Adolescent safe spaces – motivating adolescent girls’ positive development

An effort to help ensure that girls get to create positive lives and make healthy lifestyle choices during their adolescence years

Tapuwa Mutseyekwa
A girl stands outside her home in Kambia, northern Sierra Leone
UNICEF Sierra Leone/2021/Mutseyekwa
27 April 2021

Kambia, Sierra Leone - At 14 years of age, an impressionable Fanta Kamara found herself entangled with the wrong group of friends in Freetown.  Instead of going to school, Fanta and her companions played truant and spent the day wandering the streets of Sierra Leone’s capital city.  Her aunt, with whom she stayed, tried to caution Fanta on the likely consequences of this behaviour, but these words of guidance were not heeded by a defiant Fanta.

“I was so distracted by the influence around me to the extent of abandoning my schoolwork. I would put a dress in my school bag, change into it just after leaving home, and not go to school. We would spend the day roaming town and engaging in activities which were sometimes very dangerous,” says Fanta, who was a star student until this period in her life. “My aunt became very angry with me, and eventually sent me back to Mambolo village in Kambia to stay with my parents.”

The move back to Kambia did not stop Fanta’s errant ways.  She continued to skip classes, disrespect her parents, and even spent nights away from home, actions which resulted in her parents trying to restrain her through harsh punishments.

“My parents would often punish me by withholding food. They would also beat me for this bad behaviour, which they feared my little sister would copy if I did not stop,” says Fanta, who today has made a remarkable life transformation, thanks to her participation in the adolescent safe space in Mambolo village.

The safe space is helping girls such as Fanta to learn new life skills to create a positive life and to make healthy lifestyle choices during their adolescence years. UNICEF is supporting this project with funding from the Korean  Committee for UNICEF.

According to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey of 2017, many adolescent girls in Sierra Leone face risks and vulnerabilities which often result in early marriage, childbearing, sexual and gender-based violence, unintended pregnancy, and HIV.  Almost 13 per cent of women in Sierra Leone, aged 20-24 years were married before age 15, and 29.9 per cent were married before 18 years. In Kambia where Fanta is now staying with her family, the prevalence of child marriage is at 43.9 per cent, one of the highest among the 16 districts.  

Adolescent safe spaces were first established in Kono district and has now spread across 10 chiefdoms in Kambia and Moyamba districts, where 12,000 adolescent girls aged 10-19 years have been reached with services and information through safe spaces.

Supported by trained mentors, these safe spaces are women and girl-led, and offer an inclusive environment for the participants to socialise, thrive and express themselves. During their sessions, which are held two times in a week, a group of 30 adolescent girls come together for games, motivational talks, songs, and other fun activities.

Two girls read a book in Kambia, northern Sierra Leone
UNICEF Sierra Leone/2021/Mutseyekwa
Fanta Kamara is happy with the friendship she has created with Fatmata, who is helping her to reform and assisting her with school assignments

The girls engage in meaningful discussions on a range of issues relevant to adolescence such as sexual reproductive health and good nutrition practices. They also discuss risk identification, prevention of gender-based violence and harmful practices, women and children’s rights, stress management, and positive coping strategies.  The safe spaces also offer psychosocial support and referrals to health services.

Getting Fanta fully involved in activities at the safe space was not an overnight process.  Her attendance was not consistent at first, but she eventually became fully engaged after the girls composed a song, “Girl shine”, which resonated a lot with her.  

Fanta’s regular attendance at the safe space has helped her to make a new circle of friends, who encourage her to go to the safe space everyday. Among these friends is Fatmata, who has become a valuable study buddy for Fanta.

“I am very happy to be a part of the activities which take place at the adolescent safe space. Many of my old friends got pregnant and they are living very difficult lives. I am glad I have moved away from the lifestyle they had led me into and that I am learning new things.”

Fanta Kamara
A girls and her parents stand outside their home in Kambia, northern Sierra Leone
UNICEF Sierra Leone/2021/Mutseyekwa
Fanta Kamara has now learnt to value the time she spends with her parents and her siblings

“Adolescent safe spaces provide girls with accessible and trusted lifestyle alternatives through a peer support network, which in the long run, help to curb the high trends of violence against children and harmful practices such as child marriage,” says UNICEF Child Protection Specialist, Yuichiro Yamamoto.

Fanta’s parents are happy with the changes they are seeing in Fanta and attribute this interaction and the improvement in her school grades to the positive peers at the safe space.  Just recently, Fanta was named as the top student in her school. She was one of the top 10 best performing girls in Kambia district during the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) examinations.

“My daughter Fanta has become a jewel and I know that if she continues like this, she will realise her dream of becoming a medical doctor,” says Fanta’s elated father, Komrabai Kamara. “She has also started to have a very positive influence on her younger siblings.”

Two girls stand outside their home in Kambia, northern Sierra Leone
UNICEF Sierra Leone/2021/Mutseyekwa
Fanta Kamara and her sister stand outside their home in Kambia, northern Sierra Leone.