Rights group slams Sierra Leone’s continued pregnancy ban in schools

Amnesty International has said Sierra Leone must lift a deeply discriminatory ban on visibly pregnant girls attending school and taking exams, which continues to entrench gender inequality in the country and puts thousands of teenage girls’ future at risk.

“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,” he said, according to a statement issued a year on from its report on the issue.

The prohibition was declared official government policy in April 2015, shortly before schools re-opened following the Ebola crisis. More than a-year-and-a half-later Amnesty International said it was deeply concerned that the ban was still in place, despite national and international criticism.

The human rights group said it spoke to 68 girls aged between 15 and 20 years who were either pregnant or had given birth recently in the Western Urban and Western Rural areas of Sierra Leone. They also spoke to 26 national and international civil society actors, teachers and government officials in order to assess the impact of the ban.

The statement said the majority of girls interviewed had become pregnant during the Ebola outbreak, when there was an increase in teenage pregnancy, accompanied by a spike in sexual violence. The negative economic impact of the Ebola crisis led to an increase in exploitative and abusive relationships.

Most girls said the policy had left them feeling abandoned and discouraged at not being able to go to school, Amnesty International said, adding that they described their frustration at being unable to sit exams they had studied hard for.

It said one girl told its researchers: “I would have been able to do the exam. I was frequently with my books. If you are pregnant and studying, you should be able to do the exam.

” Girls also spoke about their frustration at having to repeat the year after they give birth as they have missed out on the opportunity to sit the exam when pregnant:

“I have to repeat the year again. I feel bad as I see my friends moving forward to the next year,” a 17-year-old girl told Amnesty International.

The statement said stigma surrounding teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone means that girls are made to feel ashamed for being pregnant and sometimes ostracised, or even abused, by their families and teachers.

One girl Amnesty International spoke to said she had voluntarily dropped out of school after seeing how her classmates were treated in the past: “One teacher announced … that the girl was pregnant in front of the whole school, took her bag away (she was protecting her stomach) and beat her with a cane.”

“Eradicating the stigma surrounding pregnant girls is also key. Sierra Leone has made great efforts to tackle stigma for Ebola survivors, and it should ensure that teenagers in highly vulnerable situations are protected and supported by their teachers, families and their communities; rather than shamed and blamed.”

A report by Amnesty International estimated that up to 10,000 girls were affected by the ban on visibly pregnant girls attending school and sitting exams.

It said various studies have reported there was an increase in teenage pregnancy during the Ebola outbreak. A study in 2016 by the Secure Livelihoods Consortium stated that UN Population Fund (UNFPA) surveys indicated 18,119 teenage girls became pregnant during the Ebola outbreak.

Amnesty International said the Committee on the Rights of the Child, in its recent review in October 2016, urged Sierra Leone to immediately lift the discriminatory ban on pregnant girls attending mainstream school and sitting exams, and ensure that they and adolescent mothers were supported and assisted in continuing their education in mainstream schools.