Landmark cases: Sierra Leone’s ban on pregnant girls attending school is overturned!

In December and January, separate courts heard and rendered decisions that will expand rights for women and girls in Sierra Leone and South Africa, and beyond. At the same time, this week, a court heard a case, from Ecuador, that could expand rights for girls across Latin America, and beyond. In all three instances, the cases have been described as landmark cases, cases that serve as a guide and mark a turning point in women’s and girls’ history, and thus in the history of the world. In all three instances, the claim for justice for women and for girls emerged from the persistence of women and girls, pushing, organizing, demanding justice.

In 2015, the government of Sierra Leone issued a ban on “visibly” pregnant girls attending mainstream schools. Once their pregnancy was “visible”, the girls were to attend an “alternative” school in which only four subjects were taught, and which met only three days a week. Additionally, all the girls were placed in a single classroom, with no attention to age or academic level. Finally, the girls were prohibited from sitting for exams.

In 2018, a Sierra Leonean NGO, Women Against Violence and Exploitation, WAVES, filed a case, on behalf of pregnant adolescent schoolgirls, before the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice. WAVES was represented by Equality Now and the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa, IHRDA. In June 2019, Amnesty International was allowed to join the case, as an amicus curiae, to provide further international context.  

The ECOWAS Court ruled “that the ban is discriminatory and impacts negatively on the actualisation of the right to education of the pregnant girls, similarly the establishment of separate school for the pregnant adolescent girls with four (4) taught subjects operating three (3) days a week not being at par with the main stream schools thus providing lesser quality of education is equally discriminatory and a violation of the right to education.” The Court further enjoined Sierra Leone to “immediately revoke the prohibitive policy; abolish the separate school established for the pregnant girls and absorb the said girls in the main stream schools; develop strategies, programmes and nation-wide campaigns that will remove the negative societal attitudes that support the discrimination and bias against pregnant girls attending schools; and integrate sexual and reproductive health education into school curricula to minimise the high rates of teenage pregnancy.”

Judy Gitau, of Equality Now, exclaimed, “This is a great victory!!! Finally the girls have had their day in court and have emerged victorious. The ECOWAS court has given them their voices back and by that a chance at life again.” Marta Colomer, of Amnesty International, added, “Today’s ruling is a landmark moment for the thousands of girls who have been excluded from school, and whose right to access education without discrimination has been violated for the past four years because of this inherently discriminatory ban. It is also a glimmer of hope for all those girls who if pregnant in the future will not be punished by being forced to leave school and not being able to sit exams. This also delivers a clear message to other African governments who have similar bans, such as Tanzania and Equatorial Guinea, or may be contemplating them, that they should follow this ground-breaking ruling and take steps to allow pregnant girls access to education in line with their own human rights obligations.”

Hannah Yambasu, WAVES Executive Director, added, “This victory belongs to the girls in Sierra Leone who have been degraded and dehumanised because of their status since 2014. Now our government in Sierra Leone has no option but to comply with their obligations as declared by the court.” Sabrinah Mahtani, who had originally reported on the impact of the ban, agreed, “The vast majority of girls we interviewed had become pregnant during the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak when there was an increase in teenage pregnancy, accompanied by a spike in sexual violence. The negative economic impact of the crisis led to an increase in exploitative and abusive relationships. Many girls had little information about sex education or access to contraceptives. I was struck by the bravery of the girls and their determination to access education despite the obstacles. Some said they tied their stomachs so teachers could not tell they were pregnant, a risky strategy for their health. Others said they were prepared to face any stigma in order to continue in school and obtain a qualification, something that becomes more challenging for many girls after giving birth due to the lack of child care support.”

Patience, who was 17 years old when she was forced out of school, reflected on the decision, “I am very happy because I did not have the opportunity to stay in school myself. If I had been able to stay in education, I would be in my last year at uni now, or maybe I would have graduated already. I would have liked to have studied nursing. Instead, my name was taken off the school register and I was offered vocational training. Yet my daughter’s father was never banned from school, and he was able to continue to do everything he wanted to do.”

Landmarks change the landscape in all directions. This decision concerning school age girls in Sierra Leone has impacts for the entire continent and beyond, and it was brought about thanks to work of women, organizing, militating, pushing, and, equally, the bravery of the girls and their determination to access education and justice despite all obstacles. They know … the struggle continues.

(Photo Credit: AfricaNews)

In Malawi, pregnant school girls demand education AND respect!


Early last year, the Uhoho Primary School, in Chintheche, in Nkhata Bay, in the Northern Region of Malawi, weathered “the worst pregnancy scandal at a school in living memory.” Thirty-two students, 16 girls and 16 boys, were suspended when it was determined that the 16 girls were pregnant. At first, the boys faced `defilement’ charges, but then the head teacher claimed the girls were all at least 18 years old. It’s unclear if that was true. Local newspapers this week report that some of the girls were 13 and 14 years old. At any rate, the boys were spared the prospect of rape charges. All the children were suspended for a year. Then the girls and their parents were brought before a magistrate, who fined each child 10,000 kwacha. If they couldn’t pay, they were sent to jail until the fine was paid. For some, being in custody meant not writing their exams. Thus far, this sounds like just another horrible story of the very many ways of keeping girls out of school. But the girls decided otherwise, and so yesterday, they went to the High Court to challenge their treatment and the entire process. Girls have rights, they said, including pregnant girls, and one of those rights, enshrined in the Constitution of Malawi is “All persons are entitled to education.”

