Three years ago today, President Julius Maada Bio announced that the Government of Sierra Leone had lifted the ban prohibiting pregnant schoolgirls from attending school. The decision followed a judgment issued on December 12, 2019, by the ECOWAS Court, in a case brought by Equality Now 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).
Civil war and Ebola: Understanding the teenage pregnancy crisis in Sierra Leone
The decade-long conflict in Sierra Leone was marked by an extraordinary level of human rights abuses, including sexual violence against women and girls. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) estimates that 215,000 to257,000 women and girls were sexually violated during this conflict, though this is likely an underestimation.
In 2013, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) developed a National Strategy for the Reduction of Teen Pregnancy: Let Girls be Girls, not Mothers. The strategy focused on addressing the alarming cases of teenage pregnancy and ensuring that girls continued with their education. Still, the implementation of this strategy was hampered by the outbreak of the Ebola pandemic in 2014. In many cases, these girls were pregnant as a result of rape and sexual exploitation, exacerbated by the Ebola outbreak.
The Ebola outbreak also strained interventions to address sexual and gender-based violence. Reporting sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) cases was made difficult by regulations, including curfews and restrictions on movements that exacerbated these violations against women and girls. Across the country, schools were closed to curb the spread of the virus, leaving thousands of girls vulnerable mainly because social protection systems collapsed. Cases of sexual violence rose, and more than 18,000 girls became pregnant during the crisis.
Why were pregnant girls excluded from school in Sierra Leone?
During the crisis, the then Minister of Education, Science and Technology, Dr. Minkailu Bah, issued a Ministerial Policy banning visibly pregnant schoolgirls from attending school.
Although the government of Sierra Leone created alternative schools for some girls, these were not accessible and did not offer the same quality of education as mainstream schools. The ban prohibiting pregnant schoolgirls from attending school amounted to a double violation of the girls’ rights, considering that many were survivors of SGBV.
Challenging discrimination at the ECOWAS Court of Justice and winning
Determined to challenge this discriminatory policy, Equality Now teamed up with Sierra Leonean partners Women Against Violence and Exploitation in Society (WAVES) and Child Welfare Society (CWS), as well as the Institute for Human Rights and Development (IHRDA) to file a case at the ECOWAS Court of Justice in May 2018.
In December 2019, the Court held that the government had breached the girls’ right to education, declared it discriminatory, and violated the girls’ right to education.
On March 30, 2020, President Julius Maada Bio announced that the Government of Sierra Leone had lifted the ban prohibiting pregnant schoolgirls from attending school. He committed to the radical inclusion of girls in education to ensure that no child is left out of the education system as well as the comprehensive safety of all children in the educational sector. The government of Sierra Leone has also initiated interventions that will support girls’ education such as the [re-entry policy and the] multi-sectoral task force which periodically discusses the challenges girls face.
How has Equality Now been holding the government of Sierra Leone accountable?
We are committed to ensuring that the government of Sierra Leone guarantees the human rights of adolescent girls to be free from sexual violence and provides access to justice and their right to education.
Following the judgment, we worked with partners locally engaging with key government actors to explain the court decision and ensure it translated into action, including a commitment to address the root causes of teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone.
Together with WAVES, Defence for Children International (DCI)-Sierra Leone, and Child Welfare Society (CWS)- Sierra Leone, we continue to engage with different partners and the government to ensure that girls can access education, that schools are safe spaces for all girls, perpetrators are held to account and that girls live free from sexual violence.