* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Ebola epidemic helped to bring international attention to the huge amount of sexual violence and exploitation of girls in Sierra Leone. Thousands of pregnant girls returning to education after the crisis found themselves excluded from school – because the government had in effect banned them from attending for being supposedly “negative influences”.
16 year old Samantha was one of these girls. In return for carrying water to his house, her teacher gave her good grades and school supplies. One day, he raped her and she became pregnant. Incredibly, he was allowed to continue to work, while she was expelled. Abusing their positions of trust, some teachers have become predators in Sierra Leone, raping girls or coercing them into sexual acts in exchange for books, school fees or transportation.
Another girl, Jeanne, lost both of her parents to the Ebola epidemic. She hoped that getting an education would be her ticket to a better life. However, “biker boys” demanded sex from her in exchange for bringing her to school. Now 17 years old, Jeanne became pregnant and was devastated to find out that she could no longer attend school or sit public exams.
Sierra Leone was already facing the repercussions of brutal war-related sexual violence, which saw adolescent girls forced into “marriages” and other horrific acts of sexual brutality and forced pregnancy. Similar to other post-conflict and humanitarian crisis countries, the lack of an adequate response to rape occurs despite laws on the books such as the Sexual Offences Act (2012) and agreement to progressive treaties like the Maputo Protocol.
In an attempt to accommodate these “out of school” girls, the government of Sierra Leone set up alternate measures, supported by international aid. However, while this alternative might have been based in good intentions, the resulting separate and unequal schooling is only perpetuating discrimination and stigma against girls who have already been victimized. These measures are in no way equal to regular, compulsory schooling, as they are optional, operate only a few hours for a few days a week and do not allow the girls to sit national exams.
Pregnant girls like Samantha and Jeanne are being punished, while their abusers walk free. Equality Now is working with Women Against Violence and Exploitation (WAVES), Women’s Partnership for Justice and Peace (WPJP), Graceland Sierra Leone, Child Welfare Society and the Education for All Coalition – Sierra Leone, to call on the government to immediately lift the ban on pregnant girls attending regular schools and also to ensure that perpetrators of sexual violence against girls are punished.
No girl who finds herself pregnant – and especially after having been sexually violated – should be additionally victimized by being denied an education.
However, this is not the only major issue affecting Sierra Leone’s girls. According to UNICEF, the country has one of the highest percentages of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the world. Nine in ten women have undergone this extreme human rights violation. Some progress was made during the Ebola crisis, when FGM was effectively paused for some time, but indications seem to suggest that it has returned. While other countries such as Kenya and Burkina Faso have successfully reduced this abuse of children, Sierra Leone continues to struggle, seemingly due in large part to the fact that the government does not take a hard-line on ending it.
The country also continues to have sexist laws surrounding nationality and citizenship rights, which cause significant harm and discrimination, and has a high rate of so-called "child marriage" – 44% of girls in the country are married off before the age of 18.
Around the world, teenage girls are disproportionately vulnerable to human rights abuses, which can have severe and long lasting consequences. It is vital that Sierra Leone finally takes this issue seriously, enforces its existing laws effectively and supports victims of sexual violence, as opposed to causing them further harm. The government should do everything in its power too to ensure that perpetrators are not allowed to roam free, while victims deal with the harmful consequences of violence committed against them. This would benefit not only the girls themselves, but all of Sierra Leonean society at this crucial moment in time.