Most researchers and aid officials say that the situation of girls in Sierra Leone and Liberia during the Ebola epidemic five years ago demonstrates that an uptick in child marriage and adolescent pregnancy will drive girls out of school during the current pandemic.
This year’s coronavirus shutdowns are almost a parallel situation to what took place in the African countries, researchers say.
Then, school closings threw millions of girls out of school, leaving them vulnerable to child labor, domestic violence, sexual exploitation and child marriage.
“One of the lessons that came out of the Ebola crisis was the cautionary tale that women and girls, particularly adolescent girls, were going to be some of the most at risk during school closures,” said Shelby Carvalho, a fellow at Harvard University who focuses on education, girls and conflict. “Following the Ebola crisis, for example, in Sierra Leone and Liberia you saw huge spikes of early marriage and pregnancy and just disproportionate negative impacts on young girls.”
In 2014, the Ebola epidemic hit Sierra Leone and Liberia hard, forcing them to close more than 10,000 schools for up to 10 months to contain the virus. That shut out about five million children in countries with very low rates of educational attainment to begin with. For example, in Sierra Leone in 2013, only half of females between the ages of 15 and 24 were literate and only 14 percent of girls attended secondary school. Meanwhile, in the two countries, which are some of the world’s poorest and are and still recovering from more than a decade of civil war, poverty has been rising.
Girls Become Workers
Girls have been forced to stay home to take care of domestic chores or younger children. Others are obligated to produce income: There was a 19 percent spike in the number of girls ages 12 to 17 working outside the home, said a study by the International Growth Centre, a research institute based at the London School of Economics. No matter where the girls were, they were often alone and vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation.