Sierra Leone bans pregnant girls from school. The government maintains that they are a bad influence to the rest of the students. This has had negative ramifications for many girls who desperately want to continue with their education. The ban is not only discriminatory but also exposes government failure to address widespread sexual violence against girls.
The moment I walked into the room, my attention was drawn to her and the baby she held tenderly in her arms. Unlike the rest of the girls, she looked withdrawn. Our eyes met and the thought crossed my mind: What if she was my daughter? That was the moment I knew that I had to stand up for her with the same passion and conviction that I would feel for my own daughter.
She was curled up on chair in a secluded corner of a community hall in Tombo, a coastal fishing town 49 kilometers from Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. She kept gazing around, occasionally checking new entrants to the hall. Then she looked down to flash a small grin to the baby she was holding. In response the baby chuckled and an infectious smile spread over the mother’s face as she motioned for the girls nearby to move closer - all of them survivors of sexual violence. A private joke shared and they burst into laughter.
Asata* was a 13-year-old student when she became a mother. As soon as her pregnancy became visible, her school administrator warned her not to come back to class the next day. Her dream of becoming a nurse crumbled as she walked out of her school into the unknown.
Asata explained to me: “I was really affected by this. I wanted to carry on with my schooling, give birth, and then continue with my education. But the teacher told me that the government does not allow pregnant girls in school. I always wanted to be a nurse. I have always admired the work that nurses do. I am not sure if I will ever achieve my dream.”
The boy who impregnated her, a fellow student, continued with his education unperturbed by the fact that Asata was carrying his child. In such cases, boys are not usually questioned and face no consequences. This reality persists for victims of sexual violence. There is a culture of impunity and the blame is placed on the girl.
Asata feels that she has been unduly punished. She wants to continue with her education so that one day she can get a good job and provide for her family. But she is being denied this fundamental right.
Meanwhile, her mother is devastated. She cannot afford to take care of her daughter and her grandchild in the long term, let alone pay for their medical bills.
It is a past Asata did not want to talk about her situation. But her hopes of going to university are still there and her motivation for speaking out now is the need for justice - a justice that will enable her to return to school.
Asata’s story is the tip of the iceberg, replicated across Sierra Leone and affecting hundreds of adolescent girls. Cases of teenage pregnancies in the country are widespread and the situation has worsened following a surge that took place after the outbreak of Ebola.
In 2015, the government of Sierra Leone introduced a policy banning visibly pregnant girls from attending school. The government maintains that pregnant girls are of bad influence to the rest of the students. This has had negative ramifications for many girls who desperately want to continue with their education. The ban is not only perpetuating the discriminatory gender norms, but it is also an indication of the government’s failure to address the root cause of widespread sexual violence.
The 2017 theme for the Day of the African Child is ‘Accelerating protection, empowerment and equal opportunities for Children in Africa by 2030.’ A timely theme, however, it is not clear if the various African countries are committed to achieving what is envisioned.
The right to education is a primary human right and plays a pivotal role in development, both of the individual and society. It opens up access to information on protection, opportunities and other fundamental rights, and is highly linked to personal, social and economic empowerment.
The Sierra Leone Education Act of 2004 clearly provides for non-discrimination in access to education. The normative instruments of the United Nations and UNSECO clearly outline the standards and obligations for states in regards to the right to education. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child calls on states to put in place measures that ensure children who get pregnant have an opportunity to continue with their education. The Maputo Protocol on the rights of Women in Africa, which Sierra Leone is a signatory, guarantees the right to Education and Training.
The Sustainable Development Goals cannot be achieved if the right to education for girls is not fully realized and promoted. Additionally, depriving girls of the right to learn opens them up to many other abuses and human rights violations like child marriage and Female Genital Mutilation among others.
In a country such as Sierra Leone where literacy levels are low, the government should put in place all the appropriate measures required to ensure that girls do not miss out on school. Equally important is that the perpetrators of sexual violence are held accountable for their actions.
In order to accelerate protection, empowerment and equal opportunities for children across Africa by 2030, all states must protect and promote the right to education for girls. States cannot prosper nor develop if cases like that of Asata are the norms.
Asata and other girls deserve the right to learn and they should be protected from all forms of abuse. What if she was my daughter? A question, policy makers in Sierra Leone should reflect on as Africa commits to protecting, empowering and giving equal opportunities to all her children.
*Asata’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.
* NAITORE NYAMU-MATHENGE is the Justice for Girls/End Sexual violence program officer at Equality Now. She is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya and a human rights lawyer who is passionate about advocating for the rights of women and girls.