School closures are a common short run policy response to viral epidemics. The authors study the persistent post-epidemic impacts of this on the economic lives of young women in Sierra Leone, a context where women frequently experience sexual violence and face multiple economic disadvantages. The authors evaluate an intervention targeting young women that was implemented during the 2014/15 Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone. This provided them a protective space where they can find support, receive information on health/reproductive issues and vocational training. This analysis documents the impacts of the intervention on 4,700 young girls and women aged 12 to 25 tracked from May 2014 on the eve of the Ebola crisis, to the post-epidemic period in 2016. In control villages, school closures led young girls to spend significantly more time with men, teen pregnancies rose sharply, and school enrolment among young girls dropped by 17 pp post-epidemic, long after schools had re-opened. These adverse effects on enrolment are halved in treated villages because the intervention breaks this causal chain: it enables girls to allocate time away from men, reduces out-of-wedlock pregnancies by 7 pp, and so increases re-enrolment rates post-epidemic. A long term follow up in 2019/20 shows persistent impacts of the intervention on the human capital accumulation of young girls, time they spend with men, and quality of partners matched with. This analysis has important implications for school closures in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic in contexts where young women face sexual violence, highlighting the protective and lasting role safe spaces can provide in such times.
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