Schools in Sierra Leone opened in mid-April 2015, eight months after they were closed to stop the Ebola virus from spreading. But even though schools are open again, nothing is the same. Reminders of Ebola’s destruction are everywhere, and a new type of vigilance permeates daily life. School staff use thermometers to check for high temperatures. Buckets of chlorinated water are placed strategically in schools, with an encouragement to wash hands and wash often. And only a small number of students have actually come back to class. Some are working to support their families. Others are taking care of younger siblings. Sadly, some are deceased. But there is one population that is disproportionately missing: girls, especially pregnant girls.
The Ministry of Education in Sierra Leone has banned girls who are “visibly” pregnant from taking the standardized exams that are needed to graduate, justifying this decision by saying that pregnant girls “always fail” these exams. These girls are also not allowed to attend class, as officials believe it may have a negative influence on other girls.
Of course, teenage pregnancy is not a new phenomenon in Sierra Leone, and the ban on pregnant girls has been in place since 2010. In fact, in 2009, districts in Northern Sierra Leone automatically dismissed any girl who was pregnant; they also would dismiss the boy who impregnated her, if identified.
Flickr/Global Partnership for Education (Some rights reserved)
Girls arrive to school in Sierra Leone.
So if this school “pregnancy ban” is not unique, why are we talking about it? And how is it linked to Ebola?
The rate of teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone, already at 33% before the outbreak, has reportedly increased since the outbreak of the Ebola virus, though exact figures are hard to verify. While some individuals have linked the rising rate of teenage pregnancy to “idleness”—presumably caused by school closures during the peak of the Ebola epidemic—this does not account for the vulnerability and potential risks for girls compared to boys in crisis situations. UNICEF has anecdotal evidence that sexual assault and transactional sex among underage girls is on the rise, and last year a UNICEF representative confirmed that they expected gender-based violence to surge as a result of the Ebola crisis and instability. Some girls have resorted to selling sex to pay for necessities such as food since their parents or other caregivers can no longer provide for them, or are dead.
When the first lady of Sierra Leone, Sia Nyama Koroma, a well-known spokesperson for children’s rights, also endorsed the pregnancy ban, it was not only a stark contrast from previous initiatives (that she and the administration previously endorsed), it was also an additional letdown for the already abandoned young girls.
The rippling effects of the Ebola outbreak have deteriorated access to and enjoyment of most socioeconomic rights, including the right to education. In analyzing the weakness and inability of the Sierra Leonean health system to deal with the Ebola outbreak, Alicia Aly Yamin illustrates the further marginalization of women and children in accessing health services. Indeed, the rippling effects of the Ebola outbreak have deteriorated access to and enjoyment of most socioeconomic rights, including the right to education. By banning young women and girls from school due to pregnancy, Sierra Leone is further alienating and disempowering an already marginalized group. Although this ban existed five years ago, the social destruction caused by Ebola has exacerbated its effect, compounding multiple rights violations. The ban fails to recognize the criminal acts of sexual offenders, the vulnerability of girls who may be orphaned or abandoned due to Ebola, and the inefficiency of the social and legal frameworks to protect these girls.
In addition, focus groups that I interviewed in Northern Sierra Leone in 2011-2013 indicated that pregnant girls as well as girls known to be sexually active do not receive much support from their families. Many are called “Raray girls”, or prostitutes, and families stop giving the minimal resources they have to support these girls through school. Because some communities support the punitive ban on pregnant girls, the government has little impetus to lift it.
Yet, girls that get an education are more likely to escape poverty and live more productive lives. We know that educated women are more likely to ensure that their own children are educated; we also know that educated women are more likely to have fewer children. Given the poor economic state of Sierra Leone, it is an urgent priority to educate everyone, but girls and women are especially in need due to their increased risk factors and marginalization.
Several civil society organizations in Sierra Leone are now mobilizing stakeholders to ensure that these girls are not denied their right to education. This includes the Girl 2 Girl Empowerment Movement which (G2G) and the 50/50 group of Sierra Leone, an organization that campaigns for equal representation of women in decision making in Sierra Leone.
But the reluctance of the government to act is limiting the effectiveness of these actions. The political will is simply not there, and with recent shifts in the government, addressing the pregnancy ban is not a priority. In addition, Sierra Leone is not yet Ebola-free, so fighting the disease continues to be everyone’s main concern.
We know that education provides a step towards a better future. Excluding any girl from this opportunity without support or alternatives alienates her and harms the larger community as well. Right now, with Ebola leaving so much destruction, Sierra Leone needs all the human capital it can get. The government is not in a position to deny education to any member of its population with the capacity to rebuild the country in the wake of this crisis.