Pregnant girls must not be victimised as Sierra Leone schools return after Ebola crisis

A World at School, Education in emergencies, Girls' education

The impact of Ebola stretches beyond those who have contracted the disease. It has resulted in five million children being denied an education because of the outbreak.

For young girls surviving day to day during the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, their lives have become more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and violence, leading to a significant increase in sexual assaults. While their schools have been closed, many children have lost parents to the disease and some girls have become pregnant.

The violation of children’s rights continues with the recent announcement by Sierra Leone’s government that young mothers or pregnant girls would not be allowed to return to complete their education when schools reopened this week.

Dr Minkailu Bah, Minister of Education, Science and Technology, said “[pregnant girls’] presence in the classroom would serve as a negative influence to other innocent girls”. With estimated figures showing that teenage pregnancies may have in fact doubled during the Ebola crisis, this means that thousands of girls in Sierra Leone will be denied their right to go to school.

Chernor Bah, co-founder of A World at School and a campaigner for girls’ education, has launched a petition to ensure the government of Sierra Leone lets all girls into school. He says: “Punishing the victims and depriving them of a future that education gives is an injustice: no one should be denied an education. Sign #UpForSchool and join me in calling on the government of Sierra Leone to let all girls into school. Your right to education should not be taken away because you are pregnant! Nothing changes.”

Human rights groups have challenged the new educational policy, which specifies that pregnant girls and young mothers cannot sit the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) and the West Africa Senior Secondary School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) – essentially barring them from graduating from high school or continuing on to university. In a statement, the Sierra Leone Human Rights Commission said the policy “discriminates against women and girls, and this pattern of stigmatising would only worsen their … vulnerability”.

Chernor Bah talks on radio during a visit to Sierra Leone

Motherhood in childhood is hugely challenging. When a girl becomes pregnant, her present and future change radically. Her schooling may end, her job prospects evaporate and her vulnerabilities to poverty, exclusion and dependency multiply.

Education offers pregnant girls and young mothers an opportunity to break the cycle of discrimination and poverty. It gives each mother and her child the chance of a better life. With literacy rates and economic prosperity in mind, the focus for Sierra Leone must be to encourage those pregnant girls and young mothers to come back to complete their schooling.

Listen to a BBC interview with Chernor Bah.

Even before the Ebola outbreak began, teenage pregnancy – alongside early marriage, financial hardship and the onset of menstruation (for girls attending schools without latrines) – was a major reason why fewer girls than boys attended high school in Sierra Leone. According to a UNICEF 2014 report, 33% of girls and 40% of boys were in secondary education from 2008 to 2012.

The impact of the Ebola outbreak has taken a resounding toll on communities already vulnerable or marginalised − the poor, the rural, the illiterate, women and girls. And, like most emergencies, education has been one of the first casualties. Children out of school are at risk of violence, rape, child marriage, child labour, prostitution and other, often criminal, activities.

We need to get both girls and boys back into school as soon as possible. We must not discriminate against those who have become victims of this humanitarian crisis. In particular, vulnerable pregnant girls must be welcomed back to school with open arms.

Leaving school, because of pregnancy or any other reason, can jeopardise a girl’s future economic prospects and exclude her from other opportunities in life.  

Sign the #UpForSchool Petition to demand all children have the opportunity to learn and achieve their potential in Sierra Leone.

You can also sign Chernor’s #UpForSchool Petition here or in the form below:


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