FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, 4 November 2008 - Aminata Mansaray, 16, was born in Mankneh, a small community in the Bombali district of northern Sierra Leone. She is the third of five children - three boys and two girls - and for much of her young life she was not enrolled in school.
Aminata didn't start school until she was 11, but she has done very well since then. Today, she is in her final year of primary school. She will be taking the national exams for entry into secondary school next year.
Girls' rate of access to primary education is improving in Sierra Leone. But they suffer from a high drop-out rate and lower secondary-school enrolment than boys, who still receive preference in education.
Early marriage hinders schooling
In Aminata's case, an uncle offered to assist her family with the education of any two of the children; her parents selected their two elder sons.
"Very soon, a suitor will ask for my hand in marriage and I will part for another family," Aminata explained. "As such, girls are not seen as worth the investment [in schooling]."
Child marriage - a traditional practice that denies girls their right to a better future, including education - is quite rife here, with 56 per cent of Sierra Leonean girls (and 66 per cent in rural areas) married by the age of 18. This has been one of the major contributing factors to girls' drop-out rates and high maternal mortality in Sierra Leone.
Putting a girl in school and allowing her to stay there, on the other hand, dramatically changes the direction of her life. In fact, education can reset the compass for the girl herself and for her future family.
Mothers take responsibility
To help address the situation facing girls like Aminata, UNICEF and its non-governmental partners are supporting a community-based 'Mothers Club' initiative that empowers women to take full responsibility for their daughters' education through large-scale community gardening. The initiative was launched in 2006.
"We, the women, realize we can no longer sit back and allow our daughters to go uneducated," said Mothers Club Chairwoman Yabu Kanu. "We have seen the disadvantages of that, in terms of access to employment or appointment to public office."
"When we come together, we constitute a strong voice to provide the opportunity of learning for our daughters - something we do not have individually," Ms. Kanu added.
A chance to go to school
Mothers Club members cultivate tubers such as cassava and potatoes, and sell these products to raise funds for girls' school fees. The women also mobilize communities in support of girls' education and provide counselling for young girls on cultural issues such as early marriage, teenage pregnancy and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS.
UNICEF provides the club members with training in counselling, mediation and basic literacy skills.
Through such interventions by UNICEF and its partners, Aminata and thousands of other girls have had a chance to go to school and fulfil their dreams.
"I would like to be a teacher and help girls like me go to school," Aminata said proudly, walking down the corridor of her school. "I would also encourage them to stay in school and complete their education, so they can become useful citizens in the future."