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Street Child is a UK charity, established in 2008, that aims to create educational opportunity for some of the most vulnerable children in West Africa.

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Rachel Reeves MP on Ebola, One Year On

Martin Forsyth

It is one year since Sierra Leone was first officially declared Ebola free. It is also one year since Rebecca had her baby.

Rebecca is one of 12,000 children orphaned by Ebola in Sierra Leone (Street Child). She is also one of the 18,119 girls to fall pregnant during the crisis (UNFPA).

Yesterday, to mark the anniversary, the President of Sierra Leone led a three minute silence at 11am to remember those who lost their lives to the virus that ravaged the country and tore families apart. Flags were lowered to half mast, schools paused their lessons and traffic stopped.  

For girls like Rebecca, now 18, the reminders of Ebola are not just once a year, they are in her everyday fight for survival.

During Ebola she lost her mother, uncle and sister. She and her father were the only survivors. The family fell further into poverty forcing Rebecca to find a boyfriend who agreed to give her food in exchange for sex. When she became pregnant he abandoned her.

Rebecca cannot contain her emotion when she describes how her father then passed away too, leaving her pregnant and alone.

She cannot go to school and makes a paltry living selling small items at market and braiding hair. 

Today, one year on, she is still struggling to afford basic food and medicine for her baby.

Whilst the scenes of overcrowded Ebola treatment centres and medical staff wearing full disease protection clothing may no longer be on our screens, here in the UK we need to question whether we averted our eyes too quickly. Is this crisis really over?

For girls like Rebecca and thousands others like her, it certainly isn’t.

4,000 people lost their lives in Sierra Leone during the epidemic that swept the country in 2014-15.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, girls and women were disproportionately impacted. UNDP says that teen pregnancy rates rose by up to 65% in some communities. A generation of babies have now been born to teenage mothers like Rebecca who were forced to exchange sex for food during Ebola.

Without support, many of these teenage mums will never go back to school. Many will struggle to find a job and many of them will struggle to feed their children.

The Government of Sierra Leone says that every year that a girl stays in school increases her earning potential by 10-20%. The sad reality for many of these teenage mothers is that their chances of finishing their education ended when they became pregnant.

What if these girls were given a chance? What if more girls were able to go to school after Ebola?

Right now, the Sierra Leonean economy is really struggling. Street Child Social worker George Quaker tells us ‘the price of rice has doubled since 2014 and wages have not risen in line with this.’

Ten days ago I hosted an ODI event on Women’s Economic Empowerment in Westminster. I have no doubt that supporting women in business could play a key part in Sierra Leone’s recovery, if more women and girls are given the opportunity to contribute. 

UK NGO Street Child has provided 8,000 Ebola-impacted families with business grants and support in the last eighteen months and the majority of these went to women, because they make the best use of the funding. Time and again, mothers have proven more likely to invest the profit that they make directly back into their families. Rebecca will soon become one of the mothers given a second chance by Street Child.

Tackling inequality in education and investing in women will undoubtedly help Sierra Leone recover faster. It will mean that more women are able to make an economic contribution that helps the country and their family.

Educated girls not only earn more but they make better mothers too: they are more likely to ensure that their children go to school and that they have their vaccinations. Literate mothers are also better able to access information and advice that can help their children, like being able to read the instructions on medicine packets.

Widespread education could, in itself, have helped stem the rapid spread of the Ebola virus if more people had been literate so that they could read the posters and leaflets warning about how the disease is spread. 

Ebola is a prime example of how low illiteracy can create problems far beyond that country’s borders. Lack of education meant that Ebola spread quickly and posed a global threat - including to the UK. 

For me, I believe we have a moral duty to act when faced with extreme poverty and inequality, but it is also important to recognise that supporting global education and tackling gender inequality is actually good for everyone. So it makes sense for us to care about what happens to the poorest and most vulnerable children in Sierra Leone. It makes sense for us to want to see more Ebola orphans helped and more girls able to access education.

The UK has a strong, generous record in supporting international development and ring fencing 0.7 percent of GDP that we should be proud of. Our aid can help some of the children worst impacted by Ebola to have a chance; and it can help prevent future outbreaks of diseases that could affect any one of us.

As we join with Sierra Leoneans in celebrating one year Ebola free, we must not forget that the recovery still has a long way to go - especially for the most vulnerable women and girls. As global citizens we should not turn the other way. Instead, we should help give girls like Rebecca hope for a better future.

References:

Street Child, Ebola orphan report: www.street-child.co.uk/ebola-orphan-report 

UNFPA quoted in Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium: http://www.securelivelihoods.org/publications_details.aspx?resourceid=402&Page=2 

UNDP: http://www.sl.undp.org/content/sierraleone/en/home/library/crisis_prevention_and_recovery/assessing-sexual-and-gender-based-violence-during-the-ebola-cris.html 

Street Child, Girls Speak Out report: http://www.street-child.co.uk/girls-report/