National Geographic : 2017 Jan
the dangerous lives of girls 145 their country’s trauma began with the civil war between rebel groups and the government. For more than 10 years, beginning in 1991, thou- sands of girls and women were raped. Tens of thousands of people were killed, and more than two million people were displaced. More recent- ly Ebola ravaged the country, taking about 4,000 lives in less than two years. The disease affected many families, leaving girls orphans and forcing them to become the caretakers of their siblings before they knew how. The country has shakily evolved into a democracy, but the oppression of its girls and women persists. “ The country does not care about the bod- ies, the lives, the spirit of young Sierra Leonean women,” says Fatou Wurie, a women’s rights ac- tivist in Freetown who grew up overseas, then returned to her native country. “Every policy we create does not include the young Sierra Leonean woman’s voice.” As a woman who has spent extended time in much of West Africa, I had a strong reaction to visiting Sierra Leone for the first time. I have been in Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast, but Sierra Leone felt different: less inviting, less exuberant, more guarded and uneasy. But I also found that even in this troubled country, some girls are finding ways to rise above it all. regina Mosetay is sitting in the library of her school in Freetown. Outside, her classmates are laughing and eating lunch in the courtyard. She is as ready as she can be for her final exams. A mother at the age of 17, Regina can’t study like she used to because she has to care for her daugh- ter, Aminata, squeezing in time with her books between feedings and changing diapers. Regina has almond-shaped eyes and an oval face that tilts up when she is considering some- thing. She grew up in Low Cost, a working-class area with slim streets crowded with pedestrians and edged with electronics and textile shops and food vendors. Her mother raised her along with her brother and sister in a house shared by her grandmother, cousins, uncle, and other family members, 11 of them in all. She was kicked out of school because she was pregnant, which was “really painful,” she says. She loved everything about school. English was her best subject (she likes to talk), and she twirled baton in the marching band. She never thought she would become one of Sierra Leone’s preg- nant teenagers. Then Ebola began to spread in Freetown in 2014, and the government closed schools to limit the epidemic. That’s when she got pregnant by her boyfriend, Alhassan, in 2015. Alhassan was in his final year of college at the time. “During Ebola,” she says, “there were a lot of girls who were pregnant. There was no school, so we had a lot of idle time.” “I felt everybody would be disappointed in me. I felt shame,” Regina says. “Some students said we were not good examples for them.” By spring she was stuck at home with nothing to do and no one to see while her friends were at school. Several months later one of her aunts told her about the new centers that give school- age pregnant girls and mothers a way to catch up on their studies so they can ultimately return to school. Regina immediately wanted to go, and she told every pregnant girl or new mom she knew about the centers. She was familiar with a lot of what was taught, but she relished being in a classroom again, sit- ting at a wooden desk with her books and note- book open in front of her, reading and listening and thinking. There was now a baby inside of her, yes, but she still had a mind, and that was everything to her. “I was happy just being there and not at home idle,” Regina tells me. She studied at a center for three months, one of 180 girls who spent varying amounts of time there during the pro- gram’s first year. She returned to public school a how is a girl like Sarah to thrive?