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Pupils attend a koranic school in Sierra Leone.
Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly
Learning, while they can.
HARD LESSONS

How Ebola led to more teenage pregnancy in West Africa

By Cassie Werber

This post has been corrected. 

While the Ebola outbreak raged through Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea in the summer of 2014, public life ground to a halt. The danger of congregating in groups meant that public institutions, like schools, shut down. But the months of sickness and segregation left a legacy for girls that’s only now starting to be felt: teenage pregnancy spiked, and some of the girls are now being victimized by the government’s education policies.

Data on teenage pregnancy in West Africa is difficult to obtain, especially as it’s often stigmatized and underreported. But Plan International, a children’s charity, said back in 2014 that teenage pregnancy rates in West Africa—already among some of the world’s highest—were on the rise. They pointed to enforced inactivity and lack of oversight: girls forced to stay out of school due to Ebola “become more vulnerable to sexual exploitation, sexual assault and rape.”

That grim story is now playing out. A study by the United Nations Development Programme said that in Sierra Leone teenage pregnancy increased by 65% due to the socioeconomic condition imposed by Ebola. A survey of 1,100 girls and boys, also in Sierra Leone, by Save the Children in June 2015 found that most girls interviewed thought teenage pregnancy was rising, and 10% said more girls were being forced to sell sex due to loss of family, and with it, financial security. Fear of sexual assault was common, and the children told stories of girls attacked and raped, even in Ebola-quarantined households.

Teen pregnancy rates were already high. In 2013, 28% of all girls aged 15-19 were already pregnant or had children, according to government data. Sierra Leone sees few rape convictions but violence against women is “commonplace,” UNDP said.

These higher rates, and the violence and lack of education that contributes to them, are bad enough. But Sierra Leone has also implemented a policy which seems designed to worsen the situation. Pregnant girls are excluded from school, and from taking tests: a policy that has been gathering strength for several years, but was reiterated by the country’s government in the wake of the Ebola epidemic. Leaders have said the presence of pregnant girls will “serve as a negative influence to other innocent girls,” and “encourage” them to get pregnant, according to a Nov. 6 report by Amnesty International.

Enforcement of the ban is up to school authorities, according to Amnesty interviews with mainly under-18 girls, which has led to widespread degrading treatment. Girls suspected of being pregnant were publicly examined, having their breasts or stomachs felt by teachers and nurses on school premises. Some were compelled by their schools to take urine tests.

The exclusion from education, and the public humiliation, amounts to an abuse of the girls’ human rights, Amnesty said. In May 2015, the government put in place some provisions for a “bridging” system, to teach an estimated 3,000 pregnant girls separately, and lessons began a couple of weeks ago. (Amnesty says the total number of pregnant teenages is much higher than that. It also notes that the “bridging” system does nothing to change girls’ exclusion, or the stigma attached to the ban).

Amnesty’s report notes that, even where “tests” are inadequate to keep pregnant girls out of education, shame does the rest. “Girls described acute embarrassment and fear at being subjected to this treatment when they tried to attend school or sit exams,” they wrote. Once girls have missed out on months of classes and key exams, have a child to look after, and are under more financial pressure than before, it becomes increasingly less likely they’ll ever go back to school.

Correction (Nov. 9): An earlier version of this story said “bridging” lessons had not yet begun, but UNICEF confirmed they began in October 2015.