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provide income, or  cash and a promise to take over financial responsibility for the young bride. The girl, in return, takes on the household chores of her husband’s family and often farm work too. Marriages conducted in secret In Sierra Leone, the rate of marriage under 18 had dropped from 56% in 2006 to 39% in 2017, a major achievement in the eyes of child protection activists. Then COVID-19 hit, schools closed in March, and child marriages accelerated. It wasn’t clear when or even if school ever would resume, and many parents feared their idle daughters would get pregnant out of wedlock, said Isata Dumbaya, from Partners in Health Sierra Leone, whose clinics provide health services to teenagers. Many of the girls’ mothers were themselves married off as teenagers, she explained, and see early marriage as normal.

 “They do not see it as harming their children,” Dumbaya said, but rather an investment in securing their daughters a future. It’s a mindset that Sierra Leone’s first lady, Fatima Maada Bio, has been working to change with her “Hands Off Our Girls” campaign. Bio herself managed to escape to the United Kingdom as a teenager after learning her father intended to marry her off to someone.

She now has made it her life’s work to help other underage girls. “If you force a child to be married at a very early age, you are legalizing the rape of that child,” she told the Associated Press. ‘Hands off our girls’ W h i l e s e x w i t h underage girls is illegal in Sierra Leone, it is rarely enforced. Police say cases aren’t reported because the families already have agreed to the marriage, whether the brides have or not.

 Billboards with the first lady’s image reading “Hands off our girls” still line the roadsides, but COVID-19 precautions mean the campaign has had to scale back many of its outreach efforts. Like Bio, to become the first lady of Sierra Leone was the dream of Mariama Conteh, whose estimated age is 17. She’s expecting a baby within the next two months. Conteh had left her remote village near the border with Guinea to live with an aunt in Koidu and attend school.

  T h e n i n Ap r i l a 28-year-old man in their compound expressed interest in her.

“I told my aunt that I did not want to get married,” said Conteh, but her aunt replied that if she did not get married, she’d have to return to her home village.

 Conteh figured out that if she refused the proposal, her own parents would try to marry her off once she got home anyway.

security operation against the militants. Some have accused him of not showing empathy to the victims and families there after a video shared online on Tuesday showed him visiting his farm. “ I t ’ s a b s o l u t e incompetence and an uncaring, indifferent ruling class that does not understand what it means to govern,” former Nigerian Education Minister Oby Ezekwesili told the BBC’s Newsday program.

 “Here we are as a country just completely showing ourselves as completely unserious when it comes to the matter of human life especially that of our children, “ she said, accusing the government of re-branding “terrorism as banditry”. Residents living near Government Science Secondary School in Kankara told the BBC they heard gunfire at about 23:00 (22:00 GMT) last week on Friday, and that the attack lasted for more than an hour. Security personnel at the school managed to repel some of the attackers before police reinforcements arrived, officials said. Po l i c e s a i d t h at during an exchange of fire, some of the gunmen were forced to retreat.

Students were able to scale the fence of the school and run to safety, they said. About 800 students were at the school when the attack happened and more

than 300 are still missing - but it is not clear if all of them are being held by the kidnappers. A 17-year-old boy who managed to escape the abductors told the BBC Hausa service how he crawled for several miles through the forest to freedom. President Buhari who is currently in Katsina on a private visit was being briefed hourly on efforts to rescue the children, his spokesman Garba Shehu said. T h e c h i l d r e n believe that 10 of their schoolmates were taken by the bandits, but this still needed to be verified, Mr Shehu told the BBC. H e t w e e t e d o n Tuesday saying that Katsina Governor Aminu Bello Masari had met and briefed President Buhari about the operation to free the kidnapped students. Many parents said they had withdrawn their children from the school, Governor Massari also ordered the immediate closure of all boarding schools in the state. ‘A worrying security development’ Analysis by Ishaq Khalid, BBC News Abuja Shekau’s statement h a s s p a rke d m i xe d reactions in Nigeria, with the authorities who blamed “bandits” for the attack now saying they were uncertain. Months before last week’s attack Boko Haram claimed that it had a presence in the

N i g e r i a - b a s e d Islamist militant group Boko Haram has said it was behind last week’s kidnapping of hundreds of schoolboys in the north-western Nigerian state of Katsina. More than 300 pupils are unaccounted for, but others managed to escape. T h e a u t h o r i t i e s had previously blamed “bandits” for the attack. Boko Haram has been notorious over the last decade for school kidnappings, including in Chibok in 2014, but these have taken place in the north-east. In an audio message about the abductions, its leader Abubakar S heka u sa i d “ what happened in Katsina was our responsibility” and that his group opposed Western education. This year hundreds of people in Nigeria’s northwest region have been killed in attacks by what authorities have called criminal gangs, but until now it has been unclear whether they had links with Boko Haram. The militant group has waged a br utal insurgency since 2009, mostly in northeastern Nigeria. Tens of thousands of people have died and millions have been forced from their homes. A c t i v i s t s h a v e criticiz ed President Muhammadu Buhari, whose home state is Katsina, of mishandling the

In a remote corner of Sier ra Leone, a man caught a glimpse of 16-year-old Marie Kamara as she ran past his house. Soon after, he proposed to her. “My family does not have money so when he told me he wanted me, I said ‘yes’, said Kamara. The financial pressure on her family felt more pressing than her wish to continue her education and become a nurse. Her family needed the money. Her stepfather runs a tailoring shop in Komao, but the coronavirus pandemic meant there were few customers. Kamara’s suitor was a miner in his mid-20s. His parents could provide rice for Marie’s four younger sisters and access to their watering hole – and they could pay cash. When her nowh u s b a n d m e t w i t h Kamara’s family, she was asked if she agreed with the proposal. Thinking of the dire economic situation of her family, she accepted. Kamara hopes her younger sisters won’t have to go through the same experience. She advises them to make sure they stay in school. Marriages of underage g i r l s l i k e K a m a r a are on the rise as the coronavirus pandemic deepens poverty around the world, threatening to undo years of work by activists trying to stop the tradition in countries such as Sierra Leone. The United Nations estimates that hardships resulting from COVID-19 will drive 13 million more girls to marry before the age of 18. Statistics, though, are hard to come by as most families carry out such weddings in secret. In most cases, needy parents receive a dowry for their daughter, a bit of land or livestock that can

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