Reusable masks bring new opportunities for conflict-affected youth
To prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Borno State, young people are producing face masks and soap in vocational centres supported by UNICEF and the European Union
There is a busy whirl and clatter of sewing machines in a UNICEF-supported vocational centre in Maiduguri, north-east Nigeria. Inside the expansive hall, 18 young people sit at a distance from one another, their noses and mouths protected with cotton face masks.
Pedaling non-stop on her machine, Faisa Muhammed Abusa, 21, puts the finishing touches on a peach face mask. It is her twenty-fourth of the day. “It took me just one day to learn how to make face masks because UNICEF already trained us on how to sew school uniforms,’’ says Abusa.
“Now I sew at least 30 face masks every day. I am not happy about the outbreak of COVID-19, but I am pleased that I have an opportunity to do something to help others. It is also an additional skill for me.’’
Abusa is an out-of-school youth who fled Gamboru, in the Ngala local government area of Borno State, due to the lack of security. According to Abusa, the vocational training has restored her confidence and dignity. “I was like a beggar before,” she said. “Now I now sew face masks. I use the income made from sewing to support my family.”
Abusa is one of 1,100 participants in an ongoing vocational skills empowerment project initiated by UNICEF, in partnership with the Borno State Agency for Mass Education (SAME) with funding from the European Union (EU). The project provides vocational skills and income generating opportunities to out-of-school youths, women who are heads of households, and girls released from armed groups. Since the project started in June 2019, hundreds of youths across six local government areas have acquired skills in sewing, poultry farming, shoe making, painting, interlocking tile-making and catering. They receive a monthly stipend for the duration of the training. The project operates two centres in Maiduguri with 366 youths, 10 adolescent girls and 24 female household heads benefitting from the programme.
Abubakar Mustapha, 25, fled his home and now lives in Bakassi Camp and participated in the training. He now makes between 200 and 300 bars of soap every day. Originally from Gwoza, near the Cameroon border, Mustapha says his life has changed significantly since he fled to Maiduguri in 2014, as a result of the ongoing conflict in the region.
“I am learning new skills that can make a difference and keep people safe. I can earn an income from it,” he says. “We were told that handwashing with soap can kill the COVID-19 virus. The government needs my skills and my people need my skills.”
Trainers estimate the daily output capacity to be 1,500 face masks and 700 bars of soap. Management ensures adherence to social distancing and provides regular handwashing with soap and water.
As the number of COVID-19 infections continue to grow in Nigeria, the young people have their work cut out for them, with a production target of 40,000 face masks and 12,000 bars of soap for vulnerable families over the next month.
Like Abusa and Mustapha, 20-year-old Duduwa Samaila relocated to Maiduguri a few years ago. She relishes her chance for a better income and to contribute to the fight against COVID-19. “I am excited for an opportunity to do something with my hands,” she says.
With many other young people across Borno also learning new skills, the potentially larger benefit of the project is to build more resilient communities.
“Before my enrolment in the programme, I was unemployed and living on handouts. I will just say that in every cloud, there is a silver lining.”