Schools and sex abuse in Sierra Leone

Humu Tavawallie went to school for an education, but was forced into sex with her teacher to pay for her exams. This is an all too common problem in Sierra Leone, and entrenched social attitudes make it difficult to tackle, writes Annabel Symington
Annabel Symington
5 February 2010

“I couldn’t say no,” says Humu Tavawallie, 14. “When he asked, I couldn’t say no.” Humu has been sleeping with her teacher, 37, since the end of last school year. “When the practicals [exams] came I didn’t have the money to pay. My teacher said I didn’t have to pay. He said he wanted to love me.” The practicals cost 5000 Leones, less than 80p.

Humu has been going to her teacher’s house once or twice a week since late July. In exchange for sex, her teacher lets her off the school fees and gives her a small amount of money. “My mother knows,” says Humu, “but she doesn’t say anything. As long as I take some money home, and continue to go to school, she never asks questions.”

For many girls in Sierra Leone their teachers are not a support but a further obstacle to their education, as they demand sex in exchange for a place at school or top grades in class. If the girl says no, the teacher will fail her. “I am afraid the teacher will want me,” says Tify Gbla, 17. She knows that if her teacher places her in that catch-22 situation her education will be over.

“I am one of the only girls in my class who is not having a relationship with the teacher,” says Tify. I ask about her friends. She says she doesn’t have any friends now; the classroom is divided between the girls who have given in to the teacher and those who hide.

The situation that both Tify and Humu have found themselves in is worryingly common. Over half of all girls in Sierra Leone have experienced some form of sexual abuse by the age of 18. And 54 per cent of them have their first baby before their 19th birthday. (openDemocracy: both of these figures were made available to the author by UNICEF in Freetown; there is not yet a published source that we can link to.) 

Instances of sexual abuse and unwanted pregnancies, which are euphemistically called “girl-child pregnancies”, force girls to leave school early, creating yet another lost generation in this West African nation, which is still getting back on its feet after an 11-year civil war. “When a child is born poor and that child gives birth to a child, that child will be the poorest of the poor,” explains Ahmed Muckson Sesay, the director of the Organization for Peace, Reconciliation and Development Sierra Leone (OPARD-SL).

Maud Droodleever Fortuyn, chief child protection officer for Unicef Sierra Leone, describes how difficult the situation is for women and children, particularly girls. She says the civil war that ravaged the country left girls with little concept of their own self worth, and a feeling that all they have to offer is their bodies. “Sex is a currency for these girls. But sex is cheap. In Sierra Leone, girls will sell themselves for lunch.”

It is illegal to have sex with a minor in Sierra Leone, but few men are prosecuted, as most parents will accept small out of court payments in lieu of taking the perpetrator to court. Khoumba Kanawe, a Sierra Leonean lawyer who focuses on women’s rights and family law, says the problem is getting worse as mothers actively encourage their daughters into sexual relationships in exchange for money.

Fatmata Fofanah, 16, was forced by her mother to sleep with an older man when she was 13. She now has a six-month-old baby girl by the man, a road engineer from the provincial capital, Bo. Fatmata says that it started when he was building a road through her village: “He met my mother and they had talks and then my mother called me and explained things. She said I had to because he was paying for my school fees”. I ask her what she thought of her situation, and she replies matter-of-factly: “If your parents are poor you need something for your education and [if] a male decides to have a relationship with you, you automatically have to. You have no option because he is helping you with your education and at home.”

Fatmata says she was fortunate because the father of her baby has promised to support her until her 18th birthday, allowing her to return to school. “Some of my classmates have got pregnant and the father of the baby has denied [that the baby was theirs]. But my man has taken responsibility for me.”

The government is currently pushing an anti-corruption campaign focused on the wide-reaching negative impact of teachers sleeping with their students. The campaign also addresses the lack of parental responsibility that exacerbates the situation. “I’ll do anything to have my daughter pass her exams,” reads the speech bubble next to the mother in the government poster.

