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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  1. #1 danfry 17 Sep 09

    How do I give?

    Hi there, great post and it's so important to give girls a way out.

    However, how do I give to this? Where's the button to click to give to this particular project?

    I seem to be missing the clear call to action now that I have a clear understanding of the problem.

  2. #2 17 Sep 09

    obi talk

    Surely this is some kind of joke. Are they really serious? it's obviously a plan that's going to fail and harm the girls as the writer so clearly states. However I do want to correct one misconception. It was a few years past that Nigeria wanted to adopt such a foolish plan and it failed on the floor of public opinion, but there is no such practice in nigeria now. Thanks for writing about this I hope more people can express their disgust on this practice, then it will end soon.

  3. #3 Mobeen Mirza 23 Mar 11

    The first benefit of promoting scholarships among women is that through funded education, they can climb the corporate ladders easily and shoulder the leadership responsibilities. Women have already proven themselves at household leadership skills, it is time for them to widen their horizon and lead the organisations.

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About the author

Sulakshana Gupta a New Internationalist contributor

Sulakshana Gupta is a journalist currently based in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She manages media development projects for the BBC World Service Trust focusing on governance and human rights and in her spare time travels around the world. The opinions expressed in this blog are her own and do not reflect the views of her employer.

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