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
Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

JavaScript Developer (Angular, Web Forms, HTML5, Ext JS,CSS3)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...


£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice