“Visibly pregnant” schoolgirls in Sierra Leone have been banned from taking the standardized exams required to graduate from primary and secondary school.
The presence of pregnant girls in the classroom, “would serve as a negative influence to other innocent girls,” Minister for Education, Science, and Technology Minkailu Bah told a conference of school principals from around the country who agreed to bar both expecting and young mothers them from exam halls.
This policy shift comes just as schools are set to reopen later this month after having been closed for eight months in an effort to contain the spread of Ebola. The deadly epidemic has killed 3,000 Sierra Leoneons and more than 10,000 in West Africa since it was first discovered there a year ago.
According to some rights’ groups in Sierra Leone, the new education policy towards pregnant schoolgirls punishes young people who have already suffered because of the Ebola epidemic.
“Many of these girls have already been very disadvantaged over the last eight months, having been impacted by the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone,” Sabrina Mahtani, an Amnesty International researcher told Radio France Internationale. “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.”
Some young women like Marie Koroma had sex with men in order to earn money as businesses shut down and the government banned public gatherings.
The eighteen-year-old became pregnant after she had sex with a man twice her age — and was left to care for the baby on her own.
“My mother was crying when she found out, because I was the only daughter in school, and now there is no hope,” Koroma told Al Jazeera America.
Other women were sexually assaulted.
According to the human rights’ organization Humanist Watch Salone, Sierra Leoneons reported more than 2,200 sexual assaults in 2014 — an increase from the nearly 1500 reported in 2013. Christopher Braima, a national coordinator with the organization estimated that instances of sexual violence increased by about 40 percent due to the Ebola outbreak — even more than the reported cases might suggest.
One-third of pregnancies in the country were teenage pregnancies even before the disease ravaged the country, according to government figures. Experts believe that rate has only increased in the wake of Ebola.
Schoolgirls who became pregnant, in part, because of the uptick in sexual violence and sex work in the midst of the Ebola outbreak are now further punished by not being allowed to graduate.
The new policy to prevent pregnant girls from finishing school is a stark contrast to Sierra Leone’s previous efforts to combat teenage pregnancy — and, by doing so, keep girls in school.
“Girls should be book carriers, not baby carriers. Girls should be studying at night, not changing nappies,” Ernest Bai Koroma, the President of Sierra Leone, said in May 2013 when he launched new program to end teenage pregnancy in the country.
The President’s National Strategy for the Reduction of Teenage Pregnancy, cited U.N. figures that found that, “The untimely pregnancy of young girls is ranked as the third most common reason for dropping out of school.”
It further stated, “Ethnographic research highlight[s] that girls consistently identified the inability of a pregnant girl or young mother to continue school as one the most harmful and psychologically distressing aspects of early pregnancy.”
The policy paper outlining a framework to reduce teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone pointed to studies that have shown the positive economic impact and health outcomes of girls’ education.
And yet, instead of offering support to pregnant teenagers or teenage mothers through the framework of school Sierra Leone has banned them from completing their schooling.
The new policy is troubling to Chernor Bah, human rights’ and girls’ education activist in Sierra Leone.
Instead of discouraging pregnant teenagers from the classroom, Bah added, the classroom should be used as a space to educate girls about safe sex.
“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,” he said.