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, Shamed and Blamed: Pregnant Girls’ Rights at Risk in Sierra Leone, 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 November 23, 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,” said Sabrina Mahtani, Amnesty International’s West Africa Researcher.
"As Sierra Leone moves forward from the devastating Ebola crisis, it is vital that these girls, are not left behind."
On April 2 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.
One 18-year-old girl told Amnesty International how all girls were checked by teachers before they were allowed to sit an exam:
“They touched our breasts and stomachs to see if we were pregnant. Some girls were made to take urine tests. 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. About 12 pregnant girls did not sit their exams.”
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.
In 2004, after the end of the civil war, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended that the government stop the practice of excluding pregnant girls from education. The Commission called this practice "discriminatory and archaic."
“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,” said Sabrina Mahtani.
"As the country emerges from the Ebola crisis, pregnant girls we met expressed their desire to help build up their country. Many wanted to become much needed nurses, doctors or lawyers. Unless their exclusion from mainstream education is reversed and the ban from sitting exams is lifted these girls’ dreams will not be realized."
The Ebola crisis that struck Sierra Leone in March 2014 and continued throughout 2015 hit all parts of the country’s population, with already marginalized groups like girls particularly affected.
The exclusion of pregnant girls from mainstream education and from sitting exams pre-dates the outbreak of Ebola; however, the official declaration of the ban when schools re-opened has sparked renewed debate and concern about this issue in Sierra Leone. The Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone described the ban as discriminatory, stigmatizing and likely to worsen the marginalization of pregnant girls and women.
The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has itself recognized that there has been an increase in adolescent pregnancy during the Ebola outbreak. It is not clear how many girls are affected the ban. Official figures suggest 3,000, but experts mapping the situation indicate that the true figure is far higher, likely to be an estimated 10,000 pregnant girls.
There are at least two crucial exams that all visibly pregnant girls are currently unable to take. Firstly, there is the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE), which is the exam all students must pass to guarantee admission into senior secondary school or other higher level education center, such as vocational schools. The second key set of exams are the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE), which can be taken in a range of subjects including English, mathematics, sciences and arts, as well as economics and other commercial subjects. The WASSCE exams are necessary to get into university or college and are also important for potential employers.