As the world observes International Day of the Girl Child today (11 October), Mariama Fullah, an 18-year-old Class Six pupil of Roman Catholic Primary School in Sahn Malen chiefdom, Pujehun district, southern Sierra Leone, has said in an exclusive interview with Concord Times that she has returned to school in order to achieve her dream of becoming a nurse.
Sitting inside her family's mud and zinc (corrugated iron sheets) house in Sahn Malen town last Saturday, she acquiesced to grant an interview to this reporter even though her baby was crying for breast milk.
Mariama quickly breast fed her one-year-old daughter and lured her to sleep so that she could talk to this reporter. She opined that teenage pregnancy, which has forced many school girls to drop out of school, should not be a hindrance to the pursuit of excellence, adding that she was determined to succeed even though she got pregnant at the age of 17.
Prior to her pregnancy, she was attending the Islamic Primary School in Sahn Malen but after she safely delivered in 2016, she decided to change school to avoid her friends' persistent provocation and name-calling.
"My friends used to laugh at me when my pregnancy became visible while in class, to an extent that I sometimes was ashamed of my very self. That was why I decided to switch over the Roman Catholic Primary School," she explained.
She said that at the initial stage of her pregnancy, she felt confident going to school because no one knew she was pregnant.
"My pregnancy was not visible until after sometime when it projected and I started to regularly fall sick. That was why I stopped going to school," she further explained.
Mariatu is one of thousands of teenage girls that become pregnant in Sierra Leone during each school year. Apart from missing several months of schooling, thus lagging behind their peers, perpetrators of teenage pregnancies leave the burden of caring for both the pregnancy and teenage mother to the latter and her parents.
But Mariama's case was different.
She revealed to Concord Times that the man who impregnated her took care of her and the baby; in fact she was staying with him.
The Sexual Offences Act of 2012 proscribes consent by a person who is below 18. But like many laws enacted to protect women and girls from sexual exploitation, effective implementation poses serious challenges.
Since her daughter, Saffiatu Bassie, is now one-year-old, Mariama has enrolled in her new school and looks forward to writing the National Primary School Examinations (NPSE) next year.
She first took the NPSE before she became pregnant but didn't pass and decided to repeat after "I have safely delivered my baby."
"While I was taking the NPSE for the first time, I was not concentrating on my studies and I failed; but I have come to accomplish my dream. I'm very happy to be back in school," she said excitedly.
Her dream is to become a nurse, she said.
"My desire is to be a nurse because I want to contribute to the healthy development of people in the world. At the moment, there are many lapses in the health sector and when we take our babies to the health centre, some of the nurses are very harsh to us. This should change when some of us would have the opportunity to serve in that capacity," she said.
At her current school, she said most of her classmates know she is a lactating mother but they don't provoke or call her names.
"One would never know that I am a lactating mother if I don't tell that person because I am little in size," she said.
The theme for this year's Day of the Girl Child is "Empower Girls: Before, During and After Crises.
According to a release by the United Nations, "Since 2012, 11 October has been marked as the International Day of the Girl. The day aims to highlight and address the needs and challenges girls' face, while promoting girls' empowerment and the fulfillment of their human rights. The world's 1.1 billion girls are a source of power, energy, and creativity - and the millions of girls in emergencies are no exception. This year's International Day of the Girl (IDG) on October 11 marks the beginning of a year-long effort to spur global attention and action to the challenges and opportunities girls face before, during, and after crises."
The UN Women notes that among the 1.1 billion girls in the world, every one of them deserves equal opportunities for a better future. They can drive change and help build a better future for all. Yet, most girls face disadvantage and discrimination on a daily basis, and those living through crises are suffering even more.
"Every 10 minutes, somewhere in the world, an adolescent girl dies as a result of violence. In humanitarian emergencies, gender-based violence often increases, subjecting girls to sexual and physical violence, child marriage, exploitation and trafficking. Adolescent girls in conflict zones are 90 percent more likely to be out of school when compared to girls in conflict-free countries, compromising their future prospects for work and financial independence as adults," the UN Women statement reads.
Meanwhile, according to Susan Kargbo of the National Commission for Children (NCC), the local theme adopted by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) is "Empowering Girls: Emergency Response and Resilient Planning".
Ms. Kargbo, who was in Koinadugu with her institution to commemorate this year's International Day of the Girl Child, said Mariama's situation as a teen mother may be challenging but the road she has taken to return to school is bright and acceptable.