Ebola shutdown brings new fears of rape and teenage pregnancy

by Jane Labous | @janelabous | Plan International
Monday, 17 November 2014 09:12 GMT

Mabel, now pregnant, was doing well at school until the Ebola outbreak Credit: PlanInternational

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Mabel, 15, was always the kind of girl who did well in class. She enjoyed maths, was good with numbers and aspired to be an accountant.

But when the Ebola virus ripped through her community of Moyamba in southern Sierra Leone, killing family, friends and other children, Mabel’s school was closed due to fears that large gatherings would exacerbate the spread of the virus.

Like all the other school children across the region, she was no longer able to attend classes.

Mabel found a boyfriend, and when he forced her to have sex with him in return for food money, she fell pregnant.

“When I got pregnant it was during the Ebola outbreak and I wasn’t going to school,” explains Mabel.

“We lacked food at home and my boyfriend was providing some lunch, so I showed affection.”

Mabel is not an exception. There are reports from all over Sierra Leone that vulnerable teenage girls are falling pregnant as they revert to domestic roles, filling time at home during the Ebola outbreak.

Other 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 also suggest that instances of rape and sexual assault are also on the rise as girls are shut up at home, with weakened, overstretched security forces struggling to deal with reported cases amid the urgency of the Ebola response.

“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,” says Casely Coleman, Country 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.”

“Rape is a serious problem,” adds Dr Wilhelmina Jallah, Liberia’s only female gynaecologist, who runs the Hope for Women clinic in Monrovia.

“It is indeed on the increase in Liberia, even worse during the Ebola crisis.”

Whether by force, or by choice, girls who were leaving the scars of the war years behind and forming a new educated generation are finding their progress retarded by the devastating virus, which has so far claimed the lives of more than 5000 people (UN, 13th November 2014) across Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

“I heard of 15 girls in this village who have become pregnant because they’re not going to school and have nothing to do,” says Abibatu, 16, who before the schools closed due to Ebola was head girl at a school in Moyamba.

Some of them are as young as 13 or 14,” she adds.

Abibatu’s mother, father and older brother have died of Ebola, and the teenager is now looking after her brother and three sisters after surviving the virus.

She says she hopes to go back to school, once the government declares them open again.

Sixteen year-old Ngadie got pregnant in September, at the height of the outbreak.

She says she knew the father, but being out of school gave them more time to play around.

“I knew the father for a year before I got pregnant,” she explains. “I would meet him after school at his house. I don’t know how old he is, about 25. We were in love.”

Ngadie expects to give birth at home because care for pregnant women in West Africa’s clinics is currently hard to find, with all resources geared towards fighting Ebola.

Miscarriages and stillbirths are on the rise, and charities in the UK’s Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) estimate that one in seven 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.

“There are women who are pregnant during these times and they are being denied healthcare services,” says Varnetta Johnson Freeman, head of Women’s Democracy Radio in Monrovia, Liberia.

“Some of them have died because of this. Some of them lost the child they were bearing. One woman was publicly disgraced recently when she gave birth in the open.”

According to WHO, adolescents aged under 16 years face four times the risk of maternal death than women in their 20s. The death rate of their babies is about 50% higher.

“The country does not have the medical resources to deal with complications related to teenage pregnancy at present,” says Koala Oumarou, Country Director of Plan Liberia.

“If teenage girls continue to get pregnant they will certainly face extreme difficulties with their health, as well as the fact that they will miss out on school, and lose out on their future.”

Ngadie says she has a place to sleep, but not enough food to quell her growing appetite.

“I eat once a day but very little, just some rice or plantain, so I’m hungry all the time.

“I don’t feel good because schooling has stopped. My friends will go back to school whereas I will have to stay at home to take care of the baby.”

For younger children, the situation is equally dire. Before Ebola, Liberia and Sierra Leone were beginning to emerge from the war years, when thousands of young people missed out on school.

Now the lack of open schools could mean yet another generation of illiterate young people, with the ensuing consequences of unemployment and poverty.

“I really miss school,” says Jeneba, who is nine years old and was a budding star student at her school in Monrovia, Liberia, before it closed earlier in the year.

Now she hangs out in the street, jumping rope and playing ‘husker’, or hopscotch, with her friends.

Jeneba fears that even once the Ebola crisis is over, her parents will no longer be able to afford the school fees to send her back to lessons.

But with no sign that schools are re-opening anytime soon - President Sirleaf of Liberia this week said that schools will only start up again once the Ebola virus is ‘completely’ over – even this seems an irrelevant worry.

“I was getting ready to go into the first grade class when Ebola started, and today I’m staying home without learning anything. I feel really bad,” she adds.

“I don’t know if we will ever go back to school, because since September we’re supposed to be in classes learning our lessons. I just don’t know what to do.”

Experts say the long term consequences for the three worst affected countries could be catastrophic, reversing decades of socio-economic progress.

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, says Roger Yates, head of Disaster Response for Plan International.

“Before the Ebola outbreak, these West African countries had started to progress in terms of education, with girls in particular benefiting from programmes to get them into school,” explains Yates.

“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.

“School drop-out rates are already very high in these countries, especially for girls and especially as they transition between primary and secondary school. Ebola will increase that drop-out rate further.

“Effectively, we go right back to the beginning again. This is turn will have a massive long-term impact of socio-economic development in the region.”

Plan is helping run Community Care Units in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where unaccompanied children and teenagers directly or indirectly affected by the virus can find treatment and care until they find a safe environment to go back to.

The charity is also helping train social workers who will identify orphaned and unaccompanied children, make sure they receive basic services such as food, clothing and education resources.

The social workers will also look for interim care options for the children, identify families who are willing to take care of them permanently or help reunify them with their families.

In Moyamba, Sierra Leone, Adama, 15, who is five months pregnant, says she misses her school friends, her teachers and her social studies classes.

“It’s my best subject and I was getting good grades. I’m not happy about having a baby.”

She frowns. “I don’t want to become pregnant again. I want to go back to school.”