Schools in Sierra Leone closed during the Ebola epidemic are scheduled to re-open today, welcoming children eager to learn again. But the country’s Minister of Education Minkailu Bah has banned one group from returning: pregnant teen girls, claiming they’re a distraction to their peers and would hinder learning.
Incidentally, this ban isn’t new, having been in place since 2010. But it’s making headlines now.
Whether or not this qualifies as a “distraction” is another debate entirely, but teenage pregnancies within the country are becoming more common. A recent long-term study by the UNESCO HIV and Health Education Clearing House found that 33%+ of all Sierran Leonian pregnancies involve teen girls, and nearly 40%+ are involved in a “maternal death.” For context relative to the size of the country’s population, 41% of Sierra Leone citizens are under age 18. Those are some scary stats.
Sierra Leone isn’t the only country battling this issue. As a whole, Africa has the highest rates of teenage pregnancies, taking 18 of the top 20 spots in a 2013 United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) rankings report.
The recent teenage pregnancy epidemic has been attributed to Ebola, in that girls who might otherwise be attending school are now more vulnerable to sexual violence. They may also have to survive and provide, and do so via prostitution. So there might be a bit of a substitution effect at play here.
But human rights governing bodies have taken note of Bah’s stance. The United Nations issued a statement in which stated that “education is a fundamental human right that Sierra Leone has committed itself to uphold.” The UN also reminded the country of its own Education Act, passed in 2004, which barred discrimination of those seeking education.
We’ll see how Bah’s proposed idea pans out. But the words of UNFPA’s Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin ring true here:
Adolescent pregnancy is intertwined with issues of human rights. A pregnant girl who is pressured or forced to leave school, for example, is denied her right to education.