There is no excuse. Not our country’s war. Not your mental health. Not your beliefs. We respect one another, no matter which faith you belong to, and we respect one another – no matter their age, background or gender.

Our philosophy here in Sierra Leone is to Live and Let Live. Yet to take this a step further, this means that our women and girls have the right to live a dignified life too. Women have the right to live, the right to progress and the right to develop. To speak up for these girls and women is my mission, says First Lady, Fatima Maada Bio.

Our children or the next generation sit on our shoulders, and so my focus is to tackle rape and early marriage, for this happens in my face – I see it. You can see cases daily in hospitals – children battered by an adult, even babies as young as two years old. 90% of the perpetrators are men within the household or domestic context. So the slogan I stand by is – ‘Hands off our Girls’. It was either that or ‘Stop raping our children.’ It needs to be that powerful, for what is happening is indeed that serious.

Yes we have been through a war, but that was 20 years ago, and it does not excuse men seeing women as property. It does not mean men do not need consent, and can do whatever they want. We cannot condone such behaviour, or worse, cover it up.

We must stand up against this together. Men and Women to rise up together. It was suggested that there be a ‘Special Court’ for such cases, so that they do not get stuck in the normal judicial process. There should be a minimum of 15 years if found guilty for rape.

We need the court to defend and act more favourable towards children, and for women to be protected against any form of violence or abuse.

Women are not to be controlled but to have equal rights. Now I see that men are questioned or not allowed to bring minors to hotels. We have lawyers who specifically fight rape cases, and a rainbow centre with facilities.

Early marriage, let’s face it, is legalised rape. When girls are married off as young as 11, it is not right, and I know because it happened to me. In 1989/90 my uncle, a religious leader, was given permission to have me as one of his wives, when I was just 10.

I was told ‘This uncle will now be your husband’, and my dress code had to change, my behaviour had to be one of a good or decent girl, and I could not play like the other children because I should not be seen in dirty clothes.

When the war ravaged our country, my parents disappeared, and I was so fortunate that my Aunt took me to the United Kingdom in 1995 and it was there that my eyes opened and I realised what was possible – School, College, University, Acting, Journalism, Broadcasting, namely developing a Voice. Now it is my duty, and that of others to use our voice.

After the war, my parents migrated to The Gambia, and we were reunited there. With my uncle in the distance in Sierra Leone, my family chose a Gambian Man for me, for me to marry, at the age of 25 and I did so to appease him. We had two children, but this was not the future we wanted, and so for 15 years I was single and I was on the morning show on OTV, and I was asked to interview Maada. After we began dating, I wrote to my parents, only this time I was not seeking approval, and no one asked about religion. Maada is Christian, and I am Muslim, and mixed faith families are the norm in Sierra Leone. You respect and are respected. We met in 2012, and were married within a year. Maada Bio, a military ruler, was completing his PhD in Bradford, UK. Upon moving back to Sierra Leone, he chose to run for election, became President Julius Maada Bio, and the rest is history.

We are united when it comes to faith, religion and our values. We visit one another’s places of worship, naming ceremonies, and funerals. We love our neighbour as ourselves. Extending this level of understanding, my message would be – Girls, have a dream, and to believe in that dream. We then need to see if we can work it out together within the community.

It’s our turn to listen, collaborate and propel. We must not give up, and I always recall James Newton, who wrote the song, ‘Amazing Grace’, here in Sierra Leone, Banana Island, after being banished from the UK. There was purpose in his story, as there must be purpose and consciousness in ours.