Forced marriages on the rise in the time of EbolaChristiana, Plan youth blogger
21 November 2014: My name is Christiana. I am 17 years old. I live in a small village in the Moyamba District in southern Sierra Leone. I lost my father when I was a baby and my mother is a petty trader.
I have experienced issues affecting girls’ rights to education because I was forced into marriage. I want to be a voice to tackle forced marriage in Sierra Leone and the world.
I dropped out of school twice: when I was 7 years old in primary school and junior secondary school for 1 year. I came back to school about 1 year ago.
In my school, Plan Sierra Leone established a girls’ club under the Girl Power Project. I was selected by my peers to be their president because of my goal to be an advocate for girls’ education and against early marriage, teenage pregnancy and female genital mutilation.
Schools left empty
Before the Ebola outbreak, we were having meetings as a group, doing peer education and visiting homes to promote girls’ education and discourage early marriage which was prevalent in our community. I have often said: “If you plant a tree and allow it to grow, then expect a fresh fruit from it.”
Now it is impossible to meet as a group because schools are closed. In my village, things have changed completely since the government declared a health emergency and banned all public gatherings. Schools are left empty as an abandoned nest. Some schools in my area are bushy, dirty and also used as holding centres.
147 girls pregnant
I am so sad. Being at school can help to protect girls from pregnancy and marriage. Many of my friends are getting pregnant and I realised some have been forced into early marriage. We cannot advocate on their behalf, we can no longer go to their homes.
Last week a social worker was on the Moyamba District Children’s Awareness Radio station talking about the situation of girls and young people. According to her about 147 girls in the district are already pregnant because of the outbreak of Ebola.
I can give an example of a girl in my community. She is 16 years old. She was impregnated by a man and her parents had to send her away to stay with the man.
Covering shame through child marriage
In my area, people believe that it is disrespectful for a girl to get pregnant. In some families, a girl is given to a man to cover the shame by sending her into marriage. Some people also believe that at this time young girls can be given to men to help fend for their families.
Putting an end to child marriage in Sierra Leone needs support from local leaders. I have heard about local by-laws in communities to fight against Ebola. I think that local leaders should also pass by-laws against child marriage at this time when Ebola affects our girls.
In my district we started reporting Ebola cases on 19 August. I became worried and troubled. I had sleepless nights because of the worrying messages that Ebola could stop schooling, affect our economy and in the worst case, I might even lose my family and my life because of Ebola.
We lost some children and young people in my community, some local leaders, a religious leader and some family friends.
Under quarantine and isolated
The situation has become worse and my community is under quarantine and we have been isolated. I have learnt new words and scary ones: quarantine homes, holding centres, chlorine, hand washing facility, treatment centres and sanitiser and so on. Children’s playgrounds are abandoned.
There is no electricity so I walk every day to the next village to charge my phone to communicate with young people across Plan who are also living in quarantined towns. Thanks to God for Plan Sierra Leone providing top up credit and giving me the space to communicate through the youth engagement Ebola response activities.
Plan Sierra Leone and other agencies have been doing well but I think more needs to be done. There are loads of stories of young girls who have been forced into marriage in my community. We need help now.
Some girls have survived the virus and have lost their families. Every day we are getting orphans and children dying. What is the hope for us? I think going back to school will be challenging for some girls because they will be nursing babes whilst trying to study.