Sierra Leone News: Teenage pregnancy: When will the government wake up?
By Stephen V. Lansana
There is a direct correlation between lack of education, teenage pregnancy and poverty. Sierra Leone champions all three.
Adama [not her real name] is at Abacha street market, working hard to provide for herself and her three children: two girls and a boy. She was 16 years old when she became pregnant. She remembers the day vividly, because that is when her dreams have died: “I am 25 years old,” she said, her voice filled with shame. “I got pregnant in 2009. By then I have just gained an admission into Junior Secondary School. The man that impregnated me was about 35 years old.”
As a result, Adama’s parents stopped paying her school fees and forced her to move in with her sex abuser. He abandoned her before she gave birth.
“I suffered a lot after my first birth. I was wishing to go back to school but my aunt told me to start selling at Abacha Street in Freetown.” At Abacha, Adama was victimized twice more. Her eldest child is 9, second child is 6, and her youngest is 2 years, all with different men. She now lives with the father of her youngest child.
“I don’t want my girls to be victim of teenage pregnancy. It is difficult for me to express the pains I’m going through as a young mother. The men usually take advantage of me.”
Education for young girls is a paradox in Sierra Leone. Statistically, more girls are enrolled in school during early years, but as they advance in age, they drop out to become mothers, often by force.
According to Statistics Sierra Leone (SLL) 2018 report, the national enrollment rate for Senior Secondary School was 78.0 for boys and just 58.3 for girls. So, while boys will go on to get a degree, young girls are forced to abandon, and fight to survive child labor. One out of 10 girls between 15 and 19 years old dies during pregnancy or at delivery.
Sierra Leone has the 13th highest rate of teenage pregnancy worldwide, according to World Bank data. A study done by the United Nations Fund for Population Activities indicates that one out of every three adolescent girls was pregnant in 2015. During the 2014/2015 Ebola outbreak, it was estimated that over 15,000 girls got pregnant when schools were shut down.
“We need a fight against teenage pregnancy”
Victor Gbadia Karimu, Public Relations Officer (PRO) for the National Secretariat for the Reduction of Teenage Pregnancy, said that teenage pregnancy and school dropout are interlinked. Child marriage can be explained in the context of poverty, but social norms are also a contributing factor. For example, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) initiations often signal to men that the girl has become a woman. Suitors put pressure on parents to give the child to marriage.
But Karimu said lack of education in sexual and reproductive system is also a key factor. During a survey done in 2016, only 5% of those questioned had knowledge of sex education. “That means that 95% had no knowledge related to sexual and reproductive health education,” Karimu explained.
And then, it’s the poverty. “If you have 6 or 7, or more children, and you make 500,000 Leones a month, that means you will not be able to support your children. As a result, the children will engage in sexual activities with bike riders and other men who may provide for their basic needs,” Karimu said. He said that often children from poor families have to “fend for themselves.”
The Family Support Unit (FSU) of Sierra Leone Police stated that in 2016 they received 11,362 reports of violence against women and children.
The Rainbo Center received on average 20 reports of pregnancies as a result of rape each month in 2016 and 2017. More than 80% of the Gender Based Violence (GBV) victims they recorded are under 20 years old. The Rainbo Center is a local NGO which provides shelter and support for survivors of sexual assault and GBV. The Center also recorded 259 cases in which the victims were children under 10 years old.
“I can generally say that [teenage pregnancy] it is on the increase. A survey that we conducted in 2013 showed that 46% of all maternal deaths were associated to teenage pregnancy,” Karimu explained.
Gender Based Violence (GBV)
Slow prosecution and rare conviction of sexual assault offenders also encourages GBV and contribute to teenage pregnancies. Data recorded by national NGOs indicate that it takes the authorities on average 11 days to investigate a case of sexual offence, and about 89 days to prosecute. Victims often run out of money, and hope, by the time the Justice system steps in.
Of the almost 1,400 cases of GBV registered in Court by the Rainbo Center in 2016, only 27 were successfully prosecuted. The Sexual Offenses Act of 2012 is broken.
This reporter reached out to the Justice PRO for data regarding the number of prosecuted and convicted cases of sexual assault. By the time this article went for publication, we have not yet received a response. We will update accordingly.
A worthless law
Abdul Fatorma is the Chief Executive Officer of Campaign for Human Rights and Development International (CHRDI), a civil society organization that has collected data on teenage pregnancy, sexual assault, among other GBV issues in the country.
He said that 13–15-year-old girls are getting pregnant through sexual abuse and exploitation across the country, and nothing is being done to stop it. Fatoma said that despite the Sexual Offences Law of 2012, the number of sexual assaults has been steadily increasing in recent years. “There is no progress in the reduction of teenage pregnancy. We are still seeing large number of cases of sexual assault and teenage pregnancy.” He warned that with the long rainy season upon us, the number of victimized teenage girls will increase if the government doesn’t step in.
Change in mentality is needed too
Peagie Woobay was sexually abused and became pregnant at age 15. She, too, could have been selling at Abacha Street today, if her family hadn’t stepped in. Instead of victimizing her further, her parents decided to support her through school and help her make a future for herself, despite the misfortune. When she became a successful adult, Peagie did not forget about other girls in her situation. She founded the “Peagie Woobay Scholarship Fund” charity for teenage mothers and girls from poor families. The scholarship pays for uniforms, book, fees and library access for girls in Freetown, Moyamba and Kabala.
“Over 90% of pregnant teenage girls in Sierra Leone, especially those from the provinces do not have the kind of support that my family gave me. I continued my schooling after giving birth. I later gained an admission at Fourah Bay College and I acquired my first degree,” she said.
She appealed to parents of pregnant girls to continue helping them through school. “Many pregnant girls are not given second chances in Sierra Leone. Their plight is unlike the American game of baseball, where [you have] three strikes and you are out. For teenage girls in Sierra Leone who become pregnant while in school, it is one strike, and they are out.” According to the Project Manager of the Peagie Woobay Fund, Mr. Mohamed Kargbo, there are 153 beneficiaries of the program, of which 48 are teenage mothers. Two of the girls are currently in university. The Foundation has two free day care centers in the towns of Kabala and Moyamba, where teenage mothers can leave their children in the care of professionals while they attend school.
President Bio seems well aware of the sad situation. The SLPP Manifesto, the New Direction, and his Parliament speech all talk about the rampant abuse of teenage girls and provide solutions, or promises, on how his government will address this.
At the Parliament in May, Bio reminded the Legislative that about 44% of pregnancies below the age of 20 are lost after 7 months of gestation, or babies die within 7 days of life. Teenage pregnancy accounts for 40% of maternal deaths, the President said. Something must be done for the most vulnerable in the society.
“To address this serious problem, my administration will launch a National Programme on Sexual and Reproductive Health for adolescents to reduce teenage pregnancy and the alarming maternal mortality. In addition, my Government will initiate discussions towards the re-introduction of Family Life Education in schools,” President Bio promised. His free education program will certainly help more girls stay in school, but the rampant abuse of young, innocent girls has got to stop. Everybody knows the answer to this endemic.
The question is, when will the government act on it?