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REPUBLIC OF SIERRA LEONE: Pregnant schoolgirls excluded from school and banned from exams

10 Nov 2015
[International Secretariat]
Region: REPUBLIC OF SIERRA LEONE
Topic: Reproductive Rights

Thousands of pregnant girls, excluded from mainstream schools and barred from sitting upcoming exams, risk being left behind as Sierra Leone moves forward from the Ebola crisis, Amnesty International said in a report published today.

The report reveals how the prohibition, confirmed by the government in April this year and sometimes enforced through humiliating physical checks, not only stigmatizes an estimated 10,000 girls but risks destroying their future life opportunities. With exams scheduled for 23 November, Amnesty International is calling on authorities to immediately lift the ban.

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.

On 2 April the Minister of Education, Science and Technology issued a statement banning pregnant girls from “school settings”. The justification given for this policy - namely to protect "innocent girls” from negative influences – only serves to reinforce stigma through language that blames and shames pregnant girls.

Amnesty International has documented how this ban has been enforced in some schools through humiliating and degrading treatment of girls. Girls have been subjected to degrading physical searches and tests. Some have had their breasts and stomachs felt by teachers to “test” for pregnancy.  Others have been compelled by their school to take pregnancy tests. Amnesty International interviewed 52 girls, some of whom said they felt scared at the possibility of being accused of being pregnant, while others described the feeling of humiliation at being physically assessed.

Whilst the way in which girls are “tested” for pregnancy is not part of government policy, the practice is widely known. Amnesty International is calling on the government to issue urgent directives banning such humiliating and degrading treatment of girls.

In late October 2015 temporary alternative classes for pregnant school girls funded until July 2016 by donor countries, particularly Ireland and the UK, were introduced.

While the government claims that more than 3,000 pregnant schoolgirls have registered for this scheme, the classes are held in different premises or at different times to their peers and the girls are still banned from exams. It has also been criticized by local experts for its lack of choice and the stigmatizing effect of persistent exclusion from mainstream education.

Amnesty International urges that the attending of the alternative system, which should be of equal quality and content, be optional for those girls who do not wish to continue at mainstream school.

While some of the girls interviewed by Amnesty International said they support the alternative system, others wanted to attend school with their peers.  Amnesty International has called on the government and the donors to make the alternative system optional for those girls who do not wish to continue at mainstream school.

As the Ebola crisis spread last year, schools in Sierra Leone were closed between June 2014 and April 2015 as part of emergency measures to reduce infection rates. During this period, there was an increase in adolescent pregnancy. Many of these pregnancies resulted from rights violations including failure to protect girls from sexual violence.

Quarantines and an already overstretched healthcare system, meant that girls were not able to access sexual and reproductive health support or advice to protect themselves from early and unwanted pregnancies. Sex education in schools is limited and was removed from the curricula after the war over a decade ago.

Pregnant girls are being blamed and shamed in Sierra Leone. They are being denied key chances to move forward with their lives, and to ensure early pregnancy does not become the event that determines the rest of their lives.

6 November 2015
AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL PRESS RELEASE

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