Reports that rates of sexual assault and teenage pregnancy have soared in Sierra Leone since the start of the Ebola outbreak have prompted the government to plan a raft of measures to protect girls and the UN to investigate the scale of the increase.
The outbreak has disrupted many facets of life in Sierra Leone, leading to poor record-keeping and thus a shortage of hard data, but an array of sources, including the police, local NGOs, the government, the UN and young people, all point to a surge in both rape and consensual sex among teenagers, which have led to an increase in teenage pregnancy.
“We cannot give exact figures yet, as assessments are ongoing... But what we are hearing from many of our different partners on the ground is that the prevalence has increased,” said Dhuwarakha Sriram, a child protection specialist for UNICEF, adding that a rise in child marriage is also of concern.
“We’re still looking into it, but these girls aren’t going to school and they don’t have much to do, so this may be why it has gone up.”
Sixteen-year-old Amie, a student at St. Joseph’s Secondary School in Freetown, agreed. She told IRIN that two of her close friends have gotten pregnant since the outbreak began in May.
“When school was in session before Ebola, I didn’t think about my boyfriend,” she said. “I was fully focused on my studies. But now it is very difficult and boring. I want school to reopen because it will help young girls stay away from sexual intercourse.”
For those women and girls who do want to practice safe sex, family planning counseling and contraceptives are now much harder to come by. General health facilities have been shut down; others are too overwhelmed by Ebola cases to offer such services.
Local authorities say that forced quarantines and high rates of unemployment among men may also be contributing factors.
“They say ‘the idle mind is the devil’s workshop,’” said Detective Sergeant Aruna Gbondo, with the Kenema Police Station’s Family Support Unit. “Before Ebola, sexual offence was not on the increase, although there were reported cases. But during the course of this Ebola, this has become another epidemic, especially sexually activities involving teenage boys and teenage girls. Sexual offense is really becoming a menace.”
New, riskier roles
With traditional family structures ravaged by the Ebola death doll, many girls have been forced to take over as head of their households. Others are being sent out to work to earn whatever extra money they can, at time, according to the World Bank, when many household businesses have gone bust and those still functioning have seen turnover plummet.
Other girls have turned to transactional sex in order to support their families, UNICEF says.
These new roles outside the home have put young girls at an increased risk of sexual assault within their communities.
“I was selling water and other items in town along a street, when one man called to me," said 14-year-old Saliamatu. “He told me he wanted to buy [something] and took me into a house where he said he kept his money.”
Saliamatu said she was repeatedly raped by the man for two days before she escaped.
In Sierra Leone’s Kenema and Kailahun districts, Christopher M. Briama, the national coordinator for the human rights group Humanist Watch Salone (HUWASAL), told IRIN that the number of such rape cases is “rapidly” rising.
“We have observed a considerable increase of the reporting rate of sexual penetration and have been approached with many more cases of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV)…during this Ebola emergency period, as compared to before the outbreak,” Briama said.
This is despite the risk of transmitting or catching Ebola through sexual intercourse.
“Ebola is a killer disease, but…interestingly, the recent perpetrators of sexual assault are responsible people in communities,” he said. “So it’s obvious that the men who are doing this are not afraid of getting Ebola through sexual intercourse.”
Lack of justice
These men are also no longer afraid of the law.
A 2012 law in Sierra Leone criminalizes all nonconsensual sexual acts perpetrated against both children and adults, especially women under the age of 18. Convictions can carry a sentence of between five and 15 years in prison.
“But inefficiency in the court system has reduced the enforcement of SGBV law and increased the compromise and perpetration of [nonconsensual] sexual penetration in communities,” Briama said.
In Kailahun district, for example, the court no longer has a resident magistrate. Activists say some cases have been sitting on the docket for more than three months.
The sexual assault clinics are also no longer operational, making it near impossible for victims to receive medical treatment, counseling or legal advice.
The Rainbo Centre in Kenema, which helps survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, has been closed since late May. The next closest place to receive SGBV care is 32 miles away. This is a distance that is both prohibitively expensive for most girls and one that is too far to make victims likely to seek out help.
A lack of doctors to examine women who have been sexually assaulted means that they have no evidence to take to the courts, even if they were open. Sexual penetration cases are thrown out of court after five adjournments if no medical evidence is presented.
“So this is noted to be an escape path for men, thus causing them to continue to abuse young girls,” Briama said.
The issue is not going unnoticed, however. The government of Sierra Leone says it remains committed to ending SGBV, both within and outside of the current Ebola crisis, while enforcing its May 2013 national strategy for reducing child marriage and teenage pregnancy.
“It [this observed increase in sexual assault and teenage pregnancy] is certainly a concern among everybody,” the assistant director for Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs in the eastern region, Alice Jenneba Koroma, told IRIN. “Since the outbreak of Ebola it’s like the situation is being aggravated. But…we are working to bring perpetrators to the book.”
With help from its local and international partners, she said the government plans to develop an “Impact Mitigation Strategy of Ebola for Adolescent Girls.”
This will include measures such as establishing female-only clinics providing reproductive health services for adolescent girls; “girls-only safe spaces” where teenagers can get help with Ebola-related challenges and receive trauma counselling; and an education package for girls to mitigate the impact of being out of school.
UNICEF says it is working with the local youth-led civic engagement organization Restless Development to conduct social mobilization programs, as part of their Ebola response activities, to reduce teenage pregnancy and end child marriage.