“Mammy Daddy Business” — tackling teen pregnancy in Sierra Leone

September 5, 2017
Written by Kieran McConville
Photo by Kieran McConville

One of the most dangerous things a woman in Sierra Leone can do is get pregnant, as the country has some of the world’s worst rates of maternal mortality. And if she’s a teenager, the situation is even worse. Big problems call for innovative solutions, so we’re using all kinds of ways to encourage both boys and girls to make better choices — even a little singing and dancing.

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.

Concern Worldwide is working with schools and communities in Tonkolili, Sierra Leone, to tackle high rates of teenage pregnancy. Safiatu Kamara and Fatumata Kabia, both 17, weigh in on the problem.

Safiatu’s story

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.”

Rates of teenage pregnancy are high in the Tonkolili district of Sierra Leone and Concern Worldwide is working with schools and communities to tackle the problem. Photo: Kieran McConville

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.

Sexual health facilitators in Sierra Leone

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. Photo: Kieran McConville

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.

Sexual health group session in Mapaki, Sierra Leone

A gathering of an Adolescent Reproductive & Sexual Health group in the town of Mapaki, Sierra Leone. Facilitators use role play, song, dance, and other techniques to inform adolescents about sexual health and help them make good choices. Photo: Kieran McConville

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.”

Yes, keep me updated on Concern's work