For These Girls, Danger Is a Way of Life

Poverty, violence, and cultural traditions oppress millions of girls around the world, but some are finding hope through education.

Sierra Leone is one of the worst places in the world to be a girl. In this West African country of about six million people, cleaved by a vicious civil war that lasted more than a decade and more recently devastated by Ebola, simply being born a girl means a lifetime of barriers and traditions that often value girls’ bodies more than their minds. Most females here—90 percent, according to UNICEF—have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), which initiates them into adulthood and is supposed to endow them with marriage appeal, but also is a culturally ingrained way of controlling their sexuality. Nearly half of all girls marry before age 18, and many become pregnant much younger—often a couple of months or so after their first menstrual cycle. Many are victims of sexual violence; rape often goes unpunished. In 2013 more than a quarter of girls 15 to 19 years old in Sierra Leone were pregnant or had children, one of the highest pregnancy rates in the world for that age-group. And too many die in childbirth—at a rate that is the highest in the world, according to an estimate by the World Health Organization and other international agencies. FGM can increase the risk of childbirth complications.

“If you go to the provinces, you see 13-year-olds, 15-year-olds, married, carrying babies,” says Annie Mafinda, a midwife at the Rainbo Center, which assists victims of sexual violence in the capital city of Freetown. Many of the center’s patients are 12 to 15 years old, Mafinda says.

When I met Sarah in Freetown, a city that rests on a hilly peninsula with a glimmering harbor, she was 14 years old and six months pregnant, but she looked several years younger. Sarah had a whisper of a voice, a small, delicate frame, red-painted toenails, and a pale peach head scarf tied tightly around her hair. She told me she had been raped by a boy who lived near her family’s home and who left town after the alleged attack. When her mother learned of the pregnancy, she kicked Sarah out of the house. Now Sarah (her last name is being withheld) lives with the mother of the boy who she said attacked her. The mother of her alleged rapist was the only one who would take her in; Sierra Leonean women typically live with their husbands’ families. Sarah has to cook, clean, and do laundry for the household. The boy’s mother beats her if she’s too tired to do her chores, Sarah said.

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