Sierra Leone girls as young as 14 selling their bodies for just 250,000 Leones to Pay for Education  

Aminata pregnant and living in unbearable conditions

‘I had sex with clients at night and went to school in the morning’: The girls as young as 14 selling their bodies in Sierra Leone for as little as 250,000 Leones-a-time just to get an education.  Aminata bows her head as she admits, in a low voice, how she made her money: at just 15, she was working as a prostitute, seeing as many as three clients a night.  But it is what comes next – the reason she found herself on the streets, forced to sell her body – which is truly chilling.   Aminata wanted to go to school, and this was the only way she could afford the fees.

This is Sierra Leone, one of the world’s poorest countries, where the £40 a year price tag on education makes it a privilege – and it is an amount many families simply cannot afford.  It forces some of the most vulnerable, like Aminata, to make an exchange no young girl should ever have to make: sex in return for education.  Aminata found herself making the choice after her family decided they could no longer afford to support her, and she found herself very much alone.  On a good night she could earn as much as £9, but that meant seeing three clients.

With that, she had to feed, clothe and put herself through school – buying uniform, books and paying the fees. ‘I was not feeling good about it, but I had no other option – there was nobody to support me,’ she told Mail Online ahead of the launch of Street Child’s new Girls Speak Out Campaign launched today.  ‘I was on the street, I was engaged in child sex work. It was to raise my funds to go to school.’  At school, Aminata was doing her best to pretend like everything was fine. No one knew how she was surviving, not even, it seems, the friends who she was staying with.

And then the pretense crumbled: Aminata got pregnant, and there was no more hiding. School became a thing of the past – another girl dropping out of a system which sees 20 per cent of men reach at least secondary education, compared to just 9.5 per cent of women, according to the UNODC.  It is one of the biggest ironies for girls like these: the need for education forces them into sex, but in the vast majority of cases pregnancy will end their schooling altogether. ‘If a young girl gets pregnant while she is at school, it is actually has a lot of negativity possibilities for her,’ Sia Lajaku-Williams, operations director of Street Child of Sierra Leone told Mail Online.  ‘Usually her family will drive her out. They will stop all support. The girls start suffering from that point.

‘And when they have the baby, they struggle to take care of that baby. Rarely do you have a boyfriend who is supportive.  ‘Just feeding themselves is a challenge. It is more day to day survival. There is nothing left for school.  A little distance away, Marie knows exactly what Sia is talking about.

Marie though with a child dreams of becoming a lawyer

A bright and articulate 16-year-old – who chats away in English as well as her native Krio –  sits on the family porch, cradling her young son.   ‘It was not that I am stupid,’ Marie tells Mail Online. ‘I came top in my class in the BECE [Sierra Leone’s GCSE equivalent].  ‘I wanted to be educated, I wanted to be a lawyer, it was my dream.  ‘But my father wouldn’t support me and I had to leave school… What was I meant to do?’ Marie also grew up in the slums outside of Freetown – a place where children run around in ripped t-shirts, and mismatched shoes, outfits cobbled together from donations.  People here live on the edges – working the only jobs they can get, jobs which leave them always a step away from not having enough money to put food on the family’s plates.

A deal was struck: you sleep with me, and I will pay for your education.  Marie is unequivocal. She knew exactly the bargain she was entering into – sex for schooling – and that this was a business arrangement. She knew her earning potential rose considerably for every year of school she managed to complete. Street Child estimates it could be by as much as 25 per cent a year. And Marie was desperate to become a lawyer.  ‘I came to have feelings for him,’ she concedes eventually. ‘But that was because of what he was doing for me. He gave me hope.

