Sierra Leone’s government is standing by a harmful law that keeps pregnant girls out of the classroom.
Pregnant students in Sierra Leone can now take their exams but still cannot attend school, according to a statement released by the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education on Tuesday. The ban is meant to protect the students from overwhelming schoolwork and prevent pregnant students from being "negative influences." Human rights advocates say the law disempowers girls and promotes shame.
“This is a futile gesture as the government is continuing to bar them from attending school, therefore preventing them from accessing education,” Naitore Nyamu-Mathenge, human rights lawyer and program officer at the organization Equality Now, told Global Citizen.
The government statement said pregnant girls should "stay away from schooling during pregnancy because of their inability for effective learning…"
The ministry backed its decision with a misleading claim that "it was widely perceived that pregnant girls have the potential to negatively influence their peers to be sexually active and become pregnant."
Sierra Leone’s government first introduced the pregnancy ban in schools in 2018. Education became free for all that year, but students who became pregnant are still banned from schools. Students who are fathers are not penalized for becoming young parents.
To support pregnant students, Sierra Leone’s government set up well-intentioned alternative education programs supported by international aid, Nyamu-Mathenge said. But separating students and offering unequal schooling is only perpetuating discrimination and stigma against girls who have been victimized.
"Instead of erroneously focusing on preventing pregnant girls from going to school, the government of Sierra Leone should lift this harmful ban,” Nyamu-Mathenge said, “and redirect its attention towards providing universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, and eliminating all forms of sexual violence against all women and girls.”
Cases of reported rape and sexual assault doubled in 2018, up from 4,000 to 8,500 in a country of 7.5 million people.
Equality Now and the Sierra Leone-based nonprofit WAVE challenged the ban in the regional court in June. Human rights organization Amnesty International later joined the effort. The case is still pending before the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) Court of Justice.
Sierra Leone’s pregnancy ban is believed to keep thousands of students from getting an education in the country where 36% of girls have given birth before their 18th birthday — and just 29% of girls are enrolled in secondary school, according to UNICEF.
Robbing a young girl of education makes it more difficult for her family and community to break the cycle of extreme poverty. A child born to a mother who can read and write is 50% more likely to survive past the age of 5, and educated mothers are more than twice as likely to send their children to school.
"Sierra Leone’s discriminatory policy that prohibits pregnant girls from going to school is causing enduring harm,” Nyamu-Mathenge said, “by impairing her ability to gain the skills and knowledge that will enable her to reach her full potential and fully participate in community, civic, and economic life."