By Laura Angela Bagnetto
Children will finally be returning to their classes throughout Sierra Leone on Monday after an eight-month hiatus due to the Ebola crisis. But there will be empty chairs at many schools. Some students will find out that their classmates fell victim to the deadly Ebola virus while others will not make it because they are barred from school.
Visibly pregnant girls will not be allowed to take their exams in primary and secondary school, according to Sierra Leone’s Education Minister Minkailu Bah.
Bah has officially stated an unspoken rule that has long been a part of the education system: if you have sex and get pregnant, you will not be allowed to associate with schoolgirls who are not pregnant.
“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,” says Sabrina Mahtani, Amnesty International’s West Africa researcher.
“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 adds.
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.
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.
“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,” says Sylvester Meheux, the chairman of the Conference of Principals. “Others will copy that example, and we’ll have a lot of them [pregnant girls] in our school system,” he adds.
Meheux says that while educators agree that a girl’s life is not over if she gets pregnant, she needs to be counselled because of her lack of personal control.
“Education is a discipline. In the absence of discipline, learning doesn’t take place. You should also realise that when someone is pregnant, you have some distractions, things that will not make you compose yourself, to take your education seriously,” he says.
Some Sierra Leoneans are not convinced, especially given the high number of teenage pregnancies in Sierra Leone, according to Chernor Bah, a Sierra Leone human rights activist who has long advocated for girls’ education, which is part of the Millennium Development Goals. He says that while it is endemic in Sierra Leonean culture, it is hard to explain.
“It’s one of those aspects of our culture that doesn’t really make sense [… ] having sex is supposed to be unacceptable. You shouldn’t have sex if you’re going to school. Now we know that most kids are having sex and, particularly girls, they’re not having sex out of choice,” says Bah. He cites 2008 statistics showing that for girls aged between 15 and 24, 85 per cent reported forced sex with a man at least 10 years older, which equates to statutory rape.
But if they become pregnant, it is their appearance that some find unsettling. “I’ve had people talk about the dignity of the uniform. Somehow if a pregnant girl wears that uniform, you undignify [sic] the uniform, which again is one of those things that I find completely baffling,” says Bah.
He adds that the biggest argument in Sierra Leone is that pregnant girls will somehow influence “innocent” girls in class. “So to stop them from influencing them, to stop them from somehow telling them about sex – about sexuality, about how they even got pregnant in the first place – is to completely isolate them from the classroom.”
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.
Although the Conference of Principals says that measures are being taken to provide pregnant girls alternative education in Sierra Leone, girls’ education advocate Chernor Bah says otherwise.
“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.”
Monasch agrees, saying that UNICEF strongly advocates that every girl, pregnant or not, mother or not a mother, has access to education.
And while there will be children missing from school on Monday, human rights activists say the bottom line is that education is a human right, pregnant or otherwise.