COTE D'IVOIRE: Pregnancy one more strike for girls’ education

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sylvie Kouamé*, 17, told IRIN she had sex for money with a man she met on line in her home country Côte d’Ivoire. She needed a few dollars for school fees.

She no longer needs money for school. Five months pregnant, Kouamé dropped out a few years short of graduating secondary school.

“Imagine – I had these expenses, and my parents have been unemployed for six years,” she told IRIN. “So a couple of years ago, I joined a club of girls at school who hook up with guys by way of the internet.”

Approximately 30,000 students in secondary school and university abandoned their studies each of the past two years because of pregnancy, according to local non-profit Jeunes Sans Vices (youths without vices).

“It is dramatic,” said a member of the NGO Martine Angoh. “It is an emergency and we must stop this haemorrhage.”

Many of the girls are having unprotected sex with near-strangers for money – like Kouamé - or with their teachers to get by in school.

“There is a sort of hidden but very real prostitution going on in schools. Girls are giving themselves more and more to the sex business,” Angoh said.

More on how students trade sex for grades here.

Former student Kouamé said: “The lucky girls who go out with their professors, they gain doubly – grades and money.”

She added: “Check out the schools in Abidjan [commercial capital] and even all over the country – for every 10 girls, you will not find more than three who do not do this.”

An Education Ministry official who preferred to speak anonymously told IRIN teachers regularly educate students about how to avoid unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Medical doctor Mathurin Allah told IRIN in some cases parents unable to provide for their children encourage - even force - their girls to have sex for financial gain.

Sociologist Anicet Assandé attributes youth pregnancies largely to Côte d'Ivoire's socioeconomic crisis. “We are in a time when vices like this have overtaken education; we are in a socioeconomic context that favours all sorts of depravity.”

Côte d’Ivoire, once among the most prosperous countries in West Africa, has seen poverty expand since its 2002 rebellion.

Assandé said: “The crisis has engendered many problems, including vast unemployment. Furthermore it has favoured open and ‘hidden’ prostitution. Students, they are in the second category. Innocent and carefree, they give themselves easily and the result is pregnancy or STDs.”

Whether girls are having unprotected sex for money, grades or companionship, the numbers are sobering, said NGO workers.

"This situation is due to the intensity of sexual activity [among young people] and especially the tendency to have unprotected sex,” Allah said.

Pregnancy lab

In the first four months of the 2008-09 school year scores of secondary school students have become pregnant, according to the urban health centres specialising in health in schools and universities (CSUS-SSU): 47 in the central town of Daoukro; 65 in nearby Dimbokro; 15 in Agboville south of Abidjan; 42 in Bouaflé in the centre-west; and 15 in the southern port city of Dabou – to name some localities.

“For so long, we have appealed for education for our girls. But now the future of that is uncertain,” said Angeline Kadio of the Ivorian non-profit SOS Abstinence.

“School is for receiving an education and succeeding in life. Now we have the impression that school has become a pregnancy laboratory."

Former student Kouamé told IRIN she hopes her future will include a job despite her interrupted studies. “After I have the baby, I hope to do some kind of professional training so I can take up a trade and make a living.”

* not her real name