Thousands of girls in Sierra Leone just gained the right to continue their education without discrimination.
A landmark decision from the Economic Community of West African States Court of Justice (ECOWAS) in Abuja, Nigeria, on Thursday ruled that Sierra Leone's ban on pregnant girls taking exams and attending school is unlawful, according to a press release issued by the organization Equality Now. The court ordered the government of Sierra Leone to lift the ban immediately, act to address the increased number of teenage pregnancies, and work to fight discrimination against pregnant girls.
The court said the ban is a breach of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ rights and international law. The charter is an international human rights agreement that is intended to promote and protect human rights and basic freedoms throughout the African continent.
“This is a great victory,” Judy Gitau, Africa regional coordinator at Equality Now, who attended the judgment reading, said in the release. “Finally the girls have had their day in court and have emerged victorious.”
The ban, first introduced in August 2018, was meant to protect the students from overwhelming schoolwork and prevent pregnant students from being "negative influences." The government further discriminated against pregnant girls by setting up substandard alternative schools, where they could only learn four subjects and attend school three days a week, according to Equality Now.
The government announced that pregnant girls could take exams in October, but human rights advocates argued offering unequal schooling still perpetuated discrimination and stigma.
We are so thrilled by this amazing decision that upholds the human rights of girls in Sierra Leone. It was an honor to work with our partners (@Purposful_org, W.A.V.E.S, and The Coalition for Girls Education) in filing this case #WomensRightshttps://t.co/WsFM1uNxt8— equalitynow (@equalitynow) December 12, 2019
Equality Now, Women Against Violence and Exploitation in Society (WAVES), Child Welfare Society, and Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA) filed the case against the Sierra Leone government in May 2018. Amnesty International also advised the case and attended the judgment reading on Thursday.
The court aimed to “set the record straight” regarding the terms of the pregnancy ban as the Sierra Leone government previously denied a policy existed and said the minister misspoke when he announced it, according to Equality Now. The ban was “sporadic” and not enforced across the state, the organization said.
Sierra Leone had the 13th highest rate of teen pregnancy globally in 2017, with 113 per 1,000 adolescents. Sierra Leone’s pregnant student 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.
“The ECOWAS court has given them [schoolgirls] their voices back and by that a chance at life again,” Gitau said.