FREETOWN, Sierra Leone - People across Africa have been celebrating the Day of the African Child, honoring thousands of black South African schoolchildren who took to the streets of Soweto on June 16, 1976, to demand better education and the right to be taught in their own language. The apartheid regime's security forces responded with tear gas and live bullets that killed scores of boys and girls - probably close to 200. June 16 observances still honor those who died, but also highlight the struggles that many African children still face today.
In Freetown, Sierra Leone, a group called the Girl Child Network marked the day with a rally.
Close to 100 schoolgirls sang "Parents: Protect your girls and keep them in schools!" as they marched through the chaotic streets of Freetown.
They wanted their voices heard loud and clear on this Day of the African Child.
Ayesha Munu, 14, took the time to remember what happened in 1976.
"I feel very sad - every day, every year - when I think of June 16th," Ayesha said. "A day like this is going to be a day for us to remember what [those who died in 1976] went through, so that we can strengthen ourselves to fight for them more and more every day."
International Day of the African Child Festival 2012 Teaser from Hannah Peterson on Vimeo.
Anita Koroma, country director for the Girl Child Network, organized the rally. The group helps girls complete their education or get out of sexually abusive situations.
Koroma said Girl Child Network wants to focus on raising awareness of the sexual exploitation of young girls in Sierra Leone during the rally.
Koroma wants stricter laws, as in some other African countries, with longer jail time for rape and more monitoring of nightclubs, to make sure girls under 18 are not admitted.
"Ghana has done it. Liberia has done it. Sierra Leone needs to wake up from its slumber," she said.
Koroma has worked with about 3,000 girls in her network, and says approximately 60 percent of girls in Sierra Leone have faced some kind of sexual exploitation.
A 13-year-old girl who was at the rally, but cannot be named, says her uncle's friend attempted to sexually assault her. She is too ashamed to tell her family.
"I don't even tell my uncle. My uncle will say I'm telling lies," she said.
Koroma said sadly, it is far too common that young girls are afraid to speak up. It's even worse for those who are disabled, she added.
The theme this year for the Day of the African Child is focusing on children with disabilities.
"For the disabled girls. Nobody speaks about them, but them, too, they're suffering," noted Koroma. "They need a voice. Girls as young as 11 or 12 ... are exploited."
People are starting to pay attention and show support.
Joseph Kobba, a teacher at a secondary school in Freetown, came out to participate in the rally because he, too, has concerns about young girls being taken advantage of.
"Because of their socioeconomic background, these girls cannot afford to maintain themselves in school," he explained. "So these guys up and pay their [school] fees. Some give [the girls] lunch, and before you know it they get pregnant."
Anita Koroma plans to petition the government of Sierra Leone for stricter laws to break what she calls "the vicious circle of abuse of girls."