As Ebola continues to claim lives across West Africa, thousands of orphaned teenage girls are being thrown into early motherhood to look after their younger siblings.
8 October 2014: Siah, 16 and her 5-year-old brother John have cried every night since their mother died of Ebola.
“I can’t imagine how I will take care of the children without any help,” says Siah as she hugs her little brother to her chest. “We have some other relatives in Sierra Leone, but I don’t know how to find them.”
Siah is one of thousands of orphaned teenage girls across Sierra Leone and Liberia who are taking on the role of mother to their younger siblings. She is now taking responsibility for John and her sister Rebecca, who is 8.
At least 3,700 children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have lost one or both parents to Ebola this year, according to UN figures.
“They called me and told me that my mother was sick, and I was very scared,” says Siah. "So I travelled there to help take care of her.
“Sadly, she didn’t make it and she died. I came back with my little sister and my brother. We cry every day and night because of Mama.”
Caring for baby siblings
Miatta, 16, cooks and cares for her 3 younger siblings as well as her own 1-year-old baby now that her parents are dead from Ebola.
“When day breaks, I cook dry rice, and me and my little brother and sisters eat,” she explains.
“When my mother was sick, they came for her. They just opened the car and put her in. I was scared and thought they were spirits because of the way they dressed and the clothes they were wearing.”
Ebola has so far claimed 3,431 lives across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone (WHO, 3 October 2014), among them scores of single mothers who have left young families behind.
Children in particular are struggling to cope after losing their care-givers to the spreading epidemic.
Out of school into motherhood
“Once their mother dies, the orphaned children have to leave school, if they were in school in the first place,” explains Koala Oumarou, Country Director of Plan Liberia.
“These girls are now missing out on an education, and will essentially become mothers by default. They will end up as teenage mothers even though they started out on a path to a better future.”
West African tradition usually dictates that orphaned children would be taken in by the extended family or other members of the community - but with widespread fear of Ebola, many families are unwilling to take the risk.
Fear and stigma
“These children are really stigmatised by Ebola, and many families just do not want to help them after their parents die because they are scared of contracting the disease,” explains Oumarou.
“Some foster families have even abandoned orphans after receiving the accompanying food and non-food assistance, leaving the children to fend for themselves.”
Plan International is responding to the Ebola outbreak across Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea in areas of child protection, social mobilisation and psychosocial support for children.
Plan is also using radio broadcast, posters, information leaflets and TV spots to reach out to communities, particularly children.
“The situation is leaving so many children orphaned and vulnerable, and it continues to affect more and more children,” says Oumarou.
“We must make available food, clothing and shelter for children hit hard by this Ebola virus, and we must ensure that the teenage girls who are having to step up and act as mothers to their brothers and sisters are helped to survive and eventually return to school.”