In October, Sierra Leone’s government issued a clarification to its 2015 policy that barred pregnant girls from attending school. Sadly, the clarification only reaffirms the government’s position. Based on erroneous perceptions that ‘pregnant girls have the potential to negatively influence their peers to be sexually active and become pregnant’, pregnant girls are excluded from normal schooling, although they are allowed to sit exams.
If we are to achieve SDG 4, it requires that all girls, including young mothers, are able to continue, return, and complete their education.
Early pregnancy hinders education
Globally, nearly 16 million girls aged 15 to 19 give birth each year, and 2 million of them are under 15. These girls have a right to education, just like their peers – but that right is not always upheld. The 2019 Gender Report found that girls often drop out of school in the wake of pregnancy. In Chile, for example, being a mother reduces the likelihood of completing secondary education by between 24% and 37%. Longitudinal data from Madagascar also confirm that teenage pregnancy leads to early school leaving.
Sierra Leone has one of the world’s highest rates of teenage pregnancy, with 28% of girls aged 15 to 19 pregnant at least once in 2013. In a country with a population of 7.5 million, thousands of girls have been affected by the schooling ban, which has contributed to the disparity between girls and boys at higher levels of education: the lower secondary completion rate is 29% for girls compared to 46% for boys.
Reducing early pregnancy
Sierra Leone’s government says that it wants to reduce early pregnancy, and in cooperation with the United Nations Population Fund, it has developed the National Strategy for the Reduction of Adolescent Pregnancy and Child Marriage (2018-2022). But isolating pregnant girls from their peers is not the best approach to achieve this goal.
The country does have too many early pregnancies. The Ebola crisis of 2014 is partly responsible; school closures kept girls out of education and at risk of sexual abuse and exploitation. Moreover, Sierra Leone has an extremely high rate of sexual violence, and in February 2019 President Julius Maada Bio declared rape a national emergency. However, the national emergency was quietly lifted in June, without significant funds being allocated to solving the crisis. Doing more to eliminate sexual exploitation of women and girls would be one good way to help reduce the number of early pregnancies.
Another proven way to reduce the incidence of early pregnancy is to provide all children and youth with comprehensive sexuality education, as argued in the GEM Report’s policy paper, Facing the facts: the case for comprehensive sexuality education, produced jointly with the Section for Health and Education at UNESCO. Comprehensive sexuality education is a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality that goes beyond the narrower approaches that were more common in the past.
While controversial, the fact is that comprehensive sexuality education increases knowledge about numerous aspects of sexuality, sexual behaviours and the risk of pregnancy, HIV and sexually transmitted infections. A review of 64 studies involving over 87,000 young people confirmed that school-based comprehensive sexuality education resulted in increased and more effective use of contraception, including condom use during last sex; reduced high-risk sexual behaviour; and less frequent condomless sex in the past three months. Comprehensive sexuality education also decreases the number of adolescents having sex at a very young age, as well as early unintended adolescent pregnancies. It does not increase sexual activity or the number of sexual partners.
One pillar of comprehensive sexuality education is learning about sex and safer sex behaviours, and this should be taught before children and young people become sexually active. In Sierra Leone, contraceptive prevalence is only 16%, as compared to a global average of 64%. Over 86% of girls aged 15 to 19 have never used contraceptives. Better information and education for girls and boys, women and men, could help to increase this rate and thus reduce accidental pregnancies.
Sierra Leone has global examples to draw on in using comprehensive sexuality education to prevent teenage pregnancy. In India, the Development Initiative Supporting Healthy Adolescents worked to help prevent child marriage and adolescent pregnancy by scaling up health services and providing comprehensive sexuality education, combined with mentoring, community support and life skills training. As a result, the average age of marriage increased from 15.9 to 17.9 years and contraceptive use increased by nearly 60% among married adolescents.
Challenging Sierra Leone’s policy
All children and youths have a right to an education of good quality, and depriving pregnant girls of this right is wrong. It bolsters gender inequality, since the boys and men who take part in creating the pregnancy face no such discrimination, and it robs girls of the opportunity to improve their own prospects in life, and those of their children.
The international NGOs Equality Now and Amnesty International have joined local organizations the Child Welfare Society and the Women Against Violence and Exploitation Society in a challenge against Sierra Leone’s education ban for pregnant girls at the ECOWAS court in Nigeria. A ruling is expected this month.