The sun is going down and the light in the dank meeting room is fading, but the horror stories keep coming – the darkness seems to fall with the weight of what I am hearing.
I’m in a small town in western Sierra Leone, making a documentary with Shona Hamilton for Plan International looking at why 85% of girls here drop out of secondary school.
So here we are sitting around a table with 9 teenage girls. Each girl recounts her story. Each girl has faced ruthless beatings. Each girl has been forced to have sex. Each girl has been cut (as in female genital cutting). Each girl just wants to go to school.
I’ve been a journalist/film-maker for 20 years and have covered stories in war-ravaged countries like Colombia, Pakistan and Liberia. But I am still overwhelmed by the relentless violence these girls have had to endure in their short lives.
I listen to Plan’s local child protection officer, Esther Eliot, who translates for me and wonder how she can bear repeating their stories to me.
Wadia*, a 15-year-old waif of a girl, who has a scabies-looking skin problem, reveals she is pregnant. As Wadia gets up to leave and the next girl sits down to talk, Esther cannot continue. Her mind can’t leave Wadia, and she needs a break to quickly follow up and check how Wadia can get medical attention.
I am relieved – the girls are given drinks and snacks as we break, but no one says anything. My mind is spinning as I look around at their young faces. All are in uniforms. Some are wearing cute royal blue berets. Their outfits give no clue to their struggle just to go to school.
Child marriage, teenage pregnancy, discrimination, violence – the reasons for dropping out are multiple. But at their root lies poverty. When girls reach the age of 12 or 13 their families feel they should start contributing to the family income. School fees ($15 - $30 per year) are an added expense that many can’t afford.
Girls are so desperate to go to school, they will sell anything: Christiana* sold her mobile phone to pay for shoes and books; Selina* saved for 16 months selling potatoes in the market; Augusta* sells peanuts and butterscotch at break time in school to save up for her final term of school this year.
Some girls even sell their bodies, not as sex workers, but in “transactional sex”, where a man pays for a girl’s schooling, food and often support the whole family, in exchange for sex. As soon as the girl gets pregnant, the man leaves.
Mothers aged 14
Six of the 9 girls I spoke to had given birth at 14 or 15 years old. Too young to understand, girls are duped into believing these are real relationships that could lead to marriage.
As we leave that night, I am reeling from their stories of loss, rape and violence, as well as a sense that this is just the tip of the ice-berg – talk to any girl and she will have a similar story to tell. But I am also astounded at the determination of each of these girls to go to school no matter what is thrown at them.
Girl Power – we have no limits!
The next day we’re greeted by a very different scene as 25 girls from the local ‘Girl Power’ group come singing into the room: “We can be doctors, we can be a lawyers, we can be teachers, we have no limits! Women of the nation - we can do what men can do!”
A project set up by Plan, Girl Power sounds like a marketing dream. But it’s more than that – it helps girls become financially independent, and also offers support to girls who have dropped out. Much of this work is done by the girls themselves.
Seventeen-year-old Christiana is president of this group and is one of the girls we interviewed the previous night. Until secondary school, she came top of her class. But her family couldn’t afford to pay for her school fees and married her off to a much older, violent man, who forced her to have sex with him. After 5 months, she managed to escape, and now lives, along with 2 other girls, with a female teacher.
Hear from Christiana and some of the other girls - watch the film ‘Girls Interrupted’
* Note all names have been changed