Protecting girls from exploitation and abuse
MAKENI, Sierra Leone, 5 August 2013 – Aminata (name changed) is a 16 year old school girl. She lives with four younger brothers and her grandmother in Makeni, Sierra Leone’s third-largest city.
“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 the costs. “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,” says Aminata, clearly proud of her accomplishment.
However, poverty has made her vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. She remembers a very recent traumatic experience: “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. Then one day he called me over and asked for my name and where I lived. I told him and asked him why he wanted to know. 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 taught not to question adults, and people with wealth or a higher social status are expected to support people who are less fortunate. Aminata therefore did not question the man’s motives.
“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 fought and at some point managed to pull his hand from her mouth and scream. He got scared and loosened his grip so she could open the door to a woman who had heard her. “The woman ran inside and asked what happened”, she remembered. “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.”
Aminata’s grandmother immediately took her to her friend Theresa at DCI. The Defence for Children International (DCI) programme works with children and young people who have suffered sexual abuse and exploitation to help them to navigate the legal system and to support them psychologically to recover from their trauma. 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.
Theresa, a social worker at DCI, accompanied Aminata and her grandmother to the local hospital for a medical examination. The role of an intermediary like DCI is crucial here to ensure proper procedures are followed. Aminata got a medical certificate and they went to the police station where Theresa helped with the statement. 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 to Aminata was a key element in her ability to recover from her trauma. Theresa provided her with a safe place where she could talk about what had happened, away from the prying eyes of the community. “Aunty Theresa took me to her office and we sat in a quiet room. She 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!”