Education helps the most vulnerable people transform their lives. Twenty-four year old Estelle Bangura from Sierra Leone is living proof of this.
A high-school drop-out, destitute, and a single mother four years ago, Estelle was given a second chance at making a life for herself through a programme that helps out-of-school girls and young women in conflict-affected African countries to gains appropriate skills for life and work. Today Estelle is an independent woman with a good job and able to take care not only of herself and her daughter but her parents and relatives too.
"I went through a lot of challenges but thank God for seeing me through," she said. "Taking care of a child and at the same time schooling was not an easy task. I devoted my time and effort towards my studies for a whole year and now I’m proud to say I am empowered and self-reliant."
Estelle was born in a small village in the northern part of Sierra Leone. The country, known for its blood diamonds, emerged from a nine-year civil war in 2000. It is ranked 180th of 187 countries on the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index and was ranked among the 10 poorest countries in the world on UNDP’s Human Poverty Index in 2005.
Born into a family of eight children to a polygamous father married to three wives, Estelle was the first woman in her family to be sent to school. "My father always called me his ‘lucky child’ because it was after my birth that he picked up a regular job as a security officer," she says. "As a result, he happily sent me off to school when I reached the age."
Estelle’s father had big dreams for his "lucky child." By the time she reached her last year of high school in 2007, he had taken steps to enro'l her in nursing school. But that same year, Estelle became pregnant and not only had to drop out of school but was turned out of home by her bitterly disappointed father.
Homeless and abandoned by her boyfriend, Estelle was taken in by an aunt. "Only my mother supported me during those long months. She had to struggle to provide food for me and my baby girl," she explains.
But after two years at home with her baby, Estelle heard about a programme introduced by the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) and the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) in Sierra Leone in 2009. The programme gives out-of-school girls the opportunity to learn technical, vocational and entrepreneurship skills in order to increase their prospects for employment in the formal or informal sectors.
When Estelle heard about the programme, she made up her mind to go out all to further her education.
"I was so desperate for something to do that I didn’t even care about the type of course offered," she explains. "All I was concerned about in my desperate state was to go out there, study anything and get a secure future. I was prepared to go the extra mile and focus on my work to prove to the world that I am not a useless person."
As part of its work to bring gender equality to African education and equal opportunities for African girls and women, FAWE encourages young women like Estelle to learn skills that are traditionally perceived to be male domains. Estelle enrolled at the Sierra Leone Opportunity Industrialization Centre (SLOIC) in Makeni in Sierra Leone’s Northern Province to study electricity under the FAWE programme.
In her class, Estelle was one of 14 girls studying with 34 boys. Although the boys laughed at the group of girls in the beginning, Estelle soon made friends with some of them and began to study with them. This turned out to be to her advantage.
‘I realised that they were organising themselves into groups to go out on apprenticeship. With the financial situation I was in, I made them promise to take me along and they started taking me out on their part-time jobs. So I was able to get practical experience through apprenticeships,’ she states.
The FAWE-DANIDA programme does not stop at simply helping young women to acquire work-readiness skills. It also supports these new graduates to further their education and training, find relevant employment or set up their own income-generating activities.
Energy company Addax Bioenergy is developing a Greenfield renewable energy and agriculture project in Makeni where Estelle was studying. The project will produce bio-ethanol for domestic and for export as well as ‘green’ electricity for Sierra Leone’s national grid.
Eileen Hanciles, FAWE Sierra Leone National Chapter Coordinator, explains how Estelle’s determination paid off and got her a job at Addax Bioenergy.
"Because of the rising awareness in Sierra Leone of ensuring equal opportunity in the work place to both sexes, the local councillor in Makeni area approached Addax Bioenergy about employment opportunities for young women," she says.
"Electricians were urgently needed but the company agreed to employ women only if they meet their standards of work. The councillor approached SLOI and three girls were recommended. Only Estelle was accepted after the job interview."
Almost a year on, Estelle is the only woman electrician employed at Addax Bioenergy and her little girl started pre-school this past September. Both are living testimony of the impact that education can have on the lives of African women.
FAWE’s technical and vocational education and training (TVET) programme was first introduced in Burundi, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2009 and within its first year, over 500 young women had enrolled on TVET programmes. Of those who graduated in 2011, 133 found relevant employment while a further 58 went into internships. In Sierra Leone alone, girls’ enrollment in technical and vocational programmes increased from five percent in 2009 to 65 percent in 2011. The programme was extended to Guinea, Senegal, and Somalia in January 2011.