Adama living in squalid condition and pregnant

‘He was nowhere to be found,’ she said, speaking on the porch of the small hone she shares with her mother and baby son – a house with its windows blocked up with pieces of magazine, and barely a scrap of furniture inside. It is the home she had dreamed of leaving, but where she now spends every day, collecting water, cleaning and – once she has completed those chores – goes to help her grandmother, a wizened woman who sits at the edge of the dusty road selling the cakes she has made.  ‘I was betrayed. He had given me hope that my condition could change. When people get educated, their conditions change… I just wanted to be like those who are educated.

Adama’s lover also ran when she became pregnant – but the deal she had struck with him was far more basic.   In return for sex, he was giving her food. School and education had long been a distant dream.  Adama had been sent to live with her aunt at the age of 10. The eldest of six, her mother had died shortly before. Going to her aunt’s, who lived just outside Freetown with her three cousins, would, they believed, give her better access to an education.  The only way to make a living is to get an education, otherwise it is hard labour – that’s where the girls go to the dump – or they take to the streets, just so they can survive.

But at least at first she did get to go to school, along with her cousins. It was short-lived: at 13, her aunt decided the work she did in the house wasn’t enough. She needed to earn her keep, as well as do the chores.  So, at an age where most girls are sat in class, still hears away from even considering what job they may want to pursue, Adama was getting up at 2am to start the dangerous two hour walk to Freetown, her wares balancing precariously on her head.  ‘We went in groups of three, and it would take us to around 4am to get there,’ she said. ‘We would look for guys who were selling tea, because it was safe by them.   ‘The nights were terrifying,’ she added, visibly reliving nights spent hiding from pimps, drug dealers and drunks.  School became something which happened maybe once a week, and then once a fortnight.  And if she couldn’t make the treacherous journey, her aunt would refuse to feed her.

The only way to make a living is to get an education, otherwise it is hard labour – that’s where the girls go to the dump – or they take to the streets, just so they can survive.  But at least at first she did get to go to school, along with her cousins. It was short-lived: at 13, her aunt decided the work she did in the house wasn’t enough. She needed to earn her keep, as well as do the chores.  So, at an age where most girls are sat in class, still hears away from even considering what job they may want to pursue, Adama was getting up at 2am to start the dangerous two hour walk to Freetown, her wares balancing precariously on her head.  ‘We went in groups of three, and it would take us to around 4am to get there,’ she said. ‘We would look for guys who were selling tea, because it was safe by them.

‘The nights were terrifying,’ she added, visibly reliving nights spent hiding from pimps, drug dealers and drunks.   School became something which happened maybe once a week, and then once a fortnight.  And if she couldn’t make the treacherous journey, her aunt would refuse to feed her.  It left Adama was vulnerable: tired, scared and hungry – so when the man who approached her with the offer of food in return for sex, it wasn’t a good deal, it was the only one.  ‘He was the only person in the world who cared for me,’ she said. ‘When he denied the baby was his, when he disappeared, I felt bad, I felt betrayed. Even if he had to go, he should have helped me to know where he is.  ‘The only way to make a living is to get an education, otherwise it is hard labor – that’s where the girls go to the dump – or they take to the streets, just so they can survive,’ explained Sia.  ‘Education is really the opportunity for them, but where do you get the support?  ‘There need to be other options. We need to let them know there is somewhere they can go. Having a baby is not the end.’

Street Child is hoping it could be the support, however. Through its new Girls Speak Out campaign, it wants to send 500 pregnant teenagers back to school or into vocational training by providing the support they need.  Tom Dannatt, Street Child’s CEO, said: ‘Every year that a girl remains in education helps significantly improve her future earnings. This in turn results in better family planning and healthier children who are more likely to remain in education themselves, meaning that the entire nation will benefit from what we can achieve together.’

Adama is now five months pregnant, while Aminata is seven. Marie is busy bringing up her son. But all of them are hoping that they can benefit from the chance to return to school. Street Child’s ambitious new appeal is designed to do exactly that – help break the cycle of poverty once and for all, by giving girls like these access to a safe and secure seat in the classroom.

Salon Monitor 19th April 2016

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