The power of investing in girls in Sierra Leone

Mariatu Sesay, 15, smiles as she carries her daughter Nadia while she walks outside her house in the countryside village of Sierra Leone  July 11, 2019. REUTERS/Cooper Inveen

Since 2010, Sierra Leone has prohibited pregnant girls and teenage mothers from attending school. On March 30, 2020, following a judgment by the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States, Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio and Education Minister David Moinina Sengeh announced the end of the 10-year ban. This decision is a major step forward to ensure that girls have the same educational opportunities as boys. It builds on other policies to facilitate access to education, including the Free Quality School Education Program announced by President Bio in August 2018. Yet more remains to be done.

As discussed in the latest World Bank Sierra Leone Economic Update, girls remain more likely than boys to drop out of secondary school. This is in part due to child marriage, with almost 3 in 10 girls marrying before the age of 18. The prevalence of early childbearing (having a child before the age of 18) is also high, at almost 3 in 10 girls. If child marriages were ended, teenage pregnancies would be substantially reduced. The resulting economic benefits for girls and for the country as a whole would be substantial.

Girls’ educational attainment, child marriage, and early childbearing are closely related. Once a girl is married or pregnant, it is very difficult for her to remain in school. In Sierra Leone, less than 2 percent of girls aged 15-19 are both in school and married. In turn, child marriage is the likely cause of almost two-thirds of all early pregnancies. By contrast, keeping girls in school would lead to major reductions in the prevalence of both child marriage and early childbearing. Each additional year of secondary education reduces the risk of child marriage by up to 10 percentage points, and that of early childbearing by 4 percentage points.

Providing adolescent girls in Sierra Leone with opportunities to remain in school is not only the right thing to do, it is also one of the smartest economic investments the country can make.

Lack of education, child marriage, and early childbearing also hurt other development outcomes. Girls who marry or drop out of school early are more likely to have poor health and larger families. They are less likely to be employed as adults, and if they are, they tend to earn less. All these factors make it more likely that their household will suffer from poverty. Other effects include a higher risk of intimate partner violence and a lack of decisionmaking power for women within the household. Fundamentally, girls who marry, have children, or drop out of school at an early age are disempowered in ways that deprive them of basic rights. This in turn affects their children, creating a vicious cycle that spirals down through generations. For example, children of very young mothers are at higher risk of dying before age 5.

As in previous studies at the global level and for the Africa region, the economic costs of not investing enough in adolescent girls in Sierra Leone are large. Ending child marriage, through a reduction in fertility, could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in gains in standards of living. In addition, earnings of adult women working today could be higher by $71 million in purchasing power parity had they not married as children in their youth. Ending child marriage could also generate savings for the national budget as lower population growth would relieve pressure on providing basic services to the population. Those savings could be invested in improving the quality of services, which could in turn enhance human capital and generate further economic benefits.

The need to invest in adolescent girls is especially pressing today given the potential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the 2014 Ebola crisis, adolescent girls in Sierra Leone suffered disproportionately in terms of the risk of dropping out of school and becoming pregnant. Appropriate policies are needed to avoid a repeat of this syndrome today. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the government introduced a Quick Action Economic Response Program in addition to a health sector COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan. Specific measures have also been undertaken for the education sector.

More fundamentally, to ensure that girls can remain in school and to avoid the risks of child marriage and early childbearing, both general and targeted programs are needed. This includes, at a general level, an adequate schooling infrastructure, a safe learning environment, and an education system that delivers effective learning outcomes. But it also includes the need for measures that specifically aim to ensure the active participation of girls, whether through economic incentives for girls to remain in secondary school or other programs such as safe spaces that provide valuable life skills. Providing adolescent girls in Sierra Leone with opportunities to remain in school is not only the right thing to do, it is also one of the smartest economic investments the country can make.