News

Addressing child marriage and adolescent pregnancy in Port Loko district

16 January 2019
Fatmata Sesay in Port Loko district. © UNFPA Sierra Leone/2018/Salim Kamara

PORT LOKO, Sierra Leone – Fatmata Sesay was 15 years old when she became pregnant. Confronted by the fear and unpreparedness of being a young mother, she was forced by her parents to live with her boyfriend who had not completed school and did not have a job to support her and their baby. Moving in with her boyfriend already felt like marriage to her.

Pregnancy and child care responsibilities prevented Fatmata from going back to school for two academic years. “It was a situation I found difficult to accept,” she said. “Seeing my peers attending school every morning was a bitter pill for me to swallow.”

 

Like Fatmata, almost a third of adolescent girls in Sierra Leone are faced with the uncertainty of continuing their schooling by becoming young mothers. Fatama lives in the district of Port Loko, which is two hours drive from Freetown the capital, and has one of the highest prevalence of early/forced marriages and teenage pregnancy in the country.

 

According to UNFPA, globally 20,000 girls under the age 18 give birth every day in developing countries, which amounts to 7.3 million births a year. In Sierra Leone, the 2013 Demographic and Health Survey states 28 per cent of adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19 had already begun childbearing, and 24 per cent of those who are married, had their first birth during the first year of marriage. Additionally, a larger proportion of adolescent pregnancies occur in rural areas: 34 per cent compared with 19 per cent in urban areas.

 

Addressing early marriage and adolescent pregnancies

The Girls’ Access to Education and Services also referred to as the GATES’ project, which is supported by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) with funding from Irish Aid, is taking the lead in minimizing the risks of early marriage and adolsecent pregnancy for girls in Sierra Leone. A key component of the project is collaboration with the Guidance and Counseling Unit, a division of the Ministry of Basic Secondary School Education, to provide access to life skills, sexual reproductive health and rights to information.

 

The project also aims to provide services related to gender-based violence prevention and response, and provide information and services for adolescents in 196 junior secondary schools (JSS). Furthermore, healthcare and gender-based violence service providers in Tonkolili, Pujehun, Port Loko, Moyamba, Koinadugu and Kailahun - the six districts with the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone - will receive additional training.

 

Empowering vulnerable girls

 

Fatmata with her mother in Port Loko. ©UNFPA Sierra Leone/2018/Salim Kamara

As part of the implementation of the GATES’ project, guidance counsellors in the 196 JSS are being trained and supported to conduct awareness raising activities to prevent and respond to gender-based violence and to reduce teenage pregnancy. Guidance counsellors often establish student led clubs to develop peer education skits, participate in radio discussions and host inter-school debates to increase knowledge on key topics such as sexual reproductive health, self-esteem, communication, leadership, adolescent pregnancy and child marriage.

 

In September 2018, mentors from the girls club at the Movement of Faith Islamic Secondary School in Port Loko district visited Fatmata to encourage her to go back to school. The mentors, who had support from the guidance counselors of the same school, succeeded in getting Fatama enrolled back into school, and a few days later Fatama’s teacher made her a member of the girls’ club. The club members meet once a week to discuss issues affecting the girls such as gender-based violence, and to find ways of reaching out to other vulnerable girls in various communities.

“The good thing about the girls’ club is that members are given the opportunity to speak about their experiences and share their aspirations. As I have now returned home to live with my parents; I want to continue with my studies as I dream of becoming a nurse,” said Fatmata enthusiastically.  

 

Changing expectations

Adolescent girls in Port Loko district face a wide range of challenges, including entrenched gender discrimination, harmful practices such as child marriage and widespread gender-based violence. The Family Support Unit based at the Port Loko Police Station reported 272 cases of gender-based violence in 2017, with almost half of the victims being adolescents.

 

The district education focal point for the GATES project in Port Loko, Santigie Aruna Sesay said, “A few years ago, if you had visited the ante-natal unit in the main referral hospital in Port Loko, you would had seen girls as young as 15 years waiting for ante-natal check-ups. However, since the implementation of the GATES project in 2018, about 80 out-of-school girls from the district have been identified and reintegrated back into the formal school system.” Mr. Sesay added, “Two community learning centres in the district also help prepare out-of-school girls to return to formal school and are being referred for psychosocial support, family planning and other social welfare services.”

 

Encouraging positive change agents

 

Fatmata at her school in Port Loko. ©UNFPA Sierra Leone/2018/Salim Kamara

 

Mr. Sesay said his unit is encouraging parents to send their adolescent girls to school to pursue their dreams, instead of marrying them early. “Girls have the power to influence change in our society,” he said. Through the GATES project and the girls’ clubs based in schools, girls like Fatmata will be able to realise their dreams, give back to their community, and serve as role models to other adolescent girls.

 

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UNFPA is the lead UN agency for delivering a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled. UNFPA reaches millions of women and young people in 155 countries and territories. 

For more information, please contact:

Ms. Angelique Reid, Communications Specialist

UNFPA Sierra Leone  

M: 078 340044               

E: areid@unfpa.org