How did an internal school matter come before a magistrate in the first place? Youth Watch Society (YOWSO) Executive Director Muteyu Banda explained, “The magistrate happens to be the Chairperson of the Child Protection Committee.” Youth Watch Society and the Southern Africa Litigation Centre have supported the girls in this case, and they are represented by Victor Gondwe. According to Muteyu Banda, part of the issue here is the lack of due process. Local officials make up laws which they then enforce, all in the name of child protection. According to Anneke Meerkotter, Litigation Director of the Southern African Litigation Centre, “The intention that it is good for the baby to be cared for and that the boys must also take responsibility to help the girls is there, but it is a logistical nightmare for the pupils. For us, the answer is not suspending them from school. Their right to education is enshrined in the Constitution..” Victor Gondwe explained, “We are asking for a review of the strange orders imposed by a lower court that all pregnant girls be sent to prison.” He then added that it is “quite strange and awkward to criminalise pregnancy.”

While it may be strange and awkward to criminalize pregnancy, it’s common practice to criminalize school age girls, and not only in Malawi. Only two years ago, in response to the non-epidemic epidemic non-scandal scandal of teenage pregnancy, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma proposed a policy for the young women and girls, “They must be educated by government until they are empowered and they can take care of their kids, take them to Robben Island or any other island, sit there, study until they are qualified to come back and work to look after their kids.” Take them to Robben Island or any other island. In the United States, girls are arrested more often than boys for status offenses and are more severely punished for those offenses. Status `offenses’ are not crimes. If the girls were older, there would be no offense, no crime. From Malawi to South Africa to the United States, the “special attention” paid to school age girls is always conducted in the name of “protection.”

Malawi is a poor country in which education is a struggle. For girls to complete secondary school is a particular struggle. In academic year 2014 – 2015, nationwide, pregnancy was the cause of 28 percent of all secondary female dropouts. In the Northern Region, in 2014 – 2015, 370 boys dropped out of primary school, while 2199 girls dropped out. During that same year, 145 boys dropped out of secondary school boys, while 463 girls left school. For the boys, the primary reason was inability to pay school fees. For the girls, fees (27.7 percent) and pregnancy (27.6 percent) were the primary reason. This is the context in which 16 girls were told to leave school, and then some were sent into police custody. They were never meant to return.

Those girls know the meaning of education and they know they deserve it. Period. Those girls know “that the fines and detention were inconsistent with common law notions of fairness, legality and rationality and with the rights to liberty, education and other constitutional rights.” They know they have a right to education, and they intend to exercise that right. They mean to return to school and then to create the way forward. The struggle continues.

(Photo Credit: Trading Economics)

The political economy of vulnerable

 


Around the world, women, children, men, are humiliated and abused as a matter of public policy and widespread practices. When the practices are finally reported, the women, children, men are described as `vulnerable,’ as if vulnerability were a state of being. It’s not. Vulnerability is an active verb, as is violence.

In the past week, in the United States, reports have shown that pregnant school girls are kicked out of school or refused schooling. Why? Across the country, children living with disabilities, and especially Black children living with disabilities, suffer extraordinarily high school suspension rates. Why? In New York City, it has been `discovered’ that the stop-and-frisk practices that target Black communities are particularly humiliating for Black women. Why do these policies exist? To produce vulnerable populations and individuals.

I thought of these as I read about Happiness Mbedzi. Happiness Mbedzi lived in Diepsloot, a “sprawling informal settlement north of Johannesburg”. Sprawling … and notorious for its desperate conditions as well as innumerable popular mobilizations and organizing efforts. Diepsloot: water-less, info-less, service-less … but not without hope?

In Diepsloot, Happiness Mbedzi tried to maintain her household, herself, her husband, her son. To do so, she took on debts. The debts had crushing interest rates. Happiness took out more loans to pay for the interest on her earlier loans. Finally, she borrowed money from her young son, went to the shops, bought poison, and killed herself.

This is described as a tale of the `vulnerable.’ Happiness Mbedzi was not vulnerable. She was under attack. Local banks, community stokvels, neighbors are all reportedly charging predatory rates. How is it that stokvels, which traditionally supported women like Happiness Mbedzi, are now as predatory as the banks, at least in Diepsloot? How is it that no neighbors are around who would lend money to a neighbor woman in desperate straits?

For Happiness Mbedzi, as for young women students, the Black students living with disabilities, the Black women of New York, institutions ostensibly designed to assist and even improve one’s situation have been transformed into lethal weapons. Schools target particular young women. Schools target particular Black women and men. Police target Black women. The result? Targeted impoverishment that goes under the name of development and the common good. And those who are assaulted, who are wounded simply because of whom they are, they are then reported as being `vulnerable.’ It was destiny that struck them.

Vulnerability is not a status nor a class nor a caste nor a rank. It is not a state of being nor is it synonymous with weakness. And vulnerability is not inevitable. Vulnerability is a political and economic power relationship. Individuals and populations are designated and then produced, and reproduced, as vulnerable. Happiness Mbedzi was not vulnerable and she was not part of a `most vulnerable population’. She was turned into a `vulnerable woman’ by public policy and by State practices that have constructed Diepsloot as inevitably `vulnerable.’ It’s not.

 

(Photo Credit: Daily Maverick / Reuters)