Sunday, 3 April 2011


Why are Lofa girls dropping out of school at such an alarming rate?

By Stephen D. Kollie, +2316460677

Korpo Wilson, 17, did not realize having a child would hurt her schooling until she was four months pregnant. Wilson is a 9th grade student looking forward to the important and compulsory West African Exams at the Kintoma community school in Voinjama.

Last year she was on one of the school's brilliant girls, listed on the principal’s excellence list: “Many of my friends use to be jealous of me because I was very clever in class. But I regret the day I got a boyfriend,” she says.
Wilson, who is now 8 months pregnant, was thrown out of school after her school's administration discovered her condition. This prevented her from sitting the West African Examination Council exams, which would qualify her for senior high. 
“The first day my mother heard I was pregnant she called me inside the room and asked me if it was true. But I denied it because I was afraid. My boyfriend (now 23) advised me not to disclose his name because he was afraid my mother would ask him to take care of my affairs.”
Despite government, local and international NGO efforts to improve girl’s education in Liberia and Voinjama in particular, girls drop out as a result of teenage pregnancy and inadequate support by parents. But the problems are many: more than 80 percent of educational infrastructure was destroyed during the civil conflict and there is an acute lack of adequately trained teachers, especially female teachers, in the country.
Voinjama is the provincial capital of Lofa, one of the largest counties in Liberia with an approximate population of 20,000. Before the war, it was known as the bread basket of Liberia, but poor roads and infrastructure are a major impediment to the county's recovery.
Liberia has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the world with one-third of teenage girls becoming pregnant before 19 years of age. Statistically, the gender gap in Liberia's elementary schools has narrowed. The most recent school census revealed that girls accounted for 47 percent of students registered at Liberia’s public primary schools, but only 31 percent at public high schools in 2007-2008.
According to the Ministry of Education, only 41 percent of girls are enrolled in school compared to 59 percent of boys. But the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) reports that in Liberia, almost 35 percent of the population has never attended school, including 44 percent of females. This leaves many girls and young women without the skills to access potential job opportunities. To combat this, the Ministry of Education (MOE) is implementing a Girls' Education Policy.
School principals in Voinjama have often expressed concerns over the large number of girls who are energetic at the beginning of the school year but end up dropping out. For instance, at the Voinjama Multilateral High School, one of several government schools in Voinjama, an FPA investigation discovered that out of the 279 enrolled girls at least 20 have dropped out. 16 out of 20 drop out as a result of pregnancy while the rest was due to lack of financial support both in school and at home, the registrar of the school, Charles Mayango, told FPA.
At the Voinjama Free Pentecostal Mission, the biggest private high school in the district with over 700 students, 25 girls have already left this year. 18 out of 25 were discovered pregnant and the rest dropped out for financial constraints. 
A student at the Free Pentecostal Mission told FPA that a teacher of the secondary division was responsible for the pregnancy of one girl who dropped out. Also at the Multilateral School, a sixteen year old girl of the 7th grade class was said to have died as a result of an abortion.
The high rate of teenage mothers became public in 2009 when the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare reported 7025 teenage pregnancy in Lofa County, with at least five hundred of them coming from Voinjama. Statistics for 2010 showed that the rate decreased to 5159.
To encourage teenagers in school, the World Food Program (WFP) has been relentless with its “girls take home ration” of bulgur wheat, oil and beans. The program is offered to the Voinjama Free Pentecostal Mission School, Voinjama Public School and several other elementary schools. Additionally, the International Medical Corp (IMC) initially helped several other girls with lanterns, kerosene and other educational materials to keep them in school.
Elizabeth Jallah, age 15, is another teenage mother. She previously attended the Voinjama Public school before she became a dropout pupil this year. Jallah is a 5th grade student and already 2 months pregnant. Jallah, telling her story to FrontPage Africa, said she is the second daughter of her extended family and received dozens of lashes from her father and other relatives every day about her state.
Terribly for Elizabeth, her boyfriend has denied the pregnancy saying she was in another affair with an unknown boyfriend, which increased her parents rage. “My father was very angry with me and could not even speak to me for some time. I tried to make him understand that it was not my fault to get pregnant at this time but to no avail. He use to call me sometimes unserious child but I shifted the blame on my very self. My mother was a bit calm and was always by me during my medications,” she explained.
Jallah, like Korpo Wilson, says she was asked to exit the school because of her pregnancy. Her boyfriend is a sixth grade student of the same institution and has been in school since the pregnancy occurred.
Her mother advised her to move in the village for some period of time so that they would better have access to food and other key things to survive with. She pays visit to the nearest hospital in their town where she receives some counseling from the nurse as to how to keep strong and have a healthy baby.
In April 2006, at the launch ceremony of her Girls' Education Policy, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf noted that Liberia is working “to see a new country with a shared vision for girls’ education…to free humankind from poverty, discrimination and disease.”
The president also stated that the government’s new policy will serve to “create literacy and development,” and that her government is committed to charting “a new course of education for the girl child and for women.”
The girls’ education policy, the culmination of more than two years of work by the Ministry of Education and partners calls for meeting the UN's Millennium Development Goal Two by “providing free and compulsory primary school and reducing secondary school fees by 50 per cent, recruiting and training more female teachers, providing counseling in schools for girls, ending the impunity of teachers who commit sexual abuse and assault of students and offering life skills at schools to raise the self-esteem so girls can say no to sexual abuse.”

