Anthony Robert from Sierra Leone was abandoned in the street as a two-month-old baby. His mother, who was 16 at the time, died during childbirth and there was no one else to take care of him. Anthony has now joined the Girls Advocacy Alliance, to protect other girls from sexual violence and teenage pregnancies.
In Sierra Leone even boys are joining the struggle to improve the lot of girls and young women. Like 23-year-old Anthony Robert, for example, a youth lobbyist from a Girls Advocacy Alliance (GAA) group in his hometown of Freetown. It’s from this capacity that he tackles other boys and men in his community, in the event of a rape or teenage pregnancy, for example.
Behind Anthony’s motivation to get involved in problems such as sexual violence and teenage pregnancies, lies a very personal story. “I’m the victim of an unplanned teenage pregnancy. My mother died when I was born, when she was just 16. It meant that I grew up without a mother and I don’t want others to have to go through what I did.”
Aged just two months, Anthony was abandoned on the street with a note on which his name was written. It must have been an act of sheer desperation for the person who had cared for him during the first weeks of his life. An aunt, a grandmother, who knows? The woman who found him took it upon herself to rear him and accepted him as her own son, despite the associated problems as a single mother. “She took me to church and said she’d found a son.”
Growing up in a slum
But he wasn’t to have an easy childhood in the slums where he grew up. “To survive, we had to sell things on the street, where there was always violence. There was never enough to eat and our clothes were always dirty. It’s nothing short of a miracle that I finished my schooling at all,” adds Anthony, who is currently in the second year of an apprenticeship to be an electrician.
He is one of five boys in the GAA lobby group and, together with 20 girls, he is trying to bring about change at community level. The youngsters’ work mainly involves speaking to people on the street or carrying out door-to-door campaigns, in which they visit local residents to get their message across. “We explain to people that a girl’s back is not for carrying a baby, but a school satchel,” he says, in a clear reference to how women in Sierra Leone typically carry their babies.
Finish school first
It’s not just boys and their parents that Anthony has in his sights, he also targets girls. “Some young girls seem to think that having a child will give them direction in life. But what they fail to realise is that they are still far too young to become mothers. I tell them that the body of a teenager cannot handle bringing a child into the world. They won’t be able to properly care for a child because, essentially, they are still children themselves. We advise them to finish school first, before thinking about having children.”
Anthony is taking a significant risk by lobbying for girls’ rights. “I’m sometimes beaten up for it,” he admits. “It’s usually by people who don’t understand why I’m involved in a lobby group for girls’ rights. They see it as a problem for girls, not for boys. But my response is that as a boy you have a responsibility to protect girls.”