The campaign singles out parents for blame, but Hassanata Fatmata Kebe, of the Sierra Leone Youth Empowerment Organisation, says the government itself has a lot to answer for: “In many of the provinces teachers are not getting paid for three or four or five months. That will affect your ability to say no to hand outs.”


The endemic corruption in the court system needs to be addressed to overcome the problem. “The prosecution of these kinds of cases is very minimal,” says Khoumba Kanawe, the lawyer. “There are instances where the perpetrators are arrested, but they are relatives of people in authority, so even when the cases are called up their relatives talk to the magistrate and some money changes hands and the case is thrown out of court.”

Khoumba is part of a group of lawyers who have formed an organisation that seeks to strengthen the position of women and girls within the legal system. Through the Lawyer Centre for Legal Assistance (LCLA), she is trying to get the prison sentence for men found guilty of raping a minor increased; the maximum prison sentence currently stands at one year, regardless of how young the child is.

Khoumba argues that parents are the biggest obstacle to changing the law. “Parents compromise our work when they accept out of court payments,” she says. “They focus on the short term and accept small amount of money today, rather than taking the man to court and maybe winning more money, and justice.” And the men who abuse the girls know that they can easily buy their way out of prosecution.

A fundamental change of attitude is required for the problem to be properly addressed. During the civil war, sex was both a currency and a weapon. “Women suffer a lot at the hands of the men. It happened particularly during the war, but it continues now,” Khoumba explains. The government is trying to address the issue of sexual violence; roadside billboards across Sierra Leone remind people that “Rape is a punishable offence”.

The post-war government in Sierra Leone was faced with a difficult task in trying to rebuild the country. In order to try and impose an authority structure on society, the government encouraged the re-establishment of Secret Societies. Membership of Secret Societies was widespread pre-civil war, and while they promoted segregation between the sexes, they had often managed to overcome tribal alliances and rivalries, and encouraged inter-tribal cooperation. Secret Societies are based on rigid hierarchies, and the post-war government found it was able to impose the rule of law by using these pre-existing systems.  

Girls and boys are initiated into their respective Secret Societies between the ages of nine and eleven. The focus of the girl’s initiation ceremony, which includes female genital mutilation, is on preparing girls for marriage, and by extension sexual relations. “The Secret Societies encourage the idea that a girl is ready for marriage as soon as she develops breasts,” says Khoumba. “Men don’t look at the age; they just take the girl they want.”

This is one of the hardest attitudes to overcome, according to Unicef’s Maud Droodleever Fortuyn. “Because of the male dominated nature of society, we tried to have male-only meetings to discuss the issue of girls being coerced into sex by older men, and by extension pregnancy in young girls. But the men usually just shrug off the issue. It’s considered normal, and therefore acceptable.”

In Mile 91, the village where Humu, Tify and Fatmata live, there was recently a community meeting to discuss the sexual abuse of girls. Organised by OPARD-SL, the idea behind the meeting was to encourage the girls and parents to understand the long-term economic advantages of finishing school, and the negative implications of early pregnancy. The day concluded with a short skit devised by a local theatre group. The message of the performance was that “a girl-child who perseveres with her education up to university brings development not only for her family but the chiefdom and the country as whole,” according to Ahmed Muckson Sesay of OPARD-SL.

There is still a long way to go before a solution to this problem is found, but Maud Droodleever Fortuyn of Unicef is optimistic that things are moving in the right direction. “On paper it seems that the number of cases of teenage pregnancy is going up,” she says. “But this is because people are becoming aware that getting pregnant young is a problem so more cases are reported. Awareness is the first step to solving the problem.”

Talking to the girls in Mile 91, it’s clear they have accepted that this is just how life is for them. I ask Humu what she thinks of her situation. With her hands tightly knotted in her lap, she looks up at me and meets my eyes for the first time. “At the end of the day, nothing goes for nothing.”

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