“HANDS OFF OUR GIRLS” USA event success for First Lady of Sierra Leone

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Gender-based violence, rape, early marriage, child trafficking and teen pregnancy are urgent problems throughout Africa and the world.

Rising statistics of incidences during COVID-19 have prompted the Secretary-General of the United Nations as well as UN Women, the United Nations agency protecting the rights of women and girls, to call for urgent action against this “shadow pandemic.”

The First Lady of Sierra Leone is answering the call.

Her initiative, Hands Off our Girls, spotlights awareness and supports the health and legal rights of women and girls, to eliminate such abuses and to facilitate access to reproductive healthcare and treatment for conditions including cancer and fistula.

Her efforts are making policy changes.

The Sexual Offence Act was updated in September 2019, requiring a 15-year minimum imprisonment for a rape conviction, up dramatically from a 2-year maximum incarceration. Similarly, conviction for child rape has been increased from a 2-year maximum sentence to possible life imprisonment.

Further, a Fast-Track Special Court for rape cases was launched in 2020, which turns cases around within a week compared to a previous two-year wait.

The African Union has recognized the Hands Off Our Girls program as a champion for empowerment of girls and women in neighboring countries of Africa.

The initiative was launched in Sierra Leone in December 2018, with the help of Sierra Leonean Mohamed Kosia. Two subsequent world-class showcases were held during the 2019 U.N. General Assembly, including an event attended by UN Ambassadors and other high-level stakeholders, organized by me and President of the United African Congress Gordon Tapper, and a celebration organized by Kosia with several First Ladies of Africa and of Turkey, and the World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

The next big step was on September 25, 2021. A fundraiser was held in the Washington D.C. area, gathering over 150 guests (limiting capacity to conform to COVID-19 restrictions), including Sierra Leone diaspora, friends, and high-level officials.

The First Lady was in the United States with her husband, President Julius Maada Bio, for his address at the United Nations General Assembly.

The event was organized by an independent group, “Friends of the Hands Of our Girls Campaign” consisting of supporters from all over the country, and chaired by His Excellency Ambassador Sidique Abu-Bakaar Wai, Chief of Mission of the Embassy of Sierra Leone to the United States, in an unofficial capacity.

With bustling spirit in the room decorated in the country’s green, blue, and white colors, the event officially opened with playing of the national anthems of Sierra Leone and of the United States, as well as Muslim and Christian prayers, by Gibril Sesal and Reerend David Vandy, respectively.

Ms. Fatmata Wurie introduced Master of Ceremonies H.E. Wai, who proudly announced that everyone, including Ministers, in the room had contributed to the fundraiser.

The value of overcoming trauma of such abuses were described by Sierra Leone behavioral psychologist Dr. Bernadette Sankoh.

Accolades for the initiative were offered by “Nation Builders’ donors Mr. Jerry Torres who fights child trafficking, and by me, who both lauded the First Lady’s “passion” and “empowerment” of the rights of girls, consistent with many UN events co-organized with Tapper supporting the United Nations Sustainable Goal 5 about elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls.

Surprises were in store.

Sierra Leone President Bio took the podium in support of his wife’s campaign, saying that, in the context of the government’s focus on human capital development through the triad focus on education, food security, and health, sustainable change comes from placing “value on the Sierra Leone people more than diamonds, gold and everything we have under the earth.”

“Our precious minerals are not diamonds, but the children of Sierra Leone,” he said,
denouncing rape of girls as young as five years old as “repugnant,” and declaring that “We are raging a war on rape.”

The President recalled being moved by meeting a woman who suffered rape from that early age and still experiences long-lasting emotional pain.

“If we are serious about the level of our nation,” he added, “52% of our population [of women] have to be enabled, empowered and equipped.”

Taking the podium, the First Lady thanked her husband for his belief, compassion, and understanding for women, supporting stiffer penalties for perpetrators, and “giving our dignity back as women.”

“Girls are no one’s personal property,” she said.

“This is a people’s campaign to combat our own pandemic like COVID-19,” she said, adding that HOOG has grown into the biggest coalition of NGOs in her country.

“All this has given a voice to young girls and women, facing police and courts, importantly, to respect themselves,” said the First Lady.

Nurses and 40 medical doctors at the front lines are also being trained to treat rape cases.

All this is personal to the First Lady, who described her own experience being forced into early marriage, but fortunately escaped.

The project also provides free sanitary pads to girls, allowing them to continue to attend school, previously interrupted during their menstruation period.

An "Honor Our Girls" music video was announced, written for the First Lady’s campaign by internationally acclaimed musician Russell Daisey with me.

“It was a gift from our hearts to compose “Honor Our Girls” in support of the First Lady’s ‘Hands Off Our Girls’ Initiative,” said Daisey, “where the lyrics and pictures show how girls deserve the protection and rights to education and making their dreams come true -- exactly what the First Lady and the President are making a reality!”

