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Let Girls Learn: Protecting the rights of pregnant school girls in Africa

Women and girls are sexually exploited in a range of circumstances and settings. Not uncommon among these is the exploitation of girls by their teachers at school. 

Along with sexual violence being committed by teachers and other authority figures, girls are sometimes coerced into “transacting” sex for a variety of things such as getting good grades, transportation to school, provision of basic needs, etc.

Accountability for exploiting schoolgirls is rare, and in some countries, should the girl become pregnant, she is then excluded from continuing education, a further human rights violation.

In Zambia, for example, adolescents and schoolgirls are often on the receiving end of sexual violations. These violations often occur in traditionally safe spaces such as schools and homes where guardians and caregivers are sometimes the perpetrators. Many girls are raped, sexually abused, and harassed by their male teachers and male classmates when they go to school. Many incidents of sexual violence go unreported because of victim shaming, stigma, and fear of reprisal as well as unresponsive school authorities and legal systems; and in the end, they do not get redress. 

Across Africa, from Tanzania to Zambia and Sierra Leone, there is a continuum of violations from a failure to protect girls from bodily integrity to denying them access to education once they get pregnant due to sexual violation.  Lack of accountability for sexual violence against adolescent girls fosters impunity and encourages increased violation against these girls.    

Pregnant girls in Tanzania are being excluded from school

Since 1961, Tanzania has had a discriminatory policy that allows the expulsion of pregnant school girls from school and denies adolescent mothers from returning to school after giving birth. Since 2017, various political declarations rapidly enhanced the implementation of this policy. More than 55,000 schoolgirls in Tanzania were expelled from school between 2003 and 2013 according to a  2013 report by the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR).

In November 2020, alongside our partners, we filed a case at the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights against the government seeking to overturn the discriminatory policy that permanently expels pregnant girls from school and bans adolescent mothers from returning to school after giving birth.

On November 24th 2021, the Tanzanian Minister for Education, Prof Joyce Ndalichako issued a statement indicating that girls who presently do not have access to education on account of pregnancy or other ‘gender-based challenges’ would now have an opportunity to rejoin the mainstream education programme in Tanzania.

Whereas this is a positive statement of intent, it does not lift the ban on pregnant girls and young mothers from accessing education as the ban is based on the Tanzania Education Policy of 2002. Unless the minister’s statement is followed by legal and policy reform, it will not amount to access to education for the girls.

What does the law say?

Equality Now’s work to support the rights of adolescent girls focuses on Tanzania, Sierra Leone, and Zambia 

Zambia, for example, has a robust legal and policy framework on sexual violence. The Penal Code prohibits sexual violence including rape, incest, indecent assault, and defilement among others. Both the Anti-Gender Based Violence Act, 2011 and The Education Act, 2011, address sexual violence. Section 32 of the Education Act mandates education boards or boards of management to develop procedures for preventing gender-based violence of employees, teachers, and learners at educational institutions and to establish mechanisms of dealing with such cases. 

Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Zambia are each bound by regional and international human rights treaties that guarantee the right to education and protection from sexual violence, including at the regional level, through the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the Maputo Protocol. 

Holding Sierra Leone Accountable for violating the rights of pregnant school girls

Before 2020, Sierra Leone banned ‘visibly’ pregnant girls from attending school. In many cases, these girls were pregnant as a result of rape and sexual exploitation. This was a violation of their right to education, as well as their right to live free from gender-based violence and exploitation.

In May 2018, together with Women Against Violence and Exploitation (WAVES) and Child Welfare Society (CWS) and in collaboration with the Institute for Human Rights and Development (IHRDA), we filed a case at the ECOWAS Court of Justice challenging the discriminatory ban. In December 2019, the Court declared that the ban was discriminatory and was in violation of girls’ right to education. 

In Sierra Leone, following the Court’s ruling, the Government lifted the ban in March 2020 resulting in girls being granted access to education.  The government of Sierra Leone has also initiated interventions that will support girls’ education such as the re-entry policy and the Multisectoral task force which periodically discusses challenges girls face.

What is Equality Now doing?

In Sierra Leone, we are continuing to engage with our partners and the government to ensure that girls are able to access education, and live free from sexual violence.

To protect the rights of adolescent girls in Tanzania, together with our partners, we filed a case at the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights against the Government seeking to overturn the discriminatory policy that permanently expels pregnant girls from school and bans adolescent mothers from returning to school after giving birth.

In Zambia, we are advocating for legal and systemic reforms that will drive this discourse and hold the government of Zambia to account together with our partners Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA) and the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWEZA). Following our engagement with stakeholders on the gaps in accessing justice, there has been improved response to cases of sexual and gender-based violence. 

Additionally, we engaged stakeholders including officials from the Ministry of Education together with our partners WLSA and FAWEZA, seeking accountability and protection of adolescent girls in schools. As a result, the District Education Board Secretary (DEBS) committed to providing oversight and support for the safe spaces model in Luangwa District and to cascade the model to other schools.