Mary is one of the lucky generation of Sierra Leonean teenagers. Despite been pregnant, she had the opportunity to attend school like a normal girl.
Two years ago, Mary’s story would have been different, due to a 2010 policy banning girls with visible pregnancies. The government said it was meant to discourage pregnant girls from influencing their peers.
The policy was enforced in 2015, during the West African Ebola epidemic, when extensive lockdowns worsened poverty levels and exposed women and girls to sexual exploitation.
Sierra Leone had long been battling its teenage pregnancy crisis, a legacy of its civil war.
The number of teen mothers rose dramatically thanks to the Ebola restrictions. A UNFPA study show that more than 14,000 girls became pregnant by the end of the epidemic, including 11,000 who were already in school prior to the outbreak.
Thousands of girls were affected by the ban, many of whom eventually dropped out of school. Some were probably even given off for marriage to the same men responsible for their plight.
Years of advocacy against the policy culminated in litigation at the Community Court of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
The Women Against Violence and Exploitation in Society (WAVES), which operates in the southern district of Bo, was one of the groups behind the campaign. Hannah Yambasu, its Executive Director, says the ban was akin to punishing the girls for something they were victims of.
“Somebody impregnated them because of their vulnerability. Should we punish them double,” she says.
WAVES advocates against policies and traditions that hinder the progress of women and girls, like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Child Marriage, and Teenage Pregnancy.
Campaigners say all three phenomena have one thing in common: they hinder education of girls and expose them to a whole lot of life-threatening health complications.
Opponents of FGM say it’s a barbaric practice with lifelong health complications for its victims. The act of initiating underage girls makes it even more contentious, especially in light of increasing reports of deaths associated with the practice. In the last five months WAVES has recorded three FGM related fatalities.
Efforts to ban the practice has met stiff resistance from a society that sees them as affront to its culture and traditions. And supporters have been galvanized by the politicization of the practice.
According to the Sierra Leone Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2017, the country was home to 800, 000 child brides, of which 400, 000 were married before age 15.
Sierra Leone has the 17th highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Africa, where deaths due to the phenomenon is highest in the world, according to UN data. Some 28% of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 in the country have children, according to a 2019 UNFPA data.
Deaths as a result of complications from teenage pregnancies account for 40 percent of maternal mortality in Sierra Leone, which is at 717 deaths per 100,000 live births, according to the 2019 Sierra Leone Demographic Health Survey, one of the highest in the world.
Highly divisive policy
Notwithstanding these grim figures, the conservative posture of the Sierra Leonean society leaves little room for sympathy for victims, which explains why the pregnant school girl ban was highly divisive, even among rights campaigners.
“The civil society community said it’s immoral for girls who were pregnant to sit in class with their colleagues. They said they would influence their colleagues and the schools would be packed with pregnant girls,” Yambasu recalls the backlash against her challenging the ban.
Nearly two years after the case was filed, judges ruled against the “discriminatory” policy they said denied girls their rights to education.
Sierra Leone was found to be in breach of its commitments and responsibility under both local and international laws, with particular reference to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention Against Discrimination in Education.
While anticipating full implementation of the court’s recommendations, WAVES exploited the golden opportunity the ruling offered to prevent more girls from falling victim of the prevailing status quo, which had been exacerbated by the ban.
Through support from Equality Now, WAVES set up the Safe Space project, which provides a sanctuary for not just pregnant girls but also those who are at risk of exploitation.
Equality Now advocates for human rights of women and girls. Jean Paul Murunga, Programme Officer for the Nairobi-based NGO’s ‘End Sexual Violence campaign’, says the project has exposed the difficulty in accessing justice for girls in Sierra Leone.
“The population supports sexual violence because of inequalities that exist in society, where girls are seen as sexual objects. And this is something we are working against within the social norms so that girls are able to report violations,” he says.
The project is implemented in three districts – Bo, Kenema and Freetown. Girls like Mary, who are already victims of exploitation, go through their phase in life without pressure from the outside world. They are mentored on survival skills in the context of issues like child marriage, FGM, illiteracy, teenage pregnancy and hygiene.
Theresa Momoh, a teacher at the Ahmadiyya Primary School in Blama, Small Bo in nearby Kenema District, mentors 16 girls. She says the space basically provides protection for them.
“After normal classes, we try to keep them busy by providing extra lessons. We also engage in extracurricular activities,” she explains.
Theresa’s school is literally surrounded by a Bondo Bush on one side and a ‘Ghetto’ on another end.