Music filled the room with an enlivening performance by Sierra Leonean national Manzu and a reading of original poetry by Sierra Leonean performer MDG.

Twin brother tennis players, Frances and Franklin Tiafoe, born of Sierra Leone immigrants, expressed being impressed with the effort to “push our country onto the world stage,” adding, “We have a President who is changing our country and promoting human rights.”

Actor Rosario Dawson, whose friend started the Shine On Sierra Leone project promoting access to education, water, and healthcare, told me that she first went to Sierra Leone in 2011 and found the country “a land of smiles” that “has become a home”.

German-Sierra Leonean Thaddeus Koroma spoke about considerable support being developed in the economic sector.

In keeping with what the First Lady’ has said that it is not just about the money but about also direly needed equipment for the hospitals, a large machine was rolled out as a surprise donation. The kiosk offers a one-stop shop for full-service COVID-19 screening, hand sanitizing, test results, contact tracing, and other technological services, useable in hospitals and schools. Dr. Evelyn Lewis, whose software company, SBTS Group, developed the Health Outbreak Manager explained a special feature that the machine’s app can be programmed for use in non-infectious disease conditions.

More equipment was donated. Medical specialist Dr. Nelson Aluya, President of the heath support service Hope Edge International, gave two projectors useful for international presentations.

Besides machines, many accolades were offered about the cultural impact of the First Lady’s project, including by psychologist from the Blue Print Consulting Group Dr. Ky Dele, and by Sierra Leonean business strategist Maimuna Zubairu who noted how the First Lady’s project is changing cultural behavior by encouraging people to become more outspoken.

Now it was time to announce the results of the fundraiser. In the tradition of transparency and accountability of fundraising, starting with the COVID-19 Task Force which raised over USD$50,000 cash and USD$7million worth of medical supplies, Ambassador Wai announced this effort’s results. The records had been carefully kept by Ms. Fatmata Wurie with Mr. Gordon Tapper.

“In only three weeks, we raised over USD$80,000, but I am disappointed,” he said. “I wanted to raise $100,000.”

Taking out a $20 bill, he challenged the attendees to match – and add – to the amount.

The energy in the room erupted, with pledges up to $1,000 and $5,000, adding considerable thousands more to the total.

“When you focus on a good thing and reach out to good people, magic happens,” Ambassador Wai observed.

Olivia Nantongo, head coordinator of Trade and Investment for the Uganda government, marveled at “the energy that Ambassador Wai created, motivating people to donate, that gets results and reveals the power of unity when you bring people together with passion and for the same worthy goal.”

More surprises were in store, when, in an unusual gesture, President Bio and the First Lady stepped from the stage and circulated in the room, greeting and thanking everyone.

“I got emotional for the first time at an event,” said Abdul Deensie, who joined widespread praises for Ambassador Wai for the successful event and being a “role model for all Sierra Leonean youth.”

“This is a proud moment for Sierra Leone and the Friends of Sierra Leone in our national development,” observed H.E. Dr. Francis Mustapha Kai-kai, Sierra Leone Minister of Planning and Economic Development.

Newly appointed Ambassador of Sierra Leone to the United Nations, H.E. Fanday Turay had pledged to continue the call by President Bio in his UN General Assembly address calling for global solidarity for access to justice and remedies for survivors of sexual violence.

The funds raised, minus a few thousand dollars in expenses for hall rental, food, and incidentals, will go towards continuing construction of 100-bed hospital; a seven-building facility to house survivors of rape and gender-based violence, provide counseling services, psychosocial support, medical treatments, and a family support unit; and a stand-alone forensic lab to reduce waiting time to adjudicate rape cases.

The First Lady had the brilliant idea to help young girls, testify about her own early marriage, and say ‘enough is enough,’ said DJ Songo Train, Gibril Sesay, who managed the AV event arrangements and broadcast the event widely on Zoom. “I’m so happy so many Sierra Leoneans and friends came and grateful to the event Chair, Ambassador Wai, who lived up to his reputation as the ‘People’s Ambassador’.”

“The most amazing was how it all got done in a mere three weeks time!” exclaimed event organizer Mohammed Kosia.

During her visit, the First Lady was interviewed in a 2-part series by BNC, a fast-growing news network highlighting and celebrating Black and Brown communities.

Also, I had the honor to interview the First Lady, featured in my panel during the III Congress on Mental Health: Meeting the Needs of the XXI Century on the topic of “Children, Society and the Future”. It was a perfect opportunity to showcase her dedication and accomplishments to a worldwide audience of high-level professionals, as an inspiration for countries all over the world who care about the well-being of our girls.

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