Teenage pregnancy jumped in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak when thousands of girls got pregnant while schools were closed. Educators are now trying to get those girls back in school.
A rapid assessment conducted by the United Nations Population Fund on adolescent pregnancy in October 2015 indicated that more than 14,300 girls in Sierra Leone became pregnant during the Ebola health emergency. About 5,000 of the girls who left school due to pregnancy have now returned to school, according to a recent Aljazeera story.
In the Moyamba district, where The United Methodist Church has 98 schools, UNICEF and the British government’s Department for International Development are supporting the education ministry by paying for more than 2,100 girls to attend special classes at 37 centers in the district. The program, called Girls Access To Education, is for teenage girls who got pregnant and left school.
Claudius Wilson, Moyamba district deputy director of education, said the ministry initially set up 49 GATE centers after Ebola for pregnant girls and teenage mothers. Twelve were later closed because they no longer met the criteria of registering 35 and above per center. However, teenage pregnancy continues to be an issue post-Ebola.
The centers teach four core subjects — mathematics, social studies, integrated science and language arts. The idea is to keep the girls academically alert and to encourage them to return to school after delivery, Wilson says.
Isatu Peacock, principal of Harford School for Girls in Moyamba, the oldest United Methodist girls’ school in Sierra Leone, said it can be difficult to tell if a girl leaves because of pregnancy.
“Sometimes, we only get to know when a girl is repeatedly absent from school. But parents generally don’t come to school to report when their girls get pregnant,” she explained.
“When we ask their parents, they would reply their girl is sick and has gone for treatment,” Peacock said. One girl who was in the GATE program while pregnant recently returned to school after delivering her baby. “The ministry asked us to accept them when they return,” she said.
Peacock said she didn’t think pregnant girls should be part of the main school system. The Sierra Leone Education ministry bans pregnant girls from attending school, but some women’s groups are advocating lifting that ban.
“Morally, it is a bad signal to the others. There are some who have kept themselves well. And for others to get pregnant and be allowed to join them in class will morally send a bad signal to them. And at the end of the day, the others would want to follow suit knowing there would be no penalty. I’d rather have them stay home and concentrate on their pregnancy, visit the hospital, take the right pills at the right time until they deliver safely and return to school,” Peacock said.
United Methodist Women’s President Sarah Jalloh, who lives in Moyamba, said Moyamba had the highest rate of teenage pregnancy during Ebola — ironically, at a time when people were supposed to avoid touch to avoid getting Ebola.
Jalloh also is a member of an organization called Moyamba District Women’s Network, made up of all 66 women’s groups in the district, which went to schools and communities investigating why girls were dropping out of school. Jalloh attributed some cases to poverty and cultural practices that forced girls into early marriage.
Some parents, she said, would withdraw daughters who were not doing well at school and cause them to marry well-to-do men in their communities. Some other men would convince girls from poor backgrounds to befriend them on the promise of taking care of their academic and social needs only to renege on the promises and impregnate the girls.
Jalloh’s coalition of women’s groups used to buy airtime at the local community radio station to discuss issues on children’s rights and education programs on teenage pregnancy and how the communities could help but their resources are running low and they now do fewer community visitations.
“We used to do community visits and organize meetings at places where teenage pregnancy rates were high when we had support from PLAN International; we used to go out a lot more than now and do even home visits. Now, our movements are limited because we do not have resources,” she said.
Abdulai Koroma, an official with the social welfare ministry, said some people don’t realize teenage pregnancy is a crime in Sierra Leone. She said social welfare officials try to educate men about the Child Rights Act.
Jollah said her group makes copies of the Child Rights Acts and sends those to schools and the paramount chiefs. “We even had people to interpret the act, page by page, in the indigenous languages of the people in the communities and distributed the interpreted copies in the communities. We also made use of the religious leaders to preach the Child Rights Act,” she said.
Melanie Janietz, a missionary from the Germany Board of Global Mission, is working in Sierra Leone on Reproductive Health Education with United Methodist schools and church-related institutions. She said her own small efforts to research teen pregnancy revealed that many teens were sexually active and only some were using contraceptives.
“One-third of all the boys and girls have experienced sexual violence or rape,” she said.
Ramses Jusu, sub-coordinator for the GATE program in the Kayamba Chiefdom, said personnel from non-governmental organizations and medical personnel come to the centers to counsel the girls on how to cope with stigmatization or trauma, which they are likely to face after returning to school. Medical teams guide the pregnant girls on how to take care of themselves before delivery and how to take care of their babies after they give birth.
Then they are encouraged to return to the normal school system, he said. “Sometimes the (nongovernmental organizations) come with packages for the girls. They also provide education on trauma healing, coping strategies and how to avoid further pregnancies in the future,” he said.
The Rev. Davidson Foray, United Methodist district superintendent in Moyamba, said high teenage pregnancy in 2014 and 2015 affected United Methodist schools.
“Movement was restricted. But we continued talking to parents and guardians to let their children know it would debar their education. Also, it is a government policy for girls not to get married before 18 years. We preached that from church to church during crusades and open-air services,” he said.
Foray said illiteracy and the poverty of parents also are major factors in teen pregnancy.
“Poor parents encourage big men to marry their children and get them out of school. Some parents see their children carrying expensive electronic gadgets like phones, tablets, and do not question where they got them. Rather, they praise the children for acquiring such property,” he said.
Jusu is director of communications for The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone. News media contact: Vicki Brown at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist News, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.