Anger as pregnant girls are banned from returning to Sierra Leone schools after Ebola
Education in emergencies, Girls' education
Students in Sierra Leone will soon be returning to school after the Ebola crisis – but many girls have been told they will be barred for being pregnant.
The decision has shocked and outraged campaigners, who say it discriminates against girls and removes their right to an education.
Chernor Bah, a Sierra Leone native and Youth Engagement Officer for A World at School, said it was “an irrational policy for the future of our country”.
Schools in the West African country have been closed for months as a result of the deadly Ebola outbreak which also hit Guinea and Liberia and claimed more than 10,000 lives. An emergency three-day lockdown to stop a possible new spreading of the virus has just ended.
During the eight-month schools shutdown, girls have had reduced access to sexual health services, been under increased pressure to have sex for payment and been at greater risk of sexual violence.
Sierra Leone’s Education Minister Minkailu Bah said last week that visibly pregnant girls could be stopped from taking exams or going into classrooms. And Sylvester Meheux, the chairman of the Conference of Principals, told Radio France International: “In our culture, in the secondary school, they don’t allow girls who are visibly pregnant to go and take exams. We have a belief that it will encourage other girls to do the same thing.”
But Chernor Bah said many girls were “not having sex out of choice”, adding: “There is a lot of statutory rape that’s happening.”
Chernor Bah on a recent trip back to Sierra Leone
He said: “I’ve heard people talk about the dignity of the uniform. Somehow if a pregnant girl wears that uniform, you undignify the uniform, which again is one of those things that I find completely baffling.
“The biggest argument that they made to us growing up is that pregnant girls will somehow influence what they call other ‘innocent’ girls in class. So to stop them from influencing them, to stop them from somehow telling them about sex – about sexuality, about how they even got pregnant in the first place – is to completely isolate them from the classroom. It’s an irrational policy for our country and the future of our country.”
Chernor also spoke to the BBC and said Ebola had meant girls were out of school for a whole academic year. He added: “Sexual activities, especially for the poorest girls in rural areas, mostly for economic purposes, increases.” He said in areas where four or five families area living in one compound and girls are not at school, this can lead to sexual activity. This – coupled with very low rates of using contraception – has led to a rise in pregnancies among young girls.
Chernor said people can support the cause of education for all girls by signing his #UpForSchool Petition.
The decision to bar girls from taking the exams that are needed to move from junior to senior high school has also angered the human rights organisation Amnesty International. Its West Africa researcher Sabrina Mahtani said: “The government should be striving to get more girls into school, not turning them away at the door. Girls must not have their right to education and their hopes of a better life dashed because of an early and in some cases unwanted pregnancy.
“I dread to think how schools will implement such a policy. What girl would go to school if it meant being singled out, physically examined and shamed? Schools are meant to test student’s ability, not whether they are pregnant.”
Ms Mahtani said there had been a reported increase in sexual violence as well as a reported increase in pressure on girls to engage in transactional sex due to the very harsh economic impacts of Ebola.
She added: “This is not a favour [to pregnant girls], this is a fundamental human right to education. And these girls have a right not to be discriminated against, and also a right not to be stigmatised just because they’re girls.”
Following the Ebola crisis, schools in Guinea began to reopen in January and those in Libera in February.
You can sign Chernor’s petition here or in the form below: