July 22, 2019

Titus Boye-Thompson, Communications Expert

Alice is only fourteen but her body for some reason has grown to far too fast. She lives with her parents but the family is not without the usual problems of too many mouths to feed, not much coming in. She attends school at a town just six miles away but that journey is tedious and fraught with danger, so when the District Agricultural Officer (DAO) showed interest in her, she was happy to relay that to her mother who saw nothing of it. Very soon, a regular contribution to the family’s upkeep became interspersed with requests for Alice to spend weekends at the DAO’s quarters. In less than six months of this, Alice became pregnant but again, the family saw nothing of this. At least now, she is assured of the additional support that the pregnancy would bring in, the prospect of marriage a closed issue because the DAO has stated from the beginning that he had a wife and family in the city, but no matter what, he would always look after her. For that privilege, the family had accepted him, and for the whole situation, they saw nothing of anything. This for them is a win-win situation.

This could happen anywhere in Sierra Leone. It is not a tribe thing, nor is it dependent ion the region, though statistics indicate that some regions have a higher propensity than others, but agreeably, this is not an indictment on the people involved as much as it is an acceptance of our failing societies, the erosion of our moral fibre and the reducing of expectations at the alter of economic damnation. Poverty admittedly is the greatest existential threat to the sanctity of childhood, a signal of an end of history in Sierra Leone. Something has to change.

Chernoh Bah, a Sierra Leonean advocate for the rights of pregnant girls to continue in mainstream schooling,  would have you believe that Alice’s entitlement to mainstream education should continue, irrespective of any impact, adverse or otherwise, that her situation would impose on herself and others. This is not new. Renegade social activists, funded by culturally dubious “development” partners would tell you that Sierra Leone would soon start to lose funding for community based development projects if they refuse to adopt gay rights and the protection of LBGT persons within mainstream communities. He sees the exclusion of such girls as sexual discrimination, in what can only be considered a misreading of the context of the very term.

The two situations are compounded by the growth of a nation that has failed to build for itself a coping mechanism. We are not together as a sovereign, our loyalties are departmentalised into our Chiefdoms and many have failed to rise above that primordial administrative construct to see the big picture. Long story short, we have failed to build a nation, we have failed to unite over ideologies, cultures and traditions that are tribe neutral but people centred.

Even though there is tacit agreement that poverty plays an endemic role in the corrupting of young girls, families and communities, it is also clear that the poverty of our peoples is not the constructive reason for the existence of such corrupting influences. Having said that, the argument can only be sustained by the incidences of pregnancies in school children from richer more prosperous families being in proportional measure equitable to that from poorer backgrounds. Do rich kids get pregnant in the same way as Alice has, given the fact that the DAO’s contribution to Alice’s family would not have the same impact or some would argue, not even be required, needed or encouraged.

Chernoh Bah’s arguments are predicated on a rights-based approach to public (education) services. What he does obfuscate in his replay of the responsibilities of the State’s provision is the absence of a duty of care to (those) girls who have openly flouted the rules of engagement. Sex is not encouraged in children according to our laws before the age of 21 or well for that matter, under 18. In an obtuse logic, the duty of care ceases to be mandatory in any instance when the person seeking to enjoy that duty has breached the law. Lawyers refer to this principle as “coming to equity with clean hands.”

In Alice’s case, as in over 80% of the time, teenage pregnancies do come out as a result out of consensual sex, notwithstanding that a significant number of that, almost all in fact can be stipulated as statutory rape when the teenager is under 18. Customary law, which has currency in a large part of the country provides or otherwise substantiates a legal defence for those cases where the act is between two persons who have been granted permission to enter into early marriage, child betrothal or other such consensual relationships with parental knowledge and acquiescence.

There are other factors that do mitigate against a clearer dichotomy of the matters raised up for the provision of education facilities in the mainstream but none provide any sound arguments over the negative multiplier effects of a laxed system that turns a blind eye to such illegalities as teenage sex, statutory rape and indecency that results in such events.

Cultural practices of female initiations and the incumbency of marriage and child bearing that that ceremony prepares the girl child for, makes it consequential in the least. It is difficult to fathom how a girl child would have been so ably prepared for adulthood during the long holidays in the rainy season and then be expected to go back to JSS1 in the new school year to go back and hobnob with innocents from other families and communities.

The fact is that many would opt to disregard the issues that contribute to the moral decline we face as a society because in some insidious manner, some of these issues sustain a rambunctious ruffle of decadence that the society explains away as culture and tradition. Many educated folks still ignore the signs and the statistics and the frequencies of fatalities and the social impact of women being unable to reach sexual fulfilment or as have been reported conduce to problems during childbirth all for the convenience of a male chauvinism that expose women to such draconian self-regulation. They forget that even as they fight to resist change, these cultural practices also have by products that technology is now overriding. Very soon we will start seeing selfies on WhatsApp social media of whatever happens in their closed communes and the secrets would no longer be hidden away. Even as of now, many who were sworn to secrecy have started speaking out and speaking against.

In the event, maybe it is time to bring it all out into the open. First Lady Fatima Bio has been vocal on the subject even if she was berated for her stance but at least she spoke from the heart and relayed what to her was a situation that she has been made to feel proud and comfortable with. The next step would logically be an attempt to marry that stance she had taken to the outcomes of the “hands off our girls.”

Not many people make the links or join up the dots but this moral decadence that Chernoh Bah wants to end with teenage pregnant girls in the same class as Mr Thomas’ class five girl started from the very essence of tribal socialization some now seek to avoid. It would be reduced to a differential of tribe when you consider that a markedly identifiable group of people refuse to encourage some of the practices that we now blame for the terrorism on women. Moving on from there, the incidence of education, exposure and a better absorption of Western, Judeo-Christian values result in a higher resistance to bad mores. Girls from affluent backgrounds or modern societies would avail themselves of contraception or at worst, abortion when caught out, well before their calamity becomes visible.

The whole situation is much worse than a distraction. It is the malfunctioning of a system that has not been allowed to grow and change. If our society should become much more open about sex, and our young children be so freely associative in that respect, then sex education and other levers of avoidance must have improved radically enough to stem this tide. There is no use talking about avoiding rape or penetration of minors on the one hand and then sponsoring under age girls to go through a system that prepares them for sex and family life. Let’s get this out in the open!