Teen Pregnancies and Sexual Violence – Unseen Consequences of Ebola (Part 2)

Yesterday’s post detailed many of the instances that women are subjected to increased risks of teenage pregnancy. Whilst the geographical isolation imposed by restricted movement contributed to an increased promiscuity in the youth, women were also subject to increased levels of rape from both within the community and their households.

These factors are largely born from a degradation of social morals exacerbated by Ebola, rather than by virtue of a situation directly caused by Ebola. Today’s post covers this latter point. There are several consequences of Ebola that have left women powerless, and increasingly dependent upon the men in their families and communities. With a lack of alternative options many women are being forced to seek another method of earning money; often this is prostitution. In many cases, this route further compounds the problem of a lower perception of women and female dependence on men. Today we look at what drives the increasing levels of prostitution, and the ramifications that mothers who bear children under these circumstances face. Once again we will look closely at the report by Plan International and other contributory sources surrounding its findings.

Decline of Agriculture Leads to Increased Dependency

The Plan International report bases much of its research in neighbouring Liberia, but many of its findings are applicable across countries in West Africa. It notes that the regional quarantines and self-imposed community isolation has decimated the agricultural sector in West Africa. The reduction of agricultural produce and stemming of trade has caused wide unemployment and a loss of household income. The report writes:

“Women are disproportionately active in the food sector and informal economy and so are hit hardest by the economic impacts of Ebola. Their ability to work and provide food or income is further compromised by the additional childcare responsibilities imposed by the closure of schools.

This convergence of factors leads to women being more and more dependent on their husbands and male members of family, with their economic situation getting worse as the Ebola outbreak matures. Unemployment and loss of household income are widespread: salaried employment and self-employment have been dramatically reduced, and most households are finding it difficult to afford food, medicines, agricultural materials and other essentials due to lower incomes and higher prices.

The extent of food shortages and hunger is a striking finding from the research. Isolation, abandonment, quarantine and stigmatisation deny children and adults access to basic needs, including food. Undernourishment is also widespread. Protein intake is limited by the ban on bushmeat and the limited availability or affordability of alternatives (e.g. fish and chicken).”

These spiralling food prices – rice is reported to have increased by around 50% during Ebola – means the weight of women’s dependency is even greater on their husbands, boyfriends, or male family members. Unfortunately, this serves to further exacerbate the already pronounced perception of woman’s inferiority in Sierra Leone.

Oftentimes in these situations, women are increasingly dependent on men, and are being forced in to more and more drastic means of earning money: prostitution among young girls is reported to have increased significantly during the Ebola outbreak. With ever-increasing cost of living in a worsening economy, this is often the only realistic route to making money. Matthew Dalling, UNICEF’s head of child protection in Sierra Leone, pointed out that transactional sex — exchanging sex for a favour or goods — is driving up teen pregnancy. Increased incidences of transactional sex are thought to be tied to harsh living conditions that are worsened by the Ebola outbreak. In an Al Jazeera blog post, a young girl called Marie Koroma from Sierra Leone told her story that illustrates this:

“My boyfriend was a big, important man, and nothing goes for nothing. I was seeing him because he was helping me and my mum by giving me money. My mother was crying when she found out [that I was pregnant], because I was the only daughter in school, and now there is no hope.”

Koroma said that the baby’s father told her he would give her some money while she is pregnant but she would be on her own after the baby is born.[1]

Dependency and Abuse

From reading the report it is evident that cases such as Marie Koroma’s are widespread throughout the affected West African countries. There is, however, an even more disheartening phenomenon that is prevalent throughout the region, and one which relates to the Ebola survivors mentioned above. In some areas, the report found, men are harassing female Ebola survivors for sex despite the risk of infection. If women do not consent, the men turn to rape. Doctors advise Ebola survivors to abstain from sex or use condoms to avoid infecting others for at least three months but, according to the women interviewed for the report, men are still harassing them for sex. Because many women have lost their husbands and other male family members to Ebola, men may view them as vulnerable targets for sexual violence, the report said. In a post by the Public Health Watch, two women who lost their husbands to Ebola told their stories of being drugged by men and becoming victims of attempted rape.

“We are being harassed every day,” said Ariana. “Men see us as vulnerable and think because our husbands are not here any more, they can do whatever they want.”[2]

An Increase in Sexual Violence

An Al Jazeera post writes that “according to a police report obtained from national human rights organization Humanist Watch Salone, there were 2,201 sexual assaults reported in 2014 — up from 1,485 in 2013. Christopher Braima, the national coordinator for Humanist Watch Salone, said it estimates that sexual violence cases have increased 40 per cent since the Ebola outbreak began over a year ago.” Braima goes on to say that “some of the girls who came to our clinics say they were sexually assaulted when they went out to work in markets because they were alone and were not going to school. The more girls are out of school, the more they are vulnerable. A lot of these girls have lost their childhood for good.”[3]

Compounding the problem, the Ebola epidemic also shut down many health and judicial services for survivors of sexual violence. Many hospitals and clinics turned their attention to fighting the virus or shut down.

