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Lost Childhood: Yabom, The 17-year-old Breadwinner

By Osman Benk Sankoh

17-year-old Yabom Kargbo of Cole Tong New Site, off theWestern Rural District Town of Waterloo, had told herself that she would be a medical doctor once she graduates from college. She says she hopes to support her mother, Marie Kanu so she will never have to work again. The eldest of six other girls, Yabom has always been passionate about giving back to her community by helping the sick and needy.

At Cambridge Academy School, Yabom liked the sciences. However, in 2013, while in the second year of Junior Secondary School (JSS2), her plans of becoming a medical doctor was crushed due to her father's deteriorating health. Even though recent figures point to a 23 percent increase in literacy rate among women aged 19-24, Yabom, is in effect, among the country's 66 percent female population who cannot get a basic education.

Pa Ibrahim Kargbo, the family breadwinner, was a sand miner. He would spend several days on a dugout canoe to mine for sand in the mangrove areas which he sells to take care of his wife, Ya Marie, and seven children. That year, he had complained about an excruciating chronic lower back pain and severe cold. The pain became intense until he could no longer walk.

"When papa stopped going to the mangroves, I decided to take over from him so that my younger sisters can continue to go to school. At the same time, I wanted to be able to provide food for the family," Yabom told Hidden Voices. Two of her sisters, aged seven and ten are in classes two and four respectively at the Young Men Islamic Primary School, Waterloo. The rest are not in school.

Depending on the tide at sea, every morning, Yabom would pick up her shovel, a bucket, and basket and journey towards the river where she would jump aboard a rented dugout canoe with her mum. They would paddle for about five miles or more from Betts Farm towards the Songo Road Bridge and sometimes, under severe weather condition to get to the sand mining sites in the mangroves.

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"Once we identify a spot, we would first brush off the entire area with our machetes before we start digging," Yabom who hardly gets breakfast, let alone lunch for herself and her siblings said.

"Digging takes up to two days, and on the third day, the sand is removed with a shovel before we start the processing of cleaning it to remove all unnecessary debris from it.

"The sand is then loaded on the canoe and taken across the river where we assemble 90 head pans to form a pile (of sand) that we sell for 70,000 Leones", she narrated.

According to Yabom, even when the sand is available for sale, it would sometimes take a week or more before getting possible buyers. "Not getting someone to buy the sand from us meant no food for us that. We would go to bed hungry since our daily livelihood depends on the payment we receive for the sand", Yabom held back tears as she recounted their ordeal.

"It is from the little that we get from selling the sand that we pay our house rent, keep my sisters in school, pay for the canoe we hire, and also get medications for Papa," the 17-year-old said.

Morrison Moisa Saidu, a human rights and social change campaign-er, says: "The issue of Yabom is not an uncommon phenomenon relating to girls in Sierra Leone. Yabom is caught in the complex web of being the sole provider for her family versus her vision to go to school. Sierra Leone needs sustainable interventions for girls. The first thing that comes to mind is the right-based approach: a pathway for the realisation of children's right to education and rights within education."

He indicated that a tendency to leave girls empowerment and other child protection issues mainly in the policy realm had been the norm. This, for him, means the focus is mostly on the policy development and enforcement realm while lagging on direct and sustainable service provision models.

"Historically, much attention has been paid to policy and law reform. We can do more as a nation to understand that sustain-able empowerment models for girls like Yabom should draw upon evidence-based practices to address unmet social needs, poverty, gender inequality, family structures, and culture and decentralised service delivery," Saidu, the co-author of a research article- Post War Challenges Facing Women and Girls in Sierra Leone makes the point.

Moving forward, he said: "Let us understand that poverty, inequality, culture, which among others, are the main barriers to girl child education in Sierra Leone have been around for decades. In addition to promoting girl's empowerment in ways that are consistent with the fundamental and universal principles of human rights, perhaps it's about time we got started on workable models like public-private partnership, innovate financing and a dose of venture philanthropy to invest in girls like Yabom, and other vulnerable categories that will yield return overt time".

Fatmata Bundu Sorie, President of Legal Access through Women Yearning for Equality Rights and Social Justice (L.A.W.YE.R.S) told Hidden Voices that Yabom's story is not regular. "We are pretty sure it is because these victims are never aware that they can seek aid elsewhere. Even if they did, they are constrained mostly by poverty and lack of confidence in the system.

It is quite traumatic to see a child endure such hardship when we have laws, which if properly implemented, should address some of these issues and avert such outcomes."

Referencing the Child Rights Act of 2007, the Barrister and Solicitor stressed: "Yabom deserves a better life but lack of implementation of our laws, insufficient budget and poverty remain obvious limitations in a donor-driven economy like Sierra Leone." She noted though: "lack of poverty and budget, cannot and should not be any limitation in carrying one's mandate relating to the protection and preservation of the rights of children."

For the President of L.A.W.Y.E.R.S, neglecting children, the country's future would only lead to a national malaise. "There are many other children like Yabom out there, and as such, the time to act is now."

Yabom misses school so much. She is still hopeful of returning to class and fulfill her dream of becoming a medical doctor. However, for each day that passes, and with no improvement in her dad's medical condition, that dream is now hanging in the balance.

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