Thousands of young girls in Sierra Leone are now at great risk of being educationally left behind, even as Sierra Leone moves forwards after battling Ebola. A national exam, which anyone in the country who wishes to move to secondary school or any higher education institution is required to take, is set to begin in two weeks. However, no pregnant girls will be allowed to take the exam.
The practice of barring pregnant girls from attending school and partaking of this exam has been informally enforced for years. However, Amnesty International published a report on Friday that advised that, in April, the government officially condoned the practice and made banning any "visibly pregnant" girls from attending schools and taking these exams a part of state policy. The policy will now negatively affect approximately 10,000 of Sierra Leone's school-age girls. The announcement came right as many of the schools that had been closed for nine months, due to the country's battle with Ebola, were reopened. The Ebola epidemic claimed the lives of nearly 4,000 people in Sierra Leone.The Amnesty International report is called "Shamed and blamed: Pregnant girls' rights at risk in Sierra Leone" and shows that the ban against the pregnant girls was enforced with humiliating physical checks that actually discouraged pregnant and non-pregnant girls from attending schools. When announced in April, the Minister of Education, Science and Technology stated that the ban of pregnant girls from "school settings" is supposedly to protect "innocent girls" from negative influences.
The national exam is scheduled for November 23, and Amnesty International is calling for the government of Sierra Leone to lift the ban, citing the fact that in addition to the stigma created by the ban, if many of these girls are not allowed to take the exams it will adversely affect their entire future. Experts also say that the ban is also violation of the human rights of these Sierra Leone girls. The discriminatory exclusion of the pregnant girls from mainstream schools and critically important exams, like the upcoming national one, is denying them education simply because of an act that legally these girls cannot participate in to begin with. Few of these young girls get pregnant on purpose and the ban is only serving to reinforce a stigma that shames and blames these pregnant girls. In fact, according to Sierra Leone's 2012 Sexual Offenses Act, children under the age of 18 are legally capable of consenting to sex and thus anyone below that age who is pregnant is technically a victim of rape.
Sabrina Mahtani, an Amnesty International West Africa Researcher, states that the government should not arbitrarily be allowed to punish any girls for "inappropriate behavior" by taking away their access to education.
"As Sierra Leone moves forward from the devastating Ebola crisis, it is vital that these girls, are not left behind."For their part, many of the teachers take the ban to mean they have the right to violate the personal space of any and all of the female students capable of becoming pregnant. If the girls are not visibly pregnant they do checks that include groping the breasts and stomachs of the students and forcing them to take urine tests. Government and education officials have denied that they sanction such methods and even that they occur, saying that only "visibly pregnant" girls are covered in the policy, and as such checks would not be necessary. Buzzfeed News advised that one girl's statement to Amnesty International clearly disputes this.
"We had to register and queue to get an attendance slip for the exams. The female teachers told all the girls we would be searched as pregnant girls are not allowed to sit exams. We were made to line up and we were checked. They touched our breasts and stomach to see if we were pregnant… The teachers told us the government told them to do this checking. They are ashamed to see pregnant girls go to school. The teachers talked to the students not to say anything and now we are frightened to speak about what happened."During the Ebola epidemic it was not only educational institutions that were affected, and the economy of Sierra Leone came to a screeching halt. During this time many families used their girls to bring in financial support by any means, including using sex as a bartering tool. Also many young girls had relatives who died due to Ebola and left the children to fend for themselves and again many used sex as a means of survival. A Save the Children study in July reported that 10 percent of extremely vulnerable girls were trading sex for basic life needs, teenage pregnancy also increased by 47 percent during the Ebola outbreak. Supposedly many men went to young girls because the older women were more knowledgeable about Ebola risks and were in a better position to deny these men sex.
Many government officials are actually blaming the girls for their pregnancy, saying that they need to learn to say no. A campaign called "No Sex for Grades" was launched by Sierra Leone's Ministry of Health two weeks after the ban against visibly pregnant girls attending schools was enacted into policy. The aim is to stop girls from accepting pressures from male teachers for sex to advance them in school, but it never mentions that these male teachers to stop pressuring the female students. Male ministry officials told Amnesty that girls who were not respectful enough to heed the advice not to get pregnant then "she will not be allowed in a school environment."
Recognizing the dire straights of the pregnant girls of Sierra Leone, several donor countries, particularly Ireland and the U.K., implemented alternative classes that began in late October and are funded until July 2016. Claims are that over 3,000 pregnant girls have registered for the classes but they are more than six months behind in their studies. While many girls are happy for the alternative classes, others would like to be able to end the stigma and return to their regular mainstream schools. Even with the alternative classes, visibly pregnant girls are still banned from taking exams.Amnesty International is still working to get the ban against visibly pregnant girls attending mainstream schools in Sierra Leone lifted, but in the interim, they intend to ensure that the alternative classes supported by international organizations offer the same curriculum as the mainstream schools.
[Photo Courtesy of Amnesty International's Tweet]