When pregnancy is a political statement

Posted on Dec 3, 2013

One of the four schools we have funded is near Jaiama village in Kono, the diamond rich eastern district of Sierra Leone. When I visited earlier this year I was very impressed with Action Aid‘s team there and with the way the school was being managed. I wrote about the visit in my July blog Back to Sierra Leone.

Not long after I got back Chris, Millione’s IT man, sent me an article about education in Kono from The Patriotic Vanguard, a Sierra Leonean news website.  It was pretty shocking.

The main list of problems typical in a poor country short of public money  were bad enough- teachers fed up with not being paid leaving to try their luck in the diamond mines, students not receiving grants, schools not receiving their money. Then this bombshell:

“Kono schoolboys have vowed to impregnate school girls since government is only concerned with the education of the girl-child”.

This is punishment by pregnancy. A pregnant girl’s school days are numbered.  I asked Action Aid’s office in Sierra Leone to unwind the background for me.  This is a summary:

During the civil war Kono was a battleground between Government forces and rebels for control of its diamond and mineral wealth.  Schools were destroyed, livelihoods disrupted and there was a massive displacement of people including qualified teachers most of whom never returned (the population of Kono is now a little over half of the pre war level). In the post war rebuilding period quality education is scarce. When parents have to choose between a boy and a girl, the girl stays at home.

Supported by organisations like Action Aid, the Government set out to redress the balance in favour of girls. They passed a range of measures to help girls receive secondary and tertiary education, along with a number of civic laws to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. Action Aid and others gave scholarships to enable girls to go to school.

Teenage pregnancy, early marriage and violence against girls and young women were a feature of Kono life before, during and after the war which ended in 2002. Local musicians sought to communicate a ‘leave them alone ‘message through songs such as “wae pumpkin nor rep, nor toucham nor poilam”- when a pumpkin is not ripe, don’t touch it, don’t spoil it.

In recent times some boys have taken offence at the ‘favouritism’ shown to girls through free education and support with uniforms and materials. They show their opposition to the Government’s policy by preventing girls taking the educational places by getting them pregnant.

This situation makes the work of Action Aid and Millione in the local communities even more important. Action Aid Sierra Leone works across all areas of improving education for both sexes, from building schools to training teachers, providing materials and grants, and working with parents, boys and girls over issues of equality and girls’ rights.

There is a broader message for us here. Building and equipping schools is hugely necessary- 1270 were destroyed during the war and it’s a long haul to replace them with decent buildings.  But that is the beginning not the end of the story. Teachers must be trained and paid for. Local parents groups need to be involved in the management of the school. Health, gender and employment issues need to be raised and improvements seeded. A new school can act as a hub for community development issues.

So for our fifth school, scheduled for 2014, we have increased the budget by £13,000 to pay for training and activity in a range of these areas too, especially around girls and women’s rights. We’re investing in people as well as infrastructure.

Increasing the budget is easy- but raising the additional money is not. We sell wine, run marathons and receive much appreciated donations. If you would like to help us with a donation we’d love to welcome you on board. We can be reached at  iam@oneinamillione.com

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