By Kieran Guilbert
KAMBIA, Sierra Leone (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Beaten at home by her parents and unable to go to school due to the Ebola outbreak which devastated Sierra Leone, 15-year-old Rugiatu Conteh had nowhere to go, and no one she could turn to.
Until she met Abdul, a charming man in his early twenties.
"He was kind and helped me to get by, at first," she said.
"But he changed when he learned I'd got belly (become pregnant). Then he disappeared," Conteh, now 17, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the northern district of Kambia.
Struggling to survive without Abdul, or her parents who had died of Ebola, the pregnant teenager took solace in resuming her education when schools reopened in April last year, after nine months of closure in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.
But her sense of hope was short-lived. Along with thousands of other expectant girls, Conteh was banned from going to school by the government when classes resumed. Many girls missed entrance exams for universities and colleges as a result.
The education ministry said last year allowing the girls to go to school would undermine their ability to do well in class, expose them to ridicule and encourage others to become pregnant.
"We are angry about the ban - it wasn't our fault we had so many problems during Ebola," said Salamatu Bangura, 17, who gave birth to a boy last year. She had slept with an older boy who paid for school supplies and books her family could not afford.
The government and United Nations last year launched alternative classes for pregnant students, which will continue to cater for those who fall foul of the ban as Sierra Leone starts its first full academic year since the Ebola outbreak.
Yet countless girls will suffer stigma and discrimination unless the ban is lifted in the West African nation where only six in 10 girls aged 15 to 24 are literate, compared with three-quarters of boys in that age range, human rights activists say.
"Pregnant girls are being denied key chances to move forward with their lives, and to ensure early pregnancy does not become the event that determines the rest of their lives," said Sabrina Mahtani, a researcher at Amnesty International.
"NOTHING IS FOR NOTHING"
Even before Ebola broke out in late 2013, Sierra Leone had one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world. One in four girls between the ages of 15 and 19 had children or were pregnant, figures from the 2013 government health survey show.
Rape, abusive relationships, and sex in exchange for money were rife in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak, fuelling a spike in teenage pregnancies, several aid agencies said.
Some 18,000 teenage girls became pregnant during the world's worst recorded Ebola outbreak, which killed nearly 4,000 people in Sierra Leone, according to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA).
"Poverty and sexual violence fueled teenage pregnancies, but too many people see it from another perspective," said Wongani Grace Taulo of the U.N's children's agency (UNICEF).
"They say the girls are going out, looking, begging for sex. It is so frustrating that these girls are seen as in the wrong."
Leaning against the wall outside a crowded classroom, with three or four pupils huddled around each desk, Ishata Kaagbo laid the blame for her pregnancy on men from local biker gangs.
"One of the boys would drive me around, give me money for lunch, and look after me," the 15-year-old mother said, who has just returned to school with her classmates Conteh and Bangura.
At the nearby Rokupr Bike Riders Association, dozens of young men, shouting to be heard, traded insults and teased those who had not been "potent enough" to impregnate a local girl.
"A lot of girls don't get enough support from their parents, so we help them, and they do something confidential for us in return," said 18-year-old Bai Turai. "Nothing is for nothing."
Amid the back-and-forth banter, some of the men said they felt forced to abandon the girls when they became pregnant, as they could not afford to look after them and were afraid of being attacked or taken to the police by the girl's relatives.
BACK TO SCHOOL
Pregnant girls and young mothers in Sierra Leone have traditionally been discouraged from going to school, said Yusuf Kamara, a state representative and head of education for Kambia.
"Girls are not meant to expose their pregnancy," Kamara said. "The government's ban is the will of the people."
Yet across lush and leafy Kambia, a mainly Muslim state along Sierra Leone's border with Guinea, many teachers and parents firmly disagree.
"We want our girls to go to school - to have better lives than us," said 62-year-old Soria Bangura, a father of three.
Teacher Alpha Kamara said he and his colleagues "swept the ban under the carpet" by allowing their pregnant students to finish their exams, and giving them tutoring outside of school.
"We couldn't leave so many young people behind," he said.
After the ban, many girls said they were mocked and shunned by their peers, while some were forced to undergo public pregnancy tests, such as having their breasts and stomachs felt by teachers and giving urine samples, Amnesty said.
To combat this, and ensure pregnant girls did not miss a year's schooling, organizations like UNICEF set up after-hours sessions in schools and classes at separate learning centers.
Giggling and exchanging shy smiles, the girls, now back at school, recalled sharing tips and stories about being pregnant. "Most of our babies' fathers ran away," Bangura said. "At least we had each other - we were all going through the same thing."
Some of the girls were frustrated at being forced to repeat the year that they completed in the alternative classes.
"The government want to punish the girls by setting them back a year," Taulo of UNICEF said. "Who knows when the state will stop making a moral example of them and end the ban?"
But nothing could trouble the grin on Conteh's face as she spoke about returning to school, and her hopes for the future.
"I can't wait to go back to class," she said. "After all, I'm going to be Sierra Leone's first female president."
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)