The U.N. is optimistic that West Africa can hit zero Ebola cases by mid-April, but vulnerable girls in the region are facing a new debilitating epidemic -- a spike in teen pregnancy and prostitution.
Due to prolonged school closings and widespread deaths of parents and caregivers, girls in Sierra Leone and Liberia -- two of the hardest-hit regions -- have become more susceptible to sexual exploitation and experts say it’s up to on-the-ground agencies to better protect them.
"Our children are out selling in the community, helping their family to get food," a Liberian mother who declined to give her name told Plan International, an aid group that supports impoverished children. "Some of the younger girls will soon start prostitution, because we can’t control the children if we can’t provide for them."
To gauge the scope of the issue, Plan International dispensed research teams to communities in Liberia to interview more than 740 children, parents and community leaders. The organization learned that poor girls in the Ebola-stricken area, particularly those who have lost family members to the epidemic, are at a heightened risk of rape, prostitution, teen pregnancy and child marriage.
Though Liberia has made concerted efforts in recent years to curb sexual assaults, going so far as to open a court that specializes in rape cases, the country has seen a rise in rape since the Ebola outbreak hit, AllAfrica reported last month.
In Sierra Leone, a number of factors have led to its rise in teen pregnancy.
In an interview with Ebola Deeply, Sierra Leone's first lady, Sia Nyama Koroma, said that teen pregnancy has "worsened" since the outbreak struck.
According to Matthew Dalling, UNICEF's head of child protection in Sierra Leone, the country is experiencing a surge in "transactional sex," he told AFP. While it’s not quite prostitution, desperate people are trading sex for something they desperately need, for example, some bread or a mobile phone.
"It's hard to estimate how much [teen pregnancy] has increased, but combined with the levels of vulnerability, the lack of schools, the impossibility of going anywhere, it makes sense that it must be growing," Dalling told the news outlet.
Plan International attributed such spikes in Liberia to a number of factors.
Girls who have lost parents and caregivers also have lost the protectors that once helped to shield them from sexual attacks. They’re also often expected to take on the role of caretaker and find ways to support the family, which often means resorting to prostitution. Some families have sent their kids to areas that are safe from Ebola, but not sexual assault.
A Liberian father told Plan International that he thought he made a judicious choice by sending his daughter to another area to stay with her uncle, but someone in that community raped her.
Experts agree that the key to preventing sexual exploitation is improved education access.
While schools reopened in Liberia on Monday, advocates are concerned that many children won’t resume their studies because they either can’t afford the fees or they feel obligated to help support their families, Plan said in a statement.
An elementary school student in Liberia, for example, pays 6,755 Liberian dollars (about $80).
Alex Wou, acting principal of St Lawrence Catholic School in Nimba County, Liberia, said he expects no more than half of students to come back.
Plan International has urged the country and its school system to investigate different means of financing students’ return to school.
To keep kids in Sierra Leone engaged in their studies, UNICEF partnered with the government in October to launch a radio educational program. The hour-long lessons are broadcast on 41 stations, and about half of households surveyed have gotten involved, according to NPR.
To help curb the teen pregnancy rates, and support young people who have gotten pregnant, Koroma has committed to partnering with agencies and government ministries. She’s also connecting girls with services that offer birth control, she told Ebola Deeply.
"It’s frustrating, but I am not going to relent," she said. "I will keep using all my powers to advocate for girls’ and women’s empowerment, and the first step is to reduce teenage pregnancy rates."