Last August, Sierra Leone implemented a ban preventing pregnant students from attending school or sitting for exams.
The policy is intended to protect “innocent girls” from the alleged influence of “bad” pregnant students, the Guardian reported. The government also argued that pregnant students would be exhausted by the workload of normal classes and exposed to emotional stress and derision if they attended school as usual.
Activists have decried the policy, which stops many girls from finishing their education — and now one school is reportedly standing up to the ban.
“There is no reason that a child should be denied her basic human rights just because she’s pregnant,” Eric Conteh, the principal of the school — which has not been identified — told Reuters.
Sierra Leone also announced in 2018 that it would make education free for all — but students who become pregnant would still be banned from attending schools.
Nonprofit Equality Now filed a legal challenge to the ban last year and the case is currently being considered by the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) community court of justice. However, the court is only expected to rule in November.
Sierra Leone isn’t the only country with such a policy. Tanzania and Equatorial Guinea have similar bans on pregnant school girls, and Burundi instituted a ban against pregnant students and teen parents, including fathers, last year.
However, in Sierra Leone, only female students are penalized for becoming a teen parent.
“[The school] said it was bad of me to get pregnant, and they would not allow me to [go to] school because it was government policy,” one girl said. According to the Guardian, the father of her child, a 25-year-old man, faced no consequences.
“I’m the only one who got punished, not him. It’s not fair,” she added.
In Sierra Leone, where 36% of girls have given birth before their 18th birthday — and just 29% of girls are enrolled in secondary school — the ban is believed to keep thousands of girls from getting an education, according to UNICEF.
Poverty and sexual violence, both widespread in the West African country, contribute to the high rates of teen pregnancy.
"Equality Now is extremely concerned about the high rates of sexual violence in Sierra Leone and the impact that this has on women and girls,” Naitore Nyamu, an officer of Equality Now’s End Sexual Violence program, told Global Citizen.
“Many girls have been sexually violated by their teachers or someone close, causing them to leave school. No girl who finds herself pregnant — and especially after having been sexually violated — should be additionally victimized by being denied an education," said Nyamu, who is also working on the case being brought before ECOWAS.
Researchers found that some girls even attributed teen pregnancy to the closure of schools during the region’s 2014 Ebola crisis.
“[When] schools are not functioning, we are idle, that is why men who are older than us keep chasing us,” one teenager told researchers.
Activists say that denying girls the right to education could actually leave the more vulnerable to violence and exploitation.
"The government of Sierra Leone has the obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill all human rights of adolescent girls, and should be focused on identifying effective approaches to protecting them from all forms of sexual and gender based violence,” Nyamu said.
Though Conteh could technically be punished for defying the ban, he remains steadfast.
“Any pregnant girl who wants to learn is welcome at our school,” he said.