Zainab Turay


Summary: Zainab Turay is the Founder of Mabel’s Cottage Foundation in Sierra Leone, which aims to improve the position of vulnerable, single, pregnant teenagers and their children by providing them with services and helping them build a future where they can become financially independent. Turay has financial challenges and has been verbally abused and threatened by men that have impregnated the girls she works with; many of those men fear being prosecuted.

Profile: Mabel's Cottage, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, was the home of Zainab Turay’s mother, Mabel Lewis. Upon her mother’s passing, Turay inherited the house and decided to use it to shelter pregnant teenagers. Mabel’s Cottage Foundation was established and legally registered in the spring of 2014. “This is a tribute,” says Turay, “to my mother, who during her lifetime, also dedicated herself to help other people.”

Mabel’s Cottage Foundation aims to improve the lives of teenagers in Sierra Leone—in particular, vulnerable, single, pregnant teenagers and their children—while helping them to build a future and to become financially responsible. Turay’s work is considered by people in Sierra Leone as well as in the Netherlands—where Turay lives—as a great opportunity to provide teenagers a perspective for a better life. The foundation provides support, including shelter and care, for the first 18 months during and after the girls’ pregnancy. During their stay in the cottage, the girls also receive basic vocational training and support to set up their own businesses if they are capable.

Turay recalls that, apart from the structure left by her mother, the idea of a foundation for pregnant teenagers started with little hats and a friend, Gea Wildeman:

“I like telling stories about Sierra Leone, since it is my country of origin. In the hospital where Gea worked there was a pediatrician who started a project and requested the staff of the hospital to knit baby hats/caps for newborn babies . . .. Gea, together with her girlfriends, knitted 100+ hats, which she gave me to take them to Sierra Leone. I did that and made a short video to show her how grateful they were.”

Throughout the cottage’s decade-long operation, Turay and her colleagues have been able to help reduce the country’s maternal mortality rate and make over 100 girls self-sufficient through education. The girls are prepared to either go to a mainstream school or to learn a trade. The foundation has successfully delivered and empowered over 100 girls since its establishment.

There are downsides: Due to poor health facilities in Sierra Leone, Turay fears losing a mother or a child or both. She constantly tries to overcome that situation: “In our 10 years of work,” she says, “we have lost three babies and not a single girl. We spend hours to ensure we provide water to the hospital section of the cottage just to ensure our girls have a hygienic environment to deliver their babies.”

There are also the threats. Turay and her team face verbal abuse from the men who have impregnated the girls and who fear prosecution.

And of course it’s financially difficult to run Mabel’s Cottage. Getting girls off the street, sheltering them, and providing them with services requires huge resources: “We get most of our funding from the Netherlands and from our multiple projects,” reports Turay. “We have a bakery, a library, and a mini-market. I believe in being self-sufficient; just the smile on the face of our girls keeps me going. I know that without our help they will be stranded.”

Turay’s greatest wish is to see better health care for abused teenagers and to be able to provide them with support that will ensure their physical, social, and mental well-being while making them self-reliant.