Sierra Leone News: Adolescent girls in West and Central Africa encounter multiple deprivations — UNICEF
By Alusine Sesay
A new data produced by United Nations children’s Fund (UNICEF) shows how adolescent girls in the West and Central Africa encounter multiple and over-lapping deprivations that put their rights and well-being (including health and education) at risk.
The data on Adolescent girls in West and Central Africa indicates that the region has registered notable progress in girls’ education over the last two decades. Between 2000 and 2017, the proportion of girls entering the last grades of both primary and secondary schools — the gross intake ratio — increased.
According to the data, trends in gender parity indices (GPI) of completion rates in primary and lower secondary school also show a closing gap in most countries. Girls’ completion rates at the primary level even surpassed those of boys in Burkina Faso, Gambia, Mauritania, São Tomé and Príncipe and Senegal.
“Meanwhile, the region still has the highest gender gaps in education in the world. In 2012, 19 million boys and girls of primary school age and 12.5 million of lower secondary school age were out of school — with 57 percent of the former and about 53 percent of the latter being girls,” the data shows.
According to UNICEF, while primary education is essential for children, secondary education is critical for the empowerment of women as it lays the foundation for a healthy and productive life and access to decent work. “Yet, gender gaps in completion rates can be stark at the lower secondary level.”
Poverty and the need for children to contribute to their families’ income generation is one reason why children are out of school. Across all countries, significantly more children from poorer households are out of school compared to their wealthier peers, according to UNICEF.
The data brief shows that protracted conflicts, exclusion, low quality of education and lack of re-entry policies after childbirth and school-based sexual violence also result in children, especially girls, dropping and staying out of school. “For example, in Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone, pregnant students in public schools are expelled, and a study in Cameroon found that 15 percent of sexual violence against adolescent girls occurs in the school environment.”
The data indicates that 75 percent of children in Ghana and 80 percent of children in Senegal identified teachers as main perpetrators of violence in their schools.
Child Marriage and Early Pregnancy
Compared to other regions, girls in West and Central Africa face the highest risk of marrying in childhood. On average, four in 10 young women in the region were married or in union before age 18, and 15 percent were married before age 15, according to UNICEF.
“Large spousal age gaps are common in West and Central Africa. Across all countries in the region with available data, the majority of young women aged 20–24 who were married before the age of 18 were married to someone five or more years older than them. In Gambia, Guinea and Senegal, around 2 in 3 child brides were married to a partner 10 years or more their senior.”
The date shows that child marriage is more common in rural areas and more prevalent among women living in the poorest households than among women living in the richest households; and also more prevalent among young women with no or low levels of education. According to UNICEF, quality education is one of the most powerful alternatives to prevent and respond to child marriage. Girls in school are not only protected from child marriage, but gain the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed throughout their lives.
The pace of progress in reducing child marriage remains too slow, according to UNICEF. “Even if progress is doubled, one in three girls will still be a child bride in 2030,” the data shows.
“Early childbirth and the overall number of births over a woman’s lifetime are strongly linked to child marriage. On average, child brides in the region have more children while still young. For example, in Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Gambia, more than three in five women aged 20–24 who married before their 15th birthday have three or more children, compared to less than 10 per cent of women of the same age who married as adults,” the data indicates.
“Like child marriage, adolescent childbearing is linked to socio-economic status in West and Central Africa. In all countries in the region, adolescent childbearing is highest among the poorest households.”
The data brief shows: “Adolescent childbirth also occurs outside of marriage and cohabitation, although this varies greatly from country to country. For example, in Guinea-Bissau and Liberia, more than 1 in 2 women aged 20–24 who had a birth during adolescence did so outside of marriage or cohabitation. In Chad and Senegal, fewer than 1 in 10 women did.”
Intimate Partner Violence
The study shows that one in four adolescent girls aged 15–19 who have ever been married, has experienced emotional, physical or sexual violence at the hands of a husband or partner. “The prevalence rates in Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and Gabon are particularly stark — nearly half of ever married adolescent girls experienced intimate partner violence in the 12 months preceding the survey,” it specifies.
Female genital mutilation (FGM)
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a violation of girls’ and women’s rights. The data shows: In West and Central Africa, nearly 30 percent of girls and women aged 15–49 have undergone FGM in practicing countries in the region. Prevalence varies from a low of one per cent in Cameroon to a high of 97 percent in Guinea. “A number of countries are home to high prevalence of FGM in the region: at least 3 in 4 girls and women in Gambia, Burkina Faso, Mali, Sierra Leone and Guinea have undergone the practice,” it shows.
Intergenerational Effects of Adolescent Childbearing
The well-being of adolescent mothers, including their health and educational outcomes influences the survival and development status of their children. For example, anaemia, which is highly prevalent among younger pregnant girls in West and Central Africa, can create health complications for both adolescent mothers and their babies, according to the data brief.
According to UNICEF, Across all countries in West and Central Africa with available data, children born to mothers younger than 20 years of age face a higher risk of dying within the first 28 days of their lives than children born to women aged 20 or older.
Adolescent mothers’ health-seeking behavior
Children’s health outcomes also depend on their mothers seeking healthcare, but a number of barriers stand in the way for adolescent mothers, including their decision-making power, ability to cover healthcare costs and perception of healthcare providers’ attitudes towards them. The data shows that overall in West and Central Africa, adolescent mothers tend to seek care for children with diarrhea, fever, or pneumonia slightly less often than older mothers.
UNICEF urged countries to urgently tackle the social norms and institutions that deny women and girls educational opportunities, constrain access to sexual and reproductive health information and services, and condone harmful practices such as child marriage.