The Plan International report notes that the closure of schools also removes an important location for child protection. When schools close, children are no longer spending days with peers and teachers in an environment that can provide a level of child protection. The shutdown of wider government services and restrictions on movement (including for international aid workers) in the earlier stages of the outbreak meant that child-protection programmes, where they existed, were no longer providing care to vulnerable children. Often, this lack of child protection leads to teenage protection.

What are the Long-Term Implications of Ebola?

The report’s conclusion writes it most succinctly:

“When asked how long it will take for the community to return to normal after Ebola is stopped, most talk in terms of years. Children tend to see a quicker recovery, thinking about when schools will reopen and when it will be possible to mix with friends, although some also mention deep and long-lasting changes. Community members use the language of war when describing the impact of Ebola. For people with recent experience of civil war and atrocities it is easy to see how the reappearance of widespread deaths, orphans, checkpoints, curfews, movement restrictions, armed troops, surveillance, house-to-house searches and divided communities is a fearful step backwards. Those young people who are forced from education into work or early marriage express feelings of having their future taken out of their hands. To ensure survival, most other needs and rights have been pushed aside.”

This report has put in to focus the importance of the work that we are doing for the Orphans of Ebola, both during the outbreak and the preparations that we are making for after Ebola. Roger Yates, the head of Disaster Response for Plan International, summarises the impact of Ebola like this:

“Illiteracy, unemployment and poverty could escalate at frightening rates in the short term and long term future if children do not go back to school. Before the Ebola outbreak, these West African countries had started to progress in terms of education, with girls in particular benefiting from programmes to get them into school. The long term impact of having so many children missing school for such a prolonged period will be extremely serious, creating another generation of children who lose out on those crucial years of education, who turn into adults who lack the means to get employment and break the poverty cycle. Effectively, we go right back to the beginning again. This is turn will have a massive long-term impact of socio-economic development in the region”

Unfortunately, this is a very real concern that we share. As mentioned above, schools provide a point of child protection that has more or less disappeared for children throughout Sierra Leone and other West African countries. Those of you that know EducAid will know that the provision of child support and protection is a fundamental part of our vision: by creating a stable and safe environment for children – who would be otherwise at risk – we can create the platform for our students to achieve academically and socially. Unfortunately we will have lost some students to the chaos of Ebola, both through childbirth and through the disappearance of their formal education. It is now for us to prepare and provide for the new generation of children who have been born during this period so that we can avoid the bleak future represented in the reports conclusion. Our brave and dedicated staff have done their best to continue the education of those that are not presently on EducAid sites, and we hope that we will be able to bring as many of them back in to our schools as possible. However, we know that we are facing a whole new scale of humanitarian crisis once the Ebola outbreak is declared over.

This impending problem is something that we had identified very early in the outbreak – our #AfterEbola campaign was put together to prepare for this period precisely. Over the past 5 months we have been working tirelessly to prepare for the challenges that we will face when the virus is contained. Now that time is approaching the hardest work begins. Just because Ebola no longer dominates the headlines, by no stretch of the imagination does it mean that the situation has improved. Although people’s lives are no longer directly at risk from this deadly virus, unless we act swiftly and comprehensively, several thousands will be feeling the direct impact of its legacy for decades to come. We are in a great position to directly benefit many of these young people in order to create a better life for them after Ebola.

We are in a situation where the fabric of an already strained society will be stretched to its very limits. Only through support and education will we be able to combat the long-lasting effects of Ebola. It is a job that will stretch long in to the future, but we are in it for the long haul.

If you are in a position to help, in any way you can, please do. Our post last week showed how members of our community organised themselves to send a package of clothing and educational resources to Sierra Leone. There are many examples of how you can raise money for EducAid on our Fundraising page. Or, if you are in a position to help us financially, you can do so by clicking here.

Everything that you donate will go directly to Sierra Leone. No admin fees, no trustee salaries, no nonsense. It’s hard to think how your money could help anyone more in need more cost-efficiently. Please consider donating today.

[1] http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/2/20/sex-assault-on-the-rise-in-sierra-leone.html
[2] https://publichealthwatch.wordpress.com/2015/01/12/report-ebola-is-leaving-women-and-girls-vulnerable-to-sexual-violence/
[3] http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/2/20/sex-assault-on-the-rise-in-sierra-leone.html

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