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Overcoming Shame, Prejudice and Sexual Exploitation

October 19, 2017 By Judy Kosgei*

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Photo/Judy Kosgei/ Equality Now
         Peer mentor Aminata Sesay is seen here with Hawa and her baby

“He was in his 20’s and asked me to meet with him in his house. I refused and he said that if I didn’t agree he would do something really bad to me – he told me he could rape me. He kept threatening me and at one point I was feeling a lot of fear. I was very scared for me and my family and I so agreed to have sex with him.”

Hawa, 17, is mother to a one-year-old daughter and is among the many adolescent girls who have been banded by the government in Sierra Leone from attending formal school or sitting exams for becoming “visibly pregnant”.

“The importance of education for girls cannot be underestimated.  Nearly 15 million girls – mainly those living in poverty – will never set foot in a classroom.  Laws and policies that ban pregnant girls from education severely undercut that girl’s ability to provide for herself and perpetuates the cycle for her daughter as well.  Every dollar spent on education is an investment in economic productivity and sustainable growth.   This direct connection to prosperity is clearly set out in the Sustainable Development Goals with Goal 4 calling for inclusive, quality education and Goal 5 calling for gender equality.”  Christa Stewart, End Sexual Violence/ Justice for Girls Expert, Equality Now

The ban on teenage mothers has been in place since April 2015 and was announced as official government policy by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology during the reopening of state schools following the Ebola virus epidemic in 2014.

As part of emergency measures to reduce infection rates, schools in Sierra Leone were closed between June 2014 and April 2015.

In addition, quarantines and a seriously strained healthcare system meant girls were unable to access the type of sexual and reproductive health support or advice needed protect them from getting pregnant.

Hawa was 15-years-old when a man in his 20’s repeatedly threatened to rape her unless she agreed to his sexual advances.  The perpetrator was from the local community where Hawa lived in Tombo, a coastal fishing town on the southern coast of the Western Area Rural District of Sierra Leone, approximately 30 miles east of Freetown.

Hawa was a Senior Secondary School Class 2 (SS2), and the fourth born in a family of six sisters and two brothers. Local business came to a standstill as a result of quarantines imposed during the Ebola crisis, making it very hard to make ends meet.

Hawa’s perpetrator would target her when she was out running family errands like going to the market or river. In addition to threatening sexual violence, he would offer her money for basics like food and other personal effects as a way to coerce her into agree to sex with.

Eventually Hawa agreed to his demands and became pregnant. When her teacher found out, Hawa was forced to leave school and has been unable to return since the birth of her daughter.

SCHOOL

“I like History a lot, I like reading about our country, especially the political organisations.  I want to be a leader and to bring positive change. Knowing every detail in history excites and empowers me. It makes me want to be part of it, I always want to make history in our country. I always wish that one day other children will be able to read about me in their history books but without education it will be impossible for me to get into history books.

“I dropped out of school when I was in Senior Secondary School Class 2 (SS2). When schools reopened after Ebola I was very excited to go back despite being pregnant. When I went to school one day my History subject master, who knew my passion for the subject, told me I should no longer come to school but stay at home.  When he told me that, I felt very bad,” she explains.

According to her, “The teacher got wind that I was pregnant and told me to leave school because I would infect my colleagues with my bad character. He said other students will say, ‘look at my friend she is pregnant and she is in school, I will also get pregnant’. I tried to beg him to allow me to stay a little bit longer in school but he refused. He told me to go back until I deliver the baby. ”

COERCION AND SEXUAL ABUSE

“The man was way older than me. He was in his 20s and asked me to meet with him in his house. I refused and he said if I didn’t agree he would do something really bad to me – he told me he could rape me. He kept threatening me and at one point I was feeling a lot of fear. I was very scared for me and my family and I agreed to have sex with him

“It was during the Ebola crisis, he would wait for me at the roadside on the days I was going to market or even the river. The day it happened I was going to the market.

“The following month I missed my period.  I started feeling dizzy and so I bought a pregnancy test kit from the market after my friend, whom I had confided my fears to, advised me to get one. It was my first sex experience but my friend already had a child and she knew how to go about these things.  She was very kind and she showed me how to use it,” she narrates her ordeal.

THE BAN AND BEING A TEEN MUM

Hawa’s ordeal continued even after she had delivered the baby. “After the baby was born, I tried going back to school but the principal told me to pay fees first.  I went back home to tell my mother,  she told me I had already missed a lot in school  and I would not catch up so I should just stay at home because she could not afford the money the school was asking for.

“Some of my schoolmates laughed at me and my parents were very disappointed in me. They were very annoyed.

“When I was in school I always emerged the top of the class. My performance was really good and I wish I could just be given a second chance to be able to achieve my dreams. My plan is to go back to school but I don’t have the money for school fees.

“At that time I really wanted to be in school so that I don’t lag behind. Every day when I see my sister and brothers going to school while I do the house chores I feel very bad. My work is like I am the nanny in our home – I cook for them while they have a lot of fun and enjoy reading in school.”

But Hawa’s fortune changed for the best after she met peer mentor, Aminata Sesay. “When I met mentor Aminata she encouraged me and enlightened me in things that I didn’t know. She told me not to give up and helped me know how I should deal with a situation if a man threatens me.

“I started talking to small girls around me, telling them not to fall into the trap that I fell into. I wish I knew Aminata before this man threatened me, I would have reported him to my parents or even my older brother and sister. This information by mentor should be made available in school,” she says.
Ms. Sesay, 24, a mother of one, works as a volunteer peer mentor at Child Welfare Society. She tells me what motivated her to volunteer to help teenage mothers. “During the Ebola Crisis I had to step in, because men were taking advantage of young school girls.

“A lot of girls were raped in my community; some girls were raped by family members. When these girls are sexually abused they would consult me and I report to the police, sometimes action would be taken. Some girls fell pregnant because of this.”

She voices her dislike for punishing victims of child sexual exploitation while the perpetrators are often left to prey on other unsuspecting victims. “I don’t like what is happening in my country. The minute these pregnant girls stay at home they are exposed and are held as brides. If they are encouraged to go to school when they are pregnant, this will make girls feel encouraged and wanted. No one will discriminate against them.

“This discrimination makes them fear going to school after the baby. But if the government, teachers and the community encourage them then they will not drop out of school.”

She paints a rather graphic picture of the problem of teenage pregnancy and how failings in the legal system and social connivance ensure that perpetrators most times go scot-free. “You can get like 20 to 30 girls in one school who are pregnant, it is very bad. In most cases perpetrators are arrested but this goes nowhere because family members will do a reconciliation ceremony and compensate the girl’s family and the case is dropped. Some girls are threatened that if you go and talk I will rape you again, kill you or harm you so the girls fear,” she says.

Editor’s note:

Hawa, not her real name, spoke to Judy Kosgei from Equality Now, on October 10, 2017 in Freetown, thanks to support from Child Welfare Society, Sierra Leone.

Judy Kosgei is Communications and Media Officer, Africa at Equality Now. She can be contacted via email: jkosgei@equalitynow.org ; telephone +254 721 688812