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OPEN LETTER TO THE MINISTER OF EDUCATION IN SIERRA LEONE ON THE PREGNANT SCHOOL GIRLS

April 29, 2015 By Rashid Justice Dumbuya

Dear Sir,

Re: Unraveling the missing linkages over the ‘pregnant school girls VS their right to education’ debate in Sierra Leone.

Let me first of all start by thanking you and your entire Ministry for the concerted and unfettering efforts that have been demonstrated towards the reopening of schools and universities despite the prevailing Ebola situation in the country. I say a big thank you for this demonstration of leadership and courageous step undertaken.

However, as the Ebola situation dwindles down and safe schools continued to be ensured, I am motivated to write you this open letter following recent policy statements that were made by many stakeholders within the Sierra Leone society including your very self, a representative of the government, over pregnant girls and their right to access education within this period.

While it may be convenient for the public to maintain varying sentiments, opinions and moral arguments on the matter, it is vital that the state, the duty bearer of rights, be extremely cautious as to its response and position over such matters. Without prejudice to the statusquo, in this open letter, I have taken the pains to unveil the missing linkages that may have been overlooked in this all important issue in a bid to contribute in an informed way to the discourse and try to perhaps persuade skeptics into understanding the underlying trajectories and nuances that underpins our teenage pregnancy crisis in Sierra Leone.

Understanding the context in which teenage pregnancy occurs is key

Far from the usual rhetoric, teenage pregnancy is largely an outcome of broken homes, failed states, rape, sexual assaults, impoverished societies, weak judicial institutions and a post conflict nation. And more importantly, in our own peculiar situation, Ebola has also helped to sponsor its existence. The 10 months academic embargo which forced girls and teenagers to stay home idly together with male predators certainly played a part to this menace. Hence, before anyone begins the finger-pointing, condemnation and judgmentalization, it is vital that these realities be reflected upon so as to better understand the context and nuances that characterizes the issue at stake. These pregnant girls are largely victims of our dysfunctional society and post conflict nation.

There are empirical evidences to show that rape on the girl child and sexual assault on teenagers remains a rampant problem in Sierra Leone. More disgusting still, there are also glaring statistics to show that perpetrators of child and teenage rape in Sierra Leone have emanated from all levels of the society. Lecturers, government ministers, teachers, male parents, employers etc have all been found wanting of this heinous act. Reports have also shown complicity on the part of the state to bring these perpetrators to justice.

In 2014 for example, of the 11,358 sexual and domestic violence cases reported, only 2,144 were brought to court, with only 255 convictions secured. Disappointingly, no convictions were secured for the 77 reported rape cases even though 28 of these cases were brought to court. Sadly also, I am quite sure you aware of the recent alleged raped case of a young girl by a former Deputy Minister who was working in your Ministry of education. As shameful as this incident was, little is left to date to be desired in the entire court matter. This outright complacency to pursue perpetrators of child rape and sexual offences I humbly submit is one of the factors that have contributed to entrench practices and stereotypes that fuels teenage pregnancy in the Sierra Leone society.

While we all may wish to see a society where every girl child will have an opportunity to grow up, finish school, become gainfully employed and get married before giving birth to children, it is important to emphasize that such desires can only be wishful thinking and utopian dream especially in a society like Sierra Leone which is still grappling from Ebola and the vestiges of an 11 years old civil war. Incessant poverty, high illiteracy rate, unemployment and weak institutions will continue to serve as precursors for teenage pregnancy occurrence in the country.

What is at stake when we deny pregnant girls and young suckling mothers a right to education?

To advance a policy or directive that rushes to limit pregnant girls from accessing education because of their predicament situation without providing any alternatives for them is by all intent and purposes discriminatory, myopic, inhumane and unfortunate. As a matter of fact such policies or directives may produce the unintended effect of pushing pregnant girls into underground and illegal abortions thereby resulting into the loss of many teenage lives in the country. A pregnant girl who could not stand this state- backed discrimination and stigmatization will likely opt for illegal and underground abortion so as to be considered fit and qualified by society to access her rights to education.  What your policy is silently saying in effect Mr Minister is that all those girls who may choose to keep their pregnancy and abstain from illegal abortion will have to be ‘whipped’ and ‘punished’ by the state through denial and deprivation of access to formal education.

Furthermore, a directive like this will lead to an increase in dropouts in the country as statistics have shown that a lot of these girls will remain disincentivised into pursuing their education after prolonged months of sitting down at home during and after their pregnancy without any form of learning.

Let me also bring to the attention of the government through you that Sierra Leone has signed a plethora of International treaties and Conventions that guarantees the right to education of the girl child. For example Article 28(1)( e ) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child places an obligation on  Sierra Leone ‘’ to take measures that will encourage the regular attendance at schools and the reduction of dropouts’’.  Also, Part 3 Article 10 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) places an obligation on ‘’state parties to take appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women and girls in the field of education’’.  As a matter of fact also, in 2014, the CEDAW Committee in its Concluding Observations on Sierra Leone openly called on the government to ‘’remove all barriers to school attendance by pregnant girls and young mothers’’.  At the regional level, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of a Child to which Sierra Leone is a party also guarantees the right to education of the girl child.

