Teenage pregnancy has long been a problem in Sierra Leone. In 2013 the country’s rate ranked among the ten highest in the world, with 28% of girls aged 15-19 pregnant or already having given birth at least once (UNFPA, 2015).
How can we avoid history from repeating itself? with Ebola and schools closing down, brought a surge in teenage pregnancies across Sierra Leone. Many people believe that most of these girls never made it back to school, while their male counterparts went on pursuing their career goals when daily life resumed.
Once again Sierra Leone faces an imminent threat/ danger with COVID-19, a virus that has forced the world to its knees. On a daily basis we see massive economies locking down. While words like social distancing, quarantine and isolation have become overly familiar but with greater repercussions than the fear of death.
Our concern [ since The Joint Education COVID-19 response announced that: March 31st 2020 marks the closure of Basic, Tertiary and Higher Education Institutions until further notice] has been about the welfare and the future of our adolescents and teenagers.
What can we do better? There is an adage that says ‘once bitten, twice shy’! Once one has been hurt in the past, you will find yourself been doubly cautious of what the future holds when similar trends show up. At the AJ Foundation, our campaign has been around sexual and reproductive health issues for young people. Are we going to sit back and watch children become parents again or do we launch straight into action as a country, with varying stakeholders from family level, the community and state?
The engagement has to be a holistic one which involves the stakeholders, the potential victims and other environmental stimuluses and influences.
Overcrowding, high levels of poverty and illiteracy are a few of the possible inhibitors of homeschooling. The average household in Sierra Leone includes extended family ranging from 6 people to double digit numbers, depending on location.
While this promotes heightened emotional awareness, great values around sharing and empathy it could be the breeding ground for incest, rape, sexual abuse and in some instances sexual exploration.
Most children share the same bedrooms with their parents or sexually active adults who leave nothing for their over-active, highly creative minds to imagine. So from peeping through key-holes to watching X-rated movies at home or at un-regulated mini-cinemas they progress into trying out on their own.
We know for a fact that children are better imitators, one of the reasons why positive role modelling and mentoring are great agents of change in society.
The underlying problem of poverty with the uncertainty of jobs and unemployment due to this pandemic might leave teenagers from deprived communities turning into commercial sex as a means of basic survival.
THE BLACK TUESDAY MOVEMENT
‘’Black Tuesday’’ is an initiative launched by the Asmaa James Foundation in Sierra Leone to raise awareness on issues of violence against women with a focus on rape and sexual penetration.
In 2019, our founder – Ms. Asmaa James was one of the journalists who amplified reporting a brutal rape case of a 4-year-old girl. The assault by a relative is said to have paralyzed her. Asmaa, began sharing updates on the girl and similar cases, eventually launching Black Tuesday, a movement against sexual abuse.
According to police records, the number of sexual assault cases in the country doubled between 2017 and 2018, with 70 percent of survivors being children under 15.
Last year, Sierra Leone amended its sexual offences act. The new act states that if you rape a child you’ll be imprisoned for life.
Sadly, as already highlighted, many of the rape/ sexual abuse cases are that of close family members, with an increase in the hours spent at home by teenagers due to the schools closing down because of COVID-19 we are faced with a more morbid battle with rape. We will expect that as and when these violations occur, they will be reported and the law will be enforced. This will require more surveillance and activism!
THE WAY FORWARD
If we are going to do better this time, we will need to pull all of our resources in working with organisations and individuals who are already focused in the fight against teenage pregnancy.
As parents and communities we cannot wait for others/ Government and philanthropists, here are some great ideas for everyone:
- Watch for signs of isolation in your teenagers, mood swings and behavioural changes. Seek professional help if you notice major changes.
- Regulate who visits, that is if you are not already practicing social distancing.
- Create a routine for your teenagers that will help you monitor their movement and activities when you away from the house.
- Talk about safe sex, the health hazards and what it means to be a teenage parent (outline the disadvantages)
- Be your neighbours keeper, consult with your neighbours on safe joint engagement activities that your children can do together (while observing social distancing)