Hawa, Sierra Leone
Hawa was 15 years old when a local man began threatening to rape her unless she agreed to have sex with him.
“The man was way older than me,” says Hawa. “He would wait for me at the roadside on the days I was going to market or the river. He said if I didn’t have sex with him he would do something really bad to me or my family. I was very scared.”
One of eight children, Hawa grew up in an impoverished fishing town in Sierra Leone, near the country’s capital, Freetown. In 2015, during the height of the Ebola epidemic, quarantines were introduced to stop the spread of the virus. Schools and hospitals were closed and local business was brought to a standstill, making it extremely difficult for families such as Hawa’s to get by.
In addition to threatening Hawa, the local man, who was in his 20s, would offer her money to coerce her into sex. Eventually Hawa agreed to his demands, and she became pregnant.
“When schools reopened after Ebola I was very excited to go back, despite being pregnant,” says Hawa. “But the teacher had got wind that I was pregnant, and he told me to leave school because I would infect my colleagues with my bad character. He said other students will say, ‘look at my friend, she is pregnant and she is in school, I will also get pregnant.’
“I tried to beg him to allow me to stay a little bit longer in school but he refused. Some of my schoolmates laughed at me, and my parents were very disappointed and annoyed.”
Hawa is one of many adolescent mothers in Sierra Leone banned by the government from attending school or sitting exams. The official ban has been in place since April 2015, when it was announced as a government policy during the reopening of state schools after the Ebola quarantines.
Now 18, Hawa is raising her two-year-old daughter alone.
“Every day when I see my sister and brothers going to school while I do the house chores I feel very bad,” she says. “My work is like I am the nanny in our home - I cook for them while they have a lot of fun and enjoy reading in school.
“I wish I could just be given a second chance to be able to achieve my dreams. I like history a lot, I like reading about our country, especially the political organizations. I want to be a leader and to bring positive change.
“I always wish that one day other children will be able to read about me, but without education it will be impossible for me to get into the history books.”