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Blame the rapists and not the school kids

April 30, 2015 By Joseph Dumbuya

There have been no shortage of opposition to the self-inflicting decision by the Ministry of Education – spare me the other redundancies – to deny ‘visibly’ pregnant school children the right to take the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE). It is refreshing this issue has united public opinion in a manner that makes the controversial sacking of the Vice President looks less important. No wonder it has been roundly condemned by leading organizations from within and without.

The Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone (HRCSL) was among the first organizations to give the Ministry of Education a kicking. In a press release issued shortly afterwards, the Commission called the decision discriminatory and inconsistent with international instruments the government has acceded to. We saw the Commissioners of the HRCSL rushing to the airwaves in a desperate attempt to have the government rescind the decision.

The latest to lend weight to calls for a rethink is the representative of the UN Secretary General, the UN Resident Coordinator to Sierra Leone, David McLachian-Karr, who reminded the Government of its obligations under the laws of Sierra Leone to provide education without discrimination.

The only notable support for the Ministry I know of came from the former Chair of the National Electoral Commission, Ms. Christiana Thorpe. Even though I disagree with her position, I respect her being brutally honest. By describing herself a moralist and indicating she has no apologies for her position, you know she is speaking from her heart and not from the head. As a former nun, you expect her position to be informed by conservative Christian beliefs.

Why am I beating the dead horse? Well, the exams may be over but the issue will not go away because it has become a ‘policy’ of the Ministry. It is therefore bound to claim more victims in the coming years, at least under this government. We cannot therefore allow the Ministry of Education to go away with violating a fundamental right to education. Chernor Bah of ‘A World at School’ has been making the right noises but we have to wait and see whether he will carry through a threat to take the government to the ECOWAS Court.

You will be curious to know why the Ministry decided to press ahead with its decision despite the myriad of calls for a rethink from high profile organizations including UN agencies. The million dollar question is: why did the Ministry of Education decide to ignore even the United Nations? I am not sure the Ministry thinks it is in the right and the others are wrong. Now, is the refusal to rescind this decision driven by conviction or fear of being thought stupid? I will opt for the latter. I think everything boils down to the delusion of being above mistake. The pattern for our politicians is to wrongly perceive accepting making a mistake as a weakness. This is why even though we are not blessed with the most intelligent politicians on the continent on the bases of how their decisions and actions have impacted on the lives of people, they hate accepting making mistakes, talk less of apologizing for one.

Apart from the fact that this decision is deeply, deeply unpopular, the failure of the Ministry of Education to advance a convincing argument is breathtaking. They have not told us the overall performance of the schools which the pregnant children attended. They have only cherry-picked the pregnant school girls for assessing their performance. Now Dr. Minkailu Bah should do us a favour and give us the pass rate for these schools? Of course we know the results for that year were not good.

What is more, while Ms. Thorpe and the Ministry of Education have been singing from the same hymn sheet, the latter has not been honest in its handling of the issue. Pandering to primitive cultural and conservative religious beliefs coupled with the use of highly emotive rhetoric is not helpful. And this is why the Ministry continues to struggle in the court of public opinion. This is because ours is both a religious and liberal society.

The Ministry would want you to believe that allowing pregnant school children a few hours to take the exams will have a bad influence on their colleagues. But who told the Ministry the children are not aware their colleagues are pregnant. Needless to say, this is no secret. Regular listeners to Radio Democracy and other radio stations will attest to this fact following interviews the children themselves granted on the issue on the reopening of schools.

Also, the Ministry and Ms. Thorpe will tell you a hundred and forty-one (141) school children failed the last BECE exams because they were pregnant. Ms. Thorpe is quoted as saying it is pointless allowing the children to take the exams because they were going to fail at the end of the day. I’m honestly at lost how Ms. Thorpe arrived at this conclusion. How could anyone say the current pupils will fail simply because others in the same situation had failed the exams in the past year? Yes, they are all pregnant but we cannot assume their circumstances are the same.

What am I saying here? Granted the pressures of pregnancy, more so on children, could be a reason for their failing the exams but this could be only part of the story. Other contributing factors may include the socio-economic background of the children, which in my view is more important than the pressures of pregnancy in this case. I know of children who have concealed their pregnancies and have passed the exams. Who knows some may have outsmarted the Ministry by adopting the same strategy to take the exams. It is folly to assume school children are not engaging in sex. A major difference is that the others may have a lot more support and information to avoid being pregnant.

Another important issue is the effectiveness of the school administration which has a direct bearing on the overall performance of schools in public exams. Schools with good administration are likely to do better than those which do not have one.

Also, having professionals to teach Sexual and Reproductive Health – I think it is called Family Life Education – could also play a huge part. It is important to have children understand the changes – physiological and psychological – taking place in their lives as they go through the critical adolescent stage. This will inform the decisions they take on sexual and reproductive health issues.

Since these are all very serious challenges facing our schools, it would be folly to blame their failing of public exams wholly on pregnancy. For all you know the decision not to point fingers at the schools could be a deliberate strategy since doing so could draw attention to the failings and inadequacies bedeviling the Ministry of Education.  The song by Peter Tosh goes, ‘If you live in a glass house don’t throw stones’.

There is no disputing these children already have more than enough problems to content with. They are not physically, physiological and emotionally prepared for the situation they find themselves in and the one they will go into – child motherhood. It does not help this issue is skewed to turn them into villains.

What is most puzzling about this whole debate is that there is little mention of the mostly older men – I mean the rapists – who impregnated these girls. I have lost count of the number of times Chernor Bah has drawn our attention to this. He had made reference to a research which points to the fact that most of our school children are impregnated not by their peers but by older men. The Ministry and others may have been caught up in the culture trap wherein these people are seen as not having committed any crime or they are seen as ‘men’.

While the attention of the Ministry has been directed at making the children look like villains, civil society, the HRCSL and the UN agencies have only focused on having the children take the exams. What I find shockingly absent in this whole debate is that nobody is talking about the equally important issue of justice for these children. This has been ignored completely. Is it late to hunt and prosecute these rapists? Not at all! After all, the kids know the older men who impregnated them.

The use of a strong language ‘rapist’ is deliberate. This is because these kids have not reached the age of consent. If it were in the UK where the age of consent is sixteen, we would already be having hundred and forty-one men serving their time in prison. Also, they would have had their names entered in the Child Offenders Register which will bar them from working with children in future. The latest victims would have had justice also.

Unfortunately, in Sierra Leone there is no deterrent. We have hundred and forty-one rapists moving around freely to prey on other children. If the government, civil society or the Human Rights organizations had taken action, we may be having this problem but definitely not on this scale.

Also, support mechanisms have not been coming forth. Very little is said about providing support to these children, some of who may be child mothers already. The fact that they are children and rape victims makes their situation more critical in terms of the risk of irreparable damage to their lives. This situation demands a lot of support – emotional, psychological and physiological – to cope with pregnancy and motherhood.

These kids have been let down by their parents, the schools, civil society and most importantly the government. Fortunately, it is not too late to rescue them. We should ensure they do not miss out of education despite the setback of not taking the exams. Also, we should hunt down their abusers and bring them to book. This will ensure other children do not have to suffer these abuses, violations and neglect.

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