Children across Sierra Leone report that exploitation and violence against girls has increased during the year-long Ebola epidemic, resulting in rising cases of teenage pregnancies, according to a new report launched on 17 June by Sierra Leone’s First Lady on behalf of three leading aid agencies.
Plan International, Save the Children and World Vision International, with the support of UNICEF, recently consulted over 1,100 girls and boys aged 7 to 18 from nine districts about the impact of Ebola, which has killed more than 3,500 people in Sierra Leone.
They shared their personal experiences and deep concerns about the devastating long-term effects of the crisis on their lives as part of the Children’s Ebola Recovery Assessment report. The study was conducted to enable children to contribute their feedback and recommendations to the Government of Sierra Leone’s national Ebola recovery strategy.
The children viewed the country’s nine-month school closure as being directly linked to increases in child labour and exploitation, exposure to violence in the home and community, and teenage pregnancy.
Most of the 617 girls interviewed said they believe that higher incidences of teenage pregnancy in their communities are as a result of girls being outside the protective classroom environment, exposing them to the risk of sexual exploitation or assault. Classrooms only reopened in Sierra Leone on 14 April, after a prolonged closure to help prevent the spread of Ebola, delaying the schooling of some 1.7 million children.
In launching the report, the First Lady of Sierra Leone, Madam Sia Nyama Koroma, pledged to support pregnant teenage girls. “I am working with World Vision, Save the Children, Plan International, UNICEF and UNFPA to address the issue of the girls who are at home pregnant and have been banned from taking the public exams needed to transition into senior secondary school, she said. “We will make sure that the recommendations made by the children in this report be implemented."
Some children (10 per cent of the focus group discussion participants) reported that vulnerable girls in their communities, especially those who have lost relatives to Ebola, are being forced into transactional sex to cover their basic daily needs, including food. Children saw this as one of several factors contributing to increases in teenage pregnancy.
The fear of sexual assault was also common among the children interviewed. A large number spoke of at least one case of rape against a girl in their communities, including attacks on girls in Ebola-quarantine households. This was mainly voiced by girls aged 15-18, but younger girls shared their concerns about rape as well. Boys were also acutely aware of the risk faced by their sisters and friends.
“Some of our friends are raped when they go far to get water, some are drowned in the streams,” said a young boy from Kailahun.
Children also said they were concerned about the impact of rape on their peers, including psychological damage, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, physical harm or death, discrimination and stigma.
“This report confirms that Ebola has put an incredible strain on children’s lives and it will take time for them to recover. The impact on them has been huge,” said Casely Coleman, Country Director of Plan International in Sierra Leone.
Children participating in the assessment suggested measures to prevent teenage pregnancies, and also recommended actions to achieve zero new Ebola cases, rebuild health services, and address food, money and livelihood gaps exacerbated by the Ebola crisis. Many families lost their livelihoods during the crisis and may not be able to afford to send their children back to school.
The three aid organisations are urging the government and international donors to ensure that children’s voices are heard and their concerns addressed as Sierra Leone moves towards its Ebola recovery phase.
“Children shared with us stories of missed opportunities, exploitation, and abuse,” said Isaac Ooko, Country Director for Save the Children in Sierra Leone. “If this recovery strategy is to be successful, it’s clear that their needs must be considered. This means ensuring that every child has access to education and help to recover from a year of lost schooling.”
Nearly half the population of Sierra Leone is under the age of 18. “This report is definitely true,” said Alice Farma, 18, a World Vision children’s advocate who spoke at the launch event. “Many of my friends are home with babies and they did not come back to school.”
Fellow advocate Alfred Williams, 17, is also concerned about the plight of boys who have dropped out of school. “Many of my friends are now Okada [motorbike taxi] riders,” he said. “Others are working on palm kernel farms.”
Leslie Scott, National Director of World Vision Sierra Leone, urged policy makers to heed the country’s youth. “In this report, children clearly state that education, access to healthcare and a safe environment to grow up in rank high on their list of priorities. We have heard them and now we must act.”
Participants in the Children’s Ebola Recovery Assessment recommend that the Government of Sierra Leone:
1. Take effective measures to bring Ebola to an end quickly so the recovery phase can fully begin.
2. Ensure that education is accessible for all children, including school fee subsidies and scholarships for those who have lost relatives to Ebola, especially orphans.
3. Strengthen the health system, providing additional qualified staff, especially for rural clinics that have been abandoned by personnel fearing Ebola.
4. Stop child labour and exploitation—and thereby reduce teen pregnancies—by sensitizing parents and providing livelihoods to poor families in order to protect girls from transactional sex.
Speaking at the launch event, the Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, Moijue Kai Kai, called for more collaboration between his ministry and NGOs. “I would like this collaboration to continue as we all are on the same path to making women and children’s lives better,” he said.