Increased drop-out rates will disproportionately affect adolescent girls, further entrench gender gaps in education and lead to increased risk of sexual exploitation, early pregnancy and forced marriage.
Despite repeated promises by Kazakhstan’s authorities to reform the country’s restrictive protest law, on March 26, parliament rushed through the first vote on a bill that would ultimately maintain the government’s tight control over peaceful assembly.
Activists in Kazakhstan have criticized the draft law and questioned the timing and rushed vote. On March 15, in response to the first reported cases of COVID-19 in the country, Kazakhstan implemented a “state of emergency,” banning all mass gatherings, including protests. Activists argued rushing the bill to a vote while much of the country is under strict lockdown lacked transparency and made it difficult for the public to participate or mobilize.
On its face, the draft law appears less restrictive than its predecessor, the 1995 law on peaceful assembly. In some cases, it would require organizers to notify authorities of their intent to protest rather than having to obtain a permit, though they would be limited to a state-approved list of locations.
However, the bill still gives the authorities power to approve or reject requests to hold events depending on their form. Government officials can propose alternative locations, times, and dates. If the organizers do not consent to the change, the event will be canceled. None of this complies with international norms for respecting freedom of assembly.
In a positive step, parliamentarians proposed on March 31 to exclude an article of the draft law that would impose worrying new restrictions on journalists covering demonstrations.
Activists say the proposed law would do little to change the authorities’ current practices of invoking technical grounds to deny permission to protest and rounding up and detaining any gathering of peaceful protesters. They also expressed concerns that their key recommendations are not reflected in the bill and called for the government to submit the draft to international expert review, to assess whether it adheres to human rights norms.
With the country under lockdown and protest activity limited as a result, there is no clear reason why the government should rush ahead with a vital bill that will undermine citizens’ fundamental right to freedom of assembly. Parliament should postpone any further votes until activists’ concerns are taken into account and the emergency situation is lifted to enable proper transparency.
Since mid-March 2020, the authorities have apparently arrested at least a dozen people, including a doctor, opposition activists, and students, for their comments about coronavirus, most of them under the draconian Digital Security Act. The Information Ministry announced that it has formed a unit to monitor social media and various television outlets for “rumors” about COVID-19 cases.
“While the government has a responsibility to prevent the spread of misinformation about COVID-19, this doesn’t mean silencing those with genuine concerns or criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should stop abusing free speech and start building trust by ensuring that people are properly informed about plans for prevention, containment, and cure as it battles the virus.”
On March 25, the government issued a circular assigning 15 officials to monitor each television channel for “rumors” and “propaganda” regarding Covid-19. The next day, the order was withdrawn, with Md Mizan Ul Alam, additional secretary of the Information Ministry, explaining that the circular was being expanded: “In fact, the officials will not only monitor the private television channels, but also all other media, including the social media.”
Even academic work is risky. Two government college teachers were allegedly suspended for posting on social media about the virus. One researcher is reportedly under investigation for publishing a paper projecting the impact of COVID-19 based on epidemiological modeling first presented in an Imperial College report that helped to spur governments to enact policies to contain the spread of COVID-19. The Bangladesh paper predicted that by May 28, over 89 million people in Bangladesh could get symptomatic infections and 507,442 could die. Netra News, the agency that broke the news about the report and investigation into its author, has been blocked in Bangladesh since December 29, 2019.
Meanwhile, a leaked interagency United Nations memo on Bangladesh’s Country Preparedness and Response Plan for COVID-19 estimates that up to two million people could die from the disease in Bangladesh if immediate steps are not taken to contain the spread of the virus.
On March 25, 2020, the Education Ministry put two government college teachers on temporary suspension for posting “provocative” statements and pictures on Facebook “inconsistent with the government’s ongoing integrated activities [to control the coronavirus pandemic].” The government order says the teachers are being suspended for misconduct under the Government Servants (Discipline and Appeal) Rules, 2018 for engaging in activities “against government management, indiscipline and against public interest.”
A number of people have been detained for social media posts. On March 24, the police reportedly arrested two men, Shahidul Islam Russel and Abdul Ahad, and filed a case against a third in Feni all under the Digital Security Act, apparently for spreading rumors on Facebook that a police officer had contracted COVID-19. On March 22, the Detective Branch reportedly arrested two students, Sohel Sheikh Hridoy and Anam Sheikh, in Pirojpur for “spreading rumors” about the Coronavirus on Facebook. On March 19, the Rapid Action Battalion reportedly arrested Meraz al-Sadi in Khulna for “spreading rumors through Facebook posts containing offensive propaganda and various quotes on coronavirus.”
