Reintegrating young mothers back into school
Making efforts to improve school retention and completion rates for girls in Sierra Leone
Bo, Sierra Leone - The early morning sound of the school bell at Selenga Junior Secondary School in Bo district, signals the start of yet another learning day. Less than fifty metres from where the bell is ringing, *Yeabu Turay(17 years) seats by the porch of her mother’s house and watches enviously as her peers make their way to their respective classes.
Although living within proximity of the school, Yeabu has not attended school for over a year. In April 2020, when the Government of Sierra Leone closed schools, as a measure to contain the spread of COVID-19, Yeabu fell pregnant during the lengthened stay away from school.
“I did not return to school when schools reopened in October because I was embarrassed to be seen pregnant. I had seen how other girls had been mocked while coming to school pregnant, and I did not want to go through that,” says Yeabu, who had just completed her second year at the Junior Secondary School (JSS 2) and was looking forward to advancing to JSS 3.
The stay at home has not been easy – daily her peers pass through their unfenced courtyard, going to school, while Yeabu attends to the five-months-old baby and prepares to help her mother with work in the field. Yeabu also explains the heart rendering experience of going through this experience of pregnancy and childbirth alone, as her boyfriend disappeared from the village the moment he found out about the pregnancy.
“My mother is a widow and has been taking care of my four siblings and I since our father died. When she found out I was pregnant, she was very angry and disappointed in me,” says Yeabu, who today is looking forward to the reopening of the new school year for her to re-enter school.
Pregnancy among young girls is a common occurrence across Sierra Leone, with 31 per cent of women age 20-24 years having a live birth before the age 18 years.
Poverty, lack of information, sexual violence and limited skills and knowledge to negotiate their sexuality, are some of the factors contributing to early pregnancies. The COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in forced schools’ closure and enhanced household poverty, has also driven many girls to early and risky sexual encounters.
In Bo district, the rate of childbearing before 18 years is at 29 per cent. This alarmingly high trend of early pregnancy is very apparent at Selenga Junior Secondary School, where apart from Yeabu, more than 10 other girls are either pregnant or are lactating.
Stigma, discrimination, social and moral judgements often make it difficult for the girls to continue with their learning, this despite the 2020 Government policy on inclusion of pregnant girls and young lactating mothers to remain in school.
With support from the Swedish National Committee, UNICEF has worked with a local Civil Society Organisation, Development Initiative Programme (DIP) to support schools in Bo and Bonthe to reintegrate girls such as Yeabu back into a safe learning environment. Engagement with the school authorities and the traditional leaders of the community, has helped schools to build mechanisms for retention and safety of pregnant girls and young lactating mothers. Parents and caregivers are also sensitised on how to address harmful social practices, which affect girls’ completion of education.
“Teenage pregnancies deprive many girls of their childhood by limiting their opportunities to continue with education, says Aster Ghebreab, UNICEF Education Specialist. “UNICEF is therefore working closely with different stakeholders to address factors which influence early pregnancies and to support girls with continuity of learning even during pregnancy and when they are lactating.”
The programme is also helping to address other vulnerabilities which make learning difficult, including providing, 800 children from 16 communities in Bo with a complete set of uniforms, school shoes and backpack.
“When the school year opens in September this year, I will be re-joining other children to go to school,” says Yeabu, who now regularly tries on her school uniform to ensure that she still fits perfectly into it.
“Although my mother was very angry with me for getting pregnant, she has now become very supportive and has promised to be the one looking after my baby when I return to school this year,” says an elated Yeabu, as she gives her mother a lot of credit for supporting her through her ordeal.
Yeabu says she is encouraged by other young mothers, such as 17-year-old *Adama Boakei, who today is seated behind her school desk after a three-year break to deliver and look after her own child.
*Names of children have been changed to protect their identities.