Sierra Leone government policy banning pregnant girls from attending school breaches the right of girls to access education, according to a ruling handed down by the Economic Community of Economic State (ECOWAS) Court of Justice on Thursday, and said that this policy is discriminatory-- a victory for young girls.
“We hope this decision has an impact across Africa,” said Judy Gitau, Africa Regional Coordinator at Equality Now, who has worked on the case from the beginning and was present in the Abuja courtroom when the verdict was read.
“It not only sets out how such a practice is discriminatory, but it allows people to actually see how they're relegating the young girls to a cycle of poverty and indignity,” she told RFI after the verdict.
A number of human rights groups, including Child Welfare Society, Equality Now and the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IRHDA) and WAVES, a Sierra Leonean non-governmental organization, filed the case with the ECOWAS court in May 2018.
In court, the judges outlined the issues and succinctly answered each issue, said Gitau.
The ECOWAS court said that Sierra Leone had an actual policy in place that banned school-age girls who fell pregnant. The government had argued that it was only an unfortunate statement from a minister, and not a policy. RFI reported on the issue back in 2015, where the chairman of the Conference of Principals indicated that it was a policy that was carried out in Sierra Leonean schools.
The court said that the ban was discriminatory and ordered the government to lift the ban with immediate effect.
The court also ordered the government to carry out four distinct measures in order to reduce teenage pregnancies in school. Providing sexual reproductive education, sensitising the communities on issues of discrimination, and abolishing the parallel, inadequate schools for pregnant girls.
The schools had been created by non-state actors, who only taught four subjects, three times a week, not in line with the Sierra Leone educational standards.
Vulnerable girls pay the price
The previous government had put this policy banning pregnant girls in place, but the advent of Ebola worsened the situation, according to Gitau.
A spike in teen pregnancies arose during and after the Ebola crisis.
“The majority of these girls were victims of sexual violence on account that their caregivers and guardians died and were no longer available,” said Gitau.
A decision with impact
Human rights groups hope that this ban will push other African countries who discriminate to change their stance.
“This delivers a clear message to other African governments who have similar bans, such as Tanzania and Equatorial Guinea, or may be contemplating them, that they should follow this groundbreaking ruling and take steps to allow pregnant girls access to education in line with their own human rights obligations,” said Marta Colomer, Amnesty International's West Africa deputy campaign director.