Fatu’s story started out like so many of the girls we work with.
Her parents were poor, and living in a rural Sierra Leone community. They wanted more for Fatu than they could offer her themselves, so they sent her to Freetown to live with her aunt. There she was able to be enrolled in school, and she thrived. She was in grade six at primary school and was just about to make the big move to high school.
But tragedy struck. Fatu’s aunt passed away. With no other family in Freetown, she was forced to go back to her parents in their rural community. They were again confronted with the problem of how to provide for Fatu – they wanted her to have everything, but alone they couldn’t offer her anything.
As so often happens, early marriage was seen as a solution. And it’s not that Fatu’s parents had bad intentions – they simply couldn’t see another way they would be able to provide for Fatu, and so when a much older man in their community offered to marry Fatu, they saw it as their only option. They hoped that this man would mean financial security for Fatu that they would never be able to provide themselves.
She was 14, only a child herself when she was forced into marriage. She fell pregnant with her first child, a baby girl – when she was just 15 years old.
Fatu’s life was no longer about being a girl, or a student. Instead she found herself taking on a role she didn’t want for herself – as a wife, as a homemaker, and now – as a mother.
All the while, Fatu never gave up on her dream of going back to school. She told her new husband about her desire to be back in school, but the possibility of Fatu getting an education seemed ridiculous to him and he refused to support her returning to school. On top of that, he mistreated her in their home.
It wasn’t long before Fatu fell pregnant again, with another daughter.
Fatu says she felt an enormous sense of grief when she realised she had another daughter – she thought, what kind of world am I bringing these girls into? What opportunities could I possibly give them?
But one day, Fatu heard about a Girls Club that had started in her community. A group of girls and young women, some teenage mums like herself, were meeting weekly to receive training on business skills, life skills, and more. Fatu was intrigued. She went along with a friend, not knowing that her life was about to be changed forever.
At the weekly Girls Club meetings, Fatu’s eyes were opened. She learned about sexual and reproductive health, and how how she could choose whether or not she wanted to fall pregnant again. She learned about small businesses and how she could start one to earn an income and gain greater financial independence. She used her newly acquired knowledge to start a small business selling cakes with other members of the Girls’ Club. She learned alongside her peers and Fatu grew in knowledge, confidence, and courage.
She’d need all of that for perhaps her biggest lesson yet. In the Girls Club she learned about her rights as a girl, and the fact that child marriage was illegal. She learned that she had a choice.
And, empowered with this knowledge, and Fatu made a startling decision. She decided to divorce her husband.
It’s a courageous choice to make no matter the circumstances. But when you take into account her situation, Fatu’s choice makes her braver than most. Here is a 16 year old, mother of two in rural Sierra Leone, living in poverty, without a clear idea of her future – choosing freedom, over tradition. Choosing courage, over fear.
Fatu was able to take this courageous step through the support of the Girls Club. Through the training and education provided by the Volunteer Peer Educator (VPE) running the club. Through the community and safe space created by her fellow members. And this is exactly the kind of environment that we at One Girl hope to create through these clubs. The Girls Clubs are a stream of One Girl’s Business Brains program – specifically targeting girls and teenage mums who aren’t able to attend school or at risk of dropping out.
Though they may not take place in a formal classroom, Fatu’s story shows us some of the most valuable and life-changing lessons you learn aren’t simply about reading and writing – they’re about freedom and empowerment.
Divorcing her husband has meant that Fatu and her two young daughters had no place to live. But with the intervening support of the Volunteer Peer Educator running her Girls Club, Fatu was welcomed back in with her mother and siblings.
As much as we’d love to share Fatu’s fairytale ending with you – that’s simply not the reality. The truth is, nothing is simple in development work. Every aspect of Fatu’s life has not miraculously improved after receiving the Business Brains training as a member of the Girls Club.
While she was briefly back in school for a time, a health scare and lack of funds meant she had to drop out again. And though the small business that she started with her fellow club members was successful for a short time, it had to be put on hold when some of the club members moved to a new community. Earning an income continues to be difficult, and financial stability is a long way off.
Her future remains uncertain – but now, Fatu can say she is running her own life. She’s had the courage to leave an awful marriage and back herself. And that confidence flows into other parts of her life. She knows that education is key to making better choices, and to creating a brighter future – and she’s now determined to earn enough money to be able to send her daughters to school.
We’re always saying education has flow-on effects that continue for generations. And Fatu’s story is proof of this – we know that Fatu will never force her daughters into marriage. We know that she’ll pass on her knowledge of sexual and reproductive health so they can have more agency over their own bodies. We know that she’ll never stop working to provide opportunities for her girls that she never had.
And that’s the power of education. That’s what we mean when we say education changes lives, empowers girls, and benefits future generations.
Words by Larissa Ocampo & Kim Low