It also calls for increasing the availability of small scale scholarships for girls, strengthening health systems in schools, opening new parent-teacher associations and girls clubs as well as promoting adult literacy.
Madam Elizabeth Tamba, a reproductive health officer at the Lofa County Health Team says teenage pregnancy is very common at her health center. She told FrontPage Africa that they are often involved in counseling dropout teenage mothers. “We can always tell them the best way to remain healthy and have safe delivery. But it’s really a big problem for our school going kids in Voinjama.”
Tamba said the best way a student can stay in school is to hold on with family planning. “The school going child must adapt to any of the family planning methods” she said. She added that when a teenager gets pregnant it can pose grave complications at child birth, noting that their reproductive organs might not be fully matured.
Teta Morlu, age 14, is now back in school. She says her situation is very challenging to cope with. “My mother holds my child at home while I go to school every day. But I have to leave my breast milk in a bottle for my baby to take in when hungry”. She continues: “At first she didn’t like the way I behaved, but she is gradually understanding my situation that it was just baby by chance not by choice”
Quizzed as to whether a setback to her education was ever experienced, Morlu says that she was compelled to repeat the 7th grade when she returned to school. “My friends left me behind but I am still trying my best to pick up. But I am sure I will not repeat myself again.”
The debate on the effect of teenage pregnancy on the learning atmosphere has never been easy in this post war country. Some fathers and mothers shift the blame on girls, accusing them of being unserious, while other links it to poverty.
Natico, a social worker with the International Rescue Committee in Voinjama and a father of two, thinks the reason is poverty. “Poverty is one of the most increasing factors for teenage pregnancy in Liberia.” He said nowadays in many sectors of our country, teenagers are serving as bread winners for less privileged families.
Early or forced marriage and traditional gender roles, he says, are also important factors in the rate of teenage pregnancy. “On the other hand, the quest for flashy or material things by teenagers is another important factor.” Many Liberian teens engage in transactional sex, increasing their risk of getting pregnant.
Women, says Natico, that are exposed to abuse, domestic violence, and family strife in childhood are more likely to become pregnant as teenagers, and the risk of becoming pregnant as a teenager increases with the number of adverse childhood experiences.
Miyesha A. Cheeks, a parent and trained health practitioner, suggests that to reduce the rate of teenage pregnancy and encourage girls' education, schools should offer sex education, making sure to start as early as the elementary level. The workshops would teach Liberia’s youth about family planning, how the body works, safe sex and the consequences of sex. It should, she says, “correct any myths, misinformation and misconceptions”
The government, says Cheeks, must develop free after-school activities to keep teenagers engaged and active. “Remember, an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.”
Korpo Wilson is now anticipating a baby boy. Like young Morlu did, she plans to return to school a year after giving birth. She said her mother will take care of her child as she continues her education so that she can follow her dream of becoming a professional nurse. She vows never to repeat her “mistake.”
“I will not have a child until I finish my education.”