A 25-Year-Old Guy Is Leading the Way for Girls’ Rights in Sierra Leone
This profile is part of TakePart’s “I Am Malala” series, telling the stories of young people around the world who are following in the footsteps of Malala Yousafzai by breaking down cultural and political barriers and championing children’s and girls’ education. The series coincides with the October release of the documentary He Named Me Malala, produced by Participant Media, the parent company of TakePart.
For all of its faults, America’s educational system gets one thing right: It’s free. While inequalities in the system exist, particularly in low-income communities, theoretically, all children in our nation are entitled to a K–12 education. The concept of free education for all does not exist in every country around the world—and for children in Sierra Leone, a lack of money can often limit their opportunities to learn.
Pascal Masuba hopes to change that. Masuba was born in 1990, right before Sierra Leone was plunged into a decade-long civil war that claimed 50,000 lives, forced children to become soldiers, and subjected thousands of women and girls to sexual violence. In the wake of such unthinkable horrors, Masuba became a child activist, determined to speak for his peers who were affected by the chaos.
He hasn’t stopped fighting for them since.
Today Masuba, 25, works as the communications lead for BRAC Sierra Leone, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting men and women through economic and social programs. To this end, he has dedicated himself to championing education for all, particularly Sierra Leone’s girls, who face several barriers to obtaining an education, including antiquated ideas about women.
“The idea of gender violence is very common in our society,” Masuba says, noting that young women who don’t have access to secondary education regularly get trapped in sex work, marry early, or become teen mothers.
While primary school is available for both boys and girls, many young women fall by the wayside during secondary school, either because of lack of funds (secondary school isn’t free) or because they’ve been discouraged by a lack of academic success. To help them stay the course, Masuba founded the Zenith Academy, a free, at-home remedial program that reinforces the basics and shores up test-taking skills.
“I did that because I saw what was happening in the community. Most of the girls had the potential, but because a lot of the schools don’t have the facilities to really concentrate on them, most end up not having good grades and exams,” he explains. “Continued failure makes them lose hope, and these are the same girls who become prostitutes, run up to men for money, and are being abused.”
For Masuba, fighting gender-based violence is a passion. “The danger period is between when girls leave school and when they’re with their parents,” he says. Because of this, he runs BRAC’s Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents program, a kind of after-school club that keeps girls safe and connected to the educational community.
“When they go home, they want to come back,” he says.
While Sierra Leone has been making strides in the education and economic sectors, the progress is too slow for Masuba. “With all the NGOs coming in, with all of the opportunities coming in, why do we still have unemployed youth?” he wonders.
According to the United Nations Development Programme, Sierra Leone is an extremely young nation, with nearly a third of the population between the ages of 15 and 34. Of that group, upwards of 70 percent are unemployed or underemployed. Moreover, 60 percent of the entire population lives below the poverty level, and only 41 percent of adults are able to read and write.
The news isn’t all bad. Prior to last year’s Ebola outbreak, the country’s economy had been projected to grow at a rate of 4 percent. But when the virus spread across West Africa, things took a turn for the worse. The economy contracted as Sierra Leone was forced to cope with the deadly pandemic, putting more stress on the fragile educational system. When schools were forced to close during the outbreak, Masuba sprang into action. Through his organization’s ELA program, he distributed workbooks, textbooks, and other learning materials to keep students engaged during the shutdown.
Despite the immense challenges in Sierra Leone, Masuba is undaunted. He’s committed to making a difference in his homeland.
“There are thousands of people out there who have the potential, but just because they don’t have a voice, they’ve been trampled on and not given the right access to education,” he says. “For a nation to build up, education must be paramount. If it’s not there, a lack of education gives rise to other activities. If you allow the young population not to be educated, then it’s a problem for the country.”
He adds, “This is something I’ll act on for the rest of my life.”