In northern Koinadugu District, Sierra Leone, Haja is getting ready to go to her favorite place in the world: school.
“School is fun,” the sixth-grader says. “It makes me think that I am preparing myself to become somebody.”
At 11 years old, she’s already well on her way to achieving that goal. Haja’s teachers sing her praises, calling her “a very studious girl.” Her mother celebrates her academic success, vowing to “support her to the very end.”
The truth is that Haja needs all the support she can get. In her community, there are all kinds of obstacles to educating girls. Forced by poverty to make hard decisions for their families, many girls drop out early to get married young, often to much older men. Many others can’t attend school at all and never learn to read or write.
The impact of COVID-19
According to the World Bank, as of March 28, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused more than 1.6 billion children and youth to be out of school in 161 countries.
Sierra Leone, a small country on Africa’s west coast, has been no exception. The shuttering of schools exacerbated a learning crisis that had already been affecting children since Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war in the 1990s and then the Ebola epidemic from 2014-2016.
Things started looking up when COVID cases began to decline, causing the government to relax preventive measures and allow children to go back to school.
“When schools closed for a while due to corona, I was unhappy. It made me worry about the future. I still do,” Haja says. “I will soon go to junior secondary school. Staying out of school means my education is delayed, and I don’t want that to happen.’’
She sees what happens to children who can’t go to school, whether because their families can’t pay for their supplies or because they are needed at home to help with work or chores. In part because of the large numbers of children who are unable to attend school, the Sierra Leone literacy rate – 43%, according to the most recent World Bank data – still struggles to grow.
The challenges facing girls in Sierra Leone
Haja says there are other obstacles to educating girls, in particular: “Another fear I have is getting pregnant and dropping out of school like so many of my peers in my community.”
What’s behind these high rates of teen pregnancy? Child marriage is often a driver, since 30% of girls in Sierra Leone get married before their 18th birthday. About 13% get married before their 15th birthday. These child brides are more at risk for missing out on developing the skills, knowledge and confidence they need to make informed decisions, access paid employment and live independent lives, often trapping them in poverty.
What’s more, from 2015 to 2020, pregnant girls and teenage mothers were prohibited from attending school in Sierra Leone. A court decision in March 2020 uplifted the ban, but the stigma against young mothers in school remains, causing many girls to drop out if they become pregnant.
Most days, though, Haja doesn’t focus on the what-ifs. She occupies her time studying, dreaming and encouraging her friends to do the same. “Meeting friends, learning together and passing examinations is the part that excites me the most. At the end of the day, I would like to see me and my friends passing our exams and moving to another class together, no one being left behind.’’
Family support and investment in a girl’s education is one of the strongest buffers against early pregnancy and marriage – and fortunately, Haja’s parents’ are avid supporters of her schooling. Her mom, Wolia, is a vegetable farmer, and her dad, Alusine, works as a taxi driver. They never got the chance to get a formal education, and they’ve seen their share of hard times.
“Seeing my daughter go to school each day gives me so much joy and fulfillment,” Wolia says. “It reminds me of what I missed when I was little, but it also makes me even happier that she will, one day, turn out to help other people in our community and the country at large.”
Building safe, healthy learning environments
Haja dreams of becoming a nurse in the future. In her community, which is miles away from the nearest city, many people struggle to access modern basics like electricity and good roads. The nurses who work in Haja’s community now cannot handle complex medical conditions.
“Most times, when people have serious illnesses, they are taken to Kabala [the nearest city] and other places around the country with better facilities to handle those kinds of issues,’’ she explains. “I would want to be in a position where I can build a world-class hospital in my community.’’
The health center ChildFund built adjacent to Haja’s school, while still very basic, has been an inspiration to her.
“It is just a few seconds’ walk from my school,” she says. “Children in my school use this facility all the time.” Haja also gets excited when talking about the water system ChildFund supporters installed at her school, which functions by harvesting rain and storing it in a tank.
“We have water in our school now, which means we can use the toilet and not fear that we do not have sufficient water to wash our hands. The handwashing facility has 14 taps – meaning a total of 14 children can use the facility at a time without having to line up to take a turn!”
Why invest in things like a school health center, school water system, school supplies or anything school-related? Because increased access to a quality education can contribute to reducing poverty. When we help girls like Haja stay in school, we’re not only making her life a little easier, but we’re also supporting all the people whose lives she will touch – in her family and throughout the entire community.
“The only way my community is going to be developed is through education,” Haja says. “Education can get us doctors, teachers, lawyers and even the president, and they will all contribute to solving the problems in my community.”