As the Ebola crisis burned through Sierra Leone over the last year, schools were shuttered for nearly nine months in efforts to reduce the spread of the hemorrhagic fever that has infected more than 12,200 people and killed nearly 3,900 in the country to date. With classes on hold, 18-year-old Ramatu Tholley was forced to sell shoes at a local market to help support her family. The small amount she was making was not enough, however, and she eventually developed a relationship with a 20-year-old man who helped her financially in exchange for sex. He abandoned Tholley when she became pregnant, and her family was unable to support her.
Now five months pregnant, Tholley is one of the many girls barred from attending school today, the first day of classes in the country since July 2014. While excited children throughout Sierra Leone file into schools Tuesday, a government mandate dictates that pregnant women like Tholley must stay home until the baby is born.
"I'm sad, I'm not happy, I'm seeing my companions taking the exams… I wanted to take exams too," she said, referring to exams that would have allowed her to advance to what is known as senior secondary school. These tests took place at the end of March, but pregnant girls were also barred from participating. Tholley expressed frustration at not being able to go back to school, saying "I want to become a nurse, but now I feel lost."
Prohibiting pregnant girls and women from attending school is not new to the Ebola outbreak. In fact, the policy has been in place since 2010, after the West African Examination council wrote a letter to Sierra Leone's Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology expressing concern that pregnant girls were failing their exams. The ministry also felt that pregnant students would be a bad influence on other girls.
"It was discovered that perhaps because of pregnancy-related problems, they may not have been able to concentrate and work hard to pass the exam," Brima Michael Turay, the ministry's public relations officer, told VICE News. "It would be a waste of resources for the government, if they continue with that trend."
Turay also claimed pregnant school girls were often too ashamed to attend classes. The ministry isn't the only proponent of the ban. Daisy Saquee, who runs a local school in the capital city of Freetown, told VICE News she agreed with the policy, saying women should avoid the stress of exams and rest instead.
"When you are pregnant, everyday your head is aching, your back is aching," she said. "So a pregnant person to go to school is not easy, you can't even concentrate or study."
Concerns of continued Ebola transmission are another area of apparent concern, with Turay noting that having pregnant girls would not be safe because they often vomit, a main symptom of the deadly hemorrhagic fever, which is passed through direct contact with bodily fluids. Nearly a year after the virus first crossed into Sierra Leone from Guinea, new cases of Ebola are still appearing in double digits in the country, with 25 cases reported last week.
Both local and international human rights groups have spoken out against the policy. Amnesty International's Sierra Leone Director Solomon Sogbandi criticized the ban, citing a portion of the Convention on Rights of the Child that prohibits discrimination against children in any form.
"This is highly discriminatory, especially against such girls," he said. "It reinforces their marginalization and it will impact on the overall development of our girls."
Christopher Braima, the director of Humanist Watch Salone, local NGO, told VICE News that pregnancy in Sierra Leone is often a result of transactional or non-consensual sex, and that the government should make an exception due to the Ebola crisis. According to Braima, sexual violence against women has increased in Sierra Leone since Ebola began its spread, and pregnancies have been on the rise.
Marie Kamara, 18, told VICE News she chose to have sex as a means to survive. As in many other cases during the outbreak, her family was struggling financially. She began to sell potatoes at the local market, but this was not sufficient. Eventually, Kamara started a sexual relationship with a 27-year-old. In exchange, he would give her money that she would pass to her family. While new Ebola transmissions saw a decline for the fifth week in a row, Kamara finds herself four months pregnant and abandoned by the man. As a result, she also was unable to attend school today, with concern looming about how she will take care of her child after she gives birth.
"I want to go school, but there's no chance, I don't know what I"ll do when the baby comes," she said. "The mistake is by two people, not just one, but I am getting the blame."