How Ebola led to more teenage pregnancy in West Africa

While the Ebola outbreak raged through Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea in the summer of 2014, public life ground to a halt. The danger of congregating in groups meant that public institutions, like schools, shut down. But the months of sickness and segregation left a legacy for girls that’s only now starting to be felt: teenage pregnancy spiked, and some of the girls are now being victimized by the government’s education policies.

Data on teenage pregnancy in West Africa is difficult to obtain, especially as it’s often stigmatized and underreported. But Plan International, a children’s charity, said back in 2014 that teenage pregnancy rates in West Africa—already among some of the world’s highest—were on the rise. They pointed to enforced inactivity and lack of oversight: girls forced to stay out of school due to Ebola “become more vulnerable to sexual exploitation, sexual assault and rape.”

That grim story is now playing out. A study by the United Nations Development Programme said that in Sierra Leone teenage pregnancy increased by 65% due to the socioeconomic condition imposed by Ebola. A survey of 1,100 girls and boys, also in Sierra Leone, by Save the Children in June 2015 found that most girls interviewed thought teenage pregnancy was rising, and 10% said more girls were being forced to sell sex due to loss of family, and with it, financial security. Fear of sexual assault was common, and the children told stories of girls attacked and raped, even in Ebola-quarantined households.

Teen pregnancy rates were already high. In 2013, 28% of all girls aged 15-19 were already pregnant or had children, according to government data. Sierra Leone sees few rape convictions but violence against women is “commonplace,” UNDP said.