DAKAR, March 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sierra Leone on Monday overturned a ban on pregnant girls attending school in a victory for human rights activists who had fought against it for five years.
The West African country introduced the ban in 2015 after a rise in rape, abuse and poverty during the deadly Ebola outbreak fueled a spike in teenage pregnancies.
The government held that allowing pregnant girls to attend school would tire them out, expose them to ridicule and encourage other girls to get pregnant, while critics said the ban increased stigma and set thousands back in their studies.
“The Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education... hereby announces that the ‘ban on pregnant girls attending school’ is overturned with immediate effect,” the government said in a statement.
“Overturning the ban is the first step in building a radically inclusive Sierra Leone where all children are able to live and learn in safety and dignity.”
After years of advocacy proved unfruitful, human rights groups filed a case against Sierra Leone with West Africa’s top court in 2018.
The court ruled in their favour in December, saying the ban was discriminatory and violated the right to equal education.
“It’s been such a long fight,” said Sierra Leonean child rights activist Chernor Bah.
“We didn’t need to have gone through this. I feel for those girls who were abandoned by this policy, who went through all of this and who, most of them, will never probably recover,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Education Minister David Sengeh said the state would replace the ban with two new policies focused on “radical inclusion” and “comprehensive safety” in the education system.
Details were not yet announced, but the safety policy will include measures to protect girls from sexual violence in schools, said Judy Gitau, Africa coordinator of women’s rights group Equality Now, which worked with the government.
“We did not anticipate that the response would be as positive as it is,” she said.
Several other African countries also ban pregnant girls from attending school, including Tanzania and Equatorial Guinea.
Activists urged their counterparts in other countries to keep fighting.
“This victory shows the importance of collaboration between a variety of partners and not giving up,” said Sabrina Mahtani, a human rights lawyer who worked to lift the ban.