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The Lessons of Ebola: 2014 Epidemic Drove Many Girls Out of School Permanently

Most researchers and aid officials say that the situation of girls in Sierra Leone and Liberia during the Ebola epidemic five years ago demonstrates that an uptick in child marriage and adolescent pregnancy will drive girls out of school during the current pandemic.

This year’s coronavirus shutdowns are almost a parallel situation to what took place in the African countries, researchers say.

Then, school closings threw millions of girls out of school, leaving them vulnerable to child labor, domestic violence, sexual exploitation and child marriage.

“One of the lessons that came out of the Ebola crisis was the cautionary tale that women and girls, particularly adolescent girls, were going to be some of the most at risk during school closures,” said Shelby Carvalho, a fellow at Harvard University who focuses on education, girls and conflict. “Following the Ebola crisis, for example, in Sierra Leone and Liberia you saw huge spikes of early marriage and pregnancy and just disproportionate negative impacts on young girls.”

In 2014, the Ebola epidemic hit Sierra Leone and Liberia hard, forcing them to close more than 10,000 schools for up to 10 months to contain the virus. That shut out about five million children in countries with very low rates of educational attainment to begin with. For example, in Sierra Leone in 2013, only half of females between the ages of 15 and 24 were literate and only 14 percent of girls attended secondary school. Meanwhile, in the two countries, which are some of the world’s poorest and are and still recovering from more than a decade of civil war, poverty has been rising.

Girls Become Workers

Girls have been forced to stay home to take care of domestic chores or younger children. Others are obligated to produce income: There was a 19 percent spike in the number of girls ages 12 to 17 working outside the home, said a study by the International Growth Centre, a research institute based at the London School of Economics. No matter where the girls were, they were often alone and vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation.

As a result, adolescent pregnancy shot up by 65 percent in some areas of Sierra Leone, according to the United Nations Population Fund. The country already had teen pregnancy and maternal mortality rates that were among the highest in the world.

In 2014 the country had the 11th highest rate of child marriage in the world, with 18 percent of girls married by the age of 15 and 44 percent by the age of 18, according to Unicef.

Along with pregnancies, aid officials reported a sharp increase in child marriage as well as forced marriage in both countries. Even though the marriage of girls below the age of 18 was prohibited by the Sierra Leone’s Child Rights Act of 2007, in 2014 the country had the 11th highest rate of child marriage in the world, with 18 percent of girls married by the age of 15 and 44 percent by the age of 18, according to a Unicef report.

Aid officials reported an increase of sex work as well as parental pressure on their daughters to have “boyfriends” for additional help with farming or to support the girl financially, attributing this as a direct impact of school closings.

When schools reopened in 2015, girls’ enrollment did not return to pre-crisis levels. In Liberia, eight out of 100 girls were out of school before the epidemic. In 2017, 21 out of 100 were. In Sierra Leone, enrollment for girls fell by 16 percentage points after schools reopened in 2015.

Reasons for Dropping Out

In a 2015 study by the U.K.-based charity Street Child that included interviews with nearly 1,000 out-of-school girls in Sierra Leone, the primary reasons given for dropping out of school were poverty (40 percent), death of a caregiver (32 percent), pregnancy (9 percent), and child marriage (6 percent). These factors were also given by the girls as among the top five barriers to education. (The study’s findings are discussed in a report titled “Girls Speak Out: The Street Child National Consultation on Adolescent Girls’ Education in Sierra Leone.”)

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When Sierra Leone’s schools reopened, many girls who were pregnant, or those who were already mothers, were initially barred from re-enrolling or sitting for exams after the government in April 2015 issued a decree to dissuade girls from becoming pregnant, Amnesty International reported. The ban was lifted in March 2020.

Meanwhile, of the girls surveyed by Street Child, 84 percent of those who had dropped out of school said they wanted to return. “Just because we drop out,” Adarla, 19, of Kono, Sierra Leone, told interviewers, “doesn’t mean that we don’t want to go to school!”

Of the girls surveyed by Street Child, 84 percent of those who had dropped out of school said they wanted to return.

A young Liberian, Issatou, agrees wholeheartedly. She was already out of school when the Ebola closures hit and became pregnant soon after at the age of 14. Many of her friends already had babies, she said.

“I was in school but dropped out,” she recalled in an interview in Monrovia in 2016. “I wanted to go back but my parents didn’t have the money for the fees or the uniform. Still, my family was angry when I got pregnant—they wanted me in school, not caring for a baby.”

Abandoned by her parents and her boyfriend, she was trying to find a way to feed herself and her baby. She said she desperately wanted to go back to school.

“I don’t see a bright future for myself,” she said. “I thought I would be a good person—a nurse, a teacher, a bank manager—I think I still could be. I loved school, though, especially science, and pray to go back. But I haven’t found a way yet.”

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