A social worker in Sierra Leone takes on child exploitation
STORIES FROM THE FIELD
© UNICEF Sierra Leone/2013/Davies
A young victim of abuse is one of the many children helped by a social worker striving to improve child protection in Sierra Leone.
MAKENI, Sierra Leone, 14 August 2013 – Aminata*, a 16-year-old schoolgirl, lives with her four younger brothers and her grandmother in Makeni, the main city of Sierra Leone's Northern Province. "We don't have a mother," she explains. "Some say she was killed during the war."
The family is poor. For all five children to be able to go to school, they have to contribute to expenses. "I make a little money selling cakes, which provides the money for our lunch or for things the school asks us to buy, like books and pens," Aminata says, clearly proud of her accomplishment.
Only recently, however, she had a terrifying experience that is still fresh in her mind. It shows how easily children like her – on their own, on the streets – can become victims of exploitation and abuse, and also the difference one person can make in helping them.
A stranger's invitation
"I went to the market and saw a wealthy man sitting by the road, waiting for me. I didn't understand why, but he was sitting there whenever I came to the market," Aminata says. "Then one day he called me over and asked for my name and where I lived. He said he wanted to help me to have a better life because he could see I was a brave child and not like other children. He asked me if I could pay my school fees, and I said no. He showed me the street where he lived and told me to meet him at his house. He even gave me money for the motorbike ride to get there. And he said that if I met him there, he would give me my school fees."
In Sierra Leone, children are not taught to question adults, and people with wealth or a higher social status are expected to support those who are less fortunate. Aminata therefore did not question the man's motives. She accepted the invitation.
"I went to his house and sat down on a chair. He insisted I should sit on the bed next to him because he had some questions to ask me. So I sat next to him, and that was when he started touching me. I said, 'I didn't come here for this. If this is what you wanted, then I'm leaving.' But he had locked the door and started forcing me to have sex with him. I refused, but it happened so quickly. He held me tight and put his hand over my mouth."
Aminata managed to pull his hand from her mouth and scream. The man got scared and loosened his grip, and she opened the door to a woman who had heard her.
"The woman ran inside and asked what happened," she recalls. "But I just ran and jumped on a motorbike to get home to my grandmother. I was breathing so heavily that my grandmother asked what had happened. I told her what he did to me. I could not stop crying while telling her."
Support and encouragement
Aminata's grandmother immediately took her to her friend Theresa at Defence for Children International (DCI), a programme that helps children and young people who have suffered sexual abuse and exploitation. Theresa accompanied Aminata and her grandmother to the local hospital for a medical examination. Aminata got a medical certificate and they proceeded to the police station, where Theresa helped with the statement.
The role of an intermediary like DCI is crucial to ensure proper procedures are followed. DCI is one of the partners UNICEF is supporting to strengthen the child protection system in Sierra Leone and improve the prevention of and response to child abuse, violence and exploitation.
Aminata remembers, "It was really painful for me to talk to the police, and I was crying. But Aunty Theresa helped me."
As a result of her statement, the police arrested the man, who is now facing trial.
The support Theresa gave her was a major element in Aminata's ability to recover from her trauma.
"Aunty Theresa encouraged me and talked with me. I was very unhappy, and she reassured me that she wouldn't tell anyone else what I said. The day after it happened I couldn't go to school; and when I went back the next day, my friends asked me why I was away, but I just told them I had been unwell. I was too ashamed to tell them the truth."
Aminata has a few more years to complete her secondary education, but she is already adamant about her future career. "When I finish school I want to become a lawyer," she declares. "Rights have been taken from us women, and I want to stop that!"
* Name has been changed