Last year, UNFPA supported the National Secretariat for the Reduction of Teenage Pregnancy to establish a youth advisory panel consisting of 16 youth champions passionate about reducing teenage pregnancy and ending child marriage. Funded by Irish Aid, the youth advisory panel is tasked to advise government on the gaps preventing adolescents from accessing sexual and reproductive health services and information.
UNFPA met up with Salimatu, one of the disabled youth advisory panel members, whose life experiences to date and sheer passion to be a role model, illustrates why she was chosen as a panel member.
When Salimatu from Moyamba district was just four years old, she was treated at a local hospital for a high fever which left her mobility impaired and required her to use crutches. “At the time, members in my community called me an ‘evil child’ who had been cursed by witchcraft upon seeing my weakened leg,” recalled Salimatu with a brave smile.
At eight years old, Salimatu moved to Freetown where she lived with her adoptive father. However, when she was 15 years old, she was hit with another tragedy. The passing of her father who had rented their home; left Salimatu homeless and unable to support her studies.
“It was very challenging for me at this time,” explained Salimatu. “I had challenges with accommodation, I couldn’t afford to pay my school fees and wasn’t able to sit my exams.” With no school and no home, Salimatu found a derelict building in the heart of the capital, Freetown, where she lived with over 120 other disabled men and women. Whilst living in the building, she met a man who agreed to financially support her studies in exchange for sexual favours. Without any knowledge of family planning, Salimatu fell pregnant at the age of 16.
“I was vulnerable at the time, and at that age. I received no counselling or advice on how to avoid getting pregnant,” revealed Salimatu.
Adolescent pregnancy and child marriage continue to be challenging issues in Sierra Leone, with one in six women aged 20-49 having married by the age of 15 years old, and 28 per cent of adolescents aged 15 to 19 have begun childbearing. In Sierra Leone, adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 years are at a high risk of maternal mortality and morbidity, with 47 per cent of female deaths amongst adolescents being maternal.
After giving birth to a baby girl, Salimatu started begging on the streets, struggling to pay for food and financially look after her daughter. Saving enough money to buy supplies, Salimatu began selling sweets and chocolates to local pedestrians. She did this for seven years.
When Salimatu was 23 years old, she contacted a local disability foundation seeking financial support because she desperately wanted to further her education. She was successful in obtaining nearly 400,000 Leones. She also contacted an online gaming company in Sierra Leone explaining her personal plight and they provided her with 500, 000 Leones. Using the funds, Salimatu enrolled on a Secretarial Course and two years later she graduated with a certificate.
Singing to promote awareness
In 2013, Salimatu completed a three-month internship at OneFamilyPeople – an organisation that provides impact-orientated services for persons with disabilities, their families and their communities. Wowed by her singing talents, staff at OneFamilyPeople supported Salimatu to establish The Great Walpoleans Band who deliver advocacy messages on disability rights through their songs.
‘At OneFamilyPeople, I learned that disabled people are important in society and that we can participate at all levels,” said Salimatu. “Before I didn’t think I was important. But now through my singing, people know what I’m fighting to achieve.”
As the lead singer in the band of 24 people, including able-bodied and disabled members, Salimatu has travelled to districts across the country, raising awareness on issues dear to her heart such as reducing teenage pregnancy and ending child marriage.
Now Salimatu works as a Field Officer at OneFamilyPeople, providing outreach services such as life skills to adolescents aged 12- 18 years in deprived communities in Western Freetown Urban. “I work in areas where there is not much knowledge of sexual and reproductive health and rights and information in the communities,” explained Salimatu. “I work in partnership with various community stakeholders including, parents, religious leaders, the police, nurses and others to collectively address the issues faced by young people, especially girls,” she added.
In July 2019, recognising Salimatu’s passion and drive, her manager informed her about the call for applications for people with disabilities for the UNFPA Youth Advisory Panel. Excited by the opportunity, Salimatu submitted her application, was interviewed, and a month later notified that she was successful.
In September 2019, she participated in a five-day orientation training with other newly recruited Youth Advisory Panel members. “The training was interesting, educational and interactive,” recalled Salimatu. “The training made me understand that disability is not inability. “I found the training on leadership, gender and communications very important. Because when you go out into the communities and work with young people, both parties need to understand each other. If I’m able to communicate, then I’m able to become a leader,” emphasized Salimatu. “Since the training, I’ve been able to apply what I learnt in my every day job and in my role as a youth champion,” she added.
As a youth advisory panel member, Salimatu now attends high- level multi-sectorial meetings chaired by the National Secretariat for the Reduction of Teenage Pregnancy to advise government ministries and its partners. “I felt good attending this meeting for the first time because so many different issues were raised around girls such as early marriage and sexual and reproductive health and rights,” said Salimatu.
In her new role as a youth champion, Salimatu has worked closely with the National Secretariat to revise their communication strategy; organised community engagement meetings in Western Area Urban; and advised and counselled adolescent girls on the importance of staying in school during the holiday season. More recently, Salimatu and her peers in the youth advisory panel, organised a community event for 70- 80 adolescent boys and girls for a sexual and reproductive health discussion, and held a debate on comprehensive sexuality education.
Now living with her ten-year-old daughter in her own private residence, Salimatu has big dreams for the future. “I really want to develop different structures for adolescent groups such as Girls Clubs to be held on Saturdays. At these clubs, girls could learn about managing money, being healthy, being confident, assertive and valuing themselves as girls. I also want to work with primary and secondary schools to engage adolescents on sexual and reproductive health and rights,” asserted Salimatu.
After meeting Salimatu, we have no doubt that she will achieve her set goals because she is an inspiration to everyone she meets.