Let Girls Learn
In Sierra Leone ‘visibly’ pregnant girls are banned from attending school. In many cases these girls are pregnant as a result of rape and sexual exploitation. This is a violation of their right to education, as well as their right to live free from gender based violence and exploitation.
Why are pregnant girls being banned from school in Sierra Leone?
Sierra Leone has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the world. According to a 2013 study by the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA), 38% of women aged 20-14 had already given birth by age 18. An estimated one-third of all pregnancies in Sierra Leone are teenage pregnancies.
In 2002, the government of Sierra Leone established a Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) to promote healing and resolve conflicts following 11 years of political and civil unrest, which not only resulted in the death and displacement of many Sierra Leoneans but was also characterized by sexual violence and systematic rape (UNDP, 2006).
Amongst the directives that flowed from the TRC was a call to implement a National Strategy for the Reduction of Teen Pregnancy: “Let Girls be Girls not Mothers!” This strategy was enforced in 2013 and centered on reducing the high incidence of teenage pregnancies. It focused on ensuring that girls remain in school for their own improved socio-economic status, and also because of the potential impact that their continued education has on improving the overall social and economic development of the State.
Unfortunately, the implementation of this Strategy was hampered by the outbreak of Ebola. In March 2014, during the Ebola outbreak, the government of Sierra Leone directed the closure of all schools to contain the disease and avoid further spread. Schools remained closed until April 2015.
During the Ebola crisis, a considerable number of girls were raped and became pregnant. A study conducted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in 2015, targeting 18,119 girls, reported that 42 percent of girls aged between 15 and 17 became pregnant for the first time during the Ebola outbreak period.
When schools reopened, the government backtracked its position under the National Strategy when the-then Minister of Education, Science and Technology, Dr Minkailu Bah, issued a Ministerial Policy banning visibly pregnant girls from attending school. Although alternative schools were created for some girls, they were not accessible and did not offer the same quality of education as that taught in mainstream schools.
What is behind Sierra Leone’s ban on pregnant girls attending school?
Policies like the one Sierra Leone has enacted, which do not permit girls to attend schools once they are pregnant or after they have given birth, are rooted in patriarchal beliefs about sex, morality and women’s bodies. The men or boys in question often do not face any consequences.
Some lawmakers also believe, wrongly, that seeing a young girl who is pregnant will cause other girls to seek out becoming pregnant, although international studies have shown that this is not the case.
How does excluding girls from school affect their lives?
While official figures estimate 3,000 girls are affected by the ban, outside experts and human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, believe the figure is closer to 10,000.
For girls who become pregnant as a result of rape, laws like that in place in Sierra Leone further enforce a narrative of shame around survivors, and may further increase their trauma by pushing them away from their communities.
Excluding girls from education also furthers a cycle of poverty, that will impact the girl and her child for years to come.
Pregnancy is also a significant risk for young girls’ health. Childbirth related complications are among the leading causes of death for adolescent girls (15-19 years old) worldwide. A baby born to an adolescent mother between 15-19 years old is at a significantly greater risk of infant mortality, with stillbirths and newborn deaths at 50 percent higher rates than for mothers who gave birth at age 20 and older.
A girl’s body is not physically developed enough to give birth. Early childbearing can also result in an increased risk of miscarriage, difficulties during labor, postpartum hemorrhaging and obstetric fistula, which can occur when a mother gives birth before her body is physically ready to do so. Additional barriers preventing young girls from accessing medical care also prevent young girls from receiving adequate care and medical advice throughout their pregnancy.
So what does the law actually say?
As of April 2015, Sierra Leonean law prohibits “visibly pregnant” girls from being present in “school settings.” The law can be implemented through searching and physically “checking” girls for signs of pregnancy.
The government, along with international aid has established a system of school for “out of school girls” but these schools still operate on the assumption that pregnant girls and girls who are mothers must be kept “separate” from their peers who are not. The resulting separate and unequal schooling is only perpetuating discrimination and stigma against girls who have already been victimized by those with power.
Sierra Leone is not the only African country with laws on the books that require pregnant girls to drop out of school. These laws represent a threat to girls’ right to education, and pose lasting impact on her ability to reach her fullest potential and to fully participate in community, civic and economic life.
Is this in breach of International Law?
The Government of Sierra Leone is failing in its international obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill girls’ right to education. We believe that the ban amounts to the double violation of the girls’ rights owing to the fact that girls who are affected by the ban are in almost all cases victims of sexual violence and exploitation in the first place.
What is Equality Now doing about this?
In 2018, Equality Now, along with Women Against Violence Exploitation in Society (WAVES), Child Welfare Society, and the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa filed a case in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice against Sierra Leone’s ban on pregnant girls attending school. The case came before the Court on May 6, 2019 and a verdict is expected on December 12th 2019.
Additionally, Equality Now continues to work with our partners in the region to increase awareness of the issue in Sierra Leone and around the world and to amplify the voices of girls who have been affected by the ban.