These Teenage Girls Survived Ebola – But It’s Forcing Them Into Sex Work

As many countries in West Africa are finally declared Ebola-free, orphaned teenage girls are turning to prostitution in order to survive

Mariatu is 16 years old and lives in Sierra Leone. Until last year, she went to school every day, focused on her future and dreamed of success. Then her dad caught Ebola and passed away – quickly followed by two of Mariatu’s siblings. When her mum caught the disease a few weeks later, Mariatu found herself at the head of the family – suddenly responsible for raising her four younger siblings while their mother recovered.

In desperation, Mariatu dropped out of school, and took on a job at the local quarry – breaking stones for 80p a day. When a local man offered to feed her family in exchange for sex, she agreed. She wasn’t sure what other options she had.

When social workers from the UK charity Street Child met Mariatu a few months later, she was heavily pregnant and still working at the quarry. She was hungry and angry – missing school and her father. Her siblings had dropped out of full time education too, and Mariatu was struggling to cope. ‘I am worried about the future of my child and myself,’ she confessed. ‘I don’t know how I will take care of my child with no access to medical care and no certainty over when my next meal will be.’

The charity stepped in to help. They provided emergency food and psychosocial support to Mariatu and her siblings – and once their mum was well again, she was given a family business grant so that the younger children could return to school.

But Mariatu was stuck. There’s a national ban in Sierra Leone forbidding pregnant pupils from attending high school or participating in exams. And as increased numbers of vulnerable, orphaned teenage girls are resorting to sex work in order to survive and support their families following the Ebola crisis, it’s a law that can restrict them from making any kind of future for themselves beyond sex work.

Still, Mariatu is one of the more fortunate ones – after giving birth to a baby boy (called George), she was able to return to school with her mum’s support. But for thousands of others, Ebola symbolised the end of their education altogether.

‘For me the fact that pregnant girls are denied an education is astounding,’ says Megan Lees-McCowan, Programme Manager at Street Child, who is working to help girls who have been forced into prostitution following the epidemic. ‘There is a pervading stigma that once pregnant [these girls] are no longer student material but mother material. Yet they are survivors, and with support many of them are perfectly capable of juggling both.’

Street Child are aiming to raise a million pounds by the end of the year to help 20,000 Ebola affected children progress through their journey from destitution to a secure life at home and in school. Visit http://www.street-child.co.uk/legacy-of-ebola-appeal to learn more.

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