Visible pregnant girls in Sierra Leone are prevented from attending school, as they are thought to be a bad influence on their peers.
In April 2015 – just as schools re-opened after the Ebola crisis – the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology issued a statement banning visibly pregnant girls from mainstream education and from sitting exams for fear of negatively affecting “innocent girls”. The ban was enforced through invasive physical examinations of the girls. Just under two years on, and the ban is still in place. Learning centres typically specialising in skills such as catering, tailoring, and hairdressing act as alternatives to school and are open to pregnant girls.
Twenty-year-old Emma said:
“I moved to a learning centre when I got pregnant and am studying catering. At my old school, I had to tell my teacher I was pregnant because she caught me sleeping at the desk. After that, I was pulled into the principal’s office and told not to come back.
Nineteen-year-old Jeneba said:
“I remember my principal saying that it is an abomination for the school to have pregnant girls attending, so “As soon as I started to show I left. When I see my friends in their school uniforms I feel sad and ashamed.”
Later that year the government offered visibly pregnant girls from mainstream education the option of attending alternative schools with a reduced curriculum.
Now, Amnesty International, the UK-based rights organisation, says denying pregnant girls mainstream education is a violation of their human rights.
Seventeen-year-old Sarah Bassie said:
“I am the one who should decide whether to go to the alternative or the mainstream school, an alternative school student.
The prohibition on visibly pregnant girls attending mainstream schools and taking exams is hopelessly misguided, and is doing nothing to address the root causes of Sierra Leone’s high teenage pregnancy rate, which surged during the devastating Ebola crisis, and remains high despite this ban,” said Alioune Tine, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for West and Central Africa.
Rather than humiliating and excluding teenage girls, Sierra Leone’s authorities should focus on increasing sexual and reproductive health information in schools, and protecting girls from sexual violence and abusive relationships. Unless these issues are addressed the cycle of unwanted early pregnancy will continue for generations to come.
However, Sierra Leone’s education ministry says the alternative school programme is working. Out of 14,500 students who attended those schools, 5,000 have gone back to mainstream school after giving birth.
The ministry says that is progress because the girls would have most probably dropped out altogether because of the shame associated with pregnancy.