The schools of Sierra Leone reopened in May after a nine-month closure due to the Ebola epidemic. Currently, schools are on break and only the students who have not passed their exams are attending.
One student is Christiana, 18, a member of Plan International’s Youth Advisory Panel. She is engaged in Plan’s project to stop child marriage, teenage pregnancies, and sexual violence against girls.
The Ebola epidemic, which hit Sierra Leone in the past year, has led to a dramatic increase of all these issues. Schools were closed for a whole academic year and used as holding centers, quarantines, treatment centers, and camps.
“Many of my friends have had to leave school because of Ebola,” said Christina. “Some are pregnant, others have been forced into marriage. I feel very sad that they are not here with me in school anymore.”
Christiana described how poverty in Sierra Leone contributes to the vulnerability of many children, who get abused by teachers and other staff at the school.
“Children are forced to work for free after school hours at the teachers’ farms or are sometimes forced to perform sexual acts,” she said. “Those who refuse are threatened with violence or receive failing marks in school and cannot proceed to the next level.”
Christiana has personally experienced this kind of treatment.
“When I was younger, my teacher forced me to work at his farm until late at night,” she said. “I was so tired when I got home that I could not do my homework.”
As she got older, Christiana was exposed to sexual extortion from the principal at her school. He used the fact that Christiana had been disowned by her family and did not have anyone who could pay for her school fees.
“I am from a village far from here,” she said. “My parents are poor. They were given money from an older man in Freetown who I was forced to marry when I was 16 years old. He forced me to have sex and when I refused, he and his family assaulted me severely. I managed to escape back to my village after four months.”
Christiana’s goal was to move back home and start school again. But her family would not accept her because she had broken the marriage and they would have to repay the man in Freetown. Christiana was disowned and forced to stay with friends. She started school again and the principal offered to pay for her tuition at first.
“I was happy that he would help me, but then he started to ask for sex,” she said. “I refused and then he started harassing me. He insulted me and said horrible things about me in front of my classmates. He threatened me that I would not get my marks.”
She did not know what to do and there was no one at school to talk to. When she reported the incident to one of the teachers, nothing happened.
“All the male teachers protect each other,” she said. “I was so frustrated! This headmaster abuses a lot of girls in the village, and makes many of them pregnant.”
Christiana decided to try to stop the abuse of girls at school. She got in contact with Plan‘s project for girls’ rights and started to inform the other girls and told them to say no to the teachers’ suggestions.
“But I was getting increasingly harassed by the principal, who didn’t like what I was doing,” she said. “In the end, he threatened to assault me, so I had to move from the village and change schools.”
Plan supported her move and now Christiana lives with a female teacher in a new town, where she has started school again. She is still an ambassador for girls’ rights and wants to contribute to changing the lives of girls in Sierra Leone.
“I have chosen to advocate and be a spokesperson because I have experienced the problems that affect girls in this country,” she said. “I advocate for my friends because I do not want anyone to experience the same difficulties that I went through. I pray to our government that they stop sexual violence in schools, child marriage, and teenage pregnancies. We have laws against this. Make sure they are put into practice.”
*Christiana’s name has been changed to protect her identity.
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