Secret societies to stop initiating girls during school terms

School girls in Sierra Leone

SABI field staff have been working with communities in Sierra Leone to stress the vital importance of girls’ education, the disadvantages of some cultural practices and the rights of children.

Working across Sierra Leone, the SABI programme aims to strengthen community-led accountability, increasing awareness of, and demand for, the delivery of basic services for all citizens – including education, health, social protection, water and energy.

Gender equality and social inclusion are central to the programme, which supports vulnerable and excluded groups to develop skills and get the support they need to become active agents of change in their communities.

Monitoring policy delivery

SABI partner SEND recently conducted policy literacy activities in Nyandehun, Luawa Chiefdom in Kailahun District, gathering together community leaders to explain government policies so they can share this information with their constituents and effectively monitor policy delivery.

At the session, a local headteacher revealed that many girls in the area had been kept in the bush by secret societies for four months without going to school. Many of them were due to take the National Primary School Examination on 13 May 2017.

SABI representative in community

Secret societies

Secret society leaders did not believe the issue should have been raised, claiming the female regional societal head authorised them to initiate as many girls as possible. They were to be paid based on the number of girls initiated and were still waiting for this payment, so had not released the girls. They also stated that they believe they play an important cultural role.

Secret society activities remain culturally and politically sensitive in Sierra Leone and are seldom discussed in public. The government encourages the postponement of initiation activities until children are 18 years old, when they are able to decide themselves whether to be initiated.

But thousands of girls are still initiated each year and Nyandehun community has reported an increase in secret societal initiations this year. The Ebola outbreak saw secret society activities suspended, but with the ban lifted, they say many communities have started initiating girls in larger numbers. If initiation takes place during the school term, the dangers are that girls will be deprived of schooling.

Child Rights Act

The SABI team, SEND staff, and a female councillor for the ward visited the community to speak to various stakeholders and secret society heads about peace-building, the importance of education and the Child Rights Act. As a result of these talks, the girls were released in time for their exam. Secret society leaders also now acknowledge that no initiations are to happen during school periods.

The SABI programme team has also travelled to the village to discuss the issue again and will continue to monitor progress in Nyandehun. Lessons learned here will be used across the programme.

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