17 November 2014: Teenage pregnancies are on the rise in West Africa, as girls forced to stay out of school due to Ebola become more vulnerable to sexual exploitation, sexual assault and rape.
With schools closed and lessons on hold for children across the region, pregnancy rates amongst teenagers are rising in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Many girls fear they will be unable to return to lessons even once the outbreak is over, as they will have to care for their child, and may not be able to afford the school fees.
“Girls are being kept at home while the schools are closed, and with lots of free time many are far more vulnerable to being coerced or persuaded into sex,” said Casely Coleman, county director of Plan Sierra Leone.
“There are also reports that girls are being raped while they are cooped up at home. We have seen a rise in teenage pregnancies and I expect this will continue the longer the outbreak goes on, and the longer the schools are closed because of Ebola.
Measures to help the girls learn at home and keep occupied, as well as child protection measures, are crucial if we are to avoid this generation of girls losing out completely on schooling in the aftermath of Ebola
“Measures to help the girls learn at home and keep occupied, as well as child protection measures, are crucial if we are to avoid this generation of girls losing out completely on schooling in the aftermath of Ebola.”
Rape cases rising
Many teenage girls have found themselves alone and outcast, their families dead from the virus, ostracised by their communities, agreeing to sex for money, food or shelter.
Reports from local sources suggest that instances of rape and sexual assault are also on the rise, with weakened, overstretched security forces struggling to deal with reported cases amid the urgency of the Ebola response.
Abibatu, 16, who before the schools closed due to Ebola was head girl at a school in Moyamba, said: “I heard of 15 girls in this village who have become pregnant because they’re not going to school and have nothing to do.”
“Some of them are as young as 13 or 14,” she added.
Abibatu’s mother, father and older brother have died of Ebola, and the teenager is now looking after her brother and 3 sisters after surviving the virus.
Sixteen year-old Ngadie got pregnant in September, at the height of the outbreak.
“I knew the father for a year before I got pregnant,” she said. “I would meet him after school at his house. I don’t know how old he is, about 25. We were in love.”
Long term impact
Miscarriages and stillbirths are on the rise, and charities in the UK’s Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) estimate that 1 in 7 women in countries hit by the Ebola epidemic could die in pregnancy or childbirth because hospital services are overwhelmed.
With fistula, prolonged labour and other complications all notable symptoms of teenage pregnancy, the lack of sufficient care during pregnancy and at birth is of particular concern.
Illiteracy, unemployment and poverty could escalate at frightening rates in the short term and long term future if children do not go back to school, said Roger Yates, head of disaster response for Plan International.
“The long term impact of having so many children missing school for such a prolonged period will be extremely serious, creating another generation of children who lose out on those crucial years of education, who turn into adults who lack the means to get employment and break the poverty cycle,” he said.