Beauty empowers girls in Freetown’s slum

Reportage from Sierra Leone by Freja Lykke Herrik

The urgent problem of sexual and gender based violence

In Sierra Leone, the number of assaults against young women has significantly increased in recent years. Each month, hundreds of cases of rape and sexual assaults against women and children are reported. And even more cases stay unreported because of stigmatisation of the victim and a culture of silence surrounding the issue. In February 2019, the president of Sierra Leone, Julius Maada Bio, therefore declared a National Emergency on Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV), which involved a massive national focus on the urgent problem from the politicians, hospitals, police and system of justice.

 Young women living in the many slum areas of Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown are especially vulnerable to SGBV. Many of them do not have a job and therefore end up in abusive relationships with men or in prostitution in an attempt to provide for themselves. The recurrent floods that especially affect the slum areas make young women even more vulnerable, because many have to move out of their homes and live on the streets. The government has realizsed that there is a need for massive intervention on a large scale, but there is also a need for action on a smaller scale. A woman who takes matters into her own hands in her local community goes by the name Aunty Effy.

Aunty Effy in her salon. Photo by Freja Lykke Herrik

Aunty Effy in her salon. Photo by Freja Lykke Herrik

Aunty Effy’s Beauty Salon

If you are in the slum areas in Kissy at the Eastern end of Freetown and ask for Aunty Effy’s Beauty Salon, you will be directed to a small pink shop with hair extensions in all shapes and colours hanging from the ceiling and all the beauty products you could imagine standing on every surface in the shop. Often, a lot of women are sitting in plastic chairs outside the shop chatting, laughing and getting their hair, nails and make-up done.

Aunty Effy grew up in Freetown. She never went to school; instead she worked minor jobs to provide for herself and her family. When she was young, she faced abuse herself. During the civil war, she fled to Nigeria. Here, she had no money and nothing to do, so she started learning how to do hairdressing, tailoring and cosmetics from a local salon close to the refugee camp. She stayed in Nigeria for seven years, and when she returned to Sierra Leone, she started making a little money by doing hair and make-up on friends and family. With time, she got more customers and earned enough money to buy a small shop.

Aunty Effy with a picture of some of the graduated girls from the training program. Photo by Freja Lykke Herrik.

Aunty Effy with a picture of some of the graduated girls from the training program. Photo by Freja Lykke Herrik.

Helping girls from the slum

Now she has extended the shop with a couple of small rooms behind, where she teaches young girls from the slum areas of Kissy how to do hairdressing, tailoring and cosmetics, as well as how to read, write and manage a business. These are all girls who have dropped out of school and gotten into prostitution. Aunty Effy goes to different slum areas to present girls with an alternative to prostitution. At the moment, 43 girls come for trainings every week from Monday to Saturday.

The majority of these girls face violence in their everyday life. One of them is Kumba. She was raped at the age of 13 and got pregnant as a result. Something went wrong when she gave birth, which means that she is not able to give birth again. Aunty Effy explains that this makes it hard for Kumba to find a husband. Her baby survived, and now she is putting all her focus on the training, and she dreams about opening her own small beauty salon in the future. “Kumba always wants to learn more”, Aunty Effy tells, with a warm smile.

 ”I don’t want them to live the way I lived before”, Aunty Effy says. ”Because if you have never been to school, you will not have anything to do. You can only chase men, and that is not a good life for any woman. So I decided to help my sisters in Sierra Leone”, she continues. Aunty Effy tries the best she can to create safety for the girls and to encourage them to fight for a better future out of prostitution. Some of the girls who graduated from the trainings have already opened small shops of their own and have, since then, been able to provide for themselves.

Aunty Effy teaching her oldest daughter how to make different hairstyles. Photo by Freja Lykke Herrik.

Aunty Effy teaching her oldest daughter how to make different hairstyles. Photo by Freja Lykke Herrik.

Dreams, hope and empowerment

“If you start your own business, you can make your own money. And if you make your own money, you don’t need a man. Only if you wish to have a baby. But that’s the only time you really need a man”, Aunty Effy says and laughs. She underlines that it is important to teach the girls about independence. Many of them think that their only change to provide for themselves is to find a man or to go into prostitution. Changing this mentality creates new hope and dreams among the girls.

Working with beauty in Sierra Leone is the kind of profession where women know best, can be in charge and decide for themselves, unlike in most other professions. Doing hairdressing and make-up is something women teach to other women, and they can use this as a source of empowerment. In the future, Aunty Effy dreams about expanding the salon and training centre, so she can help more vulnerable girls out of a life with prostitution and violence. She also dreams about passing on her skills and knowledge to her daughter, so she can take over her work in the future.

Dreamtown feels obligated to respond to the urgent problem of violence against women in Sierra Leone, and is planning to prevent and fight against the violence among young women in the slum areas of Kissy as well as other slum areas, collaborating with several local women groups in Kissy, including Aunty Effy’s Beauty Salon.

The article is written by Freja Lykke Herrik, Visual Anthropology student and Project Officer with Dreamtown. Freja currently lives in Sierra Leone, where she supports Dreamtown’s work to improve the wellbeing of young people living in slums.