FREETOWN, (CAJ News) – THE prospects look bright for Sierra Leone after the West Africa country was declared free of the deadly Ebola virus but for thousands of young girls that have been banned from mainstream schools and sitting for examinations because of their pregnancy, the future looks bleak.
In a move human rights organisations argue is a violation of rights, some 10 000 girls, although government insists the figure is inflated, are affected by the ban ahead of examinations that are scheduled for the 23rd of this month (November).
There are at least two crucial exams that all visibly pregnant girls are currently unable to take.
Firstly, there is the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE), which is the exam all students must pass to guarantee admission into senior secondary school or other higher level education centre, such as vocational schools.
The second key set of exams are the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE), which can be taken in a range of subjects including English, mathematics, sciences and arts, as well as economics and other commercial subjects.
The WASSCE exams are necessary to get into university or college and are also important for potential employers.
According to Amnesty International, the young women, ahead of the examinations, have been put through humiliating physical checks to determine their pregnancy.
It is reported such procedure included examination of genitals and fondling of breasts.
The organisation West Africa Researcher, Sabrina Mahtani, said her organisation had interviewed 52 girls, some of whom said they felt scared at the possibility of being accused of being pregnant, while others described the feeling of humiliation at being physically assessed.
One teenager is said to have told Amnesty International how all girls were checked by teachers before they were allowed to sit an exam.
“They (teachers) touched our breasts and stomachs to see if we were pregnant. Some girls were made to take urine tests. One of the teachers was wearing gloves when she was checking us.
“I felt really embarrassed when this happened to me. Many girls left as they were scared the teachers would find out they are pregnant. About 12 pregnant girls did not sit their exams,” the 18-year-old was quoted as saying.
The human rights organisation is thus challenging the procedure and subsequent moves to bar the young women from sitting.
Mahtani said the organisation was engaging the government to try and avert the moves to bar the pregnant girls from writing their final examinations.
Amnesty International has launched a report, titled “Shamed and Blamed”, aimed at stopping the exclusion of the affected girls from the mainstreams schools.
“Excluding pregnant girls from mainstream schools and banning them from sitting crucial exams is discriminatory and will have devastating consequences.
“Education is a right and not something for governments to arbitrarily take away as a punishment,” said Mahtani.
While there was no immediate reaction from Sierra Leone’s Minister of Education, Science and Technology, Minkailu Bah, the government, through a press statement confirmed excluding some 3 000 pregnant girls from the mainstream schools with possibility of barring them from writing their final but crucial exams.
The Sierra Leone government argued that their action to exclude the pregnant girls was justifiable in that it would curb pregnancy among schoolgirls.
Mahtani, said her organisation had not given up hope for the girls and was engaging the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.
“On several occasions, Amnesty International has met representatives of the Sierra Leonean government to present and discuss the human rights concerns of the organisation bout the ban of pregnant girls attending mainstream school and sitting exams,” Mahtani told CAJ News Africa in emailed response.
She said the right to education of thousands of girls still remained under threat after the post Ebola crisis.
The official said the government partly had to shoulder the blame for failure to provide sex education, information and services including post-rape healthcare to curb pregnancy among schoolgirls.
Sex education in schools is limited and was removed from the curricula after the war that ended more than a decade ago.
There was a high possibility some had fallen pregnant during the lengthy period schools were closed as the country battled the lethal Ebola virus that claimed the lives of some 11 000 Sierra Leoneans, drawing the attention of the entire world.
Some 17 000 contracted the virus but survived.
During the past 18 months the country of some 6,2 million people suffered the epidemic, schools were closed between June 2014 and April this year as part of emergency measures to reduce infection rates.
An increase in adolescent pregnancy was noted during the period with significant pregnancies said to be a result of sexual violence.
Quarantines and an already overstretched healthcare system meant that girls were not able to access sexual and reproductive health support or advice to protect themselves from early and unwanted pregnancies.
In 2004, after the end of the civil war, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended that the government stop the practice of excluding pregnant girls from education.
The Commission called this practice “discriminatory and archaic.”
“Throughout the publication of the report on Sierra Leone, ‘Shamed and Blamed’, Amnesty International is documenting and making public the human rights violations that pregnant girls suffer in Sierra Leone to access education.”
The issue has overshadowed the United Nations World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) declaration of Sierra Leone as free of the Ebola virus that claimed the lives of more than 30 000 lives in several countries.
The country has joined Nigeria and Liberia among other countries that have been cleared.
Neighboring Guinea is still trying to eliminate the virus.
On Friday last week, WHO reported 42 days had passed since Sierra Leone last recorded a case, which is the agency’s criteria for declaring the end of an outbreak.
The country is subsequently undergoing a 90-day intensive surveillance period.
“As Sierra Leone moves forward from the devastating Ebola crisis, it is vital that these girls, are not left behind,” Mahtani said.
– CAJ News