Dear Sissy: West Africa's newest agony aunt takes on sexual traumas left by a civil war

Usman has issues with girls. The teenager is so anxious about his failure to attract any, that he writes a desperate letter to a woman he has never met.

"Dear Sissy Aminata," it reads. "My problem is this: I know many girls but none of them will make love with me. I am thinking about going to see a jujuman for love potions for these girls to like me very much."

If Usman follows Sissy Aminata's advice he will think twice about love potions. "Where have you been all this time?" she writes back with a tinge of impatience. "It seems the girls know much more about life and its hazards than you do. You must have heard about Aids, STDs and unwanted pregnancy?"

Sissy Aminata is west Africa's newest agony aunt, dispensing a tough love blend of sympathy, factual information, and no-nonsense advice on everything from painful periods to the risks of becoming infected with HIV.

Sissy doesn't exist in the flesh nor for that matter, does Usman.

The questions and her answers are written by child protection staff from Save the Children, one of the three aid agencies The Independent is supporting in this year's Christmas appeal. Their fictional answer to Virginia Ironside is emerging as a powerful weapon against a pandemic of child abuse and HIV/Aids in one of the world's poorest countries.

Children in Sierra Leone are still coping with the legacy of a brutal 11-year civil war which tore families asunder. Countless children were raped, mutilated, orphaned or forced into armed groups as sex slaves. The bloodshed ended five years ago, but much of the sexual abuse did not. "So many were raped during the war that perhaps people are no longer shocked by rape," says Dieneke Van Der Wijk, director of Save the Children in Sierra Leone.

The conflict also wiped out education for an entire generation, so awareness of sexual health issues is poor. And while around 40 per cent of the population of Sierra Leone is under the age of 14, extreme poverty (75 per cent of the population survive on less than 1 a day) means school is a luxury for many. In the rundown capital Freetown, you see young children out on the streets from dawn to dusk selling everything from toothpicks to peanuts and second-hand shoes.

And if they are easy prey for abusers in the streets, they are not always safe in school either. It's common in some rural areas for teachers to ask pupils to cultivate their vegetable patches in exchange for lessons. In some cases, they have to provide sex.

No wonder then that teenage pregnancy rates are high, sexually transmitted diseases widespread and the country is facing an HIV/Aids timebomb.

Yet for a child to admit they have been raped or abused often carries a stigma. Sex offenders are frequently let off the hook or the case is hushed up. In some cases girls are pushed into marrying their rapists.

What the fictional agony aunt does is to offer a space to children who would otherwise find it too painful or upsetting to discuss their experiences. Not only can they now get hold of facts about sex, but by taking part in the accompanying education groups that Save the Children runs in vulnerable communities, many are gaining the confidence to talk to adults and negotiate their own safety.

In the remote eastern province of Kailahun, an area that suffered unspeakable atrocities during the war, Theresa Kamara was pregnant at 13. She was ignorant then, she says. "Having a baby so young is not a good idea because it leads to so many problems. The father of the child abandoned me. Some girls try to get rid of the baby. One girl I know did that and she died."

Still only 17, Theresa now has the confidence of a TV host as she darts about in a stylish print dress and metallic sandals moderating a group education session for other youngsters at a community centre in a Freetown slum.

The method is simple. Theresa uses the questions sent to Sissy Aminata as a launchpad for discussion. A letter is read out and this serves as a prompt for anyone who feels like it, to articulate their own worries.

The group then examines Sissy Aminata's answer and this is followed by discussion and role play. "We take the examples of these letters and compare them to the things that are bugging us in our lives," Theresa explains.

A tall boy in an Umbro T-shirt puts up his hand. "I am very worried about the Aids," he admits. A girl asks what the difference between HIV and Aids is. Theresa doesn't want to teach though; she wants the young people to talk and to tease out the answers. Hands shoot up and there's a lively debate. Somebody thinks that sharing a blade or a knife is the way to transmit HIV infection. Theresa casts around the room coaxing, "But the big one, the big one?" When somebody offers the right answer, Theresa shakes his hand graciously: "Thank you, brother!"

"Abuse is often kept secret, so children need to be able to talk. Sissy Aminata helps to open minds," says Jeanetta Johnson, Save the Children's health programme manager in Sierra Leone. Staff have been surprised at the enthusiasm of the response and results have been remarkable in some areas, she reports. "One group of kids we know of reported an abusive parent to the police. In another case, a village chief wanted to marry a girl of 14, but the chief's son knew this was unwise and convinced his father not to go ahead."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Personal Injury Fee Earners

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This specialist personal injury...

Recruitment Genius: New Business Sales Executive / Business Development

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Join a fast growing, UK based I...

Recruitment Genius: Tennant Liaison Officer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An experienced TLO is required to manage, deli...

Guru Careers: Tax Manager / Accountant

£35 - £50k DOE: Guru Careers: A Tax Manager / Accountant (ACA / CA / CTA) is n...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen