Meet Agnes: Orphan, Student, Survivor of Sexual Violence in Sierra Leone

October 1, 2012

Watch One Girl’s Long Road to School and Safety in Sierra Leone on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

Agnes, a 17-year-old orphan in Sierra Leone, was told by a teacher that he would enroll her in school if she would have sex with him.

“Really it’s like forced marriage. He’s basically enticed her into sexual slavery,” said Amie Kandeh of the International Rescue Committee, which is trying to help the girls in Sierra Leone through Rainbo Centers that offer medical care, counseling and police referrals when they wish to press charges.

The teacher never enrolled Agnes in school, so she enrolled herself, but the abuse continued. She ended up leaving school for four years, but recently decided she wanted to return.

“Agnes is going to be in class with girls who are between the ages of 9 to 12,” said Kandeh, but instead of dwelling on that, she advised Agnes to focus on her dream of becoming a doctor.

Agnes and other stories of violence and survival are featured in a four-hour documentary on PBS. “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” premiers in two parts on Monday and Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET.

“If you educate girls and bring them into the formal labor force, they can astound you,” said Sheryl WuDunn, who co-authored “Half the Sky” with her husband, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

In some areas of the developing world, however, women are “rarely given a chance to go to school and work,” said WuDunn. The mentality is often “‘why waste money on a girl, because she will amount to nothing.’ … But we know that’s not the case.”

In places like Sierra Leone, where there is conflict, “there tends to be a lot of gender-based violence including rape,” said Kristof. “When the conflict ends, soldiers stop killing each other but the rape continues.”

Sierra Leone, in western Africa, is slowly returning from an 11-year civil war that ended in 2002.

And in places where women and girls are at the bottom of the hierarchy, few resources are available to them.

But according to Kristof, in many cities in the world, there are local groups working to help women and girls, and the documentary highlights some of them. In addition to Sierra Leone, he visits Cambodia, Kenya, India, Somaliland, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Liberia and the United States.

Kristof brought several celebrity activists with him to see the atrocities: actresses America Ferrera, Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Gabrielle Union and Olivia Wilde.

“Sheryl and I had some reservations about bringing these celebrities along. We didn’t want to have these celebrities caught shoplifting or running around adopting babies,” he laughed. But “not only were they great to work with,” he said, but they served as a proxy to the viewer who also might be encountering these issues for the first time.

For example, in Somaliland, they wondered how to cover female genital mutilation for television, said Kristof. So they ended up filming actress Diane Lane watching a video of a girl getting cut, he said, and the expression on her face was incredibly powerful.

The next step in the Half the Sky Movement is a Facebook game launching Nov. 13.

Video Excerpt: India’s Caste System…

Watch The Impact of India’s Caste System on Women on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

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Watch Sakena Yacoobi on Educating Women and Girls in Afghanistan on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

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