Pregnant girls in Sierra Leone ‘must not be banned from sitting exams’

Girls' education

Picture: Amnesty International

An estimated 10,000 girls in Sierra Leone will be barred from sitting school exams this month because they are pregnant.

The students have been excluded from mainstream schools and many have been forced to go through humiliating physical checks, according to a report by Amnesty International.

Sabrina Mahtani, the human rights group’s West Africa Researcher, said: “Excluding pregnant girls from mainstream schools and banning them from sitting crucial exams is discriminatory and will have devastating consequences.

“Education is a right and not something for governments to arbitrarily take away as a punishment. As Sierra Leone moves forward from the devastating Ebola crisis, it is vital that these girls are not left behind.”

A World at School reported in March that pregnant girls were told they were not welcome back when schools started to reopen following the Ebola outbreak that killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa and shut down the education systems in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia for several months.

That was confirmed officially by Education Minister Minkailu Bah, who said visibly pregnant girls could also be stopped from taking exams. He was backed by Sylvester Meheux, chairman of the Conference of Principals, who said if pregnant girls were allowed back into schools “it will encourage other girls to do the same thing”.

A group of organisations then issued a joint statement in May which said girls who get pregnant in Sierra Leone – where the legal age of consent is 18 – are often coerced or raped.

Exams which are needed to go to secondary school or move on to higher education are scheduled for November 23 and Amnesty International is calling for the ban on pregnant girls to be lifted.

Schoolgirl Eliane with son Eric Picture: Amnesty International

Temporary alternative classes for pregnant girls are being funded by donor countries including the United Kingdom and Ireland. The Sierra Leoneon government says more than 3000 girls have registered for these classes, which are held in different buildings or at different times from mainstream schooling.

In its report – Sierra Leone: Shamed and Blamed – Amnesty International says the alternative system should only be an option for those girls who do not wish to return to a mainstream school.

Eliane, a 16-year-old mother of a newborn boy, told the group’s researchers: “When I was pregnant I felt bad because my sister could take exams and go to school, while I had to stay home. Pregnant girls should go to school and be brave.”

Other girls who were interviewed told how they were subjected to degrading physical searches and tests. Some had their breasts and stomachs felt by teachers and others were compelled by their school to take pregnancy tests.

One 18-year-old said all girls were checked by teachers before being allowed to sit an exam. She added: “One of the teachers was wearing gloves when she was checking us. I felt really embarrassed when this happened to me. Many girls left as they were scared the teachers would find out they are pregnant.”

While these checks are not government policy, the human rights group says urgent directives should be issued to stop them happening again.

Sierra Leone was officially declared clear of Ebola by the World Health Organization on November 7

Read the full Amnesty International report here.

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