In many parts of the world, the Ebola outbreak seems like news of a distant past, but Sierra Leone was only declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization on November 7, 2015, which marked the end of 42 consecutive days without a single new case. Thousands took to the streets of Freetown at the stroke of midnight on the 42nd day to celebrate the announcement, a clear indicator of the deep impact the disease has had on the nation.
For many survivors, especially young girls, the news isn’t all good, as they are now grappling with the numerous setbacks that have emerged as a result of the epidemic.
In addition to the tremendous suffering and loss of life that was caused by the 18-month outbreak, Sierra Leone also faced a crippled economy and a shutdown of public services, bringing the entire education system to a halt. Schools were closed for nine months, finally reopening their doors in April.
Just before classes resumed, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology announced the government’s new policy to ban visibly pregnant girls from classrooms and school examinations. Government officials reasoned that it would be “immoral” for pregnant girls to remain in school, and might send a message encouraging classmates to become pregnant as well.
This policy is indicative of an all too common pattern that emerges in the wake of crises, when the most marginalized segments of the population often become even more vulnerable. Studies conducted by groups like Save the Children, World Vision, Plan International and UNICEF all cited significant rises in child labor, exploitation, violence, and, notably, teenage pregnancy during Ebola.
Right to an Education
According to experts at Save the Children and the UNDP, Ebola resulted in a 47% increase in teen pregnancies, with the number reaching a whopping 65% in some regions. One UNFPA study’s preliminary results suggest that 14,300 girls became pregnant during the 18 month outbreak in Sierra Leone. This is a nation where only 52% of girls age 15-24 are literate (compared to 70% of boys) and, according to the last government health survey, only 36% of girls enroll in secondary school. Considering that nearly half the country’s population is under the age of 18, educating young women is of critical importance.
The government’s ban violated many young girls’ fundamental human right to an education. Local and international pressure led to the government’s decision to establish alternative education for the thousands of new and expecting young mothers in the nation. Thus an initiative was launched to encourage and support teenage mothers to return to school and continue their education.
The education initiative for young mothers was announced on October 11, the International Day of the Girl Child. Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology worked closely with organizations including UNICEF and UNFPA, and international funders like the UK’s Department for International Development and Irish Aid. The initiative is funded until July 2016, by which time the hope is that the government will have had the time and resources to consider a more permanent solution.
The educational program for young moms has led to the establishment of Community Learning Centres across the country, and the launch of school radio programs to allow the girls who need to be home to continue their lessons. New facilities and educational programming have been put into place, which follow the mainstream education system’s curriculum. The students also receive personal mentorship, learn parenting skills, and have access to social services.
A Safe Space to Learn
Beyond education, these girls also have access to psychosocial counseling, maternal and neonatal healthcare and information on overall health. They now also have a safe space to learn, free from stigma that many young mothers face in society. The program was implemented in time for the crucial primary and secondary school examinations taking place at the end of November. On top of furthering these girls’ educations, the program invites community members, including parents, traditional community leaders, men and boys to take part in a discussion on issues such as teen pregnancy, childhood marriage and domestic violence.
Girls have embraced the program – 4,000 have already voluntarily signed up to take part.
Thanks to governmental, local and international collaboration, this back to school program gives young mothers a second chance by getting these young girls back on track in terms of their education and their futures. Granted, this is not the ideal solution, as classes run at different times and in different facilities than mainstream education, which pregnant girls still do not have the option to attend. However, by ensuring that Sierra Leone’s girls have equal access to education, these young moms will have the opportunity to build skills that will prepare them for life, careers and the ability to take leadership roles in their communities as the nation rebuilds.
It is easy for girls’ rights to disappear from the development agenda in times of crisis. Programs like this one ensure that they don’t get left behind as the nation moves forward.