own stories because if everything fails, this is what we can offer the world to keep on for us and the next generation”. 

 

From a Pro-FGM Advocate to an Anti-FGM Activist, Haddy Badjan will Protect Her Younger Sister and Other Girls from the Harmful Practice

“I want to live in a world without FGM, where young girls like me can live and help each other.”

This is the reality Haddy Badjan envisions for herself and every young girl around the globe, especially the 3million young girls still at risk of undergoing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

Coming from a practicing community, Haddy was subjected to FGM at a very early age. On a school break back in primary school, she was greeted by pleasing news that she was going to spend the holiday with her father, a man she missed so much. She was excited but least did she know that she was about to be subjected to a grave violation of her rights, without her knowledge.

Following this initiation, Haddy grew up promoting the practice of Female Genital Mutilation because like she was taught, she believed that the practice was a religious obligation and every girl should be subjected to it.

Earlier in 2019, Haddy shared that she was concerned that her little sister was yet to be circumcised and thus she encouraged her mother to do so before she grows older. This persisted up until three months ago, when she participated in the “FGM Open Conversations for Children” organised by The Girls’ Agenda. The initiative supported by UNFPA The Gambia, was initiated to create an FGM learning space for children, to teach them about the harmful practice and help carve a path for them to advocate against the practice in their homes, communities and little spaces.

According to her

“before this training, I was a pro FGM advocate because I believed it is a tradition we must uphold as a people. Like a lot of people before me, I was adamant to attend the training because I thought it was here to rip me off my roots as an African.”

She described the training as an eye opener, it gave her a detailed insight on FGM and the harmful effects of the practice. This made her rethink her beliefs, her purpose and what she can do to protect her little sister and other girls in her community. As such, she went further to share this gained knowledge with her mother.

Today and every other day, Haddy pledges to protect her little sister and other young girls in her community from FGM and other harmful practices. She urges young girls like her to learn and grow in order to protect themselves and future generations because

“what we sow today, will be the fruits we reap and consume tomorrow.”

Stories like these, are the reasons we continue to work with our partners in Gambian communities, to ensure that every girl and every woman, is protected from all forms of Gender-Based Violence and harmful practices such as FGM and Child Marriage. 

 

Fatoumatta Jaye, 16, Believes Every Girl Should Have Access to Menstrual Hygiene Products and Information and She is Doing Something About It

“I am not a property or a toy people can play with. I am a human being; I have rights and people need to respect that.”

These were the words of Fatoumatta Jaye, a 16-year-old girl, also a beneficiary of the Think Young Women Girls’ Mentorship Programme, dubbed #TYW4Girls.

The young aspiring Software Engineer, described the three-month journey as one of the most impactful experiences yet.

“The mentorship programme has developed me beyond measure, harnessed my skills and showed me everything I can do for myself and other girls around the globe.”

Like a lot of teenagers, Fatoumatta described herself as a shy person, who went through the daily struggle of not voicing out her concerns both in school and at home, because she felt that her opinions were not good enough for the world to consume. Going through the mentorship program, she learnt that “no one is perfect and everyone’s opinion matters”. This quote, out of the dozens of inspirational quotes shared at the mentorship programme after every session, pushed her beyond her limits, to accept herself, flaws and all.

The Girls’ Mentorship Programme supported by UNFPA The Gambia, is a curriculum-based initiative, designed to strengthen the lives and communities of girls and young women. The programme’s mission is to empower girls through mentorship, life-skills training, building their capacities on women’s rights and challenging them to discover and fulfil their potential.

Reflecting on the various modules of the programme, Fatoumatta shared that the sessions on Menstrual Health and Hygiene and the Life Skills Training, impacted her life the most. Before the mentorship program, she shares,

“I knew very little about my period and the products I needed for my hygiene. Going through the programme, I learnt to take care of myself. I shared this knowledge with my mum and since then, she buys me sanitary pads every month, and I now feel comfortable to talk to her about any concerns I have.”

She went on to highlight that, the module on life skills honed her inter-personal skills and gave her a greater insight, on how to relate with and most especially smoothen her relationship with her father.

She added that, after the 3-month programme, she gathered a wealth of knowledge and experience, which she has made a point of duty to share with her friends in school during their free periods and is currently grooming her younger sister to have access to information and skills she did not have at her age.  Fatoumatta strongly believes that, her strength lies in speaking up for herself and for others because “we are stronger together”. 

We asked Fatoumatta to share a message with the world on International Day of the Girl Child and this is what she had to say 

“Girls should support each other; we should help each other in times of difficulties. There is no shame in going through menstruation. We should speak out for the world to hear our voices. I know I will continue sharing with girls around me, how to take care of themselves during their periods.”

 

Not a Survivor of FGM but a Strong Voice Against the Practice - Haddy Jallow Believes She is Her Sister’s Keeper

Haddy Jallow a student of Mingdaw Senior Secondary school, also participated in the FGM Open Conversations for Children organised by The Girls’ Agenda with support from UNFPA The Gambia, which she described as one of the most educative trainings she has ever attended.

“My knowledge on FGM was limited but everyone around me told me that it was a religious act. I believed them, until I attended the FGM Open Conversations for Children, where I was exposed to the harmful effects of FGM, the religious misconceptions around the practice and the Anti-FGM law in the Gambia.”

Following the activity, as a member of the Microscope Club in school, Haddy went on to share this gained knowledge with her colleagues in school through their drama and poetry sessions. Haddy urges all girls today and every other day, to educate themselves on social issues like FGM, report cases of FGM, protect themselves and others as this goes a long way to help them realise their full potentials and excel beyond measure.

Haddy is not an FGM survivor, her family does not believe in the practice and she is not one of the 200 million girls alive today, still suffering the consequences of this menace. However, she is a strong advocate for an end to the practice and continues to engage her peers in school, about the harmful effects of FGM, because according to her, both survivors and girls who have not undergone the practice, experience abuse.

“I was stigmatised for not having undergone the practice. I got called names. The training helped me understand FGM and overcome the shame that has been eating me up for ages.”

When asked why she in now involved in the end FGM campaign in the country, Haddy emphasised that,

“Even though I was not subjected to this grave human rights violation, I believe it has affected and continues to affect the lives of millions of girls. If one woman or girl is suffering in my community, I am indirectly affected, if one girl is not safe, I too am not safe. This is why, I pledge to be my sister’s keeper.” 

For us at UNFPA The Gambia, we are hopeful for a brighter future for young girls like Fatima Gomez, Fatoumatta Jaye, Haddy Badjan and Haddy Jallow. As we celebrate international Day of the Girl Child, we renew our commitment to contribute to a better and fairer world for every girl, everywhere in The Gambia.