On March 20, police reportedly arrested Saddam Hossain Ovi in Manikganj, under the Digital Security Act, for “spreading rumors” of COVID-19 infections in Manikganj. “It is a rumor – there is no coronavirus-affected patient in the district,” the additional superintendent of police in Manikganj said.
Members of the political opposition are also being targeted. On March 21, the police reportedly arrested Dr. Iftekhar Adnan for “spreading rumors,” after a 35-second audio clip went viral in which Adnan warns his friend over the phone that the death toll from coronavirus in Chattogram is rising and alleges that the government is withholding information. Notably, the police said Adnan is a supporter of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Adnan was apparently arrested under the Digital Security Act, a law that has been repeatedly criticized for being prone to abuse.
On March 22, the police reportedly arrested another BNP supporter, Sumon Sawdagar, in Jamalpur, after he criticized government officials on Facebook for their “irresponsible” remarks about COVID-19. A local ruling Awami League leader allegedly filed the case under the Digital Security Act.
Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds, regardless of frontiers. Permissible restrictions on freedom of expression for reasons of public health may not put the right itself in jeopardy.
Governments are responsible for providing information necessary to protect and promote rights, including the right to health. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights regards as a “core obligation” providing “education and access to information concerning the main health problems in the community, including methods of preventing and controlling them.” A rights-respecting response to COVID-19 needs to ensure that accurate and up-to-date information about the virus, access to services, service disruptions, and other aspects of the response to the outbreak is readily available and accessible to all.
“Instead of combing Facebook and television and arresting people for posting about COVID-19, Bangladesh authorities should focus energy on actually stopping the spread of the virus,” Adams said. “This includes upholding academic freedom and the right to free speech, and ensuring that everyone has access to accurate information about the spread and impact of the virus.”
(Nairobi) – The Sierra Leone government’s decision to allow girls who are pregnant or have a child to attend school is an important step to improve education for girls in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 30, 2020, President Julius Maada Bio and Education Minister David Moinina Sengeh announced the immediate end to the school ban against pregnant girls and teenage mothers in place since 2010.
“By ending the 10-year ban against pregnant girls and teenage mothers attending school, the Sierra Leone government is finally addressing a longstanding injustice,” said Elin Martinez, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This measure gives every girl the chance to achieve her full potential and succeed in getting her education.”
Sierra Leone was among a handful of countries in Africa that explicitly banned girls who became pregnant or are mothers from its schools. In December 2019, in a case brought by a coalition of Sierra Leonean and international groups, the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ruled that the ban was discriminatory and ordered the Sierra Leone government to revoke it. The court also found that alternative schools for pregnant students, a largely donor-funded government program, was also discriminatory.
Teenage pregnancy is endemic in Sierra Leone. Thirty-six percent of all pregnancies in the country occur among adolescent girls. Only 38 percent of girls are enrolled in secondary schools. In late 2018, Sierra Leone’s first lady, Fatima Bio, opened a national campaign “Hands Off Our Girls.” Her campaign focused on reducing child marriages and teenage pregnancies in the country, in part to tackle the spike in teenage pregnancies following widespread rape during the Ebola crisis. Reflecting on this campaign, President Bio stated “We have wasted a lot of time in restricting the potentials of women and girls.”
Following the decision, the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE) will lead a collaborative and consultative process to develop a comprehensive policy setting out its vision of “radical inclusion” and “comprehensive safety,” in which “all children are encouraged and supported to realize their right to universal education, without discrimination.”
The Sierra Leone government should adopt a human rights-compliant “continuation” policy to ensure that the decision is fully put into effect nationwide, and that it spells out girls’ rights so that education staff have clear guidance, Human Rights Watch said.
Some African countries already have such policy measures, stating explicitly that pregnant students are allowed to remain in school for as long as they choose to, without prescribing a mandatory absence after giving birth. The policy should also provide special accommodations for young mothers at school, for instance time for breast-feeding, time off when babies are ill or to attend health clinics, and access to nurseries or early childhood centers close to schools. Girls and their families should also be able to get school-based counselling services.
The government should also address the root causes of early and unplanned teenage pregnancies. The authorities should provide adolescents with access to sexual and reproductive health services, include comprehensive sexuality education at school and in the community, and ensure access to a range of contraceptive methods and safe and legal abortion.
“The Sierra Leone government should accompany this announcement with clear directives for school officials to accept, include, and support pregnant students and teen mothers in schools,” Martinez said. “It should also broadcast messages of inclusion nationally, and work with communities to ensure that girls, their families, teachers, and community leaders know that all girls belong in school.”