Blaming the Victims – Pregnant Girls Banned from Sierra Leone Schools

There will be a number of Sierra Leone girls who want to come back to school when they reopen that won’t be allowed to.

Pregnant girls are being banned from school.  From an outsider’s point of view (mine), this smacks of blaming the victim.

Fatu is one of the Bumpeh Chiefdom girls who should have been taking the senior high entrance exam last week.  Instead, she’s waiting to give birth as a single mother.

Walter Schutz Secondary School studentsWhen Sierra Leone President Koroma first made his announcement in February that schools would reopen, he publicly stated all children should return. He specifically encouraged pregnant girls and young mothers to come back to school.

The Ministry of Education recently recanted this, saying pregnant schoolgirls are a bad moral influence on other students.  They will not be allowed to attend school while “visibly pregnant.”

These pregnant girls were victimized once, and now they’re being made to pay again.

It’s been estimated as many as 30% of Sierra Leone schoolgirls became pregnant during the Ebola crisis. I doubt there was a sudden lapse in morals in this many girls in the last nine months. There have been many reports of an increase in sexual violence across Sierra Leone triggered by the Ebola crisis. Men lost employment and girls were home, out of school. Constant stress from fear of Ebola, lost income and restricted movement is fuel for sexual predators, as described in this BBC interview.

There’s many variations on this, from rape to coercion, from “transactional sex” to misplaced emotions. Emotions were running high for all during the Ebola crisis, including teenage girls. When you’re bored, depressed and feeling hopeless, it can be easy to seek comfort in the wrong place. Add to this the lack of health care services and contraception during the Ebola crisis. Needing money to cope financially or seeking to boost self esteem resulted in terrible consequences for many girls.

Behind the statistics there’s real people, and their life stories are not simple.

Center for Community Empowerment & Transformation Executive Director, Rosaline Kaimbay told me about some of these girls in Bumpeh Chiefdom who won’t be returning to school in April.

Fatu finished JSS3 (junior secondary school 3) last July and was ready to start senior high. Her mother separated from her stepfather when he made it clear he wanted to take another younger wife; a girl of eighteen, not much older than Fatu. He abandoned the family, including his own five year old son, Fatu’s stepbrother.

Fatu’s stepfather is actually her uncle. He was a local warrior called a Kamajor that fought to save Rotifunk when it fell under rebel control during Sierra Leone’s long civil war. His entire family was killed by rebels, including his younger brother – Fatu’s father.

He took Fatu’s mother as his wife, which is common. A widow needing support and protection often becomes the wife of her brother-in-law. Now over ten years later, he wanted another young wife of his choosing. It would be easy to cast him the villain, but he’s led a difficult life. He’s been a victim, too.

It’s not clear how Fatu became pregnant. Girls like Fatu are ashamed to talk with Principal Kaimbay about what happened and hide their pregnancy as long as possible.

Fatu lost her father; then she was abandoned by her stepfather and the father of her baby.  Now she’s forbidden to take the one route that could be a way out for her and her baby – returning to high school to complete her education at a high enough level to give her job skills.  She’s banned at least until after the baby is born.

What are her options? If her mother can manage to take of the baby – supporting another child – Fatu could return to school after she gives birth.  If they live in town where the schools are, or have friends where she could stay, she may be lucky and pick up again on her education. These are big if’s.

If not, she would be another statistic among the five out of six girls who don’t complete high school. Another who remains stuck in a cycle of rural poverty so hard to escape.

Sherbro Foundation’s girls scholarship program focuses on helping the most vulnerable students like Fatu who are serious about their education. As more girls progress into senior high, we especially want to help senior girls stay in school and graduate. This includes young mothers.

Fatu fits the profile in all respects. Mrs. Kaimbay calls her a brilliant student. She could do well.

There’s hope for Fatu and girls like her if she can make her way back to school. She needs our support, not blame.

You can support girls like Fatu.  Donate to Sherbro Foundation’s Girls Scholarship Program.

Remember – Sherbro Foundation is all-volunteer. So everything donated goes to the Scholarship Program.

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