United States-based Equality Now (EN), The Gambia based Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA) and others have filed a case before the Economic Community for West Africa States (ECOWAS) court in the Nigerian capital Abuja, over Sierra Leone’s 2015 ban on pregnant schoolgirls returning to the classroom after delivery.

An Equality Now (EN) statement on the case said, “EN & partners have engaged state and non-state actors to advocate for the lifting of this ban. Unfortunately, efforts have been fruitless and the violation of girls’ rights to education continues unabated, hence the need to litigate on the issue at the regional court.”

Sabrina Mahtani, a researcher at Amnesty International told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, “I think this is an important opportunity for the ECOWAS court to set down in case law what the rights and obligations are of states regarding the rights of pregnant girls.” Mahtani also said the issue had surfaced in other African countries such as Tanzania and Equatorial Guinea, although not all had explicit bans.

Equality Now and Partners added in the statement, “If there is no intervention, this will result in a lifetime of illiteracy, ignorance, poverty and extreme violations for these girls.”

Read: Teenage pregnancy and challenges to the realisation of sexual and reproductive rights in Nigeria

The case of Sierra Leone

The Sierra Leonean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology issued a statement in 2015 banning pregnant girls from mainstream education and from sitting for exams. The decision was prompted by statistics that showed that one in three pregnant women is a teenager. Even with these numbers the government did not attribute it to the lack of sex education in the country but merely labelled the teens as bad influences that should not be allowed to negatively impact on their peers.

Yusuf Kamara, a state representative and head of education for Kambia told Reuters in 2016, “Girls are not meant to expose their pregnancy,” Kamara said. “The government’s ban is the will of the people.”

However, due to the international pressure related to these controversial exclusion measures, the government in partnership with the United Nations opted to remedy the situation by opening special classes for pregnant girls. At the time the UN viewed the initiative as a success as 5,000 of the 14,000 girls enrolled in the special classes eventually returned to traditional school after pregnancy. On the other hand two-thirds of the 14,000 unfortunately remain permanently excluded from the education system.

Worryingly even these temporary solutions are under threat. The Sierra Leonean government says it does not have enough money to continue funding these courses even at the risk of condemning thousands of teenagers to a lack of education and therefore the means to empower themselves.

Birds of a feather ban together

There are other countries which have adopted similar discriminatory measures against the girl child. Tanzania’s pregnancy ban is one of the disturbing examples. Authorities in Tanzania have arrested five pregnant schoolgirls and are on the hunt for the men responsible for the girls pregnancies. Mohammed Azizi, a district official told the Citizen news portal that the arrests are part of the efforts to rid the town of student pregnancies.

In June 2017 President Magufuli during a public rally in Chalinze town, west of the capital, Dar es Salaam quipped about the purpose of the ban saying, “After calculating some few mathematics she’d be asking the teacher in the classroom ‘let me go out and breastfeed my crying baby.”

Read: Arresting girls for being pregnant will not put an end to teenage pregnancy

Magufuli then addressed human rights groups which continuously accuse the government of denying the girls education which is a basic human right. “These NGOs should go out and open schools for parents. But they should not force the government [to take back the pupils]… I’m giving out free education for students who have really decided to go and study, and now you want me to educate the parents?” he posed rhetorically.

The plight of the girl child is always dire but punishing teenagers for the lack of proper (sex) education by taking away their education all together is cruel and counter-productive. Instead of governments providing comprehensive sex education and making available preventative measures, the authorities are leaving the youth to fend for themselves in what is always a recipe for disaster. Hopefully. the case of Sierra Leone will set legal precedent against the exclusion of pregnant girls from the education system and safe guard their other basic rights as well.