West African court voids Sierra Leone's ban on pregnant schoolgirls

LAGOS (Reuters) - West Africa’s top court on Thursday ordered Sierra Leone to revoke a ban on pregnant girls in school, a move activists hope could lead to challenges against similar laws across Africa.

The continent has the highest adolescent pregnancy rates in the world, and 18 African countries require pregnant girls to drop out of school.

Sierra Leone’s ban was adopted in 2015 as teenage pregnancies rose during an Ebola epidemic. Critics say it has increased stigma for pregnant girls and sent thousands back in their studies.

The government has argued that allowing pregnant girls to attend school would tire them out, expose them to ridicule and encourage others to get pregnant.

Sierra Leone’s education minister David Senghe declined to comment on whether the government would respect the ruling. Previous Sierra Leonean governments have ignored decisions by the ECOWAS court.

The government has created part-time centers where pregnant girls could study but the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) court in Nigeria ruled that this was not sufficient.

“The Court holds that the establishment of separate schools for pregnant girls with four taught subjects operating three days a week is discriminatory and a violation of the right to equal education,” the ruling stated.

“This is a great victory and will set a strong precedent across Africa,” said Judy Gitau, the head of women’s rights group Equality Now, which brought the case. “We’re confident (the government) will make a decision to lift the ban.”

Patience Aminata, who was kicked out of school three years ago at the age of 17, said she hoped to return.

“If a girl gets pregnant, she has every right to further her education because it leads to success, not just for her, but for her whole family,” she said. “This ruling means it’s not too late for me either.”

Reporting by Cooper Inveen, editing by Anna Pujol-Mazzini, Aaron Ross and Angus MacSwan