Unsound, Unjust and Unwise -- Banning Pregnant Girls From School in Sierra Leone

It's now widely known that the government of Sierra Leone has instituted a ban on pregnant girls from taking exams and attending regular schools. The ban gives Sierra Leone the dubious distinction of being the only country in the sub-region with an official policy that is geared to deliberately and expressly keep out thousands of its citizens from enjoying the fundamental right to education.

Amnesty International recently launched an important and aptly named report "shamed and blamed: pregnant girls at risk in Sierra Leone" calling for the government to immediately end the ban and protect the rights of girls. The report and the media coverage it has generated continue to elicit broadly two sets of passionate responses - those like me, who are outraged, shocked or just outright embarrassed that our government will institute such a discriminatory policy in this century and those who think the calls for "rights" are foreign and that we should respect our "tradition" (of excluding pregnant girls from school) in Sierra Leone.

In this piece, I argue that the government's stated reasoning for this policy is flawed and unsound and I urge them to overturn the ban on what our Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in their imperative recommendations called "archaic and discriminatory".

I should state up front that I am not new to this issue. I launched an online petition when the policy was announced that attracted thousands of signatures from around the world. I have written articles in the local and international media and argued on different platforms for government to end the ban. I even had the privilege of meeting with President Ernest Koroma twice to discuss the implications of this policy. I say that because some have sought to portray the protest as some sort of western imposition and castigate Amnesty International as an outsider coming in on an issue that Sierra Leoneans are content with. As a matter of fact, mine is only a modest contribution to a constellation of impressive local human rights and civil society actors including the Human Right Commission, the Civil Society Collective against the government ban, Center for Accountability and Rule of Law, the Education Coalition and numerous others who have opposed this ban.

GOVERNMENT'S "BASELESS" REASONING

First, virtually every single basis that the government has used to justify this ban is flimsy and cannot withstand reasonable scrutiny. According to the position paper that the government released in March 2014 announcing the ban, the West African Exams Council (WAEC) informed them that in 2010 they had observed that about 200 pregnant girls who attempted public exams had failed. This is troubling on many levels. WAEC has no way of finding out who is pregnant or not when they take exams and it will be a serious breach of student privacy for them to arrange or specify results based on pregnancy status. But that is beside the point. Even if it were the case that pregnant girls failed in ONE YEAR, how can any reasonable authority decide to make a whole government policy based on one year's data? It's even worse when such data is neither verified nor openly available for all to see and scrutinize. Beyond this obvious troubling flaw, the logic is like saying in 2014 everyone failed an exam in Kanikay- where I grew up and that therefore we are forever banning all students in that community from all such exams!

The real issue that WAEC should be concerned about and that should invite government's review and action (apart from the former's widely known incompetent handling of the exams) is the fact that only 2% of Sierra Leonean students pass Mathematics at WASCE and only 8% pass English. That's a sad reflection of the state of our education system but instead of focusing on this malaise, WAEC and the ministry are seemingly seeking to scapegoat the young girls for our country's systematic educational dysfunction.

The next set of reasoning that has been proffered by various government officials' range from the misleading to the bizarre. The Minister of Social Welfare is quoted in the Amnesty Report as saying that it is "immoral for pregnant girls to be in school". While denying that he used those words in a recent BBC Report, he still managed to say he "would not allow his daughter to be in the same class as a pregnant girl". Apparently, our minister of Social Welfare and Children's affairs think the majority of girls in Sierra Leone who become pregnant or have a baby before they are twenty years are beneath his daughter. That should explain much.

Some, including notably, the Minister of Health, have said that pregnant girls would always be sick and throwing up in class thus constituting a major distraction to other students. When this notion was again raised at a recent roundtable I attended, The UNFPA Country Representative in Sierra Leone, a medical doctor, had to respond to such wild ungrounded theories by making this painfully obvious proclamation "pregnant girls have brains and they function." He also said "pregnancy is not a disease." (The audience applauded!)

It is simply unfounded that being pregnant makes one incapable of functioning in a class environment. We have lived with many pregnant women and have not seen them constantly falling on the ground or not able to use their brains. Many pregnant girls and women, here and around the world, work until sometimes days before they are due and are never a nuisance or an impediment to their environment. But again, that is beside the point. Would you ban every one who had epilepsy from school because they have a chance of having fits once in a while in class? Or would you put in place the right mechanism to support them and ensure that their right to education is protected alongside everyone else's? Our government has basically chosen the worst option on these questions.

