Hands Off Our Girls is an initiative of the First Lady of Sierra Leone with the aim of developing and implementing programmes that will lead to sustainable development. The Hands Off Our Girls campaign was launched by President Bio of Sierra Leone, with support from African First Ladies, in Freetown Sierra Leone in December 2018.
Sustainable development in Africa is directly linked to women empowerment. There are various facets to empowerment, but the session in New York focused on “Advancing campaign on the reduction of Early Marriage and Rape in Africa”.
The panel discussion was moderated by American Author and TV personality Cheryl Wills. The discussants were. Hon. Baindu Dassama – Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, Sierra Leone; Dereje Wordofa, UNFPA Deputy Executive Director – Programmes; Rachel Yates – Executive Director “Girls not Brides” and Dr Akinwumi Adesina, President African Development Bank. It was a frank discussion, with all panelists in agreement that a lot is being done, but more needs to be done to empower and protect our children and women.
Statements were delivered by important global personalities such as Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation; Ziad Dalloul, Founder of Africell; Her Excellency Clar M. Weah, First Lady of the Republic of Liberia and Her Excellency Emine Erdogan, First Lady of Turkey.
President Bio and First Lady Bio then came on stage as panelists in an interactive session with the audience. It was also one of the very rare occasions where a President shares the same platform with his wife to advocate and pursue a common goal.
First Lady Bio described how she narrowly escaped being a victim of child marriage as such she said “I have advocated for women and children since my teenage years. When I met my husband, I fell in love with him and his amazing vision for Sierra Leone. My work revolves around his vision, and I get 100% support from him. For sustainable development, everyone must be empowered, especially our women and children.” Reiterating his commitment to the campaign, His Excellency President Dr Julius Maada Bio said that women could make the world a better place, adding that: “We have wasted a lot of time restricting the potentials of women and girls. I don’t need to support this campaign but to lead it”.
Expectations from the Launch International: A recognition of the phenomenon of Child Marriage and Rape, to have a clear understanding of the negative global impact on sustainable development. A holistic approach will be required to reduce the prevalence.
National Level: Restricting child marriage legally, is a critical first step to ensuring that girls can continue their education, freely exercise their rights and effectively participate in political, social, and economic life. Making the Executive and the judicial arm of the government more effective, will be the next step.
Local level: Religious leaders must take a lead in this regard, to talk about the issues and its solution. Early marriage deprives the girl of her right to decide on her sexual health and desire, drifting her away from her right to education and healthcare. It also increases the probability of different types of Gender Based Violence, harassment, ill health and poor prospects in life.
The declaration by the African First Ladies, to support the advocacy campaign on the reduction of early marriage and rape in Africa, was read by Her Excellency Jeannette Nyiramongi Kagame, First Lady of Rwanda.
First Lady Fatima Maada Bio has started the Hands Off Our Girls sensitisation tour in Sierra Leone. Districts covered so far are Makeni, Kono, Moyamba and Pujehun. The campaign is massive success with Paramount Chiefs all coming forward to be crowned as champions of the initiative.