When one in three of the girls in your village has been pregnant or given birth before the age of 19, you know you have a problem. Especially when you live somewhere like Tonkolili, Sierra Leone, where pregnancy can quite easily kill you. At the very least it can rob you of the chance to reach your full potential.
Safiatu Kamara was only 13 when she started having sex with her boyfriend, and she had her first child at 14. Now 17, she has two kids, their father is unsupportive, and she is struggling to survive. The eldest girl, Princess, lives with Safiatu’s grandmother, while she and three-month-old Awanatu live at home with her mother.
“Once you get pregnant, they will not accept you into school… and now I can’t go because I have no one to look after the baby.”
“She threw me out of home both times I got pregnant — but she has accepted me back now,” Safiatu says, sitting on a desk in the classroom of the local school. It’s a school she hasn’t been allowed to attend for the past three years.
“Once you get pregnant, they will not accept you into school… and now I can’t go because I have no one to look after the baby,” she says.
Breaking the cycle of poverty
Safiatu’s story is not uncommon here. Concern’s Abubakarr Koroma says this district has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the country and it’s having a serious effect on efforts to tackle poverty. “Girls — and boys — are dropping out of school early, and these are the very people Sierra Leone needs for strong and sustainable development,” he says. “We need to tackle this now.”
Safiatu is at the school today to take part in a workshop with about thirty other young people. It’s mid-afternoon and regular classes are over for the day. Led by facilitators from Concern, the group of boys and girls are taking part in role play, discussions, and games. There’s a lot of singing and dancing and each activity is designed to encourage them to think about the consequences of early sex and teenage pregnancy. It’s clear that they are engaged and enthusiastic.
“We want them to make their own decisions and to understand the advantages of delaying sexual debut as well as the various methods of family planning.”
Fatmata is a friend of Safiatu. Her story is similar: nighttime escapades — despite her Mom’s warning not to go “waka-waka” (“walking around” in Sierra Leone’s Krio language) or engage in sexual activity (known as “mammy daddy business”) — and an unwanted pregnancy at age 17. She too has been turned away from school and resents the fact that the father of her unborn child can continue with his studies. “It’s just not fair,” she says.
It takes a village
The 10 week “life skills” curriculum is being rolled out in 28 schools and villages to young men and women, aged 9—19. The idea is to increase students’ knowledge of their bodies, to help them carefully consider their options, and to encourage them to think critically. “We want them to make their own decisions and to understand the advantages of delaying sexual debut as well as the various methods of family planning,” says Abubakarr.
But at the end of the day, these are still kids, and it will take the will of the community to make this all work. Concern has been liaising with parents, community and religious leaders, and the local health service to encourage conversation and learning around the topic of teenage sex. There are radio shows, community dramas, and even a social marketing campaign.
For someone like Safiatu, who is nursing baby Awanatu while participating in the activities, it may seem a little too late to be learning all this. But that’s not how she sees it.
“I want to go back to school and be somebody,” she says. “I want to support my parents and I want to bring up my daughters to become somebody in the future. I was too young when I got pregnant and I want other girls to understand the difficulties.”