Another argument that various government officials have been repeating is that pregnant girls are somehow contagious. They argue that if other "good girls" see these pregnant girls in school, they would also be tempted to get pregnant. I asked someone the other day when they have seen a pregnant girl and thought to themselves they also want to get pregnant. There's simple no evidence of this type of effect anywhere and again, I challenge the government to provide a study to back this misleading claim. In fact, with the high rates of pregnancy in the country, girls will encounter their pregnant friends in virtually every community and sphere of life. And the many countries that allow pregnant girls in schools have no indication that this contagion happen in any way, shape or form. Allowing pregnant girls in school might offer an opportunity for the badly needed comprehensive sex education in our classes, the lack of which is one of the reasons for this issue.

At a recent town hall in New York, government spokesman Abdulai Bayraytay also claimed that "even in the west, they do not tolerate pregnant girls in normal schools." He asserted that western countries run "adult schools" for pregnant girls. This is verifiably misleading. Western countries have had laws and policies banning discrimination against pregnant students for decades now. The United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and virtually all of western Europe not only have enforceable protections, they typically also offer comprehensive services to cater for the unique needs of girls who become pregnant and in some cases for their babies. They basically do everything possible to prevent that girl from dropping out of school.

A final point I have heard made often is that our society is simply not ready to accept pregnant girls in school. While that perception of our society is not supported by any credible evidence, (many schools around the country have historically allowed pregnant girls in their classes with virtually no protest from the community), let's assume for a second that this were the case. That would hardly constitute grounds for banning all pregnant girls from school, would it? In Freetown in the past few weeks, I have observed, with admiration, the ubiquitous billboards and public messages, urging our society to resist the urge to shun our compatriot Ebola survivors and instead accept them as heroines. The President is valiantly leading these efforts. The government could certainly conduct similar campaigns for this issue, which, as the numbers show, is incredibly important to our future.

So let me reiterate again. The government position and stance is not based on any facts, case study or sound argument on this issue. The one scientific study they attempted to cite to justify their position is a report by UNICEF on the likelihood of siblings of pregnant girls in the same households to also become pregnant as teenagers. UNICEF has made clear that the government misstates the findings of the report and that the conclusions of that report do not support the stance of this policy.

OVER SIXTEEN THOUSAND GIRLS

Recently on 'Good Morning Salone' - the nation's most popular radio breakfast show- Theo Nicol, the Deputy Minister of Information challenged the Amnesty International reported figure that up to ten thousand girls were pregnant during the Ebola period and are therefore affected by this policy. He claimed, as his colleagues have been doing for a while now that the actual number cannot be more than three thousand.
Not surprisingly, the government is way off the mark and Amnesty was actually conservative. The United Nations conducted a rapid assessment of the situation of pregnant girls in Sierra Leone and found that, as of July 2015 in 12 of the 14 districts (excluding Portloko and Kambia), there were at least 14218 girls who became pregnant during the Ebola outbreak! Take a deep breath and think about that. If you include Portloko and Kambia- which before the Ebola outbreak had incredibly high levels of teenage pregnancy and where it is reasonable to assume that there would have been similar spikes as across the country, you are talking of at least up to 16 000 teenage girls who are being denied their right to education by this policy- and this might be a gross under-counting!

There are other facts that the United Nations report reveals which make bare the strange and discriminatory nature of this policy. About half of those interviewed in for the report became pregnant when they were 17 years or younger- meaning that someone most likely committed statutory rape against them. The report could therefore be easily titled, 'raped, shamed and blamed!"
Not surprisingly, our government has yet to validate and release this important report for the public consumption. I call on them again to release this report for all to see and urge them to acknowledge the actual number of the victims of their strange policy.

SOME HARD FACTS

There's an even more worrying aspect of the ban beyond the lack of rigor, fact and sound reasoning in the government's position. The government's own data highlights some excruciating details that make this policy more baffling. Even before Ebola, girls in Sierra Leone were already living in an emergency. In 2013, 20% of 10-14 year olds were out of school (in some districts like Portloko it was 37%, 40% in Koinadugu). We continue to forcefully marry our girls at some of the highest rates in the world- 12.5 of them by the age of 15 and a whopping 38.9% by the age of 18 (in Kambia and Portloko, its over 50 %). And half of girls (among 20-24 year olds) in Sierra Leone give birth by the age of 18 while only about 30% have ever used modern contraception.

Combine that with the shocking fact that a whopping 85% of these girls say their first sexual encounter was with a man who was ten years or more older than them and you see a rather desperate picture. A majority of these girls are subjected to rape- by our laws sex with a girl under 18 is a crime- and our response is to punish the ones that we have failed to protect by the law. It's worth reiterating that sex with a minor is a crime-against the minor. To hear the ministers and government officials tell it, you would be forgiven for thinking it's the girls that are the criminals.

