Youth Spotlight: Sankofa Empowering Women in Ghana
During the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, four young leaders brought to life a mission that would cross both continents and cultures. The journey begins near Washington DC, during an online PeaceJam leadership development program that brought together high school students Samantha, Queen, Simona and Zehra to learn that they shared a deep commitment to inspiring positive change within and beyond their communities. During a breakout group focused on Advancing Women & Children, they learned that they also had a shared common focus on women’s empowerment and economic justice.
While meeting routinely in this space, the group studied and discussed ways in which women’s empowerment could be both hindered and promoted. Simultaneously, they explored the leadership styles and examples of Nobel Peace Laureates such as Kailash Satyarthi. These conversations eventually brought them to the practice of Kayayei in the fellow PeaceJam region of Ghana. Found primarily in urbanized areas, this labor practice commonly involves women and girls working as head porters, also known as “Kayayei”, to transport goods in the region. Head porters are a common practice in East Africa in which materials are carried within baskets on top of the head. As a labor practice, the Kayayei women are known to often face highly exploitative work conditions.
A group of Kayayei workers carry market goods across a city in Northern Ghana.
While studies suggest that head-carrying above 20% of your body weight can cause significant health issues, Kayayei frequently carry weights above 60 kilos (132 pounds) across large distances. An average work day can amount to 14 hours a day in exchange for less than $4.00 US dollars. The practice also puts women and girls at a high risk of exposure to sexual assault, malaria and HIV. While studying in Ghana, SEWING co-founder Simona Letizia met a number of Kayayei workers who shared that a lack of empowerment programs and training leads young women to join the practice out of necessity. This includes girls as young as seven who have given up on schooling in order to support their families.
Samantha, Zehra, Simona, and Queen were inspired by the stories of these women and the work being done to uplift alternative roles in local economies. When it came time to develop their community-project, the young women kept circling back to this particular cause. If local Ghanaian women seemed to share the belief that economic empowerment could combat such exploitation, the group wondered if there was a way to uplift community-led programs from afar.
SEWING co-founder Zehra Syeda and Samantha Jayasundera in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.
These questions led them to reach out to PeaceJam Ghana coordinator Wisdom Addo at the West Africa Centre for Peace Foundation. Through this connection, the team was introduced to PeaceJam Ghana youth leaders such as Kate Duker and Ivy Tawiah and they began to build a cross-cultural team across two separate, but connected, organizational regions.
With support from the West Africa Centre for Peace Foundation, a team of Ghanaian youth conducted field studies and surveys in the city of Zebilla in Northern Ghana. These studies gathered first-hand accounts and perspectives on the practice of Kayayei from the community itself. Most important of all, the studies worked with the local communities on the possible solutions to the issue. The repeating trend within these conversations was a strong need to empower young girls with more education and entrepreneurship opportunities. The standout focus for such skill-building options was sewing.
PeaceJam Ghana coordinator Wisdom Addo helps youth leaders conduct research in the local community of Zebilla, Ghana.
All of these discoveries led to a partnership between members of PeaceJam Mid-Atlantic, PeaceJam Ghana and the West Africa Center for Peace Foundation to empower young girls to rise up and surpass economic limitations and restricted opportunities in Northern Ghana. Together with partners such as the Atamba’s Skills and Training Center, the youth team developed a three-year skills and entrepreneurship training program to enable young women to start their own businesses that transform repurposed clothing into sellable products.The program not only supports the local Ghanaian economy but also promotes business models focused on sustainability as is now called Sankofa Empowering Women in Ghana (SEWING), named after a Ghanaian proverb of knowledge.
We believe in the Ghanaian proverb of Sankofa, which embodies turning to the past and seeking out beneficial knowledge that can be implemented in the present in order to promote positive progress in the future. The Sankofa symbol originates from the Akan people of Ghana and represents the value of knowledge rooted in Ghanaian culture, and with it, the call for critical evaluation and patient investigation.
At the Atamba Skills and Training Center, young women participate in the newly developed SEWING program.
Those accepted into the program learn sewing and entrepreneurship skills under the mentorship of local seamstresses and tailors that will enable them to receive or create sustainable employment, greater financial independence, and self-confidence by the end of the program and inspire other youth within their community. Through the program, they continue to support the local Ghanaian projects and build long-lasting relationships with the greater Zebilla community. SEWING has brought in the global PeaceJam community through virtual presentations, workshops, and in-person events. Last March, the SEWING founders even had the opportunity to discuss their project with Nobel Peace Laureate and children’s rights advocate Kailash Satyarthi.
Members of the Mid-Atlantic SEWING team discuss their project with Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi and his wife Sumedha.
Members of the SEWING team now connect from new locations as they pursue studies from separate universities in the US and Ghana. Despite these new challenges, the group continues to collaborate across continents to strengthen and expand the mission of SEWING. Last year, a second SEWING chapter was even established at the Lincoln Community School in Accra, Ghana. Time after time, the youth leaders of SEWING have overcome obstacles and boundaries in pursuit of their mission.
SEWING co-founder Zehra Syeda shares her response to the prompt "what does peace mean to you?"
You can become a part of SEWING’s mission!
- Vote for SEWING at the University of Michigan Innovation in Action event on March 17th!
- Donated funds go directly towards: costs of sewing machines & educational expenses, payments to sewing teachers, tailors, & seamstresses, transportation to & from Accra & Northern Ghana, and stipends to allow young women to live without a job while in training.