Eighteen and in 11th grade in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Liberian-born Miamah Grace Kannah is telling her life story to a reporter. She alternates between flashing a shyly winning smile and dabbing away the tears from her dark eyes.
The following first-person account was drawn from my interview with Kannah on Monday, when she was in New York to participate in a panel at the United Nations on care for women who've been raped.
I grew up in Grand Bassa County's capital city, Buchanan, where I was brought up by my grandmother. My mom had me at a very early age, 16. She was not married. Her [family] was so mad they threw her out of the house, and her boy friend threw her out, he did not want a baby. So my aunties and my grandmother took me in.
Meanwhile, my mother was trying to make a living and go to school — she sold flip-flops. When she got her promotion to the 10th grade she received a scholarship to African Methodist Episcopal Zion High School. She graduated and went to the university. I am so proud of her.
When I was 12, I met Aisha, who had come to be a pastor at the church where I was conducting the choir. She encouraged me and other girls in the choir and in the community to be part of Grand Bassa Sisters for Power, and I was elected as the first president of this group. There were about 15 of us. We took trips to villages, we were advocating all over Liberia [for rights for girls] so our voices could be heard.
The girls I met started sharing their stories. Some had no money to support their going to school, so they went out with older men who could help them pay the school fees. Others were being forced into prostitution in order to feed themselves. They were as young as 12, 13, 14. We started opening up to each other, we called each other sisters, and it was cute how all these girls would come together. Aisha and I organized workshops for the girls where we discussed these issues, making sure not to shame anybody or feel bad about themselves.
But after I turned 16 I messed up. I got pregnant out of wedlock.
I was raped. He was my boyfriend, and he was much older. He said I had to satisfy his sexual desires and he forced me into it.
I was wearing my best yellow shirt. My mother had given it to me. And after he got through with that the whole shirt was messed up and covered in blood. And he gave me this white shirt. And I couldn't tell anybody because they would say: How can you say you were raped, he was your boyfriend.
I knew other girls who had the same problem. They had boyfriends who were abusing them into forced sex. But nobody wanted to talk about it because they felt everyone would just say, oh, he's your boyfriend. There was just silence.
I moved to Monrovia where I gave birth to a boy. His father and the father's mother now care for the baby. That was two years ago.
I felt I had failed society. I was so embarrassed when other girls got in touch, I didn't respond. I was isolated. My mom was so disappointed, but she said, I can't let my baby go. I have to take care of my baby, so she supported me. And Aisha told me, you can still impact the lives of others. Sometimes things happen for a reason.
Today [at the U.N. panel] I spoke about how girls in Liberia who are forced into sex have no legal rights. Even though you are 15 or 16, if you go to a court they'll say well, you're sexually active, you weren't raped. Some are girls who are forced to stay with their "godfathers," 10 or 15 years older than them, and have sex. They are like the man's toy, he can keep you [as long as he wants you] or put you in the trash. The girls don't know what STDs he has been exposed to, and when he lets them go these girls are afraid to get tested because they don't trust there will be confidentiality. But they have to keep living, they find another man — and the STDs can spread further. There are laws to protect girls, but the issue is to implement the laws.
I also talked about traditional practices, where girls have to go to traditional "schools" when they reach puberty. They stay for six months, are taught to become wives, and when they leave they have to get married. We want to make it comfortable for girls so they won't have to go through that.
My message is that you have to speak up. It gives you strength to keep you going. That is what has helped me.
Now I am looking forward to starting groups in my school so that girls can get together and talk about challenges they face. In the future, I want to be a nurse that girls will talk to and whom I can help.
Note: Kannah participated in the 60th session of U.N.'s Commission on the Status of Women as part of a delegation of young women from the organization Rise Up. She moved to Pennsylvania five months ago, where she is living with her mother.