Coming to our domestic jurisdiction, Sierra Leone has further enacted enabling legislations and policies that absolutely guarantee the right to education of the girl child. For instance, the 1991 constitution under section 27(2) dictates that ‘’…… no person shall be treated in a discriminatory manner by any person acting by virtue of any law or in the performance of the functions of any public office or any public authority’’. Also, the Education Act of 2004 in Sierra Leone make it very clear that, ‘’This Act and any other enactment and administrative instructions relating to education must be administered and interpreted in such a manner as to ensure that there is no discrimination between pupils and student in the matter of their admission to and treatment in any educational institution in Sierra Leone…’’

Following the above therefore, for you to pursue a directive or policy that deprives these girls from access to formal education for whatever period could certainly amount to a violation of not only international law but also the domestic laws that Sierra Leone is obliged to keep and uphold so dearly.

Denying education to pregnant girls will subsequently lead to unemployment, poor standard of living, broken homes and a broken society in the long run. There is a ripple effect that comes along with such discrimination. Improper care and neglect for pregnant girls will ultimately lead to poor teenage parenting, malnutrition and low life expectancy. Lack of proper education and psycho-social support services for pregnant girls will further lead to increase in maternal and infant mortality deaths in the country.

How can we fix this problem in our society?

Please let no one get me wrong here. There is good reason why our young teenage girls in Sierra Leone must be made to understand that promiscuous lifestyles are unprofitable, morally deficient and academically unfriendly. However, in this exceptional situation, for the state or anyone to pretend not to understand the context in which these vices have occurred would portray such people or state as inhumane and insensitive to the challenges that Ebola has visited on the Sierra Leonean society.

While enforcing a policy or directive that seeks to limit the right of pregnant girls to access formal education within their pregnancy period could be understandable, such directive could however amount to a violation of the right to education if it does not provide private educational alternatives and psycho social support services for these pregnant girls who we all know are largely victims of the Ebola crisis and a post conflict society. The decision to stay away from school should be that of the affected girls and no other.

A self righteous and judgmental approach may not necessarily produce the right result in the given circumstance. Regrettably, we will continue to have with us for a very long time a continuation of these social vices in the society to remind us of our brokenness and fragility. The earlier we realize this, the better it is for us.

While the public could be at liberty to express their varying opinions over these pregnant girls, the state must never join in the stigmatization of these teenage victims but rather take full responsibility and show leadership by addressing the root causes. The state must avoid abracadabra approaches and quick fixes. A directive that do not seek to address the underlying root causes of teenage pregnancy but largely considers pregnant girls as ‘contagious diseases’ and ‘immoral agents’ that must be separated from among the ‘moral children’ of society could be fundamentally flawed and misleading.

The government must ensure to look out for a balanced approach to dealing with the problem. Balance is key. In as much as a temporary stay of such pregnant girls from the formal education system may be understandable, the development of a comprehensive affirmative policy that will provide alternative private education and psycho-social care and support for pregnant girls and young suckling mothers in the short term would certainly be a game changer and help mitigate adverse impacts.

In the long term, the following actions may be productive if implemented by the state.

Sierra Leone needs to review or upgrade its laws on girl child education to deter or limit the occurrence of rape and sexual offences on children and teenagers in the society. Also, more prosecutions against rape offenders and child marriage perpetrators need to be ensured.

Strengthening of key institutions that provide relevant support to the fight against teenage pregnancy is also key. Such institutions include the Police, the Family Support Units, the CID, legal aid institutions, civil society organizations, the schools and the home.

A change of culture, attitudes, perceptions and stereotypes is also vital. It is important for stakeholders to preach the right message that will help society understand that pregnant school girls are not contagious diseases and immoral agents that must be relegated.  They are largely victims of broken homes, impoverished society, Ebola and a post conflict nation.

The state needs to ultimately create the right socio economic conditions that will help improve livelihoods and minimize the risks and possibility for teenage prostitution and sex sale for marks to thrive within the society.

Conclusion

In sum, while it is true that rights can be limited under both national and international law, it is vital to however emphasize that such limitations must always satisfy the tests of reasonability, legality, necessity and justifiability in a democratic society. By all indication, this outright policy and directive from the Ministry of Education does not materially satisfy the above test requirements.

Consequently, as an international human rights lawyer and advocate, I feel strongly motivated to bring this to your attention and further remind you that as a Minister of Education, you ought to be the last of persons to endorse such a policy or directive which aims to blatantly deny a right to education to any category of persons within society- be it pregnant girls, disables, aged or the blind.

A Minister of Education I humbly submit should always be a protector, embodiment, advocate and robust defender of the rights to education of every individual within the society. If these qualities are lacking, then such person would certainly be falling short of the expectations of the office of the Ministry of Education within the state.

I therefore urgently appeal that steps be taken by your ministry to address this matter in a more rational and humane way. Teenage pregnancy and teenage parenting in Sierra Leone is largely a product of broken homes, impoverished societies, weak institutions, Ebola and a post conflict nation. Our girls are mere victims. There are perpetrators to these menace and we must never forget this!

All Rights Reserved*

Rashid Dumbuya is an international human rights lawyer and advocate from the Republic of Sierra Leone and a masters holder in international human rights law from the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is currently an LLM candidate in oil and gas law in the University of Dundee, Scotland, United Kingdom

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