CAMPAIGN: In Sierra Leone, Teaching Girls How to Say No

Wednesday, January 5, 2011 - 19:00
Western Africa
Sierra Leone
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Initiative Type: 

Marie thought Alfred was the one.

With a serious dose of the cutes and generous as a dream, Alfred was a catch. He had brains, too, and encouraged her to do well in school. Unlike some of Marie's girlfriends' beaus, Alfred, always the gentleman, never pressured her to do things she that made her uncomfortable. It was all platonic, and Marie loved it.

There was one more thing Marie liked about Alfred. Like clockwork, he slipped her a handful of cash every month. It helped with clothes and school fees. Marie dreamed of going to Njala University in Bo, Sierra Leone, and studying economics, just like her father. And then, maybe, if the stars aligned, Alfred would ask for her hand in marriage.

But not long ago, Alfred, her shining Prince, turned into a toad.

Alfred was two-timing Marie with a local nurse. Marie was crushed. It wasn't just any nurse, but one with an acid tongue and a catty way of rolling her eyes at Marie. Alfred was hers, she made it clear to Marie, and she should back off.

Dalliances like Alfred's are spreading like a stain across Sierra Leone. Infidelity, Sierra Leoneans say, is an acid that is slowly dissolving the cultural fabric of the country. The Catholic bishop has spoken out against it. Newspaper columnists have railed against it. And whenever a group of women gather, you can be sure the conversation will turn to lovers who've scorned them.

Sierra Leone is one of West Africa's toughest places to be a teenage girl. A mix of poverty, peer pressure and desperation creates fertile ground for men to manipulate—and exploit—teenage girls.

Sexual Harrassment a 'Way of Life'
It's not just Sierra Leone. All over West Africa, teen girls are being sexually harassed. "Sexually transmitted grades" have become a problem in recent years. In Ghana, a recent University of Sussex research paper quoted a Ghanaian academic: "Sexual harassment is the way of life at the university. The female students are very vulnerable to lecturers." Across Ivory Coast, according to a local humanitarian organization, tens of thousands of women in high school and university left school in 2007 and 2008 because of pregnancy.

In Sierra Leone, the statistics are equally dire. In a recent study co-sponsored by Catholic Relief Services, Concern Worldwide and the Danish organization IBIS, 10 percent of the girls reported they were forced into sexual intercourse and another 8 percent were raped after being physically assaulted using weapons. That number is dwarfed by the less ghastly but also humiliating circumstances that await girls when they step onto the school grounds: Boys grope at them and peep in restrooms, and male teachers coerce them into sex for good grades.

Still, some girls are willing to "go the extra mile," says Eugenia Bangali who works for CRS' partner, Caritas in the southern city of Bo.

That's code speak, says Eugenia. Translation: Female students fall into a relationship with a guy—often much older than they are—for the steady flow of money he provides. With secondary school costing more than $60 a year, most parents can't afford it. They also can't afford the girly things. They eyeball their girlfriends' pumps, envy their lip gloss and fawn over their purses. But, Eugenia says, along with the extra jingle in their pocket, comes pressure, usually for sex, usually with the threat that a refusal will end the relationship and the flow of cash.

"When the [students] want things their parents cannot afford, the male teachers will come around," says Eugenia. They sometimes give as much as $12. "Children of 13 or 14 years see that money as a huge amount. [The male teacher] will say, 'I will give you that money and nobody will know' Then they will abuse that child."

The key, believes Eugenia, is to educate boys how to treat girls, and to teach girls how to respect themselves. That's why Catholic Relief Services started Window of Hope, a curriculum that teaches students about HIV and AIDS, preventing sexual abuse, and building self esteem. The lessons range from the difference between right and wrong to dealing with unwanted advances.

Learning Self Respect
It's a lesson that Marie and others girls took away from the curriculum. As if Marie didn't have enough on her 17-year-old mind with Alfred's antics, she also has to face Pa Koneh on her way to school.

He's an 89-year-old man whose children are in America. This senior citizen has a crush on Marie.

"He says he wants me," she says. "He wants to fall in love with me."

He's given her money and a phone. He professed his love to her. When that didn't work, he was blunt: He wanted to sleep with her.

"No," she told him. "I don't want you. Stay away from me."

The man's advances make Marie sick. But Window of Hope taught her how to stand up for herself and not be afraid to firmly tell men—even if it's an elder—no.

Her experience also shows how far the respect for women has fallen. Everyone has a theory on why things have deteriorated to this point. Some Sierra Leoneans say that teen boys learn it from their fathers and uncles. Others say that they take their cues from chiefs who have multiple wives. Others say that thousands of teen boys—now adult men—grew up without parents teaching them right from wrong.

It also doesn't help, Eugenia says, that it's a taboo for parents to talk about sex with their children.

At the Queen of the Rosary secondary school in Bo, a clutch of teen girls sit in an auditorium of cracked windows and dust bunnies. Their uniforms—blue skirts, bobby socks and soft blue berets—mask the adult problems each one is going through.

One 16-year-old girl in braids describes her dilemma: She has two male friends—one is 14 years old, the other is 40. Yes, she says, he's old enough to be her father. But he was offering money, and she needed it. But when the pressure for sex became too much, she quit talking to him.

"Let me wait," she told him. "I'm too young."

Eugenia smiles. This is what the Window of Hope preaches. Walk away from bad relationships; avoid confrontation; think about the consequences, like pregnancy, like dropping out of school.

Suddenly, the flood gates open, and the other girls started chattering. They talked about the study groups where high school boys demand sex for help, or how girls are taunted in the streets.

"They call us kolonko," says one, girl, using the Krio for prostitute. "They step on us, slap our backsides. They say, 'I've finished with you and don't have time for you anymore.' "

"That affects their psychology, even when they come to school," says Eugenia. "When the teacher is teaching, they will be sitting there thinking 'I loved this guy, I really want to please him, but he's acting like this to me.' "

Window of Hope also teaches how to manage aggression and the consequences of stealing and treating people with respect—basic values that have been paved over with 10 years of civil war that broke up families.

"Even in this school, some boys were used to fighting," says Margaret Beah, a facilitator of Window of Hope. Fists started flying over minor problems, says Margaret. Things as banal as disputes on the soccer field, ownership of a pencil or access to cold water. Ten years of war and a culture of aggressiveness has filtered down to even the youngest boys. "But through the Window of Hope sessions, they've now minimized it," Margaret says.

As for Marie, she's not sure what she should do. She's contemplating giving Alfred a second chance. Or maybe, she thinks, she'll just go solo for a while and not do the boyfriend thing.

Eugenia tries to persuade girls to ditch guys that treat them like dirt. The Window of Hope curriculum has greatly helped. But she also employs another strategy: She appeals to their sense of self.

"You should have that pride that you're an African child," she tells the girls. "And you want to be educated and you want to be serious. If you have that in the back of your mind, you'll make it up in life as a young lady."