Sierra Leone’s Education Minister David Moinina Sengeh has announced that a 2010 decision of government barring pregnant girls from going to school has been overturned. The girls were also prevented from writing exams when the policy was enforced.
The government has rather introduced two new policies – the ‘Radical Inclusion’ and ‘Comprehensive Safety’ of all children in the education system. President Julius Maada Bio made it clear that his ‘New Direction’ Government makes decisions based on both evidence and constitutional due process.
On 12 December 2019, the regional Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice ordered the government of Sierra Leone to lift a policy banning pregnant girls from attending school.
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The case challenging the ban was brought by Sierra Leonean NGO (WAVES) in partnership with Equality Now and the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA).
The 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 and 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, 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 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 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.
“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.
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.”
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.
Following the statement to overturn with immediate effect the ban on pregnant girls attending schools, Marta Colomer, Amnesty International’s Acting Deputy Regional Director for West and Central Africa said: “Today we have cause to celebrate as thousands of pregnant girls across Sierra Leone will be allowed back into classes nationwide when schools reopen after COVID-19.
“This inherently discriminatory ban which was formalized for almost five years now has already deprived too many young women of their right to education, and the choice as to what future they want for themselves. It has now rightly been consigned to the history books”.