Sierra Leone Reverses Ban on Pregnant Students - CARE
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Sierra Leone Reverses Ban on Pregnant Students

A girl in a classroom looks ahead surrounded by other students.

A policy banning pregnant students from attending school was reversed by the government of Sierra Leone earlier this year, after the country’s top court declared it was discriminatory and violated human rights. Photo: Josh Estey/CARE

A policy banning pregnant students from attending school was reversed by the government of Sierra Leone earlier this year, after the country’s top court declared it was discriminatory and violated human rights. Photo: Josh Estey/CARE

In a policy reversal by the government of Sierra Leone, pregnant students can now attend mainstream schools.

Kadiatu never planned to drop out of school.

“I enjoyed school. I went there every day. My grades were fine,” she says.

The 15-year-old from Freetown, Sierra Leone, voluntarily left school after becoming pregnant. If administrators found out she was expecting, they would have banned her, and possibly shamed her in the process.

A 2015 Amnesty International report found that schoolgirls in Sierra Leone were “subjected to degrading procedures” by school administrators to determine if they were pregnant, such as having their body felt or being compelled to take urine tests.

“No one wanted to be friends with me. I was embarrassed and isolated.”

For the last five years, pregnant students like Kadiatu have been banned by law from attending mainstream schools in Sierra Leone. This policy was reversed by the government earlier this year, after the country’s top court declared it was discriminatory and violated human rights.

The decision was hailed by human rights groups, many of whom filed a case against the Sierra Leone government in 2018. After the court ruling in December 2019, the government announced in March 2020 it would reverse the policy.

A girl walks in the dirt courtyard of a school in Sierra Leone.
The ban will be replaced by new policies that focus on “radical inclusion” and “comprehensive safety” of all children in the school system, according to the government. Photo: Josh Estey/CARE

Schools in Sierra Leone are partially closed during the coronavirus outbreak. Only primary school students who are taking national exams have resumed classes. When schools completely reopen, pregnant students will be allowed to study alongside their peers.

The ban will be replaced by new policies that focus on “radical inclusion” and “comprehensive safety” of all children in the school system, according to the government.

“Overturning the ban is the first step in building a radically inclusive Sierra Leone where all children, regardless of… [reproductive status] are able to live and learn in safety and dignity,” Education Minister David Sengeh says.

The ban came into effect in 2015, when schools reopened following the Ebola outbreak. During the outbreak, schools were closed down to reduce the spread of the virus. With more children staying at home, girls were vulnerable to sexual violence. Rates of teenage pregnancy increased by up to 65% in some communities, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

“[When I left school], one of my friends visited me and told me everything I was missing out on. I cried.”

Years after Sierra Leone was declared Ebola-free, the country now faces the coronavirus pandemic, which once again has made sexual and reproductive health services inaccessible to girls and women. A report by CARE indicates that while these services are functional across West Africa, the use of health centers for services other than COVID-19 has considerably decreased.

In addition to widespread sexual abuse, Sierra Leone has high poverty rates, which leads predators to lure girls through promises of financial security. This reality is all too familiar to Kadiatu, who was groomed by a man who promised to cover her education costs.

“The man said he would support my schooling. He bought me a uniform, books, and pens,” she says.

of girls in Sierra Leone age 15-19 are pregnant or have previously given birth

These factors contribute to high rates of teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone, where 3 in 10 teenage girls in Sierra Leone between the ages of 15-19 are pregnant or have previously given birth. The government ban has received widespread public support in Sierra Leone, where pregnant girls are commonly seen as a bad influence on their peers, regardless of the sexual violence they may have faced leading to their pregnancies.

Marta Colomer, Amnesty International’s Acting Deputy Regional Director for West and Central Africa, welcomed the decision to lift the ban. “This inherently discriminatory ban… has already deprived too many young women of their right to education, and the choice as to what future they want for themselves.”

“This decision gives also hope to other pregnant girls in Africa who have been stigmatized, discriminated against and, in some countries, also banned from school,” Marta says.

The stigma alone is enough to prevent some girls from continuing their education. As Kadiatu’s pregnant belly began to show from her school uniform, her peers bullied her.

“No one wanted to be friends with me,” she says. “I was embarrassed and isolated, so I wanted to stop going to school.”

Kadiatu says that not being able to attend school has been difficult. “One of my friends [from school] visited me and told me everything I was missing out on. I cried.”

Now the mother of a 9-month-old, Kadiatu wants to continue her studies, but is unsure if she can. She currently stays in a shelter for vulnerable children while caring for her son. “If I can find someone to take care of my baby, I will go back to school,” she says.

She wants to become a teacher “because they have all the knowledge, and they give this to kids.”

While the government’s decision comes too late for thousands of girls like Kadiatu, it has the potential to impact girls in the decades to come. Sengeh points out that creating inclusivity through changing the law is the “first step,” but changing stigmas is necessary too.