As a protective measure during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa (2013-2016), Sierra Leone in 2015 officially banned pregnant girls from attending school. During the epidemic, thousands of orphans whose parents died of Ebola turned to prostitution and street trading to survive, according to DCI-Sierra Leone. Some 14,000 adolescent girls were pregnant at the time, according to UNFPA figures—pregnancies often caused by rape and sexual exploitation. Officials at the time justified the ban by citing that their pregnancies would disable girls from learning and negatively influence other students.
This policy galvanised girls’ and child rights defenders, and DCI-Sierra Leone was on the frontline to challenge the government and advocate for girls’ rights. “Today, we are talking globally about leaving no one behind and the importance of inclusive education. Indeed, the Education Act of Sierra Leone (2004) recognised education as a universal right, which means it is compulsory and everybody should have access (…) When they are at school, pregnant girls need special facilities and support,” said Abdul Manaff Kemokai, President of Defence for Children International (DCI) and Executive Director of DCI-Sierra Leone.
Kemokai further added that over the years, DCI-Sierra Leone has played leading roles in engaging the government of Sierra Leone. Through conducting and publishing research, capacity-building trainings, and increasing opportunities to empower pregnant girls, teenage mothers, and young women, DCI-Sierra Leone has impacted over 40 communities across 6 districts.
After their appeals to the national authorities failed, civil society groups appealed to the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The regional court ordered in December 2019 the immediate lifting of the ban. The court also ordered the integration of sexual and reproductive health resources into school curricula. Increasing knowledge of family planning and contraceptives will support efforts to address the high rate of teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone.
Following the Court decision, pregnant girls in Sierra Leone will return to school after the government of Sierra Leone decided to lift the ban. In a statement delivered on Monday 30 March, the Education Ministry says it will lift the ban and take “the first step towards a resolutely inclusive Sierra Leone where all children (…) can live and learn safely and in dignity”
Interviewed by AfriRadio on April 1st, Manaff said, ”this is a big step in the right direction.” However, the consequences of the ban will continue to be felt in the years to come. In reality, pregnant girls will still have to wait before going to class. Although the lifting of the ban is effective immediately, the Education Ministry said on Monday 30 March, all schools are now closed until further notice to contain the spread of the COVID-19.
DCI – Sierra Leone