Sena and her spouse are public servants in Accra whose main worry in life is to do their best for their 3 children. Their children are Aku 7, Richard 15 and Edem 17. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Ghana in 2020, it hit Sena and her family very hard. Apart from dealing with the dilemma of childcare after schools were closed, Sena is a frontline worker. Uncle Mens, Sena’s husband as he is affectionately called is a top manager in a Multinational Corporation whose role demanded his presence at work in the heat of the pandemic. In June 2020, Sena noticed that Edem was pregnant, 2 months after the partial lockdown was instituted.
This is the story of many families and especially girls who became pregnant through several unpleasant ways including sexual exploitation, sexual violence, defilement and rape. While we continue to interrogate how perpetrators of sexual violence against girls are dealt with, the situation for other girls is linked to the economic devastation caused by the pandemic. In the Krachi West District, 51 teenage pregnancies were recorded between March and May 2020, a ninefold increase from the previous year. In similar incidences, girls in the Bukom area in the Greater Accra region attributed the rise of teenage pregnancy to the closure of schools and parental neglect.
A report by World Vision International titled “Covid-19 Aftershock: Access Denied” found that teenage pregnancy surged during the Covid-19 crisis, a situation which is threatening the education of about 1 million girls across sub-Saharan Africa from returning to school amidst “additional and unanticipated disruption”.
Since hitting Ghana in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked economic, social, political havoc among others. To mitigate its spread and impact, the government of Ghana put in some responsive mechanisms including the closures of schools, a partial lockdown which lasted for 3-weeks, amongst many others. The pandemic has exposed the failures of our structures and systems which deepen women and girls vulnerabilities.
One of the negative impacts of these has been the increase in cases of teenage pregnancy due to the failure of the government to properly integrate gender in its responsive mechanisms. Even though the government in collaboration with the UNFPA launched a helpline for victims of domestic violence to report cases of abuse, the move was not complemented with the establishment of more shelters to serve as safe havens for victims. Similarly, young girls were at the mercy of unscrupulous men who took advantage of their innocence by raping them, defiling them or sexually exploiting them to satisfy their sexual desires.
While on partial lockdown, the government failed to inculcate the needs of women’s sexual and reproductive health into their plans. Unlike countries such as Zimbabwe, South Africa and Rwanda that gave essential services status to some Non-governmental and Civil Society Organizations that provided support to victims of abuse, the government of Ghana refused to allow access to these even at public health centres.
According to Marie Stopes, “as many as 1.4 million women globally lost access to family planning services alone” and in Ghana, more than 26,000 women and girls lost access to “contraception due to significant reductions in service provision for 3 months (April – June) at Marie Stopes Ghana clinics, health outreach areas, and in all the private BlueStar clinics that they support”.
In the case of parents like Sena and her spouse, their daughter was safe in their house until they found out about her pregnancy. Even though the UN Women declared gender-based violence a “shadow pandemic” admonishing governments to put stricter measures in place to protect women and girls, the government of Ghana did not heed.
The effects of teenage pregnancy are huge on our economy and contribute to making girls more vulnerable and setting countries several years back on their developmental gains. It also contributes to extending the chain of poverty as the education of girls is disrupted during the period of pregnancy or confinement. It exposes girls to the risk of several diseases that may threaten their well-being and progress in life. The increase in teenage pregnancy is a threat to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Teenage pregnancy contributes to widening the already widened inequality gap and limits the opportunities for girls and their realization of their economic emancipation.
The country needs to develop and implement existing legal frameworks complimenting it with stricter punitive measures. This will deter other perpetrators from sexually abusing girls. It is important for the government to be deliberate in integrating gender in all responsive mechanisms during emergencies to adequately protect women and girls against further vulnerabilities. It is equally important to provide childcare support to lactating mothers to aid their reintegration into schools as provided by the Ghana Education Service re-entry policy guidelines for teen mothers. It is important to strengthen the understanding of information and services towards providing sexual education to support young women through comprehensive sexuality education.
As we gear up towards “leaving no one behind” in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, we need to fully commit to protecting girls against further harm and vulnerabilities as COVID-19 lingers on. While the magnitude of the pandemic is unprecedented and continues unabated, girls like Edem and the millions around the world should be guaranteed education “Because the evidence is clear: educating girls isn’t just good for the girls, it’s good for all of us.” Michelle Obama.