Every year, thousands of young girls in Burundi become pregnant — and as punishment, they won’t be allowed back in school.
According to documents obtained by gender equality organization Equality Now, Minister of Education Janvière Ndirahisha introduced a ban on June 26 that prevents pregnant adolescent girls, teen mothers, the boys who impregnated them, and victims of child marriage from attending either private or public school. Ndirahisha suggests that such adolescents could instead seek out vocational or professional training.
Human rights advocates have criticized the measure, which is intended to discourage teen pregnancy, as both a violation of rights and discriminatory against girls.
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"By punishing pregnant girls and denying them education, the government is curtailing their futures and penalizing them on the basis of their gender,” Naitore Nyamu-Mathenge, program officer at Equality Now, told Global Citizen. “The government of Burundi must put in place mechanisms and policies for teen mothers to get back to school.”
Burundi is not the only country to institute such a policy. Equatorial Guinea, Tanzania, and Sierra Leone all have bans against pregnant girls and teen mothers attending public schools. However, Burundi’s ban goes one step further by preventing teen fathers from attending school as well.
While the ban technically applies equally to teen mothers and fathers, it is likely to disproportionately impact girls. About 11% of women now between the ages of 20 and 24 in Burundi gave birth to at least one of child before they turned 18, according to UNICEF.
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Nearly one-quarter of women in Burundi have experienced sexual violence — though the figure is likely higher as incidents of sexual violence often go unreported due to social stigma. Young girls, particularly those living in poverty and with limited access to education, are often more vulnerable to both sexual violence and pregnancy.
Equality Now highlights that girls living in poverty are at even greater risk of becoming pregnant as they may engage trade sex for the basics they need to survive, but cannot afford, including food, clothing, and school fees.
Burundi already suffers from poor lower school secondary (middle school) attendance rates — only about 11% of children between the ages of 12 and 15 attend secondary school in the East African country. And rather than banning boys and girls from school to discourage teen pregnancy, rights activists and experts advocate for expanded access to education to prevent adolescent pregnancy.
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But more than just education is necessary to help prevent early pregnancy, which can have health consequences both for young mothers whose bodies are not ready to bear children and their babies, who face higher rates of infant mortality than babies born to women above the age of 18.
To help quell adolescent pregnancy, "the government of Burundi must re-double efforts to eradicate violence against girls and women, and enforce laws against perpetrators of sexual violence,” Nyamu-Mathenge said in a statement. “It must also launch campaigns at a nationwide level to alleviate the stigma and discrimination endured by pregnant girls and survivors of sexual violence and exploitation."