October 14, 2015 By Harriet Mason
All too often, adolescent girls disappear from the development agenda, even as progress is made on education, health, HIV/AIDS and protection against violence. The importance of redoubling efforts and focusing on adolescent girls is the emphasis of the 2015 International Day of the Girl Child. This year’s theme is ‘The power of the adolescent girl: Vision for 2030’.
As the fight to stamp out Ebola continues in Sierra Leone, UNICEF and its partners support local and national programmes to help prevent pregnancy among teenage girls and keep them in school.
KPANGBAMA, Sierra Leone, 7 October 2015 – Every afternoon, 17-year-old Isatu Jah and a group of other young girls gather in a community hall in the village of Kpangbama, in southern Sierra Leone, to plan for the future.
This is the Empowerment and Livelihoods for Adolescents (ELA) club, which works to reduce teenage pregnancy by providing a safe space for girls through training in life skills, with a strong focus on sexual and reproductive health.
Isatu says some of her teenage friends have become mothers, and their experience motivated her to join the programme.
“I joined the ELA club to empower myself and prevent myself from getting pregnant. I’m happy to say that the ELA programme has been key in helping me stay in school,” she says.
When the girls are on holidays, their mentor, Mbalu Kaikai checks on them. “I visit each and every one of them at their homes to make sure they are ok. We discuss any issues they have and try to address them together,” Ms. Kaikai says.
In addition to discussing teenage pregnancy, the girls can also get training in tie-dye, soap making, tailoring or hairdressing, and are coached in financial literacy skills to help them learn the concept of saving and become self-reliant. After the training, they receive start-up materials and a loan, to help them set up small businesses so they can support themselves and their families.
Impact on health and progress
Teenage pregnancy is a pervasive problem in Sierra Leone that affects girls’ and young women’s health and their social, economic and political progress and empowerment. The Ebola crisis has exacerbated the situation. The closure of schools, combined with the economic impact on the economy, has increasingly led poor and vulnerable families to adopt desperate survival strategies.
The survey ‘Children’s Ebola Recovery Assessment in Sierra Leone’ by Plan International, Save the Children, World Vision International and UNICEF found reports of increased child labour, exploitation, violence and exposure to teenage pregnancy. Most girls who became pregnant have not been able to return to school.
Meanwhile, a rapid assessment conducted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) on adolescent pregnancy still awaits official confirmation, but preliminary results indicate that more than 14,300 girls in Sierra Leone became pregnant during the Ebola health emergency.
UNICEF has been working with Irish Aid, the UK Department for International Development, UNFPA and other institutions and programmes to help address this issue, and the Government is being supported in setting up special systems to help pregnant girls continue their education, so that they can more easily resume formal education after pregnancy. Support also includes providing psychosocial counselling, health information and access to maternal and neonatal health services.
Community members including parents, men, boys and traditional leaders have also been involved in discussions on issues such as teenage pregnancy, early marriage and domestic violence.
“When I see girls who are pregnant, I feel bad because I know they will not be able to care for themselves and their children well,” says Madam Jamie, a resident of Kpangbama. “I always encourage girls to stay in school, because that will help them live better lives in future,” she adds.
Benefits of education
While teenage pregnancy remains a major issue affecting girls and young women in Sierra Leone, it has been on the decline in Kpangbama. “Girls are not getting pregnant as they used to before,” says mentor Ms. Kaikai. “They are more aware of reproductive health and family planning facilities. None of our schoolgirls got pregnant when schools closed down, and I’m sure they will all return to school when they reopen.”
Isatu agrees that she and other girls in her village are now aware of the benefits of education and are inspired to focus more on their schooling. “I’m working harder in school because I know it is important for me to be educated to improve life for my family. There is a proper time for everything, including sex,” she says. “I will like to be a nurse after I finish school, because I want to help my people get good medical care.”
The ELA programme, run by BRAC Sierra Leone, also receives support in preventing teenage pregnancies. “Adolescent girls should be in school preparing for their future lives, not pregnant and raising children,” says Geoff Wiffin, UNICEF Representative in Sierra Leone. “This is why we are working closely with partners to ensure girls get every opportunity to stay in school and be educated.”