By: Sheriff Mahmud Ismail
Freetown: March 10, 2015 – The highly infectious nature of the Ebola virus Disease (EVD) and the heavy casualty it has inflicted on the health workers spread fear among members of the general public. Many sick people, pregnant women and lactating mothers stayed away from health facilities in fear of becoming infected. For a country with one of the lowest health indicators especially in maternal and child mortality, the consequences of this are devastating.
But with the number of new infections dramatically decreasing and the high improvement in the management of the outbreak, confidence in the health sector is returning. From Freetown in the Western Area to Bombali and Port Loko in the North and Kenema in the East, the story is the same – people have begun to trust the health system. On Friday, March 6th, 2015, a World Bank Country Office mission on a post Ebola recovery assessment visited an a clinic at the Community Health Center (CHC) in Kailahun town, also Eastern Sierra Leone – the facility was full with pregnant and lactating mothers.
The sad reality
However, this very good sign of post EVD recovery of the country’s battered health sector is being dampened by a sad reality – the seats in the Kailahun CHC as in many other health facilities across the country – were occupied, largely, by teenage girls who should be sitting in classrooms; girls, some of who have been impregnated by their teachers who are supposed to keep them in schools; poor innocent girls who have been forced out of schools by the sexual exploits of businessmen who should keep them through schools; or by their teenage school mates who should actually be studying together with them.
Jeneh Bockarie 17, is 7 months pregnant. She had taken the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) in 2010 but didn’t make the grade to senior secondary school. Then one of her teachers, who is actually her boyfriend persuaded her to wait until she “becomes more mature to retake the exams”. She has, since then (2010), been waiting to attain that maturity (prescribed by her teacher – boyfriend) when Ebola struck in May 2014. By March 2015, Jeneh carries a 7 months pregnancy by her own teacher!
“Not that I wanted this situation, but things have been hard with my parents and he came along with help for extra classes and other school needs”, the young girl lamented. But Jeneh is not the only victim of such rogue teachers. Her colleague, Vanday B. Taylor, also 7 months pregnant has been in a canal relationship with one of her teachers for five years now. She attempted the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) in 2010 and in 2011, enrolled on a distant education program for a teacher’s certificate at the Eastern Polytechnic. Vanday, now 20, was due to take her final examinations in June 2014. She hopes to complete her training after delivering the baby.
Teachers are not the only perpetrators of early school drop-outs among girls in Sierra Leone, businessmen are also fiercely competing. Mariama Swarray now 20, fell victim in 2009, when she was just 15 and was in junior secondary school. She had come 17 miles away from Buedu to stay with her sister in Kailahun town in the hope of attaining higher learning. But life became difficult for her sister who was being criticized by her husband for the additional burden of the extended family. This provided a businessman the perfect opportunity to strike, and like a sniper in the shadows, he hit with the all too familiar but irresistible promise of providing the schools fees and other needs. Mariama, who had been promoted to senior secondary school III in 2014, is now 6 months pregnant.
In Freetown, at the main referral children and maternity hospital, Isatu Jalloh, 17 brought her 3 months old baby for immunization. She was in senior secondary when she became pregnant by a trader. “I want to go back to school but it is complicated now because I have to also take of the baby”, said Isatu.
For Fatmata Koroma, another girl who had brought her child for immunization, going back to school is no longer an option. She had her first kid when she was only 13 years old. “I could not deliver the baby and a caesarian section was done on me. It took me about two years to fully recover from the pain and the trauma that I went through”. Fatmata’s boyfriend is also a trader.
“They will start off nicely, providing much needed assistance, then just as one becomes dependent on them, they come up with their demands for babies – by now we would have already been trapped”, another girl explains. Meanwhile, Hawa Reffel, Matron at the Panguma Hospital says that, “some of the girls were actually impregnated by their schoolmates”. The matron imputes that “this is because the closure of schools during the outbreak meant that the pupils, some of whose parents or guardians had died of the virus, suddenly found themselves cooped at home and within the communities with their male counterparts, a lot of the time, without supervision”.
Clearly, the stories are pathetic, the statistics are as grim as the consequences are disturbing.
The factors for teenage pregnancy range from early sexual exposure through sexual behavior of girls and boys to the absence of reproductive health knowledge, poverty and weak family support structures, materialism/peer pressure to harmful traditional beliefs. In many communities, teenage pregnancy is seen as a problem only if the girl is unmarried. Teenage mothers or pregnant teenagers that are married are not considered to be part of this problem.
