The economic lives of young women in the time of Ebola and lessons from an empowerment program

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Seven years ago, I blogged about some work I was doing looking at the impacts of an adolescent girls empowerment program in Uganda.   Today I wanted to write about a sequel, in a very different context.    In a recently released working paper, Oriana Bandiera, Niklas Buehren, Imran Rasul, Andrea Smurra and I look at the impacts of the same program in Sierra Leone. 
 
To review the program basics: this is BRAC’s ELA program.   It consists of a club where girls 12-25 can come and hang out.    They then get some life skills training – ranging from reproductive health to leadership.   Girls can also can take vocational training, with the offerings tailored to the local market.   Finally, older girls (18 and older) are also eligible for microfinance loans.   
 
In Uganda, where we looked at all of these components except for microfinance, we found impressive effects.   Girls were more likely to work (but also stay in school), earning enough money to buy their own air time, hair care, and the like.    They were much less likely to have a kid and sex against their will.   And they had more progressive views on gender roles.   For more on the Uganda results you can read the most recent paper here.   
 
In an effort to unpack the effects of different program elements, we set out to do a multi-arm randomized control trial in collaboration with BRAC in Sierra Leone.   But, as the program was implemented, the Ebola epidemic hit Sierra Leone, as well as neighboring countries.   
 
Aside from the direct impacts from mortality (Sierra Leone had about 14,000 cases of which close to 4000 resulted in death) there were a number of far reaching indirect impacts.   First, in an effort to stem the spread of the disease, the government imposed quarantines, limited travel and closed things such as markets in certain areas which had significant impacts on the economic activities of men and women.  Second, schools were closed for an entire (2014-15) academic year.   And finally, Sierra Leone’s limited health resources were diverted into caring for patients and preventing the spread of the epidemic, limiting their ability to do other things.  
 
All of these measures probably made a big difference in curtailing and ultimately halting the spread of the epidemic.    But, as they were implemented across different communities, they had significant impacts for the adolescent girls in those communities.   We collected data from village leaders as the crisis was winding down on these disruptions and use it to classify communities into high disruption and low disruption.     We also separate girls by cohort: girls 12-17 (younger girls) who are much more likely to be in school and older girls (18-25) who are much more likely to be working. 
 
In high disruption communities, younger girls suffer a strong shock to their enrollment.  Even when schools reopen, they are 16 percentage points (32% of the baseline mean) less like to be in school.    They shift their activity towards income generation, increasing this by 19 percentage points (238% of the baseline mean).  
 
This disruption also changes how girls interact with men, with girls spending an average of an additional 1.3 hours with men, a 48% increase over the baseline mean.   And this translates into reproductive outcomes: girls in high disruption villages are 10.7 percentage points more likely to be become pregnant, with most of these pregnancies occurring out of wedlock.  
 
So, given what we found in Uganda, did participating in the ELA club activities help ameliorate these impacts?   Short answer: Yes.   First of all, the drop in enrollment for girls who lived in high Ebola-related disruption communities is about half if they’ve been exposed to the clubs (8.1 percentage points).    And they have a smaller increase in purely engaging in income generating activities (5.8 percentage points).  Instead, we see a significant shift towards both being in school and working.    And all of this translates into higher literacy and numeracy among these girls.  Indeed, we also find improvements in business skills, attitudes towards gender roles, and health related knowledge among girls (in both high and low disruption communities).  
 
In both high and low disruption communities, both younger and older ELA girls spend less time with men.   And in high disruption communities, this is matched with a fall in out-of-wedlock pregnancies of 7.5 percentage points, with girls more likely to stay in school (8.5 percentage points).   It’s worth noting that at this time the government put in place a policy that prohibited visibly pregnant girls from going to school – so one could imagine how these results might be linked.
 
However, as younger girls are less available as partners, we see a shift in attention by men to older girls.  In treated villages, older girls are more likely to report an increase in unwanted sex (5.3 percentage points) and in transactional sex (5.4 percentage points).    The increase in transactional sex is in line with work from other contexts (e.g. Dupas and Robinson’s work on political violence in Kenya) that shows transactional sex is a coping mechanism used in the face of aggregate shocks.   Note however, that in case, this increase does not come with increased pregnancy. 
 
Adding all of this up, the impacts here show two things.     First, the Ebola crisis had a pretty wide range of negative impacts on adolescent girls in the communities that were more disrupted.   Second, the ELA program did a fair bit to dampen the negative impacts of the crisis: helping younger girls stay in school (while working) and avoiding the increased likelihood of having a child.    Will these protective results be the same in other contexts?    Stay tuned for forthcoming results from South Sudan.     
 
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