West Africa – December 21 2021 Young women at the African Girls' Summit call for the elimination of harmful practices In a collective voice, girls and young women from SOS Children’s Villages programmes in Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Niger and Senegal gathered in Niger to ensure their voices and recommendations are heard by African leaders during the 3rd African Girls Summit (AGS) held in Niamey in mid-November. Organized by the African Union, the AGS 2021 focused on culture, human rights and accountability to accelerate the elimination of harmful practices against girls in Africa, such as early marriage, female genital mutilation, and gender-based violence. At the summit, girls and young women presented to African Union member states and their leaders a manifesto entitled "Leaders Act Now, Our Lives Are at Risk." “The African Girls' Summit was an opportunity for us to interact with young people and experts and to make recommendations for the abandonment of these harmful practices, for which I personally have noticed the disastrous and traumatic impacts on the victims,” said Alimata, 25, from Cote d’Ivoire. Ya Salamatu Kamara, moderator from Sierra Leone Among others, the girls actively participated in two sessions co-hosted by SOS Children's Villages. Fati, 20, from Niger and a beneficiary of SOS Children’s Villages, shared her story as a victim of early marriage and genital mutilation at the session ‘Young People engaging with Member states on Action/Accountability to End Harmful Practices.’ "I didn't have the chance to go to school and was married very young,” she told attendees. “I quickly became pregnant. I had a complicated delivery in which I lost the baby and subsequently suffered from obstetric fistula. “Because of the illness, I did not go out anymore. I stayed isolated and spent my time crying. I was stigmatized by the community and my husband rejected me and eventually divorced me,” she said. Obstetric fistula is a perforation between the vagina and the urinary bladder or rectum that causes urine and/or faeces to leak through the vagina, leading to chronic medical problems. Women who suffer from this condition are often condemned to depression, social isolation, and increased poverty. “Today, thanks to SOS Children's Villages, I have been able to regain my health and independence. I am in a training centre where I am learning. In addition, I was able to get financial assistance to buy livestock to cover my medical expenses and needs,” Fati said. “I am happy to take part in this summit. We need to share more of these harmful practices stories because beyond the figures, there are traumatized, silent, wounded girls. It's about saving lives.” In Africa, 33,000 girls under the age of 18 are at risk of being forced into early marriage and every year 3.2 million are at risk of being subjected to genital mutilation, according to United Nations data. Girls without parental care or at risk of losing it are particularly exposed because they lack the protection and support network usually provided by the family. In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic as well as humanitarian crises and conflicts have increased the vulnerability of families and children, especially girls, and weakened the gains made in terms of sexual and gender-based violence. Salamatu, a 17-year old girl and a beneficiary of SOS Children’s Villages programmes in Sierra Leone, shared the story of her friend who lost her life in child birth because she was forced into early marriage. “I am not a victim but my friend was a victim. She was very brilliant and she stayed with her grandmother. The grandma forced her into an early marriage, which my friend was not in support of. After the marriage, she dropped out of school and later lost her life during child delivery”. Salamatu co-moderated a session on ‘Intervening in Humanitarian, Emergency, Cross-border and Conflict Contexts to Prevent and Eliminate Harmful Practices’. She ended her presentation by saying; "I am more inspired today than ever to be an ambassador and mouthpiece to advocate for actions that discourage harmful practices of all kinds. We need more champions among young people. We are the largest part of the population, we are the future, we master online communication, and so we must mobilize and act because we can break this cycle.” Aware of the challenges and the urgency to address them, West African girls’ called on African Union member states and their leaders to take the necessary steps to end these harmful practices, through a manifesto entitled "Leaders Act Now, Our Lives Are at Risk". They made the following key recommendations: Harmonize all laws so that child marriage is set at 18 years in all countries in Africa Promote access to education for all children, especially girls, without discrimination; Encourage resilience for victims and for all stakeholders involved in the fight against harmful practices; Duty bearers should establish a mechanism to raise awareness of the harms of these practices and penalize perpetrators Duty bearers need to increase funding towards community sensitization on issues affecting children’s wellbeing, especially the most vulnerable Governments need to create awareness about the reporting and referral mechanisms available to girls to denounce the practices they are subjected to For SOS Children's Villages, ensuring the rights of girls is an essential part of our work. Girls must be protected from all forms of violence and have guaranteed access to education and health services. We are committed to working to create and maintain a caring, safe and nurturing environment for girls, so that they can enjoy their childhood and contribute to the development of their communities. National Director of Sierra Leone, Sophie Ndong, and National Director of Niger, Mamadou Madougou.