In April of 2015, after Ebola ravaged Sierra Leone and paralyzed West Africa, schools finally began reopening. Thousands of children eagerly returned to school after nine months stuck at home, but 13-year-old Isatu and her siblings could not.
The teenager, orphaned by Ebola, like over 9,000 other children, had a new baby to look after. A man in his late twenties who had helped feed Isatu’s hungry family during the outbreak had raped and impregnated her. By the end of the outbreak, Isatu was the sole caregiver of her nine-month-old baby and her two young siblings. Instead of returning to their math, reading, and writing lessons, the children spent their days selling repurposed trash to survive.
Throughout the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak, teenage pregnancy increased by a staggering 65 percent in some Sierra Leone communities. Up until this March, schools in Sierra Leone banned pregnant girls from attending classes with other children, crippling access to education. Thousands of girls dropped out or were kept out of school in the years after, experts say, due to a combination of teen pregnancy, early marriage, poverty, loss of caregivers, negative parental attitudes towards education, and poor teaching quality.
Now, the international community is grappling with a new health crisis, one that has exacerbated economic and food insecurity, shuttered schools, and has led to an increase of gender-based violence around the world. Experts say that key lessons learned from the Ebola crisis and response should be implemented immediately to ensure that children, particularly girls, are able to return to school once the crisis abates.
As the pandemic and lockdowns keep millions of people at home, and countries like Sierra Leone grapple with an already struggling post-Ebola economy, organizations in West Africa like Plan International, UNICEF, and Street Child are rushing to provide supplemental out-of-classroom learning and financial assistance, and working with governments and education partners to ensure that children will be able to return to school.
“I think it is very important that we all collectively work with governments and all education partners to plan the reopening of schools very carefully and very proactively to reach out to the most vulnerable,” says UNICEF Education Chief Robert Jenkins.
Pulling children out of school
Some parents in Sierra Leone began pulling their children out of school before schools closed in March, due to coronavirus risk. Now, thousands of children in the West Africa country are out of school, just like they were during the Ebola outbreak. Communities that have yet to fully financially recover from the Ebola crisis are worried they won’t be able to make ends meet and feed their families.
With schools shuttered, experts expect children, particularly girls, will face similar dangers as they did during the Ebola outbreak. Girls like Isatu, who no longer have parents to protect and care for them, are some of the most vulnerable.
“Men and boys take advantage of them, like offer them food and support in exchange for sex, and during that process, a lot of girls got pregnant,” says Sia Lajaku-Williams, a Sierra Leone native and head of programs for Street Child, an international organization that focuses on children and education.
Street Child and other organizations offer education on family planning and reproductive health. But these messages can be difficult to get out during a crisis like Ebola or Covid-19.
“What happens is that resources are shifted towards critical services and women and girls are not able to access reproductive health services,” says Yeva Avakyan, Associate Vice President for Gender Equality at Save the Children. “What we’re advocating for is that these services remain open and accessible.”
Organizations have to support vulnerable populations now, experts say, to address health, education, and other needs. UNICEF and Save the Children are developing alternative lesson plans on different broadcast mediums such as television and radio, to be used while schools are closed.
But without a physical school to attend, many children don’t have access to basics, like food. Lajaku-Williams and her team at Street Child, for example, have responded by providing meal programs — for lunch and dinner — for roughly 800 children who might otherwise go hungry while schools are closed. Access to clean water is another major priority according to UNICEF, which will be ramping up their water sanitization efforts in West Africa, as the pandemic persists.
The fragile economic status of the country and underlying attitudes towards educating girls in Sierra Leone — namely the belief that girls should focus on getting married and having children — also made it challenging to get girls back in school after schools reopened, experts say, particularly as economic factors continued to worsen in West Africa after the Ebola epidemic.
“It takes money to send kids to school,” says Dr. Tessie San Martin, President and CEO of Plan International USA, “You have to provide them with money for transportation, uniforms, books, things like that. If a family doesn’t have money, or if it has limited means and has…several children, I can assure that it’s not the girls that are going to get first dibs.”
Offering families the resources to provide for all of their children keeps them from having to make that choice, experts say.
Meanwhile, attitudes surrounding girls’ education are changing slowly in Sierra Leone. From 2004 to 2018, the literacy rate for girls between the ages of 15 to 24 increased by more than 25 percent, closing the gap between girls and boys by nearly 15 points.
Life-changing support is what gave Isatu a second chance. By 2016, she was able to return to secondary school, thanks to a financial grant and support from Street Child. In 2017, her siblings, too, were re-enrolled in school.
As schools stay closed around the world due to coronavirus, and children like Isatu are back home, Lajaku-Williams says it’s essential to support communities now to ensure children can return to school when they reopen, just like after the Ebola crisis.
“We were able to impact their lives and turn things around,” she says, “and give them hope again.”
Correction: April 21st, 2020
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Dr. Tessie San Martin as President and CEO of Plan International. She is in fact President and CEO of Plan International USA. We regret the error.