(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.”