Sulaiman Stom Koroma: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 11 April 2020:
As always, children, women and girls are most at risk during a crisis. It is no secret that a lot of girls and women are subjected to violence; and sadly, this is significantly affecting their health and wellbeing, more than the coronavirus itself.
Even in normal times, when there is no crisis – epidemic or pandemic, girls find it very hard to live a normal life at home, study or engage in meaningful activities to promote their development. For many, survival very often means resorting to trading their bodies.
In this difficult time, the worst is always therefore expected. Recalling the Ebola crisis in 2014, teenage pregnancy and school dropouts soared. This had a significant impact on women and girls in Sierra Leone.
Many young girls could not continue schooling. Their future left shattered, with little or no hope of recovery.
During the three days lockdown which ended three days ago – aimed at containing the coronavirus pandemic in Sierra Leone, many girls in their communities were exposed to risks, such as sexual violence, hunger, and other health-related issues.
One of the challenges the country faced during the lockdown was access to water. This was very much visible in urban areas. Many families could not get enough safe drinking water, or water they could use for domestic purposes which could serve them throughout the lockdown period.
Many girls had no choice but to go out to fetch water – often walking long distances. Very often younger girls were faced with bullying from peers and young men jockeying for a mere but precious bucket of water.
On a bad day, filling a large container at home with buckets of water carried on the head will take almost five hours to complete.
Yet another danger is that all this is done without observing social distancing and other precautionary measures at the water source. They are also exposed to risk of being beaten by military or police officiers, as well as sexually abused by older boys and men.
In one of the districts where we work, the District Medical Officer confirmed that three girls (ages 15, 16 and 17) told him that in one community, they were sexually exploited by some community members. With this, they are exposed to the risks of stigmatization, sexually transmitted disease, contracting the coronavirus, and may drop out of school in case of pregnancy. The authorities have handed over the matter to the police for further investigation.
In Port Loko and the Western Area Urban, pregnant and lactating mothers abandoned hospitals prior to the lockdown for fear that they could be injected (infected) with the virus. This resulted in more health risks, as these women and their innocent children suffer in silence.
Domestic violence rears its ugly head
One of our youth volunteers reported that he witnessed a scene where three women were severely beaten and injured by their husbands. She immediately called on the police and reported the matter. Presently, one of the perpetrators is in police custody. The other culprits say ‘it is a family matter’.
Furthermore, children in quarantine have not been cared for. This is according to a psychosocial worker who said that a lactating mother who was quarantined, has raised concern: “My child has not been provided with food and enough clothing,” she said, calling on stakeholders to provide basic necessities for her child.
These are just a few instances of how children and young people – especially girls, suffer during this coronavirus crisis.
Already, Plan International Sierra Leone has collaborated with the Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs, to launch a toll-free telephone line where girls, communities and others can report sexually based and gender violence.