How did Ebola impact the economic lives of adolescent girls? Evidence on pregnancies, human capital accumulation, and labour force participation in Sierra Leone

While disease transmission of Ebola has largely been brought under control, the epidemic has left deep marks on the Sierra Leonean economy. These effects are thought to be particularly severe for adolescent girls and young women. According to data obtained using high-frequency phone surveys, youth unemployment has soared and non-farm household enterprises, the sector most badly affected and dominated by women, have seen a steady decline in operations and earnings, particularly so in urban settings (World Bank, 2015). Simultaneously, there is ample anecdotal evidence that the search for alternative livelihoods, combined with school closure and the disruption of family planning services, have put girls at high risk of abuse and exploitation and has allegedly led to a surge in transactional sex and teenage pregnancies.

This project leverages data collected immediately before the outbreak as part of the impact evaluation of BRAC’s ELA programme, which can be used to understand how the lives of adolescent girls were affected by the Ebola crisis, and how the magnitude of these effects depend on pre-Ebola individual and community characteristics.

Already before the onset of the epidemic, teenage pregnancy and early childbearing were pervasive in Sierra Leone: of all pregnancies, 34% occurred amongst teenage girls (SLDHS 2008) and 40% of maternal deaths occurred as a result of teenage pregnancy (MICS 2010). In 2013, the Government of Sierra Leone therefore released the National Strategy for the Reduction of Teenage Pregnancy, a multisectoral approach to empower adolescent and youth, particularly girls.

We address key questions regarding the interplay between reproductive choices and labour market outcomes of young women in low-income countries. For adolescents, concerns in these areas are closely interlinked: teen pregnancy and early marriage impact young girls’ human capital accumulation, and limit their labour force participation. Simultaneously, poor labour market opportunities reduce girls’ incentives to invest in human capital, leading to early marriage and childbearing. We will contribute to this stream of literature by providing the first evidence on how both channels were affected by a major aggregate health-related shock to the economy, and whether the provision of health education, vocational training, and microcredit prevented programme participants from moving into an equilibrium of higher fertility, lower human capital accumulation, and lower labour force participation.

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