Author: Human Right Watch
Site of publication: Human Right Watch
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: May 8, 2023
The government of Sierra Leone is attracting global recognition and celebrating its policies and commitments toward advancing and securing access to education for girls, in particular pregnant girls and young mothers. Many of them had been excluded from education due to a longstanding ban on visibly pregnant girls attending school.
On March 30, 2020, Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio, together with Basic and Senior Secondary Education Minister David Moinina Sengeh, announced the immediate end to this ban. Often referred to as a 10-year ban, the practice in fact existed informally long before a government memorandum formalized the ban in 2010. It served to deprive girls of their right to education and push them to the fringes of their communities, while also reinforcing patriarchal beliefs and negative narratives about adolescent girls.
Sierra Leone’s government formally lifted the ban on visibly-pregnant girls in 2021 with the National Policy on Radical Inclusion in Schools, co-developed by the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education and an active civil society working group, which included Purposeful. The policy explicitly acknowledged that some populations of children and adolescents are systematically excluded from school, including pregnant girls and young mothers.
On April 24, 2023, Sierra Leone’s parliament passed the revised Basic and Senior Secondary Education Act, 2023 into law, which references inclusive education and includes aspects of the Radical Inclusion Policy. Article 19 of the act states that, “Pregnant girls, parent learners, children from the poorest homes, rural areas and underserved communities shall be encouraged to access, stay in, complete school and enjoy all the facilities provided in the school,” and that there should be “no discrimination between pupils in the matter of their admission to and treatment in educational institutions throughout Sierra Leone.”
Girls in Sierra Leone’s Northern Province
Sierra Leone’s Northern Province has the highest rate of poverty, 77 percent, in the country, according to a December 2022 World Bank report. Falaba, in the far northeast, is one of the country’s poorest districts. According to Sierra Leone’s Demographic and Health Survey of 2019, by district, the percentage of women with a secondary education or higher is just 3 percent in Falaba district, the second lowest in the country. Similarly, a survey conducted by Purposeful in October 2020 found that 72 percent of out-of-school adolescent girls interviewed in Falaba had never been to school.
Girls want to go to school
Across the interviews, we learned that girls very much want to be in school, yet they face systemic barriers to accessing education, including financial obstacles, stigma, bullying, and discrimination based on pregnancy, and lack of access to childcare.
The policy explicitly acknowledged that some populations of children and adolescents are systematically excluded from school, including pregnant girls and young mothers
Purposeful has documented many similar experiences from girls who participate in their Girls’ Circles Collectives, which are autonomous groups that bring together girls to develop life skills, strategize for individual and social change, among other actions. They are led by young women mentors from the same communities and have reached over 15,000 out-of-school adolescent girls since 2020. Girls who participate in these groups say that they have “dropped out” of school, yet Purposeful has concluded that the legacy of the ban on visibly pregnant girls in school and the associated stigma that remains pushes girls out of school and deters them from returning.
Lack of information about Free Quality Education Program and financial obstacles
In August 2018, Sierra Leone launched a phased Free Quality School Education initiative that provides free admission and tuition to all children in government-approved schools. The program should ensure that “all core costs for formal and non-formal school education are covered by the Government of Sierra Leone and requires parents/guardians to take responsibility for ancillary costs according to the ability to pay.” Families still pay for some services not covered by the government, and some schools charge unofficial fees. These costs increase with progression from primary to secondary school.
Across the interviews, we learned that girls very much want to be in school, yet they face systemic barriers to accessing education, including financial obstacles, stigma, bullying, and discrimination based on pregnancy, and lack of access to childcare
Purposeful has also found that costs, including school and exam fees, are frequently cited as a key reason for girls not being in school. As part of Purposeful’s Girls’ Circle Collectives, collectives of girls receive grants that they use collectively to fund their dreams and goals, such as starting or strengthening a business or a savings program, serving as a safety net for girls in times of emergency or helping cover the costs for girls to return to school.
Girls face sexual exploitation when trying to meet their basic needs, including school costs
Poverty does not just keep girls out of school, it often contributes to their pregnancies, as they seek resources to meet their basic needs in order to survive. Numerous girls described how the need for financial support meant that they felt pressured or coerced into having sex with men who provide them with food, clothing, or other material support.
Girls need supportive environments to stay in or return to school
Another serious barrier to staying in or returning to schools is stigma and harassment of girls who are poor and girls who are mothers. A March 2022 Learning and School Safety study found that:
In general, pupils who [experience] disability, poverty, pregnancy or motherhood, are more likely to face harassment and abuse in schools than other pupils. Discrimination against pupils from relatively poor households is particularly common as nearly four in ten pupils (38 %) agreed that this happens in school. … 25 % said pregnant and parenting girls were also targets for abuse.
Poverty does not just keep girls out of school, it often contributes to their pregnancies, as they seek resources to meet their basic needs in order to survive
Harassment and abuse was linked in some cases to girls dropping out of school or shifting to other schools to escape the situation. However, where girls experience a supportive environment, even amidst harassment, they find it easier to remain in school.
Human Rights Watch’s efforts to listen to the voices and share the experience of girls from Northern Sierra Leone as well as Purposeful’s work over many years reaffirm many of the barriers for them to access education. The Sierra Leone government has sought to address these barriers through several programs and policies, including the Radical Inclusion Policy and the Free Quality Education Programme, and now the new Education Act.
Girls’ voices reveal that change will not happen overnight but requires deep cultural shifts, starting in their homes and communities, and in the formal school setting. Shifts that enable girls to feed themselves and their families, without drawing value from their bodies; shifts that see the men exploiting girls prosecuted; shifts that see schools become places of safety and dignity; and, ultimately, shifts that see girls realize their own power and take up their rightful places in schools, regardless of their parental status.
The government of Sierra Leone has made significant commitments to advancing girls’ access to education. At the same time, we urge the government to take additional steps to translate the ambitions of the Radical Inclusion Policy into practice.