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REPUBLIC OF SIERRA LEONE: Continued pregnancy ban in schools and failure to protect rights is threatening teenage girls’ futures

15 Nov 2016
[International Secretariat]
Region: REPUBLIC OF SIERRA LEONE
Topic: Reproductive Rights

Sierra Leone must lift a deeply discriminatory ban on visibly pregnant girls attending school and taking exams, which continues to entrench gender inequality in the country and puts thousands of teenage girls’ futures at risk.

The prohibition on visibly pregnant girls attending mainstream schools and taking exams is hopelessly misguided, and is doing nothing to address the root causes of Sierra Leone’s high teenage pregnancy rate, which surged during the devastating Ebola crisis, and remains high despite this ban.

Rather than humiliating and excluding teenage girls, Sierra Leone’s authorities should focus on increasing sexual and reproductive health information in schools, and protecting girls from sexual violence and abusive relationships. Unless these issues are addressed the cycle of unwanted early pregnancy will continue for generations to come.

The prohibition was declared official government policy in April 2015, shortly before schools re-opened following the Ebola crisis.

Amnesty International spoke to 68 girls aged between 15 and 20 years who were either pregnant or had given birth recently. The majority of girls interviewed had become pregnant during the Ebola outbreak, when there was an increase in teenage pregnancy, accompanied by a spike in sexual violence. The negative economic impact of the Ebola crisis led to an increase in exploitative and abusive relationships.

Impact of the ban on pregnant girls

Most girls said the policy had left them feeling abandoned and discouraged at not being able to go to school. They described their frustration at being unable to sit exams they had studied hard for.

Stigma surrounding teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone means that girls are made to feel ashamed for being pregnant and sometimes ostracized, or even abused, by their families and teachers.

Special schools for pregnant girls

In May 2015 Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma announced the establishment of an alternative “bridging” education system that would allow pregnant girls to continue going to school, but in different premises or at different times to their peers.

International and national experts have welcomed the continued focus on girls’ education through this programme. However, concern still remains about the lack of choice for pregnant girls due to the ban and their inability to sit exams which is contrary to Sierra Leone’s legal obligations to provide equal access to quality education for all children.

Limited access to sexual and reproductive health information

Special schools for pregnant girls are not the solution to addressing Sierra Leone’s high teenage pregnancy rate. Sexual and reproductive health information is still not part of the formal school curriculum.

The majority of girls told Amnesty International that they did not know about family planning and had little or no sex education before becoming pregnant.

Challenges to go back to mainstream school

Girls who become pregnant can face complex, intersecting barriers to continuing their education. Beyond the pregnancy ban, school fees were also a major concern for the majority of girls Amnesty International spoke to. In a country where 72% of the population lives in extreme poverty, these fees, and the cost of having a child, can be crippling.

In line with its international obligations the government should take concrete steps to progressively ensure access to education for all girls.

Eradicating the stigma surrounding pregnant girls is also key. Sierra Leone should ensure that teenagers in highly vulnerable situations are protected and supported by their teachers, families and their communities; rather than shamed and blamed.

8 November 2016
AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL PRESS RELEASE

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