Ongoing human rights crisis in Sierra Leone:
Thousands of adolescent girls who became pregnant - often due to sexual abuse or exploitation - are still being denied the right to attend school
The Ebola epidemic focused international attention on the widespread sexual violence and exploitation of girls in Sierra Leone. Many young girls returning to school after the crisis found themselves denied the right to an education because they had become pregnant:
“Samantha” was impregnated by her teacher when she was only 16. He would often ask her to carry water to his house in exchange for basic school supplies and good grades. Ultimately, the teacher molested and raped Samantha, who kept quiet because she was afraid of what he would do to her in retaliation. Despite her family’s interventions, the teacher was allowed to continue working in the classroom—a classroom that Samantha was expelled from because of her pregnancy.
Like many girls in Sierra Leone, “Jeanne” lost both of her parents to the Ebola epidemic and is on her own at age 17. She hoped that getting an education would be her ticket to a better life. However, “biker boys” demanded sex from Jeanne in exchange for transportation to and from her job and school, and having no other options, she complied. Jeanne became pregnant and was devastated to find out she could no longer attend school or sit for public exams.
“Frances” was only 13 years old when she was exploited and became pregnant by a much older man who helped pay for her school fees in exchange for sexual acts. She too is no longer allowed to go to school. Frances’ mother, a single mom without any support from relatives, despairs this injustice.
Like Samantha, Jeanne and Frances, girls in Sierra Leone continue to be sexually assaulted and exploited while trying to pursue an education. Abusing their positions of trust, teachers have become predators, raping girls or coercing them into sexual acts in exchange for books, school fees or transportation. Now pregnant, these same victims are being denied an education because of the governmental practice of banning pregnant girls from school which became entrenched after Ebola.
Sierra Leone was already facing repercussions of brutal war-related sexual violence that saw adolescent girls forced into “marriages” and other horrific acts of sexual brutality and forced pregnancy. Similar to other post-conflict and humanitarian crisis countries, the lack of an adequate response to rape occurs despite laws on the books such as the Sexual Offences Act (2012) and agreement to progressive treaties like the African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol).
TAKE ACTION NOW!
No girl who finds herself pregnant, and especially after having been exploited and violated, should be additionally victimized by being denied an education.
In an attempt to accommodate these “out of school” girls, the Government of Sierra Leone set up alternate measures, supported by international aid. However, while this alternative might have been based in good intentions, the resulting separate and unequal schooling is only perpetuating discrimination and stigma against girls who have already been victimized by those with power. Additionally, these measures are in no way equal to regular, compulsory schooling as they are optional, operate only a few hours for a few days a week and do not allow the girls to sit for national exams.
International donors must ensure all girls are educated and use their funding abilities to promote equality and freedom from violence.
Pregnant girls like Samantha, Jeanne and Frances are being punished while their abusers walk free. Sierra Leone must ensure that the rights of adolescent girls are respected and enforced so that they can flourish and help build the future of their country. Equality Now, with our partners Women Against Violence and Exploitation (WAVES), Women’s Partnership for Justice and Peace (WPJP), Graceland Sierra Leone, Child Welfare Society and the Education for All Coalition – Sierra Leone, call on the government to act immediately to stop the violence, punish the perpetrators and lift the ban on pregnant girls attending school.
PLEASE JOIN US BY:
Calling on the Government of Sierra Leone to:
- Immediately lift the ban on pregnant girls attending school and to fulfill its international obligations under the Maputo Protocol and all human rights instruments which it has ratified.
- Enforce the Sexual Offences Act and hold perpetrators accountable for sexual harassment, assault and exploitation.
Calling on international donors, especially the Governments of the United Kingdom, Ireland and the United States to:
- Urge the Government of Sierra Leone to provide a safe education for all girls within the mainstream education system, especially when many of those the government is now denying an education have been the victims of sexual harassment, exploitation and violence.
- Ensure that education policies and initiatives funded by the United Kingdom, Ireland and the United States effectively address the broader issues of sexual violence and exploitation affecting girls’ access to a quality education.
Letters should go to:
President Ernest Bai Koroma
Rt. Hon Penny Mordaunt
Secretary of State for International Development
Department for International Development
London SW1A 2EG
Joe McHugh T.D.
Minister of State for the Diaspora and Overseas Development Aid
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
80 St. Stephen’s Green
Dear President Bai Koroma,
I am deeply concerned about the reports of sexual violence against girls and of pregnant girls being unable to attend school or take exams in Sierra Leone. Girls have a fundamental right to feel safe in their own communities, whether in school or commuting to and from school. Something must be done—and urgently—to systematically address and eradicate violence and sexual exploitation against them, especially in schools. They should not have to exchange sex for a decent education at any level. No girl who finds herself pregnant, and especially after having been exploited and violated, should be additionally victimized by being denied an education.
As a party to the African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol), Sierra Leone is required to prevent all forms of violence against women and to ensure that adequate resources are allocated towards this obligation. It is also obligated to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women and guarantee equal opportunity and access in the sphere of education.
Teachers and other duty-bearers must particularly be held accountable if they are committing such acts of violence against girls and the government must ensure such accountability. Sierra Leone should uphold the rights of all its citizens and protect women and girls from sexual violence, in line with its national constitution and penal code, and its obligations under regional and international human rights instruments.
I join Equality Now and its partners in Sierra Leone in calling for justice and to allow all girls to benefit from mainstream education. Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.
Letter to Donors:
I am deeply concerned about reports of sexual violence against girls and of pregnant girls being unable to attend school or take exams in Sierra Leone. While your government’s education funding efforts in Sierra Leone are commendable, please look again at this issue which is actually harming girls and causing inequality in education.
Girls in Sierra Leone continue to be sexually assaulted and exploited when simply seeking an education. Abusing their positions of trust, teachers, men and “biker boys” have become predators, raping girls or coercing them into sexual acts in exchange for books, school fees or transportation. Now pregnant, these same victims are being denied an education because of the governmental practice of banning pregnant girls from school which became entrenched after Ebola. Funding educational efforts without taking this reality into account harms the rights of all girls.
Adolescent girls in Sierra Leone have a fundamental right to feel safe in their own communities, whether in school or commuting to and from school. They should not have to exchange sex for a decent education at any level. A zero tolerance policy against sexual exploitation of girls and in support of their full access to proper schooling must be enforced to ensure all girls benefit from your educational support.
I join Equality Now and its partners in Sierra Leone in calling for justice to comprehensively address violence and exploitation against adolescent girls. In addition, I am asking you to use your office to immediately call on Sierra Leone to allow all girls to attend school free from violence, to take exams and to contribute to the prosperity of their country.
Thank you for your support of girls’ education. Your support in ensuring all girls in Sierra Leone have that opportunity is very much appreciated.