Regional court ruling hailed as ‘landmark moment for thousands of girls’ who will no longer be forced to miss lessons and exams.
Pregnant schoolgirls in Sierra Leone will no longer be banned from attending class or sitting exams, after a regional court ordered the immediate overturn of a “discriminatory” policy that has denied tens of thousands the right to finish their education.
In a ruling handed down in Nigeria on Thursday, a top regional court found that a 2015 directive barring pregnant girls from attending school amounted to discrimination and a violation of human rights.
The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) court ordered Sierra Leone to establish nationwide programmes to help pregnant girls return to school.
“This victory belongs to the girls in Sierra Leone who have been degraded and dehumanised because of their status since 2014,” said Hannah Yambasu, executive director of Women Against Violence and Exploitation in Society (Waves), one of a number of organisations that filed the case against Sierra Leone in May 2018.
“Now our government in Sierra Leone has no option but to comply with their obligations as declared by the court.”
Teen pregnancy is a huge issue in Sierra Leone, where 30% of girls fall pregnant and 40% are married by the age of 18. The west African country’s deadly 2014 Ebola outbreak left thousands of girls vulnerable and forced to fend for themselves, resulting in a spike in pregnancies – many of which were the result of sexual assault.
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When schools reopened after the virus was contained, the government banned girls who had fallen pregnant from attending class, in order to protect “innocent girls”.
Although parallel schools for pregnant girls had been established by the government, Ecowas ruled that they amounted to another form of discrimination as attendees were only taught four subjects for three days a week. The court ordered their immediate abolition.
“The [parallel] schools were sub-optimal and completely limiting for the girls,” said Judy Gitau, Africa regional coordinator at Equality Now, one of the other organisations that took Sierra Leone to court.
“We know they felt worthless [having been banned from normal education] and to have a regional court make a declaration that the government of Sierra Leone breached its obligations to provide [basic human rights] to the girls makes them feel valued again. This ruling has given them a new lease on life.”
Former pupil Patience, who was 17 when she fell pregnant and found herself banned from attending school, welcomed the court’s decision.
“I am very happy because I did not have the opportunity to stay in school myself,” she told the Guardian.
“If I had been able to stay in education, I would be in my last year at uni now, or maybe I would have graduated already. I would have liked to have studied nursing. Instead, my name was taken off the school register and I was offered vocational training. Yet my daughter’s father was never banned from school, and he was able to continue to do everything he wanted to do.”
Sexual violence is highly prevalent in Sierra Leone, where 8,505 rape cases – among them 2,579 involving minors – were reported to police in 2018. Yet activists believe this number is likely to be far higher, as stigma and shame prevent many survivors from coming forward.
In its ruling, Ecowas ordered the government to integrate sexual education classes into the nationwide curriculum to combat teen pregnancies and promote awareness around contraceptives.
Human rights lawyer Sabrina Mahtani, who wrote the 2015 Amnesty International report on the ban, said the ruling presented an opportunity for Sierra Leone’s government to prove itself.
“President [Julius Maada] Bio was elected on a platform of ‘new direction’. He and his dynamic new education minister, David Sengeh, have an opportunity now to reverse a ban instigated by the former government and to recognise the bravery of girls in Sierra Leone by overturning this ban and respecting the right to education and non-discrimination of all girls who are the future of the country.”
Activist Chernor Bah, who co-founded the feminist movement-building hub Purposeful, said the ruling proved that Sierra Leone was “moving in the right direction”, but warned that groundwork was still necessary to establish girls as “equals” in the nation’s male-dominated culture.
“Girls now have a right to go to school and they cannot be turned away, that’s the most exciting news for us,” said Bah.
“But this does not address the underlying issue that we still live in a highly patriarchal society where girls’ bodies are demanded, trampled upon and violated in exchange for basically everything they need in life: food, water, transport and education. We must change the underlying reality of the overall powerlessness of girls in Sierra Leone, and we will continue to fight for that.”
Marta Colomer, Amnesty International’s west and central Africa acting deputy director of campaigns, said the ruling provided a “glimmer of hope” for girls in Sierra Leone and beyond.
“Today’s ruling is a landmark moment for the thousands of girls who have been excluded from school, and whose right to access education without discrimination has been violated for the past four years because of this inherently discriminatory ban,” said Colomer.
“This delivers a clear message to other African governments who have similar bans, such as Tanzania and Equatorial Guinea, or may be contemplating them, that they should follow this groundbreaking ruling and take steps to allow pregnant girls access to education in line with their own human rights obligations.”