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Our Impact: Using the law to protect girls’ right to education in Sierra Leone

Access to education is a fundamental human right that every person is entitled to. Recognizing the critical role that education plays in enabling people to engage in all aspects of social, economic, and political life, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that every child must receive a free elementary school education. Despite this guarantee, millions of girls around the world are stymied by sex-discriminatory policies and misogynistic stereotypes that impede their ability to receive an education.

In Sierra Leone, school-aged girls were confronted with just such sexist roadblocks – a ban that prohibited pregnant students from attending school, so we mobilized our network, took the government to court, and successfully brought down the sexist law that denied girls equal access to education.  

How we work

We believe that legal equality is the first step towards gender equality. That’s why we use the power of the law to dismantle deep-rooted discrimination and inequality to build a just world for women and girls. 

Typically, the laws that we combat are multifaceted in their discrimination against women and girls. For example, in Sierra Leone the ban that prohibited pregnant students from attending school:

  • Denied girls equal access to education;
  • Ignored the prevalence of sexual violence among adolescent girls in the country and punished victims of abuse rather than offered them support;
  • Reinforced harmful stereotypes that mothers don’t belong in schools or professional settings;
  • Prevented other students from asking for support or resources if they had concerns about their sexual and reproductive health;
  • Stigmatized and shamed girls based on their reproductive status. 

To achieve legal equality and reform harmful laws, such as the discriminatory ban on pregnant schoolgirls, Equality Now works across three pathways:

  • Legal – We facilitate legal and systemic change that addresses violence and discrimination against women and girls around the world.
  • Advocacy – We advocate for progressive laws, jurisprudence, and enabling environments that respect and advance the rights of women and girls.
  • Collaboration – We work in partnership with like-minded organizations, activists, thought leaders, artists, scholars, and businesses to increase our reach and impact through strategic collaboration and pooled expertise.

The case of Sierra Leone

Collaboration: Working Together to Challenge Discrimination

At Equality Now, we have long believed in the power of partnerships. Our decades-long presence in Africa has enabled us to connect with organizations and activists doing incredible work across the continent. By working in tandem with grassroots and national partners, we can broaden our impact and stay informed of human rights violations even where we don’t have a physical presence. 

When we jointly challenge discriminatory laws, Equality Now brings expertise in international impact litigation and decades of experience working with international and regional human rights bodies. We partner with organizations that have in-depth knowledge of national law and unique insight into the specific cultural and political context of the case. 

In the case of Sierra Leone, we were contacted by our West African partners, Women Against Violence in Society (W.A.V.E.S), Defense for Children Sierra Leone, and the Child Welfare Society, regarding the discriminatory ban against pregnant school girls. We had to act. Together we decided to hold the government of Sierra Leone accountable for denying girls equal access to education. 

Our partners had a deep understanding of the real-life impacts that the school ban had on pregnant schoolgirls, and the long-term impacts that being denied an education had on their futures. This was critical to ensuring that the Court understood how the discriminatory law was harmful in practice and not just in theory. Drawing upon our previous experience leading on impact litigation before international human rights bodies, Equality Now assisted in crafting the lawsuit and preparing the legal team for testifying before the Court. 

Legal: Using the Courts to Fight for Gender Equality 

In May 2018, Equality Now supported WAVES and other local organizations to file a case against the government of Sierra Leone before the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice. The ECOWAS Court of Justice is tasked with resolving disputes related to the interpretation of the Community’s Treaty, Protocols and Conventions and is responsible for adjudicating on human rights issues and equally applies the international instruments on Human Rights ratified by the State or States party to the case.

We argued that the school ban on pregnant girls violated Sierra Leone’s international human rights commitments. Namely: The right to education and the right to non-discrimination. We further argued that forced and mandatory pregnancy testing of female students violated their rights to dignity and privacy

On December 12, 2019 the ECOWAS Court ruled in the girls’ favor, agreeing that banning pregnant girls from attending schools was in violation of the African Charter, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention Against Discrimination in Education. The Court ordered Sierra Leone to remove the ban and allow all girls to attend mainstream school regardless of their pregnancy status. 

Advocacy: Translating Legal Victories into Practical Gains 

The Court’s positive judgment was a major victory but our work did not end there. We needed to ensure that the government of Sierra Leone not only remove the discriminatory ban but also facilitated the re-entry of pregnant students in practice, as well as addressing the root causes of teenage pregnancy, including comprehensive sex education and sexual violence prevention.

On March 30th, 2020, nearly two years after we originally filed the case, President Bio announced that Sierra Leone would finally end the policy prohibiting pregnant students from attending school. In his statement, he recognized that the government had  “a moral and constitutional duty to protect the girl child and to change her outcomes.” Furthermore promising that “My government is focused on and committed to inclusive national development, meaning the radical inclusion of every citizen regardless of their gender, ethnicity, ability and socioeconomic or other circumstances.”

The work doesn’t end when the law is changed

President Bio’s announcement was an incredibly important step in ensuring that Sierra Leone respects the rights of all girls to receive an education but there is still a long way to go in ensuring full gender equality in the country.

With our partners, we continue to publicly advocate on behalf of girls who had been prohibited from attending school. We employed a wide range of communications strategies, from social media campaigns to journalist training and public-awareness events, to put international and domestic pressure on the government to immediately implement the court’s recommendation to remove the ban. Our public campaign also served to shift the narrative around teen pregnancy by combating a culture of victim-blaming and stigmatization and ensuring that they supported a girls’ right to education, regardless of her pregnancy status.  

We are also working with partners to ensure the implementation of the ruling, sensitizing stakeholders on the rights and needs of adolescent girls, and supporting the enactment of policies and procedures that will allow girls to access schools safely. 

Working together, we are building a world where all women and girls can live safe, fearless, and free.