Pregnant girls are now barred from school in my country Sierra Leone. The government has decided that as schools reopen this week for the first time since the vicious Ebola outbreak that has claimed over 10, 000 lives – and plunged our country into fear, lock downs, economic and emotional pain – pregnant girls should simply stay away. According to Dr. Minkailu Bah, the Minister of Education, Sierra Leone is “not going to legalize teenage pregnancy.”
To justify this baffling policy, the Minister and his supporters, including the Council of School Principals and the Head Teachers Association, have invoked custom (it’s not our “custom” to have pregnant girls in class with other girls who are “innocent”) and morality (pregnant girls are a “bad influence” on other girls). Human rights organizations and advocates like myself have expressed outrage and shock (you can sign my petition on the issue here.) As I asked the Minister on a recent BBC interview, show me one person who has seen a pregnant girl and thought, I also want to get pregnant. There’s simply no evidence of this “influence” – yet so far, nothing has convinced Bah to reconsider his position.
Public policy should not be based on notions of custom and selective applications of moral codes. But it’s worse than that. Let me explain.
One reason why this issue gained attention is because the Ebola crisis played a part. Schools have been closed for almost a year due to the epidemic, and girls have been forced to remain in often over-crowded households that have been under government-mandated lockdowns, sometimes for months on end. Sexual activity likely increased during this time and with no way for girls to access contraceptives, there’s a visible number of pregnant young girls around the country.
The Minister and his supporters have claimed, “If these girls really wanted to learn, they would use condoms or other methods of contraception.” This argument, of course, ignores some basic facts. In Sierra Leone, only 8.2% of females 15-49 years use any method of modern contraceptives. And only about 5% of young people aged 15-24 years said they used a condom the last time they had sex. To make matters worse, during the peak of the Ebola outbreak most of the Reproductive Health Centers were completely shut down, further diminishing an already abysmally limited service. And the use of condoms and other contraceptives often requires negotiation and bargaining clout that most poor young girls simply do not have.
Teenage pregnancy has actually been an issue in Sierra Leone for a long time. One in three girls aged 15-19 in Sierra Leone has been pregnant or had a child at least once. Sierra Leone also has one of the highest rates of early marriages in the world. About 20% of girls between 15-24 years are married by the age of 15, and about half of girls in Sierra Leone are married by the time they reach the legal age of consent (18 years). According to the Population Council analysis of Sierra Leone’s Demographic and Health Survey data in 2008, about 85% of girls in Sierra Leone aged 15-24 years said their first sexual encounter was with a man who was at least ten years older — so many of these sexual encounters are actually statutory rape cases that go unreported. These sets of figures are important because they show that most of what the Minister and his supporters call “immoral behavior” happen within the context of illegal actions committed against the girls; namely child marriage and statutory rape.
In addition, there is the issue of transactional sex. A young girl at a workshop I ran with rural girls in Port Loko, Sierra Leone in April 2013 told me that although she was in school, she helped take care of her younger sibling; whenever she lacked money for basic necessities, she was forced to sell sex. Her story is not unique. Poor girls across the country are often forced to sell sex in exchange for grades, food, jobs and pretty much anything they need from men in positions of power. (For example, Dr. Bah’s former Deputy Education Minister is currently in court for allegedly raping a girl who came to his office to ask for help with school fees.) Yet it’s the girls who are burdened with the moral stigma and condemnation for taking the only option that society often affords them.
Recently some advocates in Sierra Leone — including some prominent gender activists claiming they want to find a middle ground — have called for the creation of an alternative system of education just for pregnant girls. They argue that we can create a special system that takes care of their unique needs. But we already treat pregnant girls as near criminals, shunning them in the community. We have a school system – and economy — that is still struggling to find its feet after the Ebola crisis. Why would anyone believe that the government can create and run a high quality alternative school system? But more importantly — even if such a program were created (as it is in other countries), it should be the girl’s choice to opt into such a system.
Going to school is a fundamental human right guaranteed by the constitution of Sierra Leone and by international law. It’s a right that every child, including pregnant girls, should enjoy – even when it’s inconvenient for someone’s “views on morality.”
The tragedy of this policy extends beyond the impact on individual pregnant girls – it also affects our country. Every year a girl stays in school increases her chance of succeeding in life — of taking care of her family, of immunizing her baby and sending her to school, and of being an active member of a society capable of fighting diseases like Ebola. Every year she stays out of school; it’s twice as likely that she will never return. In a country with one of the highest adult illiteracy rates in the world, we should be busy building bridges for all to access education — instead we are building walls and shutting out hundreds. That has to change.