"Stay a Virgin, win a scholarship" – Bo City, Sierra Leone


Bo City Council has started a new scholarship program to keep girls in school. The only catch…she must remain a virgin through her educational career to keep the scholarship. Bo City councilman Mathew Margao said the scholarship will ensure that “80 percent of school going girls keep their virginity until they finish their educational life”. Margao added that, “the council will hire female medical personnel who would prove the authenticity of the girls virginity”. The councilman say they started the scholarship in response to a reported rise in teenage pregnancy by the Ministry of Gender and Social Welfare. There were 500 reported secondary school pregnancies in Kailahun a town to the east of Bo. 

Pregnant teens face greater risks at childbirth. They accounted for 40 percent of all maternal deaths in Sierra Leone in 2008. Family planning experts say that sex education and contraceptive use do more to reduce unplanned pregnancies amongst teens. But in Sierra Leone where 70 percent of pregnant teens are already married one might argue that these pregnancies are planned. Even the youngest teens in Sierra Leone sometimes look forward to becoming mothers. They are unaware of the risks they might face during childbirth or the possible neonatal affects on the baby. And those teenage moms who survive the ordeal of losing a baby are sometimes eager to try again. Our culture tells us that losing a baby at birth is either God’s will or caused by witchcraft.

Many parents sometimes encourage older, wealthier suitors for their teenage daughters. This is not to say that young girls don’t date boys their own age. But many young women , especially from low income single parent households are encouraged to find men who will take care of them financially.
While the idea that the government in Bo believes it lawful to violate the bodies of young  women with its virgin scholarship is problematic, the real question of how to effectively combat teen pregnancy in Sierra Leone still remains.

When the powers that be conceived ‘free healthcare for expecting mothers and children under 5, it was simply to fight our discouraging maternal mortality rates and not a holistic women’s reproductive health policy to address all aspects of women’s health. Sierra Leone’s private and public health systems have yet to adequately address the issue of teenage pregnancy so it is up to politicians in places like BO to find their own solutions.

The most ostentatious efforts to target teenage pregnancy by NGOs or the Ministry of Health are limited to outdated bill boards warning girls to refrain from getting pregnant least they become a drop outs with no opportunities. The health NGOs and the public health system refuse to acknowledge that teenage girls in Sierra Leone will discover  and experiment with their sexuality much like girls all over the world. Teenage girls in Sierra Leone will have sex with boys their age and with men much older than they are. Some will do so of their own free will while others will be seduced by wealth, status, etc.

Teenagers need to be properly educated and counseled about the consequences of being sexually active in a modern world. They need to have access to contraceptives. I once interviewed a young woman in Freetown who said she didn’t use condoms because she was afraid it would get stuck in her stomach. Who is going to teach her otherwise? Politicians like councilman Margao?

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