03/10/2014 10:09 BST | Updated 02/12/2014 05:59 GMT

Tackling the 'Pandemic' of Sexual Harassment in Sierra Leone's Universities

With the focus on the horror of Ebola, the rapid rate of infections, lockdowns and the role of the international community to tackle the crisis in Sierra Leone, it's difficult to imagine much else going on in the West African country.

But chief electoral commissioner and chairperson of the National Electoral Commission Dr Christiana Thorpe insists that, despite the current crisis, a new project aimed at tackling what she describes as a "pandemic" of sexual harassment in the country's universities will go ahead - even if the start of the university term is put back as a result of the disease.

"The Ebola plague will delay the implementation since we can only do that when the tertiary institutions begin to operate," she emails from her home in the capital, Freetown. "But all other arrangements are on course."

Dr Thorpe's determination is in part connected to another era of crisis, the 1991 to 2001 civil war, during which Physicians for Human Rights estimates that during between 215,000 and 257,000 women and girls were subjected to sexual violence, many of them during a wave of violence that followed in the wake of a 1997 ceasefire. Now in their 20s, and with the children they conceived as a result of rape moving from primary school to secondary school, many are pursuing university careers. But on reaching university they are discovering that the only way they can expect to achieve academically is by having sex with their lecturers:

"It's very real. Why I really want to push it is because it is happening with impunity. The girls are suffering but there is no recourse, they don't have anywhere to turn to and they are victimised if they complain. Some of them have had to change colleges," says Dr Thorpe when we met during her recent visit to London. "Why I'm so passionate about it is because during the war girls faced rape and harassment. A lot of those girls are now at the stage where they should be at university and for them to come full circle back to this - that's what I'm determined to fight tooth and nail."

Dr Thorpe, who will stand down from her current role in November this year, worked with the Forum for African Women Educationalists (Fawe) to provide care, education and support for girls, some as young as eight years old, who were raped. Girls as young as 10 had to be helped through pregnancy and were taught basic childcare. Many of the girls were kidnapped and taken as 'bush wives' in circumstances that echo the ongoing plight of girls from Chibok in Nigeria. When they returned from the bush at the end of the conflict, however, many were rejected by their families.

"After the war, some of these girls who were adopted as bush wives, back home their families refused them, saying they had been part of the rebels - it was a catch 22," says Dr Thorpe.

Fawe's programme offering women the opportunity to train for the building trade as carpenters and masons, or welders, and electricians, meant that when it came to reconstruction of the country at the end of the war, it was agreed that the women would go back to their communities to do the work.

"In that way they were accepted because they were coming back, not as a liability but as assets," Dr Thorpe says. "A lot of them were able to be reconciled to their villages and they helped to rebuild their homes, so it worked well that way.

Dr Thorpe says she was motivated to do something about sexual harassment in Sierra Leone's universities because in numerous job interviews she's conducted, she's seen young women not only out-performed by their male counterparts, but routinely by women in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa - despite evidence that students experience sexual violence and harassment in universities in other African countries.

"There was such a big difference in their confidence, their courage to face the panel, their basic research and preparation for an interview," she says. "Sexual harassment does not allow them to get the education they need and if the lecturers demand sex to get marks, to get a pass grade, they tend to think if I am going to get an honours grade just by giving my body, why should I bother burning the midnight oil? But when you go for a job, it's the midnight oil that makes a difference - and the boys, their colleagues, perform better in an interview than they do."

Called Reach In for the Stars, the title of a biography of Dr Thorpe, the organisation aims to encourage and help young women to make full use of their talents unhindered. The programme includes setting up clubs for students that will help raise awareness, providing support and counselling for women who experience harassment and employing trained representatives who will intervene and take action on behalf of women who are sexually harassed by university staff. An office was formally opened in late September, and there is legal back up in the form of group of female lawyers -Legal Access through Women Yearning for Equality Rights and Social justice (LAWYERS). Sierra Leone's Family Support Unit, set up to tackle sexual and domestic violence, will also be supporting the project.

"It's now time for there to be an official place to say if you have this problem, you can come here," says Thorpe. "We will be able to challenge the powers that be, no matter who you are, be you a lecturer, be you a president, we'll be able to take you to task. Once we begin to name and shame people, that would be an achievement."