‘VISIBLY PREGNANT’ schoolgirls will no longer be welcome in Sierra Leone’s schools when they reopen following the Ebola outbreak later this month, according to a new ruling announced by the Ministry of Education.
Dr Minkailu Bah, the nation’s Minister of Education, Science and Technology, said their presence in the classroom “would serve as a negative influence to other innocent girls".
After Minister Bah’s declaration, the Freetown-based Conference of Principals held a meeting to discuss how they should react. The group, composed of principals from around the country, agreed to support the minister’s measure.
Baking the decision, Sylvester Meheux, the chairman of the Conference of Principals, said: “In our own culture, in the secondary school, they don’t allow girls who are visibly pregnant to go and take exams. We have a belief that it will encourage other girls to do the same thing.
“Others will copy that example, and we’ll have a lot of them [pregnant girls] in our school system.”
The move, which specifies that pregnant girls and young mothers cannot sit the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) and the West Africa Senior Secondary School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) - essentially barring them from graduating from high school or continuing on to university, has been blasted by human rights groups.
“Many of these girls have already been very disadvantaged over the last eight months, having been impacted by the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone. And there has been a reported increase in sexual violence as well as a reported increase in pressure on girls to engage in transactional sex due to the very harsh economic impacts of Ebola,” Sabrina Mahtani, Amnesty International’s West Africa researcher told news website RFI.
“This is not a favour [to pregnant girls], this is a fundamental human right to education. And these girls have a right not to be discriminated against, and also have a right not to be stigmatised just because they’re girls,” she added.
Over the past eight months, Sierra Leoneans were not allowed to meet in groups, play sports or even go to school due to the highly contagious nature of Ebola. But now, students will be sitting in classrooms, trying to catch up by taking last year’s exams.
The UN Children’s Fund has been working on this issue for some time, according to Roeland Monasch, UNICEF’s representative in Sierra Leone.
“Nearly half of all girls are pregnant or a mother while they’re a child themselves, so before they reach the age of 18,” he says.
Chernor Bah, a Sierra Leone human rights activist who has long advocated for girls' education, says more measures need to be in place to provide pregnant girls with alternative education.
“They don’t have the structures to do that, they don’t have the infrastructure to do that, it’s a violation of human rights. It’s very sad. It’s very painful because we’re seeing a visible number of pregnant girls in the country today. And we know why this is,” he says.
“It was a crisis before Ebola, it’s been made worse due to Ebola, and this policy just makes it worse and punishes the victims.”