Sierra Leone's Education Minister has announced that school-aged girls who are "visibly pregnant" won't be allowed to attend school, take their exams, or associate with non-pregnant students. A top education official has suggested that having pregnant girls in class would "encourage other girls to do the same thing."
Many Sierra Leonean students are just returning to class after an eight-month hiatus due to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which is estimated to have killed 3,773 in Sierra Leone alone. But RFI reports that Sierra Leone's Education Minister Minkailu Bah has announced that the visibly pregnant pupils won't be allowed to return to class or sit for their exams. RFI says that's long been an "unspoken rule" in the school system there, but Bah is making it official.
The news agency also says that the country's Conference of Principals (a group of school principals from around the country) is strongly supporting the measure, saying that pregnant girls lack the self control needed to be successful in a school setting. Sylvester Meheux, the chairman of the Conference of Principals, is quoted as saying that if pregnant girls are allowed back in, "it will encourage other girls to do the same thing. Others will copy that example, and we'll have a lot of them in our school system."
Meheux also said that pregnant girls need counseling to learn "discipline." From the RFI report:
Meheux says that while educators agree that a girl's life is not over if she gets pregnant, she needs to be counselled because of her lack of personal control.
"Education is a discipline. In the absence of discipline, learning doesn't take place. You should also realise that when someone is pregnant, you have some distractions, things that will not make you compose yourself, to take your education seriously," he says.
A demographic survey estimates that nearly 30 percent of Sierra Leonean girls aged 15-19 are pregnant or have children. Amnesty International is warning that the policy could devastate the prospects of a whole generation of women, and would violate their fundamental right to an education. The United Nations has treaties against the discrimination of women and for the rights of children; Sierra Leone's policy violates them both.
"This type of regressive policy punishes girls and discriminates against them on the basis of their sex," the Amnesty report adds, "and can only result in increased stigmatization." They're petitioning President Ernest Bai Koroma and Minkailu Bah, the Education Minister, to allow the girls back in school. They're also calling for better "sexual and reproductive healthcare information," as well as better services for rape survivors, noting that some of the girls are surely not pregnant by choice. The age of consent in Sierra Leone is 18.
A girl in Sierra Leone carries water home in Freetown, Sierra Leone, November 2012. Photo via AP