The Bondo bush is where girls are initiated into the rites of passage – Bondo – which include FGM.
The Ghetto is a hangout for, usually unemployed, area boys.
Both groups pose unique threats to young girls. While they risk forceful initiation by the Bondo people, the Ghetto boys pose threat of sexual abuse, says Theresa.
Although she insists that she hasn’t heard of a case of forced initiation, there have been several reports of it elsewhere in the country. And Theresa says they have to make sure that the girls are closely guarded.
“We tell the Bondo people that once the girls are in their uniform they must not attempt to initiate them or they face the force of the law. And we make sure that they do not even go near the Ghetto,” she says.
Head Teacher Mathew Bobo Kobba of the Seventh Day Adventist Primary School in Nyegbenga, Nyawale Chiefdom in Bo, has collaborated with the Safe Space to foil several attempts to initiate underage pupils into FGM.
Mr Kobba however recalls watching helplessly as one of his star pupils dropped out of the National Primary School Examination (NPSE) last year, after getting pregnant. She was given support to go through her education. And because she was underage, the case was treated as rape. The perpetrator, a man in the community, was tracked down and prosecuted.
These Safe Spaces also train girls as ambassadors for their peers, like 18-year-old Hannah Smith and 14-year-old Hawa Tucker, who help to enlighten other girls in their schools and communities.
But the involvement of these girls in the advocacy, at this young stage of their lives, illustrates the sad reality of the uphill battle to guarantee access to education for girls in Sierra Leone.
Lifting of the ban was just the beginning and just one of the court’s recommendations. The government was also ordered to put in place measures to reduce teenage pregnancies and to sensitize communities against discrimination of victims.
Mary’s experience, in spite of her privilege, reinforces the point for urgent and holistic action. Pregnant at the young age of 15 and confused, she had to deal with pressure from both family and society. While her father threatened to end her school career as punishment for bringing shame to the family, her peers ridiculed her for being a child mother.
“I thought I would die in that pregnancy. I thank God that WAVES came to my aid,” she says.
The government has introduced several programmes geared towards ending the culture of SGBV. It’s flagship Free Quality Education programme opened doors for reforms, notably the Radical Inclusion policy of Basic Education Minister Dr David Sengeh, which reportedly inspired the lifting of the pregnant school girl ban.
After an unsuccessful attempt to get a comment from the Ministry, I managed to get a question through to Dr Sengeh during a webinar on Public Education. He acknowledged the existence of challenges and says tackling the issues requires collective responsibility.
Sengeh rejected the idea that the government lifted the ban because of the court ruling, noting that the move was in line with its principles. He adds that President Julius Maada Bio was personally opposed to the ban.
The Bio administration inherited the policy from its predecessor in 2018. It lifted the ban nearly two years later, about three months after the court’s ruling in 2019.
Both FGM and child marriage are deep-rooted cultural and religious traditions in Sierra Leone. Child marriage is especially common among the majority Muslim population, which makes it a taboo for politicians who fear the repercussion of upsetting the religious establishment.
It’s also common practice for politicians to sponsor Bondo festivities, as a way of buying favours from their constituents.
The fight against FGM was thrown into limbo when First Lady Fatima Bio openly defended the practice, prompting accusations of double standards.
Mrs Bio’s ‘Hands off Our Girls’ campaign has been a major complimenting effort in the fight against teenage pregnancy. Her critics say initiating women, especially underage girls, into FGM against their will is just as bad as sexual abuse.
Outside the education sector, there are a lot more blank spaces in the equation towards an SGBV free Sierra Leone. The legal framework, for instance, needs more vigor to fast track prosecution.
The Family Support Unit (FSU) of the Sierra Leone Police is a key partner of the Safe Space project. But the Unit is bedeviled by lack of resources to adequately conduct conclusive investigations particularly on sexual offense cases.
Data from its Bo office suggests a reduction in sexual abuse cases but a persistent rise in cases of physical abuse. Chief Superintendent Fatmata Susan Kamara, FSU Southern Region Coordinator, attributes this to engagement of girls both in and outside the school system, an indication of the positive impact of the lifting of the ban.
But her major challenges include policing an area so vast, with limited resources. She also laments the tendency for family members of victims to seek out-of-court settlement.
Campaigners say all these issues must be addressed by a comprehensive government action for there to be any promising future for the girl child in Sierra Leone.
The name of the teenage mother was changed to conceal her identify.
You can also watch the video version here.