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An effort to keep girls in school and out of marriage, in Sierra Leone

February 2, 2016 By Indrias G. Kassaye

The story of a girl who dropped out of school after becoming pregnant and marrying demonstrates the challenges for girls’ education in Sierra Leone.

Hajah Conteh* never intended to drop out of school, but in desperate circumstances, the very solution she thought would help her stay in school is what ended her education.

“I was going to school, and my mother was paying for my school fees and expenses,” Hajah says. “But when my mother could no longer pay my fees and provide lunch for me, I found a man who agreed to support me. Initially the agreement was that he would help me to go to school until I finished school, and then we would get married. But then we started a relationship, and I ended up getting pregnant.”

When Hajah, now 15, found out she was pregnant, she saw marriage as the only option open to her. But it put a halt to her pursuit of an education – which was why she had gotten into a relationship in the first place.

It is a clear example of how poverty can expose vulnerable children to impossible life choices that push them further away from their dreams.

“I stopped going to school when I got pregnant, because pregnant girls are not allowed to go to school,” Hajah says.

New initiative

In Sierra Leone, 50 per cent of girls surveyed in 2010 (age 15–49) first married before age 18. The survey also found that 26 per cent of teenage girls aged 15–19 had experienced a birth – a figure that, according to one assessment, may have increased during the recent Ebola outbreak, when schools were closed for eight months.

While the Government of Sierra Leone is committed to providing universal primary school education for all children, current policy prohibits visibly pregnant girls from attending school. UNICEF is working with the Government as well partners UNFPA, DFID and Irish Aid to help ensure the rights of all children, including pregnant girls, to an education.

As an initial post-Ebola recovery measure, UNICEF and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology launched an initiative in October 2015 to support learning for 11,000 pregnant and recently pregnant teenage girls, through after-hours learning sessions in schools, classes at separate Community Learning Centres and radio programmes for home study.

Many girls who drop out because of marriage or pregnancy never return to school, and the hope is that such programmes will eventually enable children to reintegrate into the school system. The initiative to ensure pregnant and recently pregnant girls can continue with their education also includes skills training and access to information technology.

The Government has also cancelled school fees for the next two years, as a measure to promote greater attendance.

A second chance

UNICEF is taking a multifaceted approach to addressing child marriage, looking at teenage pregnancy and female genital mutilation/cutting, as well as working with health and education partners within the Government. Through partner NGOs BRAC and Restless Development, UNICEF is also reaching 14,000 adolescent boys and girls with safe spaces, life skills, and financial literacy and microfinance skills.

Teenage pregnancy frequently leads to greater complications compared to older women. In the general population, Sierra Leone already has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the world, with a ratio of 1,360 mothers dying per 100,000 live births, and one of the highest rates of infant mortality, with 87 infants dying per 1,000 live births.

“I didn’t get any health check-up while I was pregnant,” Hajah says. “I was at home when it was time to deliver. My mother was helping me. But my baby died while I was giving birth.”

“I am not happy that I had to drop out of school to get married,” Hajah says. “If I had the chance to do it again, I would continue with my schooling.”

As this education initiative rolls out across Sierra Leone and reaches Ribbi Chiefdom in Moyamba District, where Hajah lives, she may get a second chance at learning.

“My dream is to become a seamstress – making clothing for people,” said Hajah. “My message to other young girls who might be thinking about getting married is that they should wait.  They should focus on their education. It is important and they should not get married so young.”

CREDIT: UNICEF Sierra Leone