The West African Ebola outbreak (2014-2016), which led to a nine month lockdown, closure of schools and economic hardship in Sierra Leone served as an eye opener to the rise in pregnancies among girls and young women during pandemics.
Women are sexually abused, exploited and engage in consensual sex during lockdowns and dire economic hardship. This has prompted health experts to warn the country of a possible surge in unwanted teenage pregnancies as it battles with the novel coronavirus pandemic.
In preventing a rise in unwanted pregnancies, an international charity has launched an interactive sex education app in Sierra Leone.
Ramatu Jalloh, Director of Save the Children’s advocacy and communications in Sierra Leone, said the app which was created in form of an interactive game is aimed at averting a repeat of pregnancy trend in the country.
“Our concern is that if we weren’t addressing those issues that made them unsafe at home then we could possibly have high risks of the same thing occurring,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
In a bid to curb the spread of the virus, countries have enforced lock downs, closed businesses and schools, ban flights and other measures that have kept the economy in dire situations.
School closures and economic hardship could see increased risks for women and girls across Africa including higher rates of unwanted pregnancy, gender-based violence and child marriage.
In Sierra Leone, schools do not engage in sexual health education. Students are left to face online misinformation combined with community taboos around sex and sexuality, thereby make it difficult for young people to access reliable information.
“We felt that we could kill two birds with one stone by attracting their attention through a medium that they liked and providing them with trustworthy information that will help them make informed choices around sex,” Jalloh said.
While playing the game, players encounter situations linked to sexual health and coronavirus measures, and are offered two choices on the best way to move forward.
Some of the questions asked are : “Your friend just had her first period. Does that mean she is ready to give birth?” one question says. “My classmate just walked by our kitchen window! Let’s go and say hi,” says another, focused on social distancing rules under lockdown.
Emma Kargbo, a 16 year old from Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown, says “It teaches us about contraceptives and other ways we can be protected.”
This helps teenagers connect with their peers through technology, disseminating information and getting people engaged during lockdown. For Jalloh, the focus is on prioritising education, debunking myths and sharing support contacts.
The World Bank 2017 data shows Sierra Leone leading at the 13th highest rate of teenage pregnancy globally, with 113 births per 1,000 adolescents, more than 10 times the rate in Europe. With this initiative young girls and women will be sensitized on the consequences of having unprotected sex, contraceptives and abstinence.