by Isha Morgan Conteh, Jugu Maureen Lawson and Melvina Conton
“We show sisterhood by helping each other. If one of us is in trouble, maybe at home, and they tell us, we will look for ways to help.” Elizabeth, 17, Moyamba
“Sisterhood is coming together as friends and sharing love in friendship.” Adiatu, 13, Port Loko
Introducing the Girls Collectives
The Girls’ Collective Fund was launched as a local response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which moved money directly to Girls’ Collectives, groupings, and formations across rural parts of Sierra Leone. At the height of the pandemic, girls used the first round of funding for their basic needs; providing for themselves and their families, as well as to other girls outside of their Collectives who needed financial assistance. Since then Girls’ Collectives have used their resources to continue to provide support to girls in their communities. We have seen how girls have come together to build businesses, save money, and stay in school together through the fact of their shared resources. Most importantly, we have witnessed how Girls Collectives have brought other girls along with them, crafting alternative images of what it means to be a girl, for their sisters and the wider community.
The Girls’ Collectives Fund puts money directly in the hands of girls without placing barriers on how they apply, receive or use the funding. It supports girls who are radically re-imagining the world right where they are, both through ‘small’ and ‘large’ actions, by prioritising bonds of sisterhood and nonhierarchical, expansive decision-making processes and structures. Just as joy is a form and function of girls’ resistance, the Fund explicitly resources girls’ expressions of radical joy. They use their laughter, dance and drama to rebuild themselves, bring others into the group, and claim their voice and their space.
Bringing the girls together
Through our work with girls, we have seen how resilient and powerful they are, how much impact they can have on their communities and how they are able to create and maintain safe spaces for each other with little external support. The girls we have funded have become mentors and leaders in their communities and as a way of accompanying them on their journeys of resistance, Purposeful organised a convening where they could all come together and learn from one another.
The first-ever Girls’ Collective convening for Girls and Mentors occurred in the city of Bo in April 2023. 48 girls and mentors were brought together for four days to talk about the power and magic they have been able to create on their own in their different communities. The convening offered girls the chance to develop additional skills to foster their businesses, grow their safe spaces and build friendships while celebrating the work they have been doing over the past two years.
The hope was that groups from different districts could develop a stronger bond. Part of Purposeful’s vision when moving forward with the Girls’ Collective Fund was to support the girls to meet in person so that they could learn from each other about how they navigated challenges and be reminded that they are not and will never be alone in their resistance. In April 2023, this finally happened.
The importance of convening spaces for girls
“We are different people, special people… and when we all come together we learn new things” Mabel, 22, Port Loko
For Purposeful, bringing girls together means power, sisterhood and solidarity, trust, girl ownership and safe space. It is also a way for us to draw attention to the fact that there are and will always be many ways of knowing.
Power recognises power. The patriarchy understands and is threatened by the outstanding force of girls and the power they possess. One way to seize this power is to stop girls from organising, finding spaces for themselves and re-imagining the world as they want it to be. Bringing girls together means smashing the patriarchy and building a system that cannot be overridden. It reassures girls that they are powerful enough to catalyse change wherever they find themselves.
We have come to realize that building girls’ power is political work; it is feminist work, it is justice work. Understanding girls is at the centre of our feminist vision for liberation. It is clear to anyone working with girls that even at relatively young ages, they are making complex decisions for themselves. In every village, in every district, the same thing is happening. Girls are living lives of extreme poverty and marginalisation — a poverty shaped by forces of globalisation and domination — and all the while finding ways to push back, to transcend, to model, if just for a moment, a kind of different way of being together in the world. That is the truth of what it means to be a girl — of their power and their vulnerability. Every day, girls are succeeding in making the best of their circumstances by deploying a range of sophisticated strategies, connecting with their peers and with social change processes on a micro and macro scale in ways unique to the particular life stage of adolescence.
Sisterhood and Solidarity
In convening spaces for girls provide them with emotional support, they learn that they are one and have the same system of oppression working against them, and in order to win, they need to be sisters — coming together helps girls to know that they are not alone.
“Coming together is important for girls and mentors. When we come together, we can exchange ideas and tips on how to improve our safe spaces. It is an opportunity for us to make new friends and reconnect with old ones. We are also able to learn from each other and use this knowledge in our different safe spaces.”— Mentor, 24
“Sometimes I see some of the girls here in my community. But we don’t talk because I do not know them. Meeting them at this convening has made me get to know them better. They are my sisters. We are one. When I see them now, I will be happy to talk to them.” — Girl, 16
“I think it’s very important for girls to come together. When we come together we develop sisterhood and solidarity, we are able to know each other better. “— Girl, 14
We trust girls because they are experts in their work and experiences so we offer support in areas where it is requested. During this convening, the girls took charge. We saw how the girls stepped in to take over sessions with their own ideas, questions, and energisers.
