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Keynote Address by Ambassador Tom Vens Head of EU Delegation to Sierra Leone Launch of the EU funded grant to Development Initiative Programme 11th October 2019.

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Keynote Address by Ambassador Tom Vens Head of EU Delegation to Sierra Leone Launch of the EU funded grant to Development Initiative Programme 11th October 2019.


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Chairperson, Hon. Ministers, Commissioners, Directors, MDAs present, civil society organizations, development partners, members of the fourth estate, staff of Development Initiative Programme and Child Fund, Distinguished Participants, ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted to be here today, to participate in the launch of the EU funded project ‘‘Community Empowerment for Prevention of Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) for Women and Girls’’.

As EU we take our responsibility to speak up when rights are at stake and we take action when action is due. We want a world where the rights of girls and women are claimed, valued and respected by all, and where everyone can fulfil their potential and contribute to a more fair and just society for all.

What gives you more joy than to observe young girls, in play or in school; young girls who articulate with great fluency the women they want to become; girls with big plans and great dreams; girls who look at the future full of hope and ambition.

And yet we know that much of this hope and ambition will not be fulfilled. Because they are girls.

Does anyone have the right to sit still if we witness that the mere fact of being a girl or a women, puts you in a position of disadvantage? Does anyone really believe that there can be any merit in treating half the population as second class citizens?

Do we really believe in development if that development does not fully embrace women and girls as powerful agents of that development? This is not just about a fundamental human right, it is just as much about harnessing the potential of women and girls. This is what the EU stands for.

Child marriage, teenage pregnancy and female genital mutilation/cutting are intertwined as they are all rooted in the same social and cultural issues: gender inequality, socio-cultural norms, religious interpretation, poverty and lack of access to education and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) information and services.

If a young girl or even a child is forced into marriage or if a teenage girl becomes pregnant we know that their health and education will suffer. But beyond that, when these girls become young women they will miss out on economic opportunities and decision-making in the family and in their communities.

FGM/C can also harm the sexual health and empowerment of young women. That is why child marriage, teenage pregnancy, and female genital mutilation/circumcision (FGM/C) are receiving more attention than ever in recent years.

If we, as responsible partners, as responsible agents of change do not redouble our efforts to reduce child marriage and FGM/C and prevent teenage pregnancy then we will fail in our efforts to realise the Sustainable Development Goals which are driving our shared commitment as partners in development.

In Sierra Leone for instance, the practice of child marriage and female genital mutilation/circumcision are ongoing and teenage pregnancy is prevalent in different towns/districts/regions.

The fact that today more than 10% of women – girls – get married before they reach the age of 15 is staggering. Almost 40% of Sierra Leone’s girls are married by the time they are 18. Even with more access to education, young girls continue to be forced into marriage, in rural communities but also in the cities.

Poverty, cultural and religious norms, tradition and are all factors that contribute to this situation. As a result, teenage pregnancy is prevalent, but lack of lack of sexual education, knowledge, power or access to services to avoid an unintended pregnancy are other reasons why there are so many teenage pregnancies in Sierra Leone.

In the worst case, their pregnancy is a result of violence when they are forced to have sex or fall victim to rape. You all can agree with me that teenage pregnancy reduces a girl’s chances in life. Sometimes they stop or are being stopped from going to school or their chances to a full education are cut short.

Under the best of circumstances girls face barriers to move up in society, but teenage girls who become pregnant see their opportunities in life dramatically curtailed. Very often they are at increased risk of child marriage, HIV infections and domestic violence as teenage pregnancy has immediate and long-term impacts on health, education and their economic status.

Maternal mortality in Sierra Leone is amongst the highest in the world and is directly linked to teenage pregnancy. Unsafe abortions, complications during childbirth and premature birth are all contributing factors. The issue of adolescent fertility is important because it is associated with morbidity and mortality for both mother and child.

When a girl becomes pregnant her chances that she will have a miscarriage or that the she will pay the price for this pregnancy with her own life, are considerable higher than for an adult woman. This alone should be a strong enough reason for us to redouble our efforts to change this narrative. Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, today we celebrate the International Day of the Girl.

This is the day that, even more than other days, we advocate for the rights of young girls, and that we recognize how girlhood shapes the future of all women in Sierra Leone and globally. We are all aware that Girlhood is a time when young women should be nurturing their skills, pursuing their passions, and building the foundations of their futures.

For far too long in Sierra Leone girls are seen as a burden or a commodity. These mindsets prevent girls from fully participating politically, socially, and economically in their communities and in society at large. And the disadvantages pile on from an early age: in Sierra Leone, though enrolment has gone up, girls are less likely to attend school than their brothers.

It’s a bad start. Many girls are not given a chance to equip themselves with the skills to become successful adults. Many girls are not given the tools to give them a chance to move up in life.

And girls who are lucky enough to receive a quality education, will all too often face blatant or hidden obstacles, in the laws or in the minds of people – including women – that will prove a burden to realise their professional ambitions or to become successful entrepreneurs.

Yet we know that societies and economies achieve far better results when they embrace, rather than marginalize, the power of women.

Today, as European Union we are stepping up our engagement to make this a reality. As EU we want every woman, every girl, is empowered to pursue her dreams.

Not only will many of today’s girls become tomorrow’s leaders; but we want every girl to enjoy the same chances in life as their brothers; we want every girl to have a chance to pursue her dreams no matter how small or big they are. I am therefore very pleased that as EU we can announce our support to Development Initiative Programme and its partner, Child Fund, with a grant amount of 531,000.00 EUR for a period of 24 months, which started in August 2019.

The proposal emerged as one of the selected projects from a call for proposals, successfully competing, in other words, with other good and relevant projects. 3 The project has set itself very ambitious targets; we want to altogether eliminate child, early and forced marriage by 2021 in line with target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals. Is it possible? Can we will have to count on the extra-ordinary commitment of all who can make a difference.

The project will also empower women and girls to play a central role in their communities. For that will be equipped with transformational leadership training and new skills. But no one can sit still if we want to achieve and this is why DIP and Child Fund will also improve the capacity of MDAs and CSOs to sustainably manage, coordinate and monitor interventions for the reduction of SGBV, adolescent pregnancy and child marriage.

Overall, I commend the ambition of this project in addressing child marriage, teenage pregnancy and FGM/C. This is not an easy task and we will all need to work tirelessly to encourage transformation through interventions at all levels – structural, cultural and social interventions.

To all duty bearers who are here with us, let me reiterate that we all bear a reasonability to strengthen young people’s capacities – individually, collectively and institutionally. We have to strengthen the capacity of families and communities as they are key to reduce child marriage, teenage pregnancy and FGM/C.

It is our duty to project positive values and attitudes; to demonstrate through what we say and what we do that we are serious when we fight for gender equality at all levels. If we can end child marriage and dramatically reduce teenage pregnancy, Sierra Leone will be a better place.

We trust that Development Initiative Programme and its partner will make good use of the project resources to achieve the results that have been set out. We all have the responsibility to make sure that resources are used efficiently and bring about value for money in a transparent and accountable manner – at the service of the people and always in the interest of the vulnerable and marginalised women and girls who are at the centre of this programme.

It is now my pleasure to officially launch this project and on behalf of the EU, I wish you every success. Thank you.

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