New Internationalist

Scholarships for virgins?

It's that time of the year in Sierra Leone, when the colourful tunics come out of the closet and children go back to school after a lazy summer. But according to a new UNICEF report, 300,000 of them will not return to school. And, many of these will be, young girls.

Literacy rates in Sierra Leone are devastatingly low, just 29 per cent among women. One of the chief culprits, as the report indicates, is teenage pregnancy. About 12 per cent of girls have their first child by the time they're 15, and, most never return to school.

As I shuffled through the report, it jogged my memory about a piece I had read in the papers here a few months ago. To encourage girls to stay in school local groups in the provinces had been offering scholarships to those that chose to remain virgins. In the Biriwa District in northern Sierra Leone, the Biriwa Youth Association for Development (BYAD) claimed it had a hundred university scholarships for teenage girls who agreed to be examined by a community nurse. At the same time village chiefs are trying to stigmatise stigmatize teenage pregnancy through immediate suspension for both the girl and the boy. They insisted that such moves were bringing pregnancy rates down.

Incentives and deterrents are time tested but the findings in the report are counter intuitive. There seems to be a backlash against young women who benefit from these grants. ' "Girls are (forcibly) impregnated by their peers as a "punishment" for receiving opportunities to further their schooling, whilst boys are left with no option,"' the report says.  In the eastern part of the country this '"punishment'" amounts to rape.

For a young girl, puberty seems like a bit of a vicious cycle. If she chooses to remain chaste and go to school, it leaves her vulnerable to sexual intimidation by male peers. If she gives in to peer pressure, she gets pregnant and still gets thrown out of school. It also seems barbaric to subject a teenage girl to invasive sexual exams when she, like 90 per cent of women in the country, has probably been through the torture of female genital mutilation.

It quickly becomes apparent that most out-of-school girls end up as petty traders on the street once they've delivered their babies. The common source of employment is selling bags of cold water. Girls as young as 12 are weighed down by ice coolers and plastic tubs that they have to carry around on their heads. They dash into traffic yelling '"cold waata'" at commuters, hoping that someone will be thirsty enough. Aminata, a 14-year-old girl I once chatted with, complained that she was frequently ill from hauling cold water around in the blazing sun, but her aunt refused to let her stop. Who else was going to provide for her baby?

Other African countries, like Nigeria and Uganda, are also trying to weld these financial chastity belts onto their teens. But does it really work? If UNICEF's evaluation is anything to go by, it may actually be making things worse. So, what's the solution? Maybe more female teachers in the provinces so that young girls do not feel isolated. Perhaps more gender sensitisation sensitization for male tutors. Or earlier sex education coupled with better condom distribution. The possibilities are endless. What seems to be missing for now is a clear understanding of the problem.

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