In September 2014, while the epidemic of Ebola in Liberia was reaching the peak of its spread, Tina Williams, 14, had a fever and was pregnant. She had been raped and her boyfriend had left her. As she was trembling in her bed, she prayed that her illness was malaria, not Ebola. The tests done after childbirth were negative, both for her and for the little girl whom she had just given birth. Nonetheless, she was an Ebola survivor, even if in her own way. Tina’s story is one of many told by Radio Bullets, which always provides in-depth analysis of international news.
According to a study published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), during the outbreak of the Ebola, in some regions of Sierra Leone teenage pregnancy increased by 65 percent. Yet, it is very difficult to obtain data, especially because the victims seldom report the aggressions they suffered. Another study, conducted jointly by UNICEF and the NGO Plan International, Save the Children and World Vision, suggests that the number of teenage pregnancies has nearly doubled in the regions affected by Ebola.
“Epidemics are identical to situations of conflict,” explains Monica Onyango, a researcher in the field of global health at the University of Boston. “There are gaps in the government, chaos, and instability: all factors that make women become more vulnerable to violence.” Yet, the correlation between epidemics and violence against women is not well documented. “We know that in times of war girls and women often become victims of sexual violence. The phenomenon has been documented during the civil war in Sierra Leone, Liberia, after the genocide in Rwanda, during the war in former Yugoslavia,” says Onyango.
The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is a case study. According to Marie Harding, who works for the medical center ‘‘Star of the sea’’ in West Point, one of the largest slums of Liberia as well as the scene of a disastrous twenty-one-day long quarantine during the outbreak, the health rules imposed to contain the spread of the disease (such as quarantine), curfew and the closure of schools, have also increased the risk, for women and girls, of violence and rapes. At the height of the epidemic, football games were canceled and bars were closed. Men, who usually live their social life outside their homes, had to stay indoors, together with women and children. Hence the wave of violence at home.
According to a study the NGO Save the Children conducted on 617 girls who have denounced violent assaults and rapes in Sierra Leone, most took place precisely during quarantine. At West Point, Marie Harding has witnessed a similar trend. “There was a great deal of stress, a lot of tension. People did not know what to do, where to find food,” she recalls. “When a girl is not at school, when she stays at home all day long, she is in danger.” A study conducted by the NGO Plan International in Liberia, some mothers said they feared for their daughters who did not have the possibility to go to school because they had to provide for the needs of the family. Because of hunger, some of them had sex in exchange for food. This phenomenon is particularly important among the orphans caused by Ebola, who have to survive on their own. In a study by Save the Children, 10 percent of surveyed children – many of whom have lost at least one parent because of the virus – say that girls left without family because of Ebola have been forced into prostitution for food and a shelter.
West Africa will have to manage for years, if not generations, the long-term effects of this epidemic of teenage pregnancies. For example, – Radio Bullets goes on – Liberia prohibits pregnant teenagers to attend school, a measure that worsens even further the already existent schooling inequalities and forces women to work for very low wages. In Sierra Leone, pregnant teenagers simply do not have the right to go to school. Teenage mothers are more likely to suffer possible health complications – long childbirth, obstetric fistulas or even death during delivery. In parallel, infant mortality rate is higher among children born from teenage mothers. An insult to equality, human dignity, and to life itself. Dante’s hell, where disease, violence, poverty, and prostitution intertwine to strangle an entire people.