According to a UNICEF report- An Evaluation of Teenage Pregnancy Pilot Projects in Sierra Leone (March 2013),
…there is a prevalence of 68 percent pregnancy rate among sexually experienced teenage girls, with a mean age of 15, and 28 percent of teenage boys having caused a pregnancy. While sexually active teenagers had frequent sex (49 percent in the last few months and 44 percent in recent weeks), slightly more than one-third (35 percent) had ever used a condom. Only a small percentage (9.2 percent) of the girls between 15 and 19 who had more than one sexual partner during the last twelve months reported to have used condom the last time they had sex.
Youth activists say that one of the key factors responsible for teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone is impunity. Morlai Conteh, the Chair of the Youth Coalition believes that the problem resides in “out- of -court -settlements” between the (family of) victim and the perpetrator.
The government enacted the Sexual Offences Act in 2012. The Act states in section 24 that, “a person below the age of 18 is not capable of giving consent for the purpose of this Act, and accordingly, it shall not be a defense to an offence under this Act to show that the child has consented to the act that forms the subject matter of the charge”.
Subject to subsection (4) of section 9, “the marriage of a defendant and the victim shall not be a defense to an offence under this Act. In order words, the Act considers sex with a girl under 18 as rape”. Yet the number of cases sexual offences do not appear to be abetting.
A 2013 report from a child welfare organisation, Don Bosco Fambul makes a grim reading:
“It is not only the increasing brutality of the perpetrators of violence against the girls that is alarming but also the rising number of rape against girls and young women under the age of 14” the report says, and criticizes the investigating authorities for engendering “a culture of impunity”.
The report further imputes that:
“in 37 cases of rape the investigation files were demonstrably manipulated by the police or investigations were deliberately delayed. Perpetrators were released from custody and disappeared without a trace, in spite of the incriminating evidence against them. Only a fraction of the rapes make it to court to be punished. The report also states that “most victims do not wish to report the perpetrators to the police”.
As part of their celebration of the International Women’s Day (IWD) on March 8th, 2015, Women in the Media Sierra Leone (WIMSAL) chose a poignant theme: “Make it Happen – Enforce Sexual Offences Act, Review 1861 Abortion Law, Stop Early Marriage and Rape”. WIMSAL stated in a press release that-
“This is specific to our local context and interest of WIMSAL membership in Sierra Leone, as progress on the above issues remain unsatisfactory. The need to reinforce messages and stimulate proactive action from government about its commitment to promote gender issues cannot be over emphasized”.
A Plan International report on Teenage pregnancy rates rise in Ebola-stricken West Africa (November, 17th 2014), highlights some of the effects of teenage pregnancies.
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.
The report asserts that “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.
Roger Yates, head of disaster response for Plan International says “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”.
Yates says: “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”.
Plan International are not the only ones concerned. In UNICEF’s March 2013 report (sic), teenage pregnancy is considered a problem of child abuse:
Teenage pregnancy and motherhood has been identified as the second most prevalent child abuse practice in Sierra Leone. It constitutes a national and community-wide problem, with a prevalence of 68 percent pregnancy rate among sexually experienced teenage girls, with a mean age of 15, and 28 percent of teenage boys having caused a pregnancy.
UNICEF further asserts that:
The Sierra Leone Out-of-School Study identified ‘high pregnancy rate’ amongst primary and secondary school children as a strong contributing factor as to why school-aged children drop out of school. Teenage pregnancy has serious long-term and wide-ranging consequences – from health complications (for young mother and the baby) to educational attainment and broader socio-economic repercussions. With nearly 48 percent of the total population between 0-17 years of age, prevention and reduction of teenage pregnancy is a national priority.
The government of Sierra Leone acknowledges the problem and looks at it from a multi-sectorial point of view. The National Strategy for the Reduction of Teenage Pregnancy states that:
“Early child bearing and teenage pregnancy is a complex issue with multiple causes and diverse consequences, which requires a large spectrum of interventions. It appears that it cannot be addressed independently from other adolescent and youth sexual and reproductive health (AYSRHR) questions and from economic and social issues”. The Ministry of Social Welfare Children and Gender Affairs says they are working with partners to deal with the problem. Many people however believe that until the laws are enforced and impunity addressed, the girls will continue to be at the mercy of the perpetrators.
In its efforts to improve the maternal and child mortality indicators through its reproductive and child health project, the World Bank may wish to look at ways to support the fight against teenage pregnancy. Already, several reports have indicated that this has a direct correlation to the poor health and high death rates among women and children in Sierra Leone.