Pregnant or not, Sierra Leonean girls have a right to education

A billboard standing a few metres from State House, in the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown, screams.

Featuring the country's former presidents, the current President, Ernest Bai Koroma and some women, it categorically declares that "Violence against Women is Violence against the State." That is a short, profound statement from the country's commander in chief.

To me, the neatly inscribed words was a clear indication that the Government of Sierra Leone is committed to ensuring that all forms of violence against women and girls are protected and promoted; It was an assertive statement that the highest office in the land is ready to live up to all its obligations stipulated in the relevant legal instruments that it has ratified.

However, this statement totally contradicts the reality in Sierra Leone when it comes to upholding the right to education for girls.

I have several reasons for that conclusion.

In 2015, just as Sierra Leone was emerging out of the Ebola crisis, the Government through its Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, issued a mean directive banning all visibly pregnant girls from attending mainstream schools.

Subsequently, girls could not sit for the national exam, the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE), which then meant they missed out on the next level of education.

To date, the ban is still on. Even girls who already gave birth are not allowed to go back to school. It is also quite evident that there is no political will to lift the ban despite many interventions by different groups.

One of the responses from government officials is that pregnant girls are of bad influence to the rest of the students. Such reasoning is quite unfortunate especially because most of these girls were sexually violated, raped or coerced into sex during the Ebola crisis.

Even with the learning centres established in partnership with donors as alternatives, it is still an issue that needs attention. Learning in these spaces is discriminatory: They do not also meet the bare minimums for basic education, which exposes the girls to academic failure.

In every sense, the government ban is discriminatory and retrogressive.

The Sierra Leone Education Act of 2004 clearly provides for non-discrimination in access to education. The Normative instruments of the United Nations and UNSECO clearly provide the standards and the obligations for states in regards to the right to education. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child calls on states to put in place measures that ensure children who get pregnant have an opportunity to continue with their education.

With all these statues in place, it is time that Sierra Leone lived up to that commitment of protecting the rights of girls.

The immense capabilities, talents and abilities that these girls have cannot be utilised if they remain at home.

A message denouncing gender based discrimination in a state where girls are denied the right to education is not only a mockery to the girls but a reflection of a state that only pays lip service to serious issues.

How will girls exercise their other rights if they are denied one of the most fundamental rights? How will they be changemakers if they are prohibited from sitting for the national examinations?

Girls in the Eastern , Southern, Western and Northern provinces of Sierra Leone ought to be accorded the right to education; this regardless of whether they are pregnant or not.

Let Girls in Sierra Leone learn freely.

Naitore Nyamu-Mathenge is a Program Officer at Equality Now.

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