Excluded from school since the civil war, orphaned by the deadly Ebola outbreak, and now quarantined by Covid-19, the judgement in the case of WAVES CWS-SL and The Republic of Sierra Leone is a landmark for pregnant girls in Sierra Leone. The judgement sets a precedent that young girls have a right to education without discrimination. It is hoped that other countries like Tanzania will follow suit.
The exclusion of pregnant schoolgirls from attending school in Sierra Leone pre-dates the 1991-2002 civil war that ravaged the country. Following the deadly Ebola outbreak, many young girls were left vulnerable. As a result, there was a spike in teenage pregnancies. The high rates of teenage pregnancies amongst school girls, as high as 65% in some regions, led to the Minister of Education, Science and Technology, Dr Minkailu Bah to make a public statement directing that all pregnant school girls should not be allowed to be in school while pregnant. This statement was treated and implemented as official policy. In the statement, the minister reasoned that pregnant girls should be excluded from school because they served as negative influences on their peers. This type of political language perpetuated stigma and prejudice against pregnant girls who were portrayed as less deserving to an equal right to education.
As a result of this discriminatory policy approach, the Sierra Leone government established alternative schools for pregnant girls. However, these schools had a limited and inferior curriculum, teaching only four subjects and operating for three days of the week. On challenge, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) court found these separate schools discriminatory and a violation of the right to education. The court asserted that the exclusion of pregnant girls from mainstream schools is a breach of Article 17(1) of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights which states that “Every individual shall have the right to education” and Article 28(1) of the Rights of the Child which outlines that “States Parties recognise the right of the child to education”.
The Sierra Leone government is yet to offer alternative schools for pregnant girls that provide an equal standard of education to that in mainstream schools. Moving forward, policymakers and the Sierra Leone government should offer equal alternative schools for pregnant girls. This is desirable because teachers at these institutions can receive vigorous training that would put them in a better position to help and accommodate the needs of pregnant girls. This would also ensure that pregnant girls receive the one to one assistance they need to complete their education and not fall behind.
In addition to highlighting the importance of the right to education, this judgment also brings to light a legal gap in Sierra Leone’s legal system. As things stand, Sierra Leone does not have equality or anti-discrimination legislation that can protect characteristics such as ‘pregnancy’ and other key individual characteristics in relation to the right to education.
Rather than reinforcing language and political discourse that stigmatise or blames pregnant adolescents, policymakers have a duty to follow policies and international laws that uphold the right to education without discrimination. While the ban of pregnant schoolgirls has been lifted, the Sierra Leone government still needs to put measures that protect adolescent girls when they are at school and home in place, especially with the government-imposed quarantine due to Covid-19.