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Banned from school for being pregnant

EXCLUDED: Pregnant young women are being forced out of the classroom and away from peer support systems

THIRTY-SIX per cent of Sierra Leone’s pregnancies occur among adolescent girls and sadly, this group accounts for 40 per cent of maternal deaths.

During the Ebola pandemic, teenage pregnancy figures surged when many young girls were forced to engage in sex acts, or were left unsupervised and were subject to rape and abuse. In that time period, an estimated 14,000 teenage girls became pregnant.

Teenage mothers in the West African country also experience significant stigma and receive little help or assistance in continuing their education in mainstream schools.

In fact, government policy bans pregnant girls from attending school, following Sierra Leonean President Ernest Bai Koroma’s criticisms of teenage pregnancies. In 2013, he introduced his ‘National Strategy for the Reduction of Teenage Pregnancy’, which was launched with the slogan: 'Let Girls Be Girls Not Mothers!'

RISK

Unable to complete their education, teen mothers are forced to stay at home, facing discrimination and rejection from their communities.

According to the charity Amnesty International, Sierra Leone must lift the ban, one which it calls ‘deeply discriminatory’. It believes the policy reinforces entrenched gender inequality in the country and puts thousands of teenage girls’ futures at risk. Alioune Tine, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for West and Central Africa said:

“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.

More than a year and a half later, Amnesty International is deeply concerned that the ban is still in place, despite national and international criticism. Amnesty International spoke to 68 girls aged between 15 and 20 years old who were either pregnant or had given birth recently in the Western Urban and Western Rural areas of Sierra Leone. They also spoke to 26 national and international civil society actors, teachers and government officials in order to assess the impact of the ban.


CRITICISM: The education ban on pregnant teens placed by Sierra Leonian President Ernest Bai Kooma has been described as discriminatory

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.

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. One girl said:

“I would have been able to do the exam. I was frequently with my books. Even if you are pregnant, if you have been studying you will be able to do the exam”

Girls also spoke about their frustration at having to repeat the year after they give birth as they have missed out on the opportunity to sit the exam when pregnant.

“I have to repeat the year again. I feel bad as I see my friends moving forward to the next year,” a 17-year-old girl told Amnesty International.

STIGMA

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

One girl Amnesty International spoke to said she had voluntarily dropped out of school after seeing how her class mates were treated in the past:

“One teacher announced ... that the girl was pregnant in front of the whole school, took her bag away (she was protecting her stomach) and beat her with a cane.”

In May 2015, in response to international and national pressure, Mr 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.

Despite this parallel system providing the girls with access to a limited form of education, Mr Koroma, in his March 2016 Women’s Day address, appeared to confirm that it was based in part on negative stereotypes about pregnant girls when he stated, “They will continue to receive formal education without allowing them to mingle in the same class with other school-going girls.

“Let’s go back to the basics and protect our values and culture.”

Ministry of Education officials told Amnesty International that 14,500 girls initially registered for the scheme and that around 5,000 had been reintegrated into mainstream education after giving birth. Classes were held three times a week for around two to three hours a day.


Photo credit: Open Democracy

The learning curriculum used in the scheme differed to that of mainstream schools and focused only on core subjects. Girls were also provided with health information and services, such as family planning.

A few girls said they preferred it to their normal school due to the stigma faced.

One girl told Amnesty International: “I was ashamed – in the normal school everybody would had laughed at me.”

However, several girls stated that they would have preferred to stay on in their normal school if they had a choice.

“[They] only taught us maths and English – but I was learning commercial studies in school and they did not teach us that,” one girl told Amnesty International.

Another girl said:

“I would choose to go to my school if I had a choice as the school would give me results [exam grades]. When I give birth, I will continue at my own school and the learning centre is only for when I am pregnant.”

The bridging scheme ended in August 2016, but alternative classes for pregnant girls will continue under a new scheme, run by the Ministry of Education with support from UNICEF and the UK Government, which will have a broader focus on girls who have dropped out of school for a variety of reasons as well as interventions to help keep girls in school. The scheme, that started in November 2016, will run for 17 months.


Photo credit: Mama Ye!

Amnesty International and national experts have welcomed the continued focus on girls’ education through this programme.

INFORMATION

However, despite recommendations from Amnesty International, the Child Rights Committee and national organisations, sexual and reproductive health information is still not part of the formal school curriculum.

One girl told researchers:

“In school, they do not really teach us about family planning. They think we are too young, or it is bad, or that it will encourage you to have sex.”

The practice of excluding pregnant girls from mainstream education and sitting exams has been a common practice in Sierra Leone for over a decade; – however, the official declaration of the ban in April 2015 turned an informal, sporadic practice into government policy, formalising and exacerbating the issue.

More than 10 years ago, after the end of the civil war, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made an imperative recommendation that the practice of expelling girls who become pregnant from educational institutions is discriminatory and archaic.

Tine said:

“Unless barriers to education are removed, Sierra Leone’s government is badly letting down its girls and putting their futures at risk. In line with its international obligations, the government should take concrete steps to progressively ensure access to education for all girls as part of its education strategy.”

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