International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Girl Power - Ann Jones in Sierra Leone

This girl was forced to leave school early while the father of her child suffers no consequences. Girls’ Gender Club members know all about the dangers of pregnancy. They are sympathetic to girls like this one, forced to leave school early while the father of her child suffers no consequences. To the girls, it’s a powerful example of the injustice of gender inequality. Photo: Musu Koroma, age 11
The International Rescue Committee is working with women’s advocate Ann Jones to help women in war zones — survivors of conflict, displacement and sexual and domestic violence — use photography to make their voices heard. Learn more and read Ann’s earlier posts here. Part 6 - Kailahun, Sierra Leone The second time we meet the girls’ group, they’re buzzing.  They’re angry with a teacher who found them dancing in a classroom, and said “You’ll all be pregnant before you get to secondary school.”  They told the teacher he was wrong to think they’ll get pregnant just because they have high spirits.  “It’s the quiet girls you should watch,” they told him.  They cite as evidence the unfortunate case of a quiet, introverted classmate impregnated by a man who denies all responsibility.  She’s been taken away to another village to have the baby. This problem of teenage pregnancy, which effectively ends a girl’s education and her marriage prospects all at once, is the single biggest problem in every community we visit, or so the Women’s Action Groups tell us.  The girl is stigmatized.  Her family is shamed.  Her parents are deprived of the expected return on their investment in the girl’s education—that she will be in a good position to care for them in their old age.   Everyone loses, except the man who impregnated the girl.  Abortion is illegal.  It’s also forbidden by Islam and most, if not all, Christian denominations.  Illegal, or “criminal” abortions are performed, but they cost more than any poor village girl could afford.  A pregnant teenager must feel the doors slamming on every option.   Now Auntie Chris asks provocatively, “What’s wrong with getting pregnant?”  The girls give her an “Are you crazy?” look and bombard her with answers.  “You cannot continue your education.”   “Even if you could, your attention would be divided between your baby and your school work.  You couldn’t do well.”  “Your body is not developed.  You may have to have surgery.”  “You could even die.”  These medical warnings are no exaggeration for girls who have been subjected to excision (FMG, or female genital mutilation) as these girls almost certainly have been.  Excision greatly increases the incidence of fistula and similar internal injuries during pregnancy and childbirth.
Many girls took photos like this one, showing the fondness they feel for one another, and the fun of their innocent camaraderie. Many girls took photos like this one, showing the fondness they feel for one another, and the fun of their innocent camaraderie.  Among adult women in the same community, fondness and fun seem to have been stamped out. Photo: Mary Lansana, age 14
“Your parents will put you out of the home,” says Mattu. “You will face stigmatization,” says Comfort.  “You will have no support for yourself or your child.” I wait for the next nail in the coffin—that though you have been taught to depend on a husband for support, no man will marry you—but  I don’t hear it.  That may be just too hard to think about. “And if you do NOT get pregnant as a teenager, what will you do?”  That’s my question, and the girls fire answers at me even before they get a translation.  (In school they’re learning English, the country’s official language.) “We will enjoy our education,” says Lilian.  “We will enjoy encouragement from our parents,” says Lucinda.  “Our parents may even allow us to travel outside of Pendembu,” says adventurous Katumu.  “If we are educated before we have children, we will be able to support them and help our parents too,” says Bintu.  “We will insure that our children also have a good education,” says Lucy.  “We will not hurry to marry,” says 10-year old Jenifer, “and we will plan our families.” I’m floored.  Who knew that these girls had so much information and such strong opinions?  Did I know about family planning at age 10?  Is this what a Gender Club can do?  Mr. Shariff, their faculty advisor, sits quietly in the back of the room, smiling.
For all their playfulness, girls have serious dreams—to be nurses, lawyers, teachers, religious sisters, computer specialists, government ministers. The future of the country depends upon the realization of their dreams.  Their dreams depend upon education. For all their playfulness, girls have serious dreams—to be nurses, lawyers, teachers, religious sisters, computer specialists, government ministers. The future of the country depends upon the realization of their dreams.  Their dreams depend upon education. P hoto: Lucinda Jamiru, age 14
“Can you imagine your future life?” I ask.  “Say, in ten years time.  What would you like to be doing?”    They’re shy about answering this question, maybe reluctant to expose a dream to daylight.  But Lucy, who has been eyeing my computer, says she wants to be a computer specialist.   Musu says she wants to be a nurse to help the people of Pendembu.  Comfort says, “I do too.”  Mary, Lilian, and Katumu want to be nurses as well.  (Becoming a doctor seems beyond imagining.)  Isata wants to be a teacher.  (There are no female teachers in the school.)  Musu’s sister Mattu wants to be a lawyer because Pendembu needs one. (There is only one lawyer, a man, in the whole district.)  Jennifer wants to be a government minister.  Both Lucinda and Ruth say they want to be Catholic sisters.  (Ruth’s brother is already a priest.)   I ask Ruth if she wants to be a teaching sister.  “No,” she says firmly.  “I will be a praying sister.  Pendembu needs prayers.”  Yes, indeed. Then it’s time to take a look at the girls’ first photos.  I’ve shown you a few already.  There will be more to come.

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