Outcry after Sierra Leone denies educational opportunities from pregnant schoolgirls

Eliane, a 16-year-old in Sierra Leone, holds her baby Eric, as pictured in a report by Amnesty International. (Photo by Amnesty International.)

Pregnant girls in Sierra Leone have become scapegoats of a national problem.

In 2013, the country’s pregnancy rate ranked among the top 10 in the world. According to the United National Population Fund, 28 percent of Sierra Leonean girls 15- to 19-years-old are either pregnant or have already given birth.

For many years, the nation’s government tried to come up with solutions to reduce the rate, and then narrowed it down one solution: hide the pregnant girls from society.

In April 2015, the government banned “visibly” pregnant schoolgirls from attending mainstream schools and taking standard public exams. The government made this decision during the nine-month break in which schools were shut down due to the Ebola epidemic in 2014.

During this time, the teenage pregnancy count surged by 14,386 with the youngest mother being 11 and the oldest being 20 years old.

In place of mainstream schools, the government created alternative schools in which the girls can receive a form of education. These alternative schools, however, teach a revised curriculum from what’s taught in mainstream schools.

Girls who get pregnant must give up their access to standard education, because the government thinks they are bad influences.

In addition to sacrificing the same education their peers get, pregnant girls are not allowed to take important exams that would allow them to graduate or enroll in college, which blocks them from another path out of poverty.

The “solution” hurts the teenage girls even though the causes of the high teenage pregnancy rate are far beyond the girls’ control.

In the program’s defense, the Ministry of Education stated that the program has been successful because without alternative schools, the pregnant girls could have dropped out.

The ministry reports that at least 5,000 out of the 14,500 former attendees of the alternative schools have returned to mainstream schools after giving birth, according to the website Face 2 Face Africa.

Despite the government’s effort handling the high teenage pregnancy rate, banning pregnant girls from mainstream schools only tackles one side of the multifaceted problem.

National epidemic

In lower-income countries, about 19 percent of young women become pregnant before they reach the age of 18 and about 95 percent of the world’s births to adolescent mothers occur in these countries.

The government considers its high pregnancy rate among adolescent girls a “national epidemic,” as one-third of the nation’s pregnancies are teenage pregnancies.

Researchers in the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium say the epidemic could be caused by a number of resource-based and cultural factors, the lack of sexual and reproductive health education, limited access to contraceptives, and “gendered social norms around adolescence and sexual behavior, and vulnerability to power and coercion.”

Sex is commonly bartered for basic items such as food, shelter, clothing and goods that improve social standing, researchers said. Bartered sex was one of the reasons that teenage pregnancy surged during the Ebola epidemic.

Rape is another factor. One of the most common reasons for girls to have sex is coercion using psychological pressure. Almost all girls who have had sex have expressed that they were not ready, did not want sex and felt “forced” into it.

In Sierra Leonean culture, women are expected to care for and please men and are taught these gender norms at a young age. Boys and men expect to convince girls and women to have sex with them in return for the promise of financial care and love.

These norms also help fuel the widespread sexual violence that occurs in Sierra Leone. About two-thirds of the girls in the study experienced at least one or more forms of sexual violence, which include rape and assault.

Eight progressive organizations came forward with a press release denouncing the law, stating that research indicates that young girls seldom become pregnant by choice.

However, the Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, Moijueh Kaikai, still claims that girls become pregnant because they cannot control themselves.

In finding the root cause for the high teenage pregnancy rate, evidence points more to socioeconomic and cultural factors rather than the girls themselves.

Fighting for the Girls

Several notable human rights organizations around the world have made statements against the law, claiming that withholding a standard education from these girls is withholding their human rights.

Amnesty International is one of the lead organizations against the law since it first surfaced. In 2015, the organization has published a report that tracked and analyzed the impact on the girls and the motive behind the government’s decision.

Despite these organizations’ efforts, the government of Sierra Leone refused to withdraw the ban on pregnant schoolgirls during the United Nations Universal Periodic Review in January 2016.

Pregnant girls still face societal and systemic discrimination not only in Sierra Leone, but also in many other parts of the world in 2017.

Collective international activism may not be enough overturn the law, but it will help give these girls the support they need.

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