“Back-To-School Initiative” Helps Teenage Mothers.

By Nadene Ghouri in Freetown

An education programme aims to get teenage mothers to return to schooling, following a spike in pregnancies among young girls during the Ebola crisis.

Kadiatu Bangora, 19, lets out a big sigh and stares at the ground ruefully. “I made a mistake,” she says. That phrase, or a variation of it, is repeated as each of the dozen new or expectant unmarried teenage mothers sitting around the table in Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Education in Freetown tells her story.

In this conservative society, unwed mothers are frowned on. The girls know they are expected to show a certain degree of penance. They also know they are lucky to be here, having been given a second chance as part of the country’s back-to-school programme, which launched last month, to get teenage mothers back into education.

On International Day of the Girl, eight teenagers from around the world talk about the issues they face, from child marriage to the battle to stay in education.

Yet Bangora’s “mistake” was not due to teenage irresponsibility but to desperation. Her father was sick and she went to a family friend for help to buy medicine. “You don’t get something for nothing,” the friend told her.

She was given $65 for sleeping with him. Her father died and six weeks later Bangora learned she was pregnant.

“When I found out I was pregnant they didn’t allow me to stay in school. My mother got very angry with me, but she allowed me to stay in the house because there was nowhere else for me to go. My baby arrived in February but I haven’t gone back to school because we don’t have any money,” she says.

“It would be immoral to allow a pregnant girl to remain in school,” explains Olive Musa, director of informal learning at the Ministry of Education. “Teenage girls are very open to peer pressure and if pregnant girls in school uniform are allowed to sit in class we feel it will allow others to think they can do the same.”

Musa says the system does not penalise them because “they are free to come back” after they have given birth, when their condition “will not impact their classmates”. But the reality is that very few do.

Today, Bangora and her mother eke out a living selling rice and oil at a roadside stall. She is one of 4,000 girls to have voluntarily registered for the new programme, funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID). The programme aims to get girls back on track through a combination of personal mentoring and two and a half hours a day of core curriculum studies.

At the Ministry of Education a group of teenage girls is addressed by Florence Sessay, Sierra Leone’s chief inspector of schools. She is smartly dressed and highly articulate, but the girls gasp with surprise when she reveals that she, too, was once a teenage mother.

There are serious problems within schools themselves, such as teachers demanding sex for good grades

“For me education was key,” she tells them. “I was able to go back to university and begin my career. I met my husband at university. He did not judge me because he was an educated man.”

Her talk clearly makes an impact on the girls, but privately Sessay admits she is a rare success story. “I was lucky in that my family supported me. So many of these girls are thrown out. Yet often the families are partly to blame for where they are. But I am here today to tell them that if I did it, then so can they.”

According to the latest government health survey, from 2013, the overall literacy rate for women is 36%, 54% for men, although it is higher – 62% – for women between 15and 24. Secondary school enrolment for girls is only 36%. During the Ebola crisis, when schools closed for nine months, there was a spike in teenage pregnancies with some 14,000 new cases.

“For me the fact that pregnant girls are denied an education is astounding,” says Megan Lees-McCowan, head of programmes at the charity Street Child. “Especially when we know increased poverty is a major factor to accessing secondary education in the first place.

“I hear many stories of girls put under pressure to contribute financially to the family. What this often means in reality is getting a boyfriend or selling themselves. There are also serious problems within schools themselves, such as teachers demanding sex for good grades. One girl told me recently, ‘I study for me – sex is how I move, get promoted’.”

Last month, Street Child launched a major national consultation across 17 urban and 15 rural locations to explore the barriers to female higher education and possible solutions. Lees-McCowan says the back to school scheme is a start but “not nearly enough”.

“If they were not in school when they got pregnant or were already pregnant and not in school pre-Ebola, then they cannot get on to the programme. The situation has definitely been made worse since Ebola, but the problems pre-date that.”

Masaba Gbaw is 19 and got pregnant during the Ebola school closures when she was “just hanging around on the streets with my friends, bored”. Then she lost her parents to the disease.

“My mother died at home. Then my father got sick and died in hospital,” she says. “Our whole family were in quarantine and everything in our house was burned, including our school uniforms. Before Ebola my favourite subject was English language, and I had dreams to be a lawyer. The father is not going to support the baby. It is not easy for me. I don’t have anything – nothing to eat, no clothes.”

For Lees-McCowan, a “sea change in attitude” is needed. “There is a pervading stigma that once pregnant [these girls] are no longer student material but mother material. Yet they are survivors, and with support many of them are perfectly capable of juggling both.”

The situation for Gbaw is precarious. Her aunt says she cannot feed both her and the baby so she does not know if she will be able to stay there when the baby comes. Nevertheless, for now, she says, she is grabbing the chance to participate in the back-to-school programme “with both hands”. “I’d like to go to university so that in the future I can help girls like me.”