Ownership and Safe Space
Convening girls together brings a strong sense of ownership and collective power to their programmes, creating space for them to contribute to conversations and ask questions without judgement. The space served as a reminder that the Girls Collectives programme belongs to girls and it is their ideas and initiatives that make their programme better.
Listening to Girls
The Girls Collectives programme started and grew with girls — for them, at their pace, and with their voices and actions. There is never a singular way of knowing and we recognise that in order for programmes to truly operate with and for girls, they need to be seated at the table and making decisions; no one knows the challenges they face better than the girls who are experiencing them. The girls actively participated in every session, telling us their ideas on each topic of discussion, asking questions and even putting together presentations during group activities and creating skits on different topics. Their energy was simply unmatched.
As a funder, bringing girls together offers us the chance to be accountable to girls. They get to ask us questions and discuss their experiences with the team. These are also opportunities for us to learn more and to better understand the lived realities of girls.
Highlights from the convening
Sessions were centred on “why Girls?”, Safe space, Solidarity and Sisterhood, Mentorship and Leadership, Business skills, Time and Conflict Management, Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights, Personal Hygiene, Karo Kura Connection and Life Skills.
A highlight from the convening was the way in which the girls showed up in their full essence by caring for and helping each other despite the fact that most of them were meeting for the first time. One of the mentors from Moyamba had a baby and the girls took collective responsibility for the baby to make her feel comfortable, so that the mother would be able to participate effectively in the sessions.
Friendship and Bonding
It was such a wonderful feeling to see friendships blooming. The friendships formed during the convening will last a lifetime. The way girls sang and gave each other hugs on the last day, promising to keep in touch, was beautiful to see and made the team wish we all had friends like that.
“My favourite part about this week has been seeing my best friend from Moyamba. I have not seen her in a long time and this convening has given us the opportunity to spend some time together.” — Girl, 14
“I learned about the power of language. We always hear and say that girls are vulnerable. But I’ve learned that girls are powerful. When we stand together as sisters, we are able to support each other and accomplish great things.” — Girl, 15
“I have enjoyed learning about doing business. Most of us do business but we don’t know how to calculate our profits and losses. The session on improving our business skills has been very useful and we will apply this knowledge in our individual and collective businesses.” — Mentor, 23
A great moment of joy for us was seeing how the girls dismantled shame as a tool of oppression by naming every part of their bodies and talking boldly about safe sex and pleasure, menstrual hygiene, and contraceptive use. This act of naming was important because it helped the girls to think and see the work they do in a different light; that they are not working in isolation and that everything they have been doing — every step in their organising — has a name.
“I enjoyed the session on how to take care of our bodies. We were shown how to clean our bodies, especially when we are menstruating. Periods are not a bad thing — we should not be ashamed of having periods. I also learned that it is important to call body parts by their names.” — Girl, 15
We had a fun night with the girls. They sang and danced without holding back, without shame they took over the dance floor and moved their bodies in power. We saw joy on their faces as they selected their friends and danced together. Team members joined in with them and the Purposeful Karo Kura song ‘Mi Padi’ got them all up and dancing.
Conclusion: Lessons on organising training for girls
1 — Acknowledge the role of joy in our resistance
From singing to dancing, all we could feel in that space was an unbelievable joy. Waves of laughter from the bottom of our bellies resounded in the entire room, reminding us why we convene girls. To see the joy and to be partakers of that joy; to share in a moment of laughter and bring collective healing to our bodies, souls, and mind. We do not take these moments for granted, because we have come to realise that joy sustains our hope for the transformation of our communities. When we bring girls together, we experience joy as part of our resistance.
2 — Prioritise feminist political education
The girls had so much to contribute to the sessions. They had a lot to ask and we had a lot to discuss. We had limited time to talk about everything, highlighting the importance of allowing enough time to learn and grow with girls at future convenings. In the future we would also like to have more time dedicated to providing sessions on feminist political education for the girls, as well as building more girl-led strategies with them and finding out more about the best ways to connect with and reach more girls.
3 — Recognise the power of convening spaces
Resourcing convenings gives funders an opportunity to interact with girls and learn how to build better and deeper relationships with them. Being in the same room with girls who are singing, dancing and sharing bridges the gap between funders and girls. Girls become more comfortable speaking to funders and get to understand you beyond project implementation. At the same time, you get to understand more about girls’ lived experiences; their laughter, joy and pain.
Convenings are spaces for building solidarity and power, for learning and unlearning, with girls. There is a vibrancy that girls bring to convening which energises and refreshes everyone present; that speaks to the joy of coming together.
To find out more about Girls’ Circle Collectives and Purposeful: https://wearepurposeful.org/