The major kicker however is this: 75% of these girls, if present trends continue, will at some point in their reproductive lives be single mothers. They will hence have to take care of themselves and their children. If they stay in school and make the transition from junior secondary to senior secondary, they are likely to have two fewer children and increase their income by 25% annually. So fifteen thousand girls who stay in school will have 35000 children, instead of 75000 and will have $13,333 to spend per child over twenty years as opposed to $3200 for those who drop out.

A policy therefore that deliberately shuts the doors of school on them is one that shuts the door of opportunity on us all as a nation. Our government, by this policy is not only violating basic rights, it is guaranteeing that these girls and the children they bear, will remain poor - hence keeping our country itself poor. This should outrage every Sierra Leonean.

HUMAN RIGHTS

The Amnesty Report does a brilliant job of outlining the many specific rights of girls that the policy and the various associated practices blatantly violate. From the right to education, which is guaranteed in our laws, to the privacy and dignity rights of girls who are checked for pregnancy, there's a long list of "archaic" offenses that this policy commits.

I should point out here that on AYV Television the other day, the spokesman of the Ministry of Education, my friend, Brima M. Turay stated that it's within government's powers to ban these girls from exams because they are "wasting government resources". He argued that government is paying for these exams and therefore can take away their "privilege" at will.

I wanted to touch on this issue because it is fundamental to the present debate. Sadly, successive governments since pre-independence have treated education as some sort of privilege or reward to be bestowed and that it is contingent on some good behavior or some nepotistic connection. This view clearly persists today despite our laws and the global affirmation that education is a fundamental right.

So let me put it differently, government has a DUTY to provide education for its children, all of them, irrespective of their pregnancy status, sex, religion or otherwise. Every child is entitled to enjoy that right. The Education Ministry is not doing us any favors by "paying for the exams". They are actually using the people's money to rightly provide a service to the people. And it's a violation of their duties to stop providing that service to a group of people - because of their pregnancy status.

THE ALTERNATIVE SYSTEM

The Ministry of Education recently launched an alternative system for the pregnant schoolgirls. They claim that this system offers the same education as the normal school and that it is a bridge for the pregnant girls to ultimately return to school. This will be troublesome even if the government's claim of providing "separate but equal" education was true. The Education Act clearly prevents the government from instituting any discriminatory system for a set of children. The Act says when they create single sex schools, for instance, they must ensure that there's choice and equal quality. The new system would not meet any of these criteria even if it were working according to what they have proposed. It's discriminating on the basis of pregnancy and there's simply no "bridge" to the formal and regular education sector. Girls in the system are still barred from exams and they are now treated as a generally homogenous group with a compressed uniform curriculum covering in most instances four separate school years in one class (the last four years of high school are all lumped together).

Furthermore, in this alternative system, the girls are scheduled to attend schools for only three days a week and for two hours a day! Instead of the usual average of thirty hours a week that children spend in class, our government has instituted a system that limits them to a meager six hours per week. That's less than some schools spend a day. Even worse is the fact that, many of the new schools I visited in the city I observed that students only spend one hour a day, three days a week. Students and teachers confirmed that to be the norm. It's hard to fathom.

The government continues to say that the system is only an interim measure until the girls give birth when they are free to return to the normal schools. This sounds reasonable only in theory. In practice, up to 90% of girls who drop out of schools because of pregnancy do not return because of factors ranging from the need to take care of their babies, lack of support, stigma, poverty, repeat pregnancies among others. Evidence from other countries that have instituted humane and smart policies suggest that to curb this trend, every step must be taken to keep girls in the formal system, provide them integrated services and support them from falling too far behind their colleagues. A policy that kicks them out of school, bars them from taking exams and institutionalizes an inferior system for them is simply not a sound prescription.

CONCLUSION

In his recent Op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, President Koroma rightly identified the need to improve access to education as one of the pillars of our post Ebola recovery. Governments around the world are putting in place policies to make education a reality for all of their citizens. They are busy reviewing their polices and programs, building bridges and finding different ways to provide basic education to as many of their citizens as they can.

Sierra Leone is already terribly behind on many measures - 90% of girls drop out of school - and we have managed to come up with a prescription that is guaranteed to keep even more of them out of school. The practice of banning pregnant girls from school- as I have explained above - blames and punishes victims and makes a terrible situation unambiguously worse. The government of Sierra Leone, for the good of our country, must immediately put an end to this ban and invest instead on evidence based polices and practices that prevent mass pregnancies, support girls who become pregnant and keep the dream of education alive for every girl in Sierra Leone. Not doing so guarantees that we will remain poor and prone to shocks like Ebola. We simply cannot afford that.