“In many African countries, pregnant girls and adolescent mothers are forced out of school and denied their right to education,” said Elin Martínez, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “While some progress has been made, the African Union needs to work closely with all its member countries to ensure that no girl is denied her right to an education because she becomes pregnant.”
In recent years, many African governments have made strong commitments to ensure that pregnant girls and mothers can attend school. However, Equatorial Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania still ban pregnant girls or adolescent mothers from government schools.
On June 22, 2017, Tanzania’s President John Magufuli stated, “As long as I’m president, no pregnant students will be allowed to return to school.” Tanzanian police and officials have also arrested pregnant girls and harassed their families to force them to reveal who impregnated them. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has called Tanzania’s policy “shocking,” while the African Commission special rapporteur on the rights of women in Africa and the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child have expressed concern, and said the Tanzanian government should fulfill its human rights obligations.
In May 2018, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice accepted a case brought against the government of Sierra Leone for its refusal to allow pregnant girls to attend public schools.
Girls who become pregnant in many African countries are barred from education. Many countries also do not have policies for re-entry after giving birth. Some countries with high rates of adolescent pregnancy, such as Angola and Burkina Faso, lack policies to manage adolescent pregnancy in schools.
In some countries, school officials resort to harmful means to identify pregnant girls, including forced pregnancy tests, and stigmatize and publicly shame or expel them. Such tests without consent infringe on their right to privacy and dignity. Human Rights Watch has found that some girls so fear such humiliation that they will preemptively drop out of school when they find out they are pregnant. Others procure unsafe abortions, putting their health and lives at risk.
Countries in northern Africa generally lack policies related to the treatment of pregnant girls in schools. Some impose heavy penalties and punishments on girls and women who are reported to have had sexual relationships outside of wedlock. Girls and young women with children, who are often perceived as bringing dishonor to their communities, are ridiculed, isolated, or even imprisoned, and are not expected to stay in school.
Progress is evident in 26 African countries that have laws or policies that protect adolescent girls’ education during pregnancy and motherhood, Human Rights Watch said. Four – including Gabon and Côte d’Ivoire – guarantee girls the right to continue school during pregnancy and after giving birth. Another 22 – including Kenya and Malawi – have conditional “re-entry” policies. Benin, Cape Verde, and Senegal have revoked punitive policies, and adopted policies that support girls’ return to school. However, laws and policies that guarantee “re-entry” are often poorly carried out and not well-monitored to ensure schools comply with them.
Even in countries with good policies, girls face barriers to returning to school. Some schools have burdensome conditions for re-entry, discouraging girls from returning. To overcome these barriers, some countries – such as Gabon and Zambia – have adopted measures to support young mothers returning to school, including ensuring that primary and secondary education are free, accommodating time for breast feeding, allowing young mothers to choose morning or evening school shifts, and establishing nurseries and day care centers close to schools.
In 2018, the AU called on member countries to “Leave No Child Behind for Africa’s Development.” The AU should ensure that pregnant girls and adolescent mothers are included in the agenda to leave no child behind, Human Rights Watch said.
Governments should urgently adopt laws and policies that encourage girls to stay in school, to return to school after having a child, and to succeed academically. All should ensure that they do not impose stringent conditions on adolescent mothers who wish to continue with education.
All countries should adopt comprehensive approaches to support young mothers to continue with education, while tackling the root causes of early and unplanned teenage pregnancies, Human Rights Watch said. They should provide adolescents with access to sexual and reproductive health services, include comprehensive sexuality education at school and in the community, and ensure access to a range of contraceptive methods, and safe and legal abortion.
“Punishing pregnant girls by throwing them out of school will not end teen pregnancies,” said Martínez. “Many African countries will fail in their promise to leave no child behind if they exclude girls who are pregnant or married, but the whole continent will benefit when pregnant girls and adolescent mothers are allowed back in schools.”
“I didn’t want to have a baby … I’ve told all my friends that they do not try to have a baby… it causes many problems… But if you do have a baby, then you should go back to school after the birth. There’s no need to feel ashamed. Mistakes are human.” – Fatoumata, 17, from southern Senegal, who became pregnant when she was 16.
“At the school there was a nurse who would come from the hospital to check [test] for pregnancy. They checked me and found out I was pregnant. They touch your stomach. They did it to all the girls every month. Then they wrote a letter to my parents to tell them I was pregnant and they had to go to the school. There they gave them a letter that I was expelled from school. I was three months pregnant.” – Imani, 22, from Mwanza, Tanzania, who became pregnant when she was 16.
“I became pregnant when in class eight in 2014. I needed money to register for my final [primary school leaving] exam. My father had married another wife and left us. My mum didn’t have any money. I met a man who was working as a part-time teacher and told him my problems. He said he will give me the money. I started a sexual relationship with him, and that is how I got pregnant. My community mocked me. Other students rejected me. They would mock me and laugh at me. I felt ashamed that I was a mother in the midst of girls. I almost left school, but the principal encouraged me and I took heart. My mother struggles to educate me, but I am now in form three.” – Angela, 20, from Migori County in western Kenya, who became pregnant when she was 16.