-Source-The Hill- Traveling across Sierra Leone 16-year-old Zainab and her group perform educational dramas for different villages on girls and womens empowerment. In nearly every village Zainab hears stories on why her work is so important. She remembers one girls story about a friend who never returned to school. Before she vanished the two girls had spoken of a secret society she was about to join. In Sierra Leone her parents and grandparents never told her what would happen at the ceremony but she knew it was a rite of passage" that every woman in her village took. Now Zainab knows what happened. Some of the girls that went into these ceremonies never returned. In Sierra Leone nearly 90 percent of all women and girls above 15 years of age have suffered from a practice called female genital mutilation or FGM. The country has one of the highest rates of FGM globally and each year more than 3 million girls are at risk of undergoing this dangerous procedure. The practice results in preventable deaths and carries lifelong health risks for those who do survive including infections hemorrhaging and birth complications. Today Sierra Leone has the highest maternal death rate and the second highest child death rate in the world. This summer I traveled to Sierra Leone with CARE an organization focused on fighting global poverty by empowering women and girls to see firsthand U.S. investments supporting global health and gender equality. We met with survivors of FGM and other young women in their village communities. It was incredibly impactful to hear their stories. That was where I met Zainab. Zainab takes part in the Girls Access to Education (GATE) program implemented by Plan International. They work in Sierra Leone with families local authorities and village chiefs to stop FGM and help young women who have suffered the practice move forward with their lives. The program also empowers girls and women to become advocates for change helping tackle issues like gender-based violence and girls education. Previously shy and soft-spoken Zainab is now a vocal advocate for womens empowerment. She attends weekly sessions for students with trained mentors that help spread awareness on the dangers of FGM. Zainab even spoke with her parents about the risks of FGM and avoided undergoing the practice herself. Hearing women and girls speak of Sierra Leones strong trust in their cultural beliefs and traditions I can understand how difficult it can be to educate communities. Right now nearly 40 percent of Sierra Leonean girls will be forced into marriage before their 18th birthday. But Zainab and young women like her are changing that dynamic. Zainab now
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