A regional West Africa court has ordered the government of Sierra Leone to lift a policy banning pregnant girls from attending school.
The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) court in the milestone ruling described the policy as discriminatory, ordering the government to immediately revoke the policy.
Since April 2015, pregnant students in Sierra Leone were not allowed to sit in the same class as their peers because the government sees them as a bad influence.
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The government of Sierra Leone has instead put in place alternative schools for these young mothers, where they are taught a reduced version of the mainstream curriculum.
According to Equality Now, one of the advocacy group which sent the case before the court in 2018, the Sierra Leone government adopted the policy barring pregnant girls from mainstream schools following an increase in teenage pregnancy rates linked to closed schools during the Ebola crisis.
“The decision is a resounding victory for girls’ rights in the region and the continent at large,” said Sabrina Mathani a British-Zambian human rights lawyer.
“This victory belongs to the girls in Sierra Leone who have been degraded and dehumanized because of their status since 2014,” The Guardian quoted Hannah Yambasu, executive director of Women Against Violence and Exploitation in Society (Waves), one of several organizations that filed the case against Sierra Leone in May 2018 as saying.
“Now our government in Sierra Leone has no option but to comply with their obligations as declared by the court.”
Mathani documented the ban, imposed by the former education minister in 2015 while working as a human rights lawyer for Amnesty International. She found in research that, the vast majority of girls they interviewed had become pregnant during the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak when there was an increase in teenage pregnancy, accompanied by a spike in sexual violence.
“The negative economic impact of the crisis led to an increase in exploitative and abusive relationships. Many girls had little information about sex education or access to contraceptives,” Mathani stated.
“The schools were sub-optimal and completely limiting for the girls,” The Guardian quoted Judy Gitau, Africa regional coordinator at Equality Now as saying.
“We know they felt worthless [having been banned from normal education] and to have a regional court make a declaration that the government of Sierra Leone breached its obligations to provide [basic human rights] to the girls makes them feel valued again. This ruling has given them a new lease on life.”
A former pupil, Patience, who got pregnant when she was 17 and found herself banned from attending school, told the Guardian: “I am very happy because I did not have the opportunity to stay in school myself.”
“If I had been able to stay in education, I would be in my last year at uni now, or maybe I would have graduated already. I would have liked to have studied nursing. Instead, my name was taken off the school register and I was offered vocational training. Yet my daughter’s father was never banned from school, and he was able to continue to do everything he wanted to do.”
Sexual violence is said to be highly prevalent in Sierra Leone, where 8,505 rape cases – among them 2,579 involving minors – were reported to police in 2018.
Mathani said she was struck by the bravery of the girls and their determination to access education despite the obstacles.
Some of the girls said they tied their stomachs so teachers could not tell they were pregnant, a risky strategy for their health.
Others said they were prepared to face any stigma to continue in school and obtain a qualification, something that becomes more challenging for many girls after giving